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Dancehall, the genesis of hip hop?

Published:Sunday | December 2, 2012 | 12:00 AM
U Roy

Perhaps if one had mentioned back in the 1950s that a seemingly boring act like talking over recordings or rhythms could become a musical craze and an international phenomenon, one would be laughed at.

Today, this musical phenomenon has become so popular and lucrative that entertainers, mainly from the United States, have earned millions of dollars yearly as professional rappers - the title by which they became known.

To the average Jamaican teenager, this musical craze would have developed in the 1990s with artistes like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dog.

The more historically conscious youth may link it to the disco and hip-hop music craze of the 1970s and 1980s, and realise also that the dancehall boom of the 1980s in Jamaica fuelled, to a large extent, the entire movement.

Dancehall music, a spontaneous development in Jamaica during 1983 through experimentation with reggae, was considered to have a profound influence on American rap and hip-hop music - terms that were oftentimes used interchangeably.

It was in the Jamaican dancehalls of the 1980s and through dancehall music, which became a genre in itself, that the deejays (the Jamaican version of rappers), came to real prominence, and were given full expression.

Prominent Jamaican performers such as Yellowman, Big Youth, Barrington Levy and Sugar Minott were some of the earliest pioneers of dancehall music. Later, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Shabba Ranks and others, consolidated the genre with lyrics ranging from the outrageous to the sublime.

This talking, chanting, toasting, rapping, or rhyming lyrics over previous recordings or present rhythm tracks, became the primary ingredient in dancehall and the American hip-hop music, but the phenomenon predates these genres by centuries.

Rapping can be found in the centuries-old South African music, kwaito, which had distinct hip-hop elements, and in the griots of West Africa.

'ancient' tradition

What may surprise many, how-ever, is the fact that dancehall and rap have also been around in Jamaican music since the 1950s.

At the time, dancehall venues in Kingston like Forresters Hall along North Street, Liberty Hall at 76 King Street, Jubilee Tile Gardens at 155a King Street, Chocomo Lawn at Wellington Street, Caterers at Manchester Square, Success Club at Wildman Street and Silver Slipper Club in Cross Roads, were just a few of the places that provided happy hunting grounds for competing sound systems like, Clement 'Coxson' Dodd's Downbeat, Duke Reid's

The Trojan, Tom the Great Sebastian and V-Rocket.

The music of the day was then rhythm and blues, an infectious, uptempo escapade, demonstrated by artistes like Louis Jordan, Roscoe Gordon, Amos Milburn, Shirley and Lee, and Fats Domino.

It was in these dancehalls that sound-system operators first saw the need to interject jive talk and toasting while playing records, as a means of arousing fans.

The first of such pioneers was Winston 'Count Matchukie' Cooper. His successor, Winston 'King Stitt' Sparkes, born with features not designed to win hearts, was a dynamic personality who styled himself 'The Ugly One'. He operated Coxson's sound system for more than a decade, before doing a quartet of recordings for producer Clancy Eccles, titled Herbsman Shuffle, Lee Van Cleef, Vigorton2, and Fire Gorner, from which came his famous rap:

No matter what the people say, these sounds lead the way.

It's the order of the day from your boss deejay,

I King Stitt. Haul it from the top to the very last drop.

King Stitt's boss, Dodd, joined the rappers, while admonishing his rival, Prince Buster, in the Delroy Wilson recording King Pharaoh:

When I say get down, I mean get down. I have no use for you.

Your father was King Pharaoh and you are Prince Pharaoh.

You must go down like your father did, go down and drop your crown.

Dodd's voice appeared, on no less than half a dozen Studio1 recordings, including El Pussy Ska, and Ball Of Fire by the Skatalites.

On Burning Spear's recording, Rocking Time, the music is aptly complemented by Dodd's rap:

Moses struck the rock and brought forth water,

I man open my mouth and bring you another scorcher.

Then Dodd shocked the world by actually singing in duet with Jackie Mittoo on the recording Get Ready Rock Steady.

Prince Buster joined the talk while he chided the rude boys in Judge Dread, and previously issued The Ten Commandments Of Man To Woman, the first of which read:

Thou shall have no other man but me; thou shall not encourage no man to make love to you, neither kiss or caress you, for I am a jealous man, and is ready to lay low any other man that may intrude in our love.

But perhaps the real defining moment in the rapping phenomenon came in early 1970, with the emergence of Ewart 'U-Roy' Beckford, whose style and approach were radically different from his predecessors.

Rather than interjecting a few phrases and shouts at convenient parts of the recording, U-Roy would, almost invariably, ride the pared-down instrumental track all the way through, with sizzling jive-saturated rapping lyrics.

After John Holt had masterminded an introduction to producer Duke Reid, U-Roy made his advent at Treasure Isle with three massive hits - Wake The Town, Rule The Nation and Wear You To The Ball, which kept chasing each other for weeks, in the top three on the charts of the country's two radio stations.

The deejay's method was taken to heart and patterned by a whole generation of toasters, boasters and rappers, locally and internationally.

The success of U-Roy spurred a slew of recording deejays. Dennis Alcapone was perhaps U-Roy's earliest protégé with the hits Mosquito One, Guns Don't Argue and Teach The Children in 1972.

David 'Scotty' Scott, originally from the singing groups, The Federals and Chosen Few, created waves on the music scene with Sesame Street and Draw Your Brakes.

I Roy, Josey Wales, Dillinger, Lizzy, Big Youth and others, also made sterling contributions to the early rappers' genre.

The new phenomenon was basically taken to the United States by music enthusiasts who made New York their home and by the early Jamaican rappers during stage-show performances there.