Whether you know it by name or not, if you’ve stepped outside in the last several months, you’ve heard Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” flickering out of at least a few idling vehicles. The über-minimalist dancehall ditty’s piano loop has a way of cutting through the din of city streets with a skill that recalls nothing less than the Mister Softee jingle.
In my Central Brooklyn neighborhood, it’s at least twice as ubiquitous. A summery island of reggae amidst a mountain of Drake, Usher, and Trey Songz, “Hold Yuh” has been running strong on urban radio since February, when it jumped from mix shows to regular rotation on Hot 97. (The track has hovered in and around the station’s Top 10 for the last three months, at one point becoming its most played song, according to program director Ebro Darden.) “It’s one of those records that people just hear and call up the station singing — ‘I want to hear the song that goes like this,'” says Max Glazer of local dancehall DJ collective Federation Sound. “It’s a real reaction record and a very weird record. It’s not traditional dancehall, or a pop or hip-hop song, but there’s something about it that really connects to people.”
While the typical U.S. dancehall hit arrives in New York after swirling around the Caribbean for months and months (Vybz Kartel’s “Ramping Shop,” the last to impact U.S. radio, is a perfect example), “Hold Yuh” is truly an up-from-the-streets, NYC-born phenomenon, broken by locally based Caribbean music DJs in much the same fashion as Lumidee’s “Never Leave You” and Nina Sky’s “Move Ya Body.” And while Gyptian, a dreadlocked loverman with two VP Records LPs under his belt (a third, naturally titled Hold Yuh, is due next month) hails from just outside Kingston, the largely bass-free, piano-and-snare-driven rhythm track–and its ground-up promotion–is the handiwork of East Flatbush-based Caribbean fusionist Ricky Blaze.
Blaze–a/k/a 21-year-old Ricardo Johnson, whose production credits include Jamaican choreographer Ding Dong’s “Bad Man Forward, Bad Pull Up,” Chelley’s “Took the Night,” and his own “Cut Dem Off”–says “Hold Yuh” was recorded on the quick two years ago, and released as an afterthought in a DJs-only email blast. “When Gyptian came to see me, after he’d do the generic [reggae] stuff people wanted from him, I’d mess around and play him random pop records with different vibes,” Blaze recalls of the summer 2008 session. “I was about to skip over the [“Hold Yuh”] rhythm because it was never finished, but when I played it for him, he said, ‘Go back to that, what a ping ping ting?'”
While the track’s unusual piano sound initially caught the singer’s attention, it was quickly forgotten. In fact, it wasn’t until after it had caught on with New York-area DJs that Gyptian or his label even became aware of the song’s existence. “After we recorded it, he left,” Blaze says. “He didn’t even ask for it on a CD, nothing… I kept listening to the record, thinking this has a vibe that would be big in the islands. I chopped up little melodies and harmonies he did to complete the song, and sent it to Johnny Wonder, who does the blasts to all the dancehall DJs worldwide. I was like, ‘I have this record from Gyptian, I think it has potential.'”
And it did: Since the commercial release of “Hold Yuh” earlier this year, Gyptian has become dancehall’s most visible ambassador, touring Europe, the U.S., and the Caribbean. Blaze, whose own song on the rhythm, “Just You and I,” is now receiving Hot 97 spins, has seen his stock rise as well: Atlantic will release his Be Myself “mixtape EP” later this summer. But whomever you credit “Hold Yuh” to, it’s certainly a score for reggae/dancehall. With Jamaican music less visible internationally than at any point since the Shabba Ranks-led explosion of the early 1990s–blame the genre’s poor adaptation to digital distribution channels, many lyrical controversies (including homophobia and daggering), and the recent inability of many Jamaican stars to obtain U.S. visas–it’s been reggae’s only recent crossover success. With the possible exception of Serani’s “No Games” (which is really a dressed-up r&b track), it feels more massive than any dancehall phenomenon since Cham’s “Ghetto Story” or Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” a half-decade back.