The Essential Guide to Dancehall

Everything you need to know about one of Jamaica’s most influential musical exports

July 10, 2019

Picture this: Jamaica in the late ’70s. A dance hall in the country’s capital of Kingston is filled to the brim with working class people. They’re dressed in their best, waiting for the selector and deejay to set the vibes. The selector spins an instrumental vinyl record, or what would later be referred to as a riddim in Jamaican parlance. The deejay, with a mic in hand, steps forward and begins to toast, delivering his best lyrical prose to a crowd that gets more excited with each and every bar laced with bravado.

To its patrons, it was a freeing and entertaining means to cast aside the burdens that economic hardships imposed on their lives. Who knew it would later transform into something much grander than a genre of music – functioning as a window giving outsiders a peek into the Jamaica beyond the resorts and beaches.

Dancehall’s roots began and were informed by the lived experience of Kingston’s lower and working class people. The music that came out of it was melodic narratives on how they navigated the space, but dancehall is as much about music as it is about the fashion, dance and art that surrounded it. It wasn’t just a genre, it was a way of life.

Prior to dancehall’s proliferation, ska, rocksteady, mento, American R&B and roots reggae were the styles of music that were most prominent across Jamaica, but in the late ’70s, a shift began with both the sound and lyrical content that then-emerging artists were crafting. Soundsystems and dance halls —physical areas designated for partying — were already fixtures in various communities in and around Kingston. Surrounded by food, alcohol and budding dancehall aficionados, a deejay would toast, or rather, speak over, a vinyl record, and sound clashes — competition between opposing local soundsystems — started to increase in popularity. As such, dancehall continued to grow and became a favorite amongst the masses, as everyday experiences and shared longing for a different life were transcribed into infectious and rhythmic musical arrangements.

Matched with more uptempo cadences, the lyricism laced in dancehall’s records were as much grounds for hedonism as insight into Jamaica’s social climate.

The ’80s were a critical period that further defined the genre, distinguishing it from the conscious-minded reggae that preceded it. Informed by rastas and their beliefs in Rastafari, reggae spoke to black liberation and sovereignty with a desire to return home to the Motherland. Dancehall, reggae’s rebellious cousin, spoke to a different set of aspirations. Crass and unfiltered, the music was a score of the gritty realities of Kingston’s ghettos with themes that often explored the six G’s: gun, gyal, ghetto, gays, ganja and God. Matched with more uptempo cadences, the lyricism laced in dancehall’s records were as much grounds for hedonism as insight into Jamaica’s social climate. Records explored a variety of musings, often sharing crude truths about the conditions of Kingston’s poor, their connections to Jah (Rastafari for “God”), the medicinal and recreational benefits of smoking weed, the homophobia that gripped much of the nation, the violence people had to navigate and the plenty women they had or aspired to have.

In 1984, dancehall would have its first watershed moment with the emergence of Sting. While sound clashes provided deejays an opportunity to test their skills against other soundsystems in Jamaica, stage shows were crucial in exposing artists to bigger audiences. One of the most renowned (and now-defunct) stage shows was Sting, often referred to as “The Greatest One Night Reggae and Dancehall Show on Earth.” The brainchild of Supreme Productions’ Isaiah Laing, a well-known cop-turned-promoter in Jamaica, Sting was held annually on December 26. The event originally started because Laing felt unsafe during his commute home, when he’d frequently run into shootouts. He began Sting as a dance in 1982 to raise money to buy a car, in an effort to avoid the guns and violence. The dance did so well, drawing in 14,000 people that year, that he decided to continue hosting the event, and two years later rebranded it as Sting, giving hardcore dancehall fans one night of head-to-head clashes between their favourite deejays. Other emerging stage shows facilitated similar opportunities, like Reggae Sumfest and Reggae Sunsplash, the latter of which had been defunct for 13 years, until a recent comeback announcement.

Dancehall’s biggest names have faced off on the Sting stage, including Ninjaman, Supercat, Yellowman, Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks, who were concurrently on the rise. During Sting, a lineup of deejays would be invited to toast in front of its audience, and no matter how hot a single was on the streets, the real measure of lyrical dexterity would be the results of what transpired when the two opposing artists would freestyle against each other onstage. The most memorable clashes happened a few years after the event’s inception, such as the clash between Ninjaman and Supercat in 1990 and Ninjman versus Shabba Ranks that same year. Artists from abroad were also featured headliners, including the likes of Foxy Brown, Busta Rhymes, Biggie Smalls, DMX and Kriss Kross.

Wayne Smith - Under Me Sleng Teng

In 1985, dancehall had its second milestone moment with the debut of its first digital riddim, “Sleng Teng” (though conflicting accounts claim that King Tubby’s soundsystem created the computerized riddim “Tempo” earlier). It’s said that “Sleng Teng” was originally created in 1983 on a Casio MT-40 keyboard by legendary producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James and keyboardist Noel Davey. Forged around a modified version of a rock preset, that was apparently meant to sound like something completely different, the “Sleng Teng” riddim was first heard at an installation of Sting between soundsystems Youthman Promotion, Jammys, Black Scorpio and Blackstar. Artist Wayne Smith performed “Under Mi Sleng Teng” and it was a hit. Digitized riddims were a decisive moment for dancehall as it democratized music-making, which made it much more economically accessible for producers to create new and innovative sounds.

King Jammy was the first of many producers that laid the framework for the sonic aesthetic of contemporary dancehall. Built around riddims, the production process in dancehall music works slightly different than other genres. In Jamaica, a producer makes one riddim and multiple dancehall deejays record atop the sound. For example, Dave Kelly of Madhouse Records made the 1995 summer barbeque staple “Joy Ride Riddim,” but its release featured iterations by 13 different artists, including the popular records “You Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” by Tanya Stephens, “Sycamore Tree” by Lady Saw and Wayne Wonder and Baby Cham’s “Joy Ride.” This methodology of music-making increased the output of music coming from dancehall’s artists. Any singular artist could decide to record on multiple riddims and release up to four different records per month. Other noted producers, amongst the countless who texturized the sound of the genre, are Don Corleon of Don Corleon Records, Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor of Di Genius Records, Tarik “Rvssian” Johnston of Head Concussion Records and Ainsley “Not Nice” Morris of NotNice Records.

Wayne Wonder and Baby Cham - Joy Ride

By the end of the ’80s, Jamaican dancehall artists’ cool attitude and no-nonsense music had massive appeal, expanding its reach beyond the borders of the Land of Wood and Water. A large part of dancehall’s patronage abroad was earned through music, but back home handmade posters had a function outside of pulling in would-be attendees to dances and parties. The vibrant and colourful signage became part of the genre’s iconography, playing a vital role in defining its aesthetics and providing a visual indicator of how dancehall had taken up space and grown in popularity on the island.

And it wasn’t just the signs that played a part in etching out the genre’s distinct look. Dancehall’s fashion and style always kept heads turning. One of the most infamous dancehall designers and modellers were the Ouch Crew, founded by Barbara “Mama Ouch” Francis. The Ouch Crew’s reputation exploded throughout the ’90s when their designs were touted by women of the genre such as Macka Diamond and Lady Saw, and were featured in movies like 1997’s Dancehall Queen and 1998’s Belly. They were known for their salacious and sexy outfits and set the precedent for the unique dancehall attire that would follow in the years to come.

Through their style, attire became an extension of the genre’s identity and an artist especially noted for this was Rexton “Shabba Ranks” Fernando. Hailing from the streets of Surgetown, Jamaica, he fell in love with soundsystems at 12 years old. As he got older, he pursued a career in dancehall, dropping a few singles that made him a fan favorite across the island. In what was likely the biggest move for his career, he joined forces with King Jammy’s soundsystem, where he met up with producer powerhouses Robert “Bobby Digital” Nixon, Gussie Clarke and Steely & Clevie, who were the sonic architects behind Shabba’s biggest hits and his 1988 debut solo album, Rappin’ with The Ladies.

In the years to follow, Shabba signed to American-based record label Epic Records and released five albums, including 1990’s Just Reality, which featured “Dem Bow,” the record that is said to have sparked the creation of reggaeton. The artist’s most important year, however, was 1992. His ninth album, Rough & Ready Volume 1, gave him the push needed to crossover into the American and UK markets, especially due to its hit single and the corresponding visual, “Mr. Loverman” featuring Chevelle Franklyn. Dripping in gold rings, necklaces and his signature eyewear to match, the trendsetter carried the style and fashion of Kingston’s dancehalls out of pop culture’s periphery and into the forefront. With the release of his 1992 album As Raw As Ever and the following year’s ultra slack record X-Tra Naked, he became the first dancehall artist to win a Grammy in the Best Reggae Album category for both works, despite each being a dancehall album.

Shabba Ranks - Mr. Loverman feat. Chevelle Franklyn

While other artists like Beenie Man, Bounty Killa and Spragga Benz began to accumulate attention back home, the ’90s were integral for the genre, as artists began to crossover into the mainstream and into the folds of international notoriety. Two-time Grammy winner Shaggy was one such artist, and his 1995 single “Boombastic” was even used in a Levi’s commercial released that same year.

But it wasn’t just men who were reaping the rewards. Dancehall’s women were also crossing over and gaining massive success. Patra became known for her sensuality and unique braided hairstyles, later coined as “Patra Braids;” Dawn Penn’s 1994 hit “No, No, No” is still one of the genre’s most recognized records; Carlene the Dancehall Queen wined her way from Kingston’s dance halls onto screens around the world by way of Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” (it was here that she sported an infamous gold lamé two-piece); and Sister Nancy’s career became an anecdote for the muddy, intellectual property rights waters dancehall had entered once transitioning into a new geography. However, arguably one of dancehall’s most exciting crossover artists was Lady Saw.

Chaka Demus and Pliers - Murder She Wrote

Marion “Lady Saw” Hall was born in 1972 in the parish of St. Mary to working-class parents. Though she began working with a local soundsystem when she was 15, at 19, she released her single “If Him Lef,” the beginning of a creative discography filled with singles speaking of the artist’s sexual proclivities and prowess. She was quickly dubbed the Queen of Slackness, much to the disdain of a paradoxically conservative Jamaica and despite men in dancehall doing the exact same thing. This was all intentional. At the onset of her career, Lady Saw was doing things the “right way,” but as she saw men able to achieve more success with their raunchy lyrics, she made a conscious decision to follow suit. This peaked with her 1998 single “Stab Out Mi Meat,” a taunting song to men about their assumed ability to please women. Four years later, she was featured on No Doubt’s 2002 record “Underneath It All,” and in 2004 the record won a Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group, making her the first woman in dancehall to receive the sought-after musical accolade.

Lady Saw - Stab Out Mi Meat

Throughout her 28-year career, Lady Saw was able to do what many women in dancehall weren’t: secure longevity, redefine Jamaican womanhood and sexual liberation through her lyrics and, more importantly, remain a standout act amid a scene dominated by men. Being a woman didn’t absolve her of the clashes that other dancehall artists were involved in, notably between artists like Spice, Macka Diamond and Tifa, but she remained a strong contender until 2015. Ironically, the artist’s stage persona was antithetical to her Christian upbringing. Throughout her time as a dancehall artist, she even released gospel records, but in 2015, decided to revert back to Christianity, performing gospel-tinged dancehall records under the moniker Minister Marion Hall.

By the end of the ’90s and into the early 2000s, dancehall became part of the public consciousness and cross-genre collaborations, as Beenie Man and Mya’s 2000 single “Girls Dem Sugar” and Beyonce and Sean Paul’s 2003 hit “Baby Boy” became the norm. During this time, the genre’s dances began to take centrestage. Of course, in dance halls in Jamaica, people would dance by themselves or with each other, but crews, formed both by men, women or a mix of the two, began to pop up, creating their own dances and accumulating fame within the scene.

Beenie Man feat. Mya - Girls Dem Sugar

With the creation of camcorders, videographers were invited into dancehall spaces to capture the events of the night. Though footage was mostly of women, with some videographers aiming to capture glimpses of women’s undergarments, the videographers and the video light they brought with them were welcome. They allowed dancehall patrons to be seen, and the DVDs that were created after the dances and street parties were distributed across the island and throughout the diaspora, sharing the new moves with people all over the world.

Dancers, both individually and within groups, capitalized on this opportunity, ensuring that their dance moves were captured. Garnering notoriety for their style, infamous dancers like Gerald “Bogle” Levy took the craft to another level. Before his murder in 2005, he created many popular dances such as the “Wacky Dip,” “Row Di Boat,” “Out and Bad” and “Willie Bounce,” to name a few, and his strides paved the way for others, like Mad Michelle, Stacy, Keiva, and dancehall-turned-deejays like RDX, Elephant Man and Ding Dong. Sean Paul, perhaps dancehall’s most successful crossover artist, also aided in propelling dances forward through his music videos, using Toronto talents Director X and choreographer Tanisha Scott.

Through the early and mid-2000’s, new artists began to step into the limelight, such as Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Spice, D’Angel, Tifa, Pamputtae and Aidonia. Feuds were common in dancehall, but the one that had the biggest impact was between Vybz Kartel and Mavado. Born Adidja Palmer, Kartel hailed from the streets of Portmore (Waterford, to be exact) and provided unique insight about the trials of the ghetto through his music, making him one of the most loved, respected and complex artists in the genre’s history.

Vybz Kartel - Last Man Standing (Don't Run)

Because of the high amount of violence, his neighbourhood was dubbed Gaza, reflective of the political unrest in the area of the same name in the Middle East. During his rise to ascension, David Brooks, who performed under the moniker of Mavado, did the same for his community, Cassava Piece, that lay along a gully, for which it was affectionately referred to. Kartel and Mavado often made diss records about each other while championing and boasting about where they came from. However, the Gaza versus Gully rivalry exploded beyond the borders of the neighbourhood and the realm of music when civilians became casualties of violence for aligning themselves with their respective affiliations. It climaxed during Sting 2008, when Vybz Kartel and Mavado finally had their very public face-off (though who walked away the true winner is highly contested). This became a pivotal moment in dancehall, as the following year the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission began regulating lyrical content on the airwaves to curtail its impact on the streets.

Mavado - Nuh Bleach Wid Cream

With the content of one of the G’s of dancehall dramatically reduced, the sounds began to change. But with Kartel caught up in a litany of controversial accusations in 2011 regarding the death of a former associate — an act that he would later be imprisoned for — many wondered what dancehall would sound like post-Kartel. Of course, prison was of no deterrence for the artist, who continued to release records, but the tide began to turn when artists like Popcaan (Kartel’s former protégé), Shenseea and Tommy Lee Sparta were among many marshalling in a new wave of dancehall. Some artists retained the sonic traditions of classical dancehall, while others were more willing to incorporate sounds from other genres.

Popcaan - Silence

In 2015, Justin Bieber released “Sorry,” a record and music video that became highly controversial because of its obvious dancehall-inspired production and dancehall choreography that wasn’t properly attributed to the source. Yet many people hailed Justin Bieber for “bringing dancehall back,” and flames were further ignited the following year upon the release of Drake’s Views, an album dotted with the sound of dancehall and Jamaican-rooted Toronto slang. Dancehall hadn’t disappeared, but it was beginning to make its way back into pop culture, this time from non-Jamaican and non-dancehall artists, and coupled with arguments and critiques surrounding appropriation, co-opting and cultural borrowing.

With the 2018 release of Spice’s Captured and Popcaan’s Forever, in addition to the signing of dancehall starlet Shenseea to Interscope Records, dancehall seems to be fixating itself as a mainstay and no longer a genre that makes its way in and out of the global public’s memory every few years. With luck, institutional changes will follow, permitting its artists to finally be recognized for their contributions to music.

Some say that dancehall doesn’t embody the kind of staying power to allow it to be a genre that we’re always in conversation with, but it looks like there’s a promising future ahead. Starting from the streets of Kingston to now being a sound enjoyed across the globe, it can seem at times that dancehall has run its course, but the race has just begun.

Header image © John Lynn Kirk/Redferns/Getty Images

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