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Jimmy Sing's Crash Course In Dancehall

Author: Jimmy Sing
Friday, 26 October 2007
Sound a big ting dem! Time for a pre-summer spotlight on Jamaica’s staple diet. No, I don’t mean Red Stripe or Jerk Chicken but… dancehall! Some people refer to it as ragga or bashment, and perhaps even more just simplify it as a sub-genre of reggae. But it’s gotta be known, dancehall’s output is so huge, innovative and influential that more often than not it sounds nothing like reggae! So, where to start…

Dancehall mostly operates with a producer making a raw digital instrumental – the riddim – and requesting multiple singers and DJs to version it. Of course, every vocalist will ride the instrumental differently and all versions are released at the same time. Selectors in the dance juggle the versions of the riddim, switching between choruses and verses from each track. King Jammy’s Sleng Teng, the first ever digital riddim, has now had almost 300 recorded versions released! So when you’re after the hottest dancehall you gotta find the biggest RIDDIMS of the moment. 2007’s hard-hitting riddims include the Drumline, Tremor, Rae and Bad Dog. More raving dance styles have come from the Madness, Raging Bull and Battlefield riddims.

Without a doubt, 2007 has been the year that the badman came home to roost. In contrast to recent obsessions with upbeat dance-driven riddims, this year’s dancehall has been steered by tough clash lyrics over brooding, dramatic production styles. Perennial badmen such as Bounty Killer, Sizzla, Vybz Kartel and Mad Cobra returned to throwing threats, disses and gun lyrics. But it is young blood such as Munga the Honourable, Busy Signal and man of the moment, Mavado, who have risen the badman stakes. Mavado’s haunting delivery of the ‘Gangster 4 Life’ outlook has re-invented the poetics of violent lyricism, talking as much about marrow as AK-47s. Check Mavado’s Dreaming or Amazing Grace. And if the badman ting gets too much, badgal pride is aplenty: Lady Saw, Spice, Ce’cile and Macka Diamond always keep the rude boys in place.

The mad success of Kingston’s Passa Passa, a Wednesday night street party that gets started at 1am and runs past dawn till 8am, has directed attention to the crowd and dancers more than just a stageshow. Since the late ’90s, dancehall queens and the sadly passed Mr Wacky aka Bogle, popularised dances such as Willie Bounce, Row di Boat and Pon di River. Now, fellas like Ding Dong and John Hype bring the flair, innovating new dance moves every week. Just listen to hits from Beenie Man, Elephant Man and Tony Matterhorn to hear the latest moves being called out for the crowd. Last year was dominated by the neck-breaking Dutty Wine for the girls, and this year’s big moves look to be the Hot Fuk and Killa Swing. YouTube that and get wining!

At any point in time, there are a handful of dancehall artists getting love in the international pop and hip-hop markets. ‘Mr Lover Lover’ Shaggy and ‘Get Busy’ Sean Paul get around with an expert grasp on the term ‘broad appeal’. It’s interesting to remember that whilst these artists keep big pop tunes bubbling overseas, they will always stay sessioning the domestic riddims so as not to risk losing their homeland appeal. Perhaps due to hardcore lyrical content, the use of patois English or the sheer experimentalism of dancehall riddims, many amazingly talented dancehall stars struggle to break the international market. The next test is underway with P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records signing the Energy God, Elephant Man, for one big album: Let’s Get Phsyical drops in January – look out!

Go no further than for all your dancehall calendar dates. Local Sydney sounds run the bashment as well as any: check Surgeon General, Nasty Tek, Spin D Music, Firehouse and Basslines. In Melbourne, search out Chantdown and Natty Sistren. But of course, a major touchdown comes with Junior Reid performing in Australia throughout early December. Blaze it up!

Check to hear the riddims and see the dances!