The Music Diaries | The evolution of dancehall
Reggae music has always been at the centre of Reggae Month celebrations since its inception in February 2008. But recently, dancehall music has become, almost equally, a part of the month’s activities.
Many experts believe that dancehall sprang directly from reggae while another school of thought holds firm to the view that dancehall is a separate entity, having its origin elsewhere. The confusion is further compounded when we recall that there was a music called dancehall music during the late 1950s, which took its name from a physical space where such music was played. There were places like Forrester’s Hall, The Success Club, Chocomo Lawn, King’s Lawn, Bournemouth, and Jubilee Tile Gardens, all located in Kingston. Here, heavyweight sound systems like Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat, Duke Reid The Trojan, and King Edward The Giant would blare the Rhythm & Blues music from New Orleans and the ska from Jamaica into the wee hours of the morning.
Modern-day dancehall bore some resemblance here, having also begun in the dancehalls that have always been the lifeblood of Jamaican music. So as we enter Reggae Month 2019, it is perhaps a good time to put things into perspective and unravel some of the misconceptions that surround the two genres − reggae and dancehall.
To begin with, there is hardly anyone who would be brave enough to contest the claim that modern-day dancehall is the culmination of the many changes that Jamaican popular music have been through over the years. First, there was the foundation, ska – although there were remnants of Jamaican R&B before – which evolved into rocksteady. Rocksteady begat reggae and was followed by modern-day dancehall, which has been with us since 1983.
Pioneer ‘Sugar’ Minott
Modern-day dancehall music owes a lot to the works of Lincoln ‘Sugar’ Minott, who pioneered an approach that would be central to the emerging dancehall style. Adopting a style that struck a medium between deejaying and singing, Minott wrote lyrics to fit over existing Studio 1 rhythms to create songs likeOh Mr DC, Is It True, This Ole Man, andVanity in the mid-1970s. These gave the earliest glimpse of what would later become known as dancehall music.
But somewhere in the musical mix of the ’70s emerged a Jamaican music subgenre called dub. Having a connection with both rocksteady and reggae, dub modified both genres. It cannot be taken lightly either because even more than reggae, dub was the main driving force behind the creation of modern-day dancehall music. It involved the stripping down of the majority of the music’s melody, leaving behind the rhythm section, which were primarily the drum and the bass. The spaces created in the music by the absence of some instruments, presented a platform on which deejays could interject their jive-talk. Experimenting with the dub sound, studio engineers and musicians managed to create a sound that was quite innovative.
By the mid-’70s, there was hardly a reggae single that appeared without a dub version on the flip-side. Dub albums appeared in abundance: Versions Galore by U-Roy for Treasure Isle, Better Dub and Hi Fashion Dub Top Ten for Studio 1, Treasure Dub for Treasure Isle, and Blackboard Jungle Dub for the Upsetters label. Essentially, this was the genesis of the modern-day dancehall genre. Among the earliest artistes to have taken advantage of this situation are U-Roy, I-Roy, Alcapone, Big Youth, and Trinity.
By the early ’80s, a new wave of deejay acts emerged. Yellowman, who has been around since the ’70s, was, perhaps, the most popular. He, along with Admiral Bailey and others, introduced an erotic style into dancehall music. The ’80s also saw the heavyweight stalwarts – Shaba Ranks, Buju Banton, Ninjaman, Beenie Man, and Bounty Killer – emerging on the scene.
Deejays, generally, owe a lot to dub masters and studio engineers like King Tubby’s and King Jammys, whose exclusive mixes and dub plate mixes helped to revolutionise the dancehall genre. Lloyd James, known as King Jammy, is credited with being the producer who began the digital style of dancehall with Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng, which turned the dancehall world upside down in 1985.
Other notable names who helped to promote the genre internationally include Michigan and Smiley, Chaka Demus and Plyers, Tenor Saw, Super Cat, Barrington Levy, Junior Reid, Half Pint, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Lady Saw, Lady G, Sister Nancy, Damian Marley, Vybz Kartel, Ini Kamoze, Eek-A-Mouse, Elephant Man, Capleton, and Sizzla.