The latest unexpected death to hit the Jamaican music scene has claimed the life of dancehall pioneer Wayne Smith, whose passing at the age of 48 is a real shocker. Smith will always be best remembered for his landmark hit, “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” which catapulted Jamaican music into the digital age, although he also recorded noteworthy material in an analogue environment, and produced records by himself and others in both formats.
One of his brothers eventually became a gunman himself, and Wayne Smith also planned to make a similar move, but his musical ability provided an alternative.
Born in Kingston on December 5th 1966, Smith grew up in the heart of the Waterhouse ghetto, a particularly rough patch of western Kingston. In the late 1970s, during Jamaica’s most acute era of “tribalist” political division, the family household was on Bay Farm Road, a winding thoroughfare that forms a demarcation line between politically aligned sub-sections of the neighbourhood. The violence stimulated by gang allegiances was a terrible reality that blighted the area, and since Smith’s grandparents had supported opposing parties, he and his brothers were directly harassed by activists from each.
Under such pressure, one of his brothers eventually became a gunman himself, and Wayne Smith also planned to make a similar move, but his musical ability provided an alternative. His brother advised him to stick to singing, rather than taking up the gun. In such a harsh environment, music was more than just a solace to the soul. It could provide a way out. Indeed, one of Smith’s older brothers was friendly with neighbourhood vocalists such as the Wailing Souls, Michael Rose and Junior Reid, and the family’s next-door neighbour was none other than Lloyd James, the sound system proprietor, recording engineer and record producer then known as Prince Jammy, who had actually gone to school with Smith’s mother.
The first step towards professionalism came when Smith was barely into his teens. Eccleston Jarrett took Wayne to a bar with a jukebox one evening to teach him how to sing over rhythm tracks. Following a positive reaction from the bar’s patrons, Smith began hanging out at King Tubby’s studio in the hopes of being recorded, and was finally given a chance by a man named Pug, who convinced the resident engineer, Scientist, to allow Smith to voice something on a rhythm track produced by Bunny Lee. Singer-turned-producer Linval Thompson heard Smith at work on the mic and voiced his approval, leading Smith to record a number of dub plate specials for Pug at Tubby’s.
After a few false starts, Smith’s career reached solid footing when he was drawn into Prince Jammy’s growing stable in 1981, following the producer’s return from a stay London, where he’d been shopping material to various labels, and had noted the popularity of one of Smith’s dub plates. Jammy recognised the young man’s potential, but felt his singing style was a little too soft; after heeding Jammy’s advice, Smith responded with “Isim Skisim,” a declaration of romantic devotion that evidenced an appealing rough edge, perfectly in keeping with the evolving dancehall style that was then running things in Jamaica.
As Smith’s delivery became more forceful and confident, he began gaining popularity overseas through the issue of albums such as Youthman Skanking, a debut Jammy’s set, and Showdown Volume 7, which placed his Channel One recordings on one side of a “clash”-style album with Patrick Andy, while a second collection of early Jammy’s work, Smoker Joker, followed later. Nevertheless, he retained the kind of cult underground status achieved by many of his peers, and was frustrated at not being able to breakthrough to the big-time.
Everything changed in late 1984, when Wayne Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, another musically motivated local youth that happened to own a Casiotone MT40.
Everything changed in late 1984, when Wayne Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, another musically motivated local youth that happened to own a Casiotone MT40. The cheap keyboard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” preset, which is said to have adapted the rhythm of Eddie Cochrane’s “Somethin’ Else,” provided a springboard for a song about the pleasures of weed versus the vices of cocaine, based loosely on Barrington Levy’s “Under the Sensi.” The pair took the idea to Jammy and the keyboard to illustrate it, but Jammy thought the tempo too fast. After slowing it down and adding some minor piano and percussive accompaniment, “Under Mi Sleng Teng” was committed to tape.
Jammy later said he was expecting the song to be popular, but never dreamed it would hit as big as it did. When he played it at a dance against Black Scorpio, everyone went ballistic, such was the allure of its irresistible digital rhythm. Jammy became an electronic producer overnight, and everyone else on the island did too, forever changing the way that music would be produced in Jamaica.
Smith’s Sleng Teng album was groundbreaking as the first digital long-player released by Jammy, and its Computerised Dub counterpart was another first. But just as the singer reached a pinnacle of popularity, he began dividing his time between Jamaica and New York, where his father had settled some time earlier. Once settled in the Bronx, he began recording less frequently, only occasionally voicing tunes for lesser-known producers. He launched his own Sleng Teng label in 1986, and although it was never the most prolific imprint, he issued early work on it by Shabba Ranks, Ninjaman and Bounty Killer, as well as more recent albums with A-listers like Luciano. Throughout it all, whether recording his own works or producing for others, Smith continued to alternate between digital and live recordings, depending on what suited the material best.
The fact that Wayne Smith’s extensive European tour, in support of his latest album, Loving Mi Want, was due to start later this month, makes his passing all the more tragic. He is survived by his mother, five siblings, five children and three grandchildren.