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South Rakkas Crew - Rakking Up The Dancehall

Author: Tony Edwards
Monday, 18 February 2008
The South Rakkas story is essentially one of Canadians abroad. Dennis 'Dow Jones' Shaw and Alex G, the crew's production heart, are old friends who worked together in a studio in toronto making latin, urban and hip hop records. 3D’s Tony Edwards gets all the goss from Shaw on the soon-touring ensemble.

“Up there, the whole urban market... it's not so big,” explains Shaw. “Records sell up in Canada, but they don't buy into what's going on in America, they buy into other cultures rather than embracing their own. So [we couldn't] make a living out of it, it almost felt like a hobby. I would find myself working different job, odd jobs, doing security, this and that so I could afford to go into the studio and do what I wanted to do. I wanted to do this full time, I wanted to have success in the business. That meant that we had to leave to do that, we had to come to America.”

Miami is where the pair landed. Alex went down there first to produce on some major pop records and the work just never stopped coming. “He kept calling me saying 'you gotta come down here, forget Canada'. Eventually I picked up and left.” The musical melting pop that is Miami, with all its hip hop, and booty bass proved the perfect setting for the pairs talents. South Rakkas' recent album, The Mix Up, blew up big with its accessible take on dancehall. Now they're the new superstars on Diplo's Mad Decent label, and yet another ingredient in this hybrid electro/B-more/hip hop movement that's spreading rapidly around the world.

I asked Dennis to break down the extended South Rakkas family. “There's two emcees that we use for our shows. One is Trix, he's from Canada. The other is MC Agony, our latest emcee, who actually is from Orlando. When I was looking for another emcee I wanted somebody local here, so he's the latest member.” Canadian dancehall artists Kid Foreigner & Bigga Boss and vocalist Sandy Smith round out the crew.

Shaw puts dancehall's popularity of late down to the cross-fertilisation of genres that the mash-up style has brought to dance music. “A few times in the last 10 or 20 years dancehall has kind of bubbled up, but never fully crossed. I think what's really happening now is the music is being embraced by different audiences. I guess with the technology and everything everybody's started to do these crazy mash-ups and different things. For me what it is is that whole electro/electronic market really embracing the dancehall. And because producers are crossing the music over and infusing it with these different styles of music, it's becoming more palatable to other people.

“Before there was a lot of people that loved dancehall, and every once in a while you'd get a hit that would emerge here or there but it still wasn't very palatable, because of the language, because of the style. But now you've got all these acapellas floating around, and DJs and producers take it and put it on breakbeats and put it on all this electro and techno stuff. It's great for all these different audiences.

“That's kind of what we do. We've always had the intention, when we came out with Clapperz and all our rhythms, of giving it our vibe. Growing up in Canada I guess we were influenced by so many different types of music, we wanted to give it our flavour. I think that's what's attracting all these other people, because it's not so hard, it's not so Jamaican. It has this international flair to it... it's just seems to work for different DJs.”

Dennis knows a thing or two about Jamaican culture - he was born and raised there until the age of 6 when he migrated to Canada with his family. “I usually make about four or six trips out there a year. I make a lot of trips when I'm doing the production for our rhythms and stuff, I fly out to Jamaica and record with artists there.”

I quizzed him on the Jamaican music scene. “Hip hop is really starting to take a hold in Jamaica as well, the US has a big influence over there, but definitely dancehall reggae is the number one music over there.”

If you're still at all unclear on what dancehall actually is, and how it fits into the musical spectrum, Shaw shed some light on the issue. “I'm going to equate it like this. Hip hop is to rnb what dancehall is to reggae. The true reggae, the roots, I would say more older people listen to it. But the kids are into the dancehall artists; it's the volume, it's the toughness, it's the harder type of music that focuses more on things that the kids are influenced by. It's the younger market.”

It seems Jamaica's scene remains closed off to outside DJs, a cultural thing. “We took a lot of what they do in what we do, so they definitely influenced us, but it's a very different type of DJing when you go and see a DJ from Jamaica. It's not so much focused on mixing and that kind of thing. They talk quite a bit in between the songs, and if you're not Jamaican, you're not really going to understand what the emcee's talking about. It's hard style to follow if you're not from that culture.”

The South Rakkas show that's going to hit our shores will be made up of Shaw on the ones and twos, with MC Trix on the mic to give it that little bit extra. It sounds like we're to be on the receiving end of some really fresh performances. “I'm going to be prepared to drop some hip hop, some old school and some of the new stuff that's going around. But we're definitely going to give you the dancehall. I'm going to try and bring in some of the retro, the older dancehall. Give you guys some of the classics for people that don't really know about dancehall, bring them up to speed a bit. And of course we're going to drop some electro stuff and some cool other things and mashups and remixes. We'll try to drop it as hard as we can and really rock you guys.”

WHO: South Rakkas Crew
WHAT: Plays Oxford Art Factory / Playground Weekender
WHEN: Friday 7 March/ 9 March