The death of Bob Marley in 1981 is often conceived as a line of demarcation, signalling the end of roots reggae and the dawning of dancehall. But Jamaican music has never been as simple as that. Dig a little deeper and you will find that the shift happened significantly earlier, with the deejays of western Kingston being the major catalysts of change.
For much of the last fifty years, Jamaican popular music has been typified by transformation. Most readers will be familiar with the ska/rock steady/reggae axis that was at the music’s core before dancehall’s advent. In fact, the island’s earliest recordings featured mento — an indigenous folk form — and during the late 1950s, a Jamaican form of rhythm and blues gained favour, which gave way to ska as the independence movement gathered steam. Then, after the pared-down rock steady dominated, in late 1968, reggae came storming in as a fast-paced dance style with a shuffling organ. Within a year, the rhythm slowed and the focus changed to social protest and spiritual matters, yielding the roots reggae era, which spanned the entire 1970s. The shift to dancehall that followed is arguably the most crucial phase of the music’s evolution, since the dancehall style has ruled, in one form or another, ever since.
Writers have tried to pin these changes on something tangible, yet the innovations have often been spontaneous. It’s led to more than a few dubious conclusions along the way. Consider, for instance, the oft-repeated misnomer that rock steady’s slow pace resulted from an inordinately hot Jamaican summer — a physical impossibility in a tropical country with only two types of seasons: “rainy” and “dry.”
In any case, during the late 1970s, a series of gradual shifts pointed reggae towards a new form. Mid-decade, the Aggrovators studio band harnessed the “flying cymbal” style for Bunny Lee’s productions, based on the open-and-closed high-hat heard on MFSB’s “The Sound Of Philadelphia” (AKA the Soul Train theme song); “flyers,” in turn, was supplanted by the furious “rockers” style, based on a militant beat developed by Sly Dunbar at Channel One studio. Then there was the unexpected rise of the deejay — those rappers at the microphone on sound systems, known as MCs in hip-hop culture — who went from being incidental figures that chatted between songs to recording stars whose output was as important as that of any singer. U Roy’s outstanding achievements in the form saw him crowned “The Originator,” while luminaries such as Big Youth, I Roy and Dennis Alcapone all had stylistic innovations that furthered its success.
Most of the early dancehall style came through the innovations of deejays and singers based around Waltham Park Road, a main artery that bisects prominent ghetto areas of western Kingston. West Kingston has always been the most important site of musical innovation in Jamaica: it was the epicentre of ska, dub was developed there and it also served as a meeting ground for the Wailers and countless other harmony groups. Most of the island’s important record labels and sound systems were also based in West Kingston, including Clement Dodd’s Studio One, Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, and Lee Perry’s Upsetter outfit. However, since the early 1960s, the area had also been a flashpoint for “tribalist” violence — that is, street-gang activity linked to support of Jamaica’s rival political parties, namely the left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP) and the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
It is noteworthy that Waltham Park Road weaves through communities on either side of this political divide, and that the foundations of the dancehall style emerged during one of Jamaica’s most politically volatile periods. Although most performing artists have always sought to rise above internecine conflicts, it is worth remembering that the political dimension is never far from Jamaica’s sound system culture, especially as each sound has its base in a particular patch of the ghetto that will inevitably be aligned with one party.
Singer-turned-producer Linval Thompson, who was raised in the Three Mile Area (so called because it lies three miles to the west of Kingston’s centre along Spanish Town Road), was an important early harbinger of change via his work with upcoming West Kingston singers such as Al Campbell and Wayne Jarrett, and deejays like Big Joe, Trinity and Ranking Trevor, each of whom was helping to shift the focus of the local scene. “I know Big Joe from Three Mile, Kingston 13, when he was on some likkle sound,” Thompson explains. “After I do my first album, I do a dub album, and then I do a Big Joe deejay album.”
The real fraternity that existed between the West Kingston deejays helped the style to take hold. Before he moved to Britain in 1973, Dennis Alcapone’s El Paso system had its home at Brotherton Avenue, near Two Mile, close to the bottom end of Whitfield Town, a sprawling ghetto associated with the PNP. Just as Alcapone had taken some stylistic cues from U Roy (the first deejay to top the charts in Jamaica), Alcapone’s tutelage of Dillinger on El Paso was a real boon to the younger toaster; he soon became top deejay on Smith The Weapon, based at Payne Avenue. As Dillinger explains, “I’ve been inspired by U Roy, Alcapone, King Stitt, deejays before my time. I used to see them in the dancehall, ask for the mike and do my thing. The people start to recognise that I’m a next champion.”
“Dillinger used to come to my dance as a little youth from cross the lane, and used to be very enthusiastic,” notes Alcapone. “Whenever we are playing, Dillinger always come right beside the amplifier, and when I’m deejaying, I could hear him doing him own little thing. One night him ask me fi give him a talk over the mike, so I gave him the mike and I realised that he had potential. When I need a break, like I want to go and lick two chalice, or go talk to a girl, I would give Dillinger the mike and make him talk, and that’s how him come in.”
Though Dillinger’s early work for Lee “Scratch” Perry was a little uneven, his Studio One recordings show stylistic flair, as heard on singles like “Chucky Skank” and “Stop The War.” By the time he reached Channel One in 1975, his typically relaxed toasts were based on patois-laden rhyming slang and an off-the-wall delivery. A subsequent contract with Island brought international prominence, resulting in the smash hit “Cokane In My Brain” (which grafted lyrics from a blues standard atop a reggae re-cut of BT Express’ “Do It Til Your Satisfied”), but his pal Trinity, who Dillinger brought onto Smith the Weapon, ultimately had greater impact in Jamaica. “Me and Dillinger was good friends because the two of we smoke chalice together,” Trinity says. “So when Dillinger was playing Smith The Weapon, one night him call me up to the mike and the crowd go wild. A little after, Dillinger took me to Channel One and them times there, every song I made was a hit.”
Trinity was adept at riding any rhythm, leaving breathing space where necessary, but never allowing the action to drop. As the hard edges of the rockers style were well suited to his tales of ghetto life, Trinity scored several local hits, including the halting “Jailhouse” and the more fluid “All Gone,” the latter an impressive take of The Mighty Diamonds’ popular “Have Mercy.” Deejay material fared well in this era, Trinity suggests, because he and his peers were constantly active on sound systems, so spontaneous lyrics came easy. “We usually practice at the dancehall before going to the studio, so we know exactly what we want to do. Sometimes I go to the studio and take one cut. All deejays in them days usually imitate me and Dillinger, because me and Dillinger was the cream of the crop. In those days, Soul Hombre was a little community sound in Payne Avenue, so when we left the studio, we usually come up Payne Avenue and sing in the evening time to get our practice: me, Dillinger, U Brown, Clint Eastwood, Leroy Smart and Barrington Levy.”
Each member of that crew played a significant part in dancehall’s evolution, as would other West Kingston deejays such as Ranking Joe and Charlie Chaplin, but the contribution made by singer Barrington Levy is particularly important: when Barrington voiced “Collie Weed” at King Tubby’s studio on a rollicking cut of the “Conversation” rhythm put together at Channel One with the Roots Radics, it truly marked the dawning of a whole new era.
Although he was only 15 when “Collie Weed” hit, Barrington had already endured some false starts. He recorded with a cousin as the Mighty Multitudes, but the material led nowhere; after heading back to the dancehall, he achieved the dramatic breakthrough. “Me and my cousin started to argue about money,” he explains, “so I take to the dancehall, the sound system, as a solo act, and that’s where it all started: there was a sound called Burning Spear and one called Tape Tone, based at Payne Avenue, and one night, Leroy Smart was singing on the sound, and Trinity said: ‘Come here youth! You can sing,’ and just give me the mike. I sing ‘Shine Eye Girl’ and ‘Collie Weed’ and that place was going crazy!”
As news of the singer spread on the ghetto grapevine, it did not take long for aspiring producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes to become involved. The skinny youth, whose nickname referenced a type of mushroom, was a roughneck from the nearby Waterhouse ghetto who had previously been an enforcer of political loyalty, before Linval Thompson helped him shift focus to music production. As Barrington recalls, “One day I went to a talent show and Junjo Lawes send somebody to say Junjo would like to see me, so I went to see Junjo — a new guy on the block — and he’s saying he has a track that he would like me to go on. I went to the studio and did ‘A Yah We Deh’ and ‘Collie Weed’ and ‘Collie Weed’ becomes huge in Jamaica; my head swell big, and I was so happy. From there, I made an album called Shaolin Temple and they released it in America and called it Bounty Hunter.”
These initial recordings, some of which were part-financed by the New York-based producer Hyman “Jah Life” Wright, are true landmarks in the history of reggae. Several new elements coalesced on the sessions: first, Barrington’s natural showmanship, expressed through the unusual vocal style that saw him nicknamed the “mellow canary,” in which his vowels were elongated to emphasize certain words, while his very visual lyrics were delivered in a surprisingly broad vocal range; next, a hard-edged set of forward-facing session musicians, based at Channel One, who would shortly be dubbed the Roots Radics, that pointed the way towards the future of reggae (a spin-off of the fading Morwells group, it featuring rock-solid bassist Flabba Holt, understated guitarist Bingy Bunny and propulsive drummer Style Scott); furthermore, the innovative mixing skills of the teenaged Scientist, a highly talented studio engineer that also helped the music move towards new dimensions; and finally, Junjo’s ear for the styles that would ram the local dancehalls, which kept the material sounding a lot more authentic than much of the commercialised reggae aimed at overseas audiences.
In the UK, Greensleeves was the first label to give serious promotion to the new sound. They issued the bulk of Junjo’s productions, including Barrington Levy’s follow-up albums Englishman and Robin Hood, as well as popular early dancehall product by Clint Eastwood, Ranking Joe, Michael Prophet, Wayne Jarrett, Eek-A-Mouse, Toyan and Nicodeemus. “Things were changing in Jamaica, and it was a revelation,” says Chris Cracknell, the label’s former head of A&R. “When Barrington Levy’s ‘Shine Eye Gal’ came along, it was like a whole new era had started in Jamaica. And with the Bounty Hunter album, suddenly people wanted that new sound.”
However, Cracknell emphasises that most record companies outside Jamaica were very reluctant to embrace the change. “There was lots of other independent reggae labels around at that time, there was a very vibrant scene, but the interesting thing was they were putting out roots and they were putting out lover’s rock, but what they weren’t putting out was dancehall; ’79, ’80, ’81, only Greensleeves was releasing dancehall music in this country. So on some of the charts, we were just dominating, and then other people started to realize, ‘Hang on, that music that we thought was rubbish is actually doing really well, we need to get involved in that.’ It’s amazing how much backlash we had in those early days about the music we were putting out.”
Ultimately, by the time of Bob Marley’s unexpected demise, the dancehall style had already become an unstoppable force, with Yellowman eventually crowned the new King of the music. The innovations of the West Kingston deejays and their singing counterparts, along with the bond forged by the Roots Radics, Scientist and Jujo Lawes, had borne a particularly potent fruit, the offshoots of which are still going strong in the various branches of today’s dancehall.