Feeding back on the '90s
NOTE: This piece appeared in the German magazine, Riddim, earlier this year. It now appears in English for the first time, spurred mainly by the recent combination song, Legendary.
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Based on the popularly accepted date of origin for what is called dancehall music, the genre has now reached just over 30 years old. That is a very long time without a major change of the dominant sound for an island that once shifted its prevailing musical tastes with amazing regularity.
Let us not forget that ska, the sound of Independence, hardly lasted for five years after August 1962, when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and the black, gold and green Jamaican flag was run up the flagpole at the National Stadium. Out of that, the most renowned ska band ever, The Skatalites, hardly lasted 18 months.
As the dominant genre, rocksteady just scraped by that very low mark of longevity set by the band. From late 1965 to 1967, rocksteady enjoyed just one full year, then it was roots reggae ruling the roost. And early into the 1980s, dancehall hit the island and has been king of the hill ever since, even as a co-ruler with the resurgence of roots reggae over the past three years or so.
Of course, the time periods do not mean that production and enjoyment of one of the preceding genre(s) stopped abruptly, but certainly the tastes of the all-important majority changed.
So, to put it in perspective, dancehall has now ruled the nation longer than the dominant periods of all the preceding Jamaican popular music genres since Independence, combined. And despite dire predictions of its demise (the latest was with Vybz Kartel's conviction and sentencing) and an alteration in course to some keyboard-driven rhythms starting somewhere in the mid-2000s, dancehall shows no signs of going away anytime soon.
In fact, in recent times, it seems to be closing the loop on a particular period, the 1990s, which is especially important to dancehall. From Tiana's cover of Buju Banton's B-Rider to Chronixx referencing Sizzla in Ain't No Giving In ("We solid like a rock like Kolonji"), from that distinctive double-kick drum returning to the riddims (y'know, 'dup, dup, dup dup') and the numerous retro music themed sessions on radio and the party circuit which always comes back to the 90s, that time period is definitely in.
Heck, Nesbeth now honours Louie Culture with a Gangalee tune.
I cannot tell where it started, but I can remember some early signs, like the 2005 Throwback Giggy riddim on which then duo Leftside and Esco did the fantastically funny Tuck Een Yu Belly and Buju delivered Over Me. Revisit the early 90s and the late Simpleton's Coca-Cola Bottle Shape and Baby Wayne's Mama were hot tracks on the original done by Steely and Clevie.
It may have been the 85 riddim, done by Dave Kelly on which Baby Cham did the memorable Ghetto Story, the beat deliberately slower than the breakneck riddims of the day. (It was called 85 because of the beats per minute, not the year).
Then there was the now imprisoned Vybz Kartel's liberal borrowing from the deejays who went not too long before him, like Grindsman's Benz Puy which was on the cusp of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Whatever the beginning, we are now in the throes of a throwback dancehall era which calls for analysis and understanding. A crucial one is why that time period. There is definitely a split, as exemplified in Ninja Man and Specialist's Dweet. For while Ninja Man revels in the deejays of the era in which he started, Specialist locates the starting of his generation's conceptualisation of dancehall firmly in the early 1990s. Ninja Man deejays in the chorus that the younger generation does not know Supercat or Colonel Josey. To that, Specialist replies: "Ninja a no dat youths a pree de ting start a Killer and Beenie..."
And for them it did, for there were major music and, more important, infrastructural changes which created such a major break from what happened before the Beenie and Bounty (and Buju and Spragga and Frisco Kid and Don Yute and Bucaneer and so many more) era has become the beginning of dancehall music for the relative youngsters.
For not only did the rhythms change (in his book chapter Mento to Ska and Reggae to Dancehall in Global Reggae, Peter Ashbourne speaks about the 'dup dup' beat being established with Bogle), but so did the leading lights. Shabba went global and away from the Jamaican marketplace, Supercat migrated, by the latter part of the 1990s Papa San and Stitchie were both Christians, Tiger had a motorcycle accident and almost died, Admiral Bailey went into soca combos with Byron Lee and then football coaching, and Cobra went quiet.
So the deejays who were on the all-important local scene and who were broadcast on and preserved through the emerging infrastructure were Beenie and Bounty, et al. I call it the Visual Age of Dancehall, where performers were seen as much as heard.
In the 1990s the XNews and Hard Copy tabloids, added to long-established tabloid, The STAR, heightened the visibility of Jamaican popular entertainers, especially dancehall deejays, with an increase in still images. Along with the increased visibility was more radio presence, as all-Jamaican music format radio station IRIE FM started operating on August 1, 1990. Jamaican popular music also got more visibility through concert clips and music videos on free-to-air television, local music programming increasing after CVM Television started operating in March 1993 to compete with the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) (now Television Jamaica (TVJ).
Now, the question is, is this current wave of reaching back to a period unusually close in time and genre a case of dancehall regenerating from itself? Or is it the last gasp of a stagnant, dying breed? My bet is on the latter, but, as usual, time alone shall tell.