Gordon Robinson | What is dancehall music?
As I draw closer to the end of my temporary hold on mortality, I find myself becoming more intolerant of avoidable ignorance.
One of today's regular hostilities to truth and historical reality is the now standard reference, usually by the YouTube generation, to 'dancehall music' (as performed by Vybz, Mavado et al) as a musical 'genre' distinguishable from 'past' genres, ska, rock steady, and reggae.
Sigh! Hopefully for the last time, I repeat: 'Dancehall' is NOT a musical genre, unless the 'genre' can be defined as 'music not played on the radio'. In the beginning, that was most locally produced music. During the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Jamaican radio was dominated by USA- and UK-produced popular music.
Even post-JBC, when local content increased exponentially, many locally produced record-ings were considered unfit for airplay. Carry Go Bring Come (Justin Hinds and the Dominoes) and Fatty Fatty (Heptones) were expressly banned.
Persons wanting to hear a variety of locally produced music had to attend the dances promoted by sound-system operators usually on the streets of Kingston or in 'dance halls' (e.g., Chocomo Lawn on Wellington Street; Foresters Hall on North Street; or Mutual Hall at 9A South Racecourse), where Jamaican music unheard on radio could be enjoyed. This created the category 'dance hall music', which included songs like Easy Snappin' by Theophilus Beckford; Simmer Down by Bob Marley; Black Head Chiney by Prince Buster; and Blazing Fire by Derrick Morgan.
In the 1970s, radio became more inclusive, but even before that, locally produced music evolved from the shufflebeat (copycat blues with a Jamaican flavour) through the ska, rock steady, and eventually to reggae, to include a transportation of the dance hall technique known as 'toasting' (came with the sound systems of the 1950s) to the recording studio.
'Nice up' crowd
Toasters were accomplished town-crier types who were employed to 'nice up' the crowd; attract persons outside the venue (a speaker box was always strategically placed there); and to promote the dance. They were never intended to be stars but were sidemen for the DJs or selectors.
One of the earliest (and best) was Count Matchukie, Toaster Supreme for the Sir Coxsone Downbeat system, but he was never recorded on wax. Coxsone himself was probably the first toaster recorded (made a short intervention during Delroy Wilson's King Pharoah). Soon, the likes of King Stitt ("From Greenland to Zanzibar, Coxsone's is the best by far") and U-Roy were waking the town and telling the people that singing or instrumentals wasn't the only form of recorded artistry. When King Yellowman burst on the scene in the 1980s, sparse reggae music now called dancehall permeated reggae's mainstream.
They were inspirations for the creation of hip hop, whose origins can be traced directly to Jamaican toasting. It may be uncomfortable for rappers, but early pioneers like DJ Herc and later rappers like Busta Rhymes, Shinehead (one of the first to fuse reggae with hip hop), and Notorious B.I.G. are Jamaican immigrants or Jamaican immigrants' children. Hip hop is simply a variation on Jamaican toasting.
In a recent Netflix interview (by David Letterman), Jay-Z, one of the most intelligent and strategic hip hop producers-
lyricists alive, explained the evolution of rap from the time when dances had separate DJs and MCs (who weren't the stars but marketers for DJs) to today's rappers whose lyrics, cadence, and rhythms made them stars in their own right.
So it was in the Jamaican dance halls. Dancehall music, properly so called, began in the 1950s and is still with us today, although the lines are blurred now that the dance hall isn't the only place it can be heard. What misled youth now call dancehall music is a subcategory of reggae like lovers' rock, singjaying, or deejaying.
If the modern musical style is a new genre traceable to distinction in beat, somebody needs to rename it. It's the false name that encourages some lovers of traditional reggae to further misplaced snobbery by devaluing or dismissing the artistry.
Peace and love.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.