While Sean Paul and other DJs are quick to capitalize on the lucrative potential for overlap with hip-hop, if anything, current dancehall’s debt to American pop is shrinking. Whereas a few years ago Jamaican DJs were falling over each other to proclaim themselves “gangsta,” the predominant mood of the last year has been buoyant, with an avalanche of tracks devoted to dancing itself—often hyping up a particular new dance style, from the butterfly to the blasé. Rappers are usually reluctant to directly acknowledge the purely physical component of their music, perhaps for fear of marginalizing their personas; but so much of Jamaican DJs’ personality is located in the very sound of their fervent torrent of words that their sense of self seems never in doubt.
This is the secret of dancehall’s renewed crossover success: Between the thick patois and the suspended syncopation, its identity is so unshakable that, paradoxically, the music can be anything it wants. The grooves veer from dense bhangra to spluttering electro to frantically strummed Spanish guitar, while DJs sift, vulture-like, through history in search of hooks—the particularly opportunistic Elephant Man, say, bites melodies from “Eye of the Tiger” and “Ding-Dong Merrily on High.” But somehow this diversity never collapses into weak-minded eclecticism, and while dancehall producers have embraced post-Timbaland melting-pot sonics with fervor, there’s an underlying unity of purpose that serves to obscure just how unusual their productions actually are.
Listen to Greensleeves’ Ragga! Ragga! Ragga! 2003 round-up, and you can hear how easily this music ranges across settings and moods. Vybz Kartel’s hypnotic and sensual “Sweet to the Belly” rides the Egyptian riddim’s bubbling tabla, weaving in dreamy gypsy strings and the heavy murmur of a lust-distracted woman, while Mad Cobra’s “Lazy Gal” (on the frantic 20 Cent riddim) is almost lost in explosions of computer bleeps and door-slam beats. Mad Cobra’s performance is fascinatingly bizarre, his hyperspeed chanted verses evoking images of a psychotic knife-wielding gym instructor, while the choruses are sung in a weedy falsetto that’s now eerie, now comic. Recent crops of popular riddims have tended to form a vague consensus that can be traced back to Lenky’s paradigm-busting Diwali: a consensus defined by producers’ studious avoidance of the skeletal frame that for so long made dancehall instantly identifiable.
Often the most thrilling grooves are those that edge closest to preposterousness: the Sign riddim boasts profuse layers of clicking tribal percussion, gibbering flutes, and an insanely pounding tabla that might be menacing if it weren’t so ridiculous. Maybe it’s the counter-intuitive perversity of the arrangements that incites DJs to respond with increasingly familiar and anthemic vocal melodies in an attempt to hold the track together: On “My Dickie” Beenie Man bravely matches Sign’s groove to Missy’s “Work It” flow in an unlikely collision worthy of the Freelance Hellraiser.
Ragga! Ragga! Ragga! 2003 falls well short of comprehensiveness, with an astonishing number of fantastic riddims and performances left uncataloged. Yet for the casual observer, overwhelmed by dancehall’s schizophrenic, sprawling vitality and largesse, it’s an invaluable document: the inviting tip of a vast and enigmatic iceberg.
“Comps Illustrate Both Halves of Reggae’s Dancehall Coin” by Baz Dreisinger
Sterling Clover’s review of Sizzla’s Rise to the Occasion