Riddim is a Dancer: Why We Need Dancehall Back

April 12, 2012 4 comments

Before I get into the meat of the article, allow me to set a scene: the year was 2004, and as a middle-class white teenager tends to do in the decidedly non-trill state of Massachusetts during the summer, my family and I went down to Cape Cod. We got a shitty rental cottage without a TV or working internet, so it was basically two weeks of kickin’ it medieval style. The only electronic accessory I had was an AM/FM radio that was already in the double bedroom I shared with my brother. So, like a boss, I commandeered that bad boy immediately and switched it to the pop station (I was young and dumb). And what do I hear?

I remember hearing that song 5 times a day for two weeks straight, and it intrigued me. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but now that I’m older and arguably wiser, I know why. A few months back I rediscovered this song along with a whole bunch of other jams from that time, and I’ve been bumping them intermittently ever since. This rhythmic, body-moving genre known as dancehall is one of the greatest imports our country has ever received, and I’m gonna tell you why.

Can’t Knock The Rhythm

Probably the first thing that pops out to me when I think of dancehall music is the beat. No particular artists or songs come to mind, just a particular rhythm. I’m a drummer, and when I can identify patterns across different genres, I get my smug on. ‘Cause yeah, I’m a music nerd but I’m fuckin’ cool as ice, fight me brehhhhh.

Going back to when dancehall music was at its peak in the US, from ’03 to ’05, there’s a particular rhythmic pattern that repeats in almost every hit. Most songs are in 4/4 time; that is, 4 beats per measure. The rhythm hits on the first beat, the second half-beat (eighth note) of 2, and the fourth beat, while the bass kicks on the 1s and 3s. That might sound kinda nonsensical, but basically what I’m getting at is this:

Here we have two pretty successful dancehall songs that sound quite different from each other… except for the backbone. Behind the claps in Elephant Man’s joint, there’s a strong tendency to the pattern I mentioned above. There’s a primal force in both songs telling you to move, something I find absolutely dope and irresistibly catchy. You don’t find that in Lady Gaga or Ke$ha songs. A bunch of songs I’ll mention later have this same pattern, and it’s part of why I love the genre so much.

Fuck the FCC

In recent years, songs deemed too offensive for radio or TV play are heavily edited to remove most mentions of sexual activity, violence or profanity. While I find this morally reprehensible (FIRST AMENDMENT FOR YOUR FA$E), it’s tacitly accepted.

Behind the cheery, radio-friendly beats and instrumentation, dancehall is one of the few genres today where artists can say pretty much whatever they want to. Why? The dialect, man! Take a listen to this:

On the surface, it’s just a pleasant song about a girl wanting a specific kinda dude, and the guy saying something to her, but you can’t understand him. Perfect, until you read some of the lyrics separate from the song:

She seh she neva had it so deep

…there’s no misconstruing this line. He’s talking about dicking this girl down. Keep in mind, this went out over the airwaves unedited, both on TV and on the radio. But there’s more:

Satisfaction a every girl dream
Mi love fi put it on when dem wiggle and scream

Again, how do you misinterpret this? His “love” is his little Beenie Man, and these girls react favorably to it. This is not up for debate, it is a filthy song. But it pervades into the chorus:

I want a dude with the wickedest slam
I need a one, two three hour man
I want a dude who will tie me to the fan

I’ll admit, I don’t know what the “fan” is in this situation, or if it’s just an actual fan. Either way, she wants a dude who can put it down good, keep it up and do kinky shit for hours. The entire song is about how great Beenie is in the sack, it was a national hit, and everything got through the censors. This isn’t exclusive to the “King of the Dancehall” either; let’s revisit the lyrics of “Turn Me On” for a moment, shall we?

One hand on the ground and bumper cock sky high
Wining hard on me
Got the python hollering for mercy

This is dancefloor grinding taken to the dirtiest extreme you can get away with and still slip it past the censors without problems. Hell, even “cock” got through because it sounds nothing like “cock” when Kevin Lyttle says it. I feel unclean even explaining what that means, but I’m pretty sure y’all can figure out what “got the python hollering for mercy” means. Just check with your doctor if the python is still hollering after four hours.

Ain’t No Das Racist

The dialect I mentioned earlier is known as the patois, and is pretty much found only in the island region between the U.S. and South America. In my opinion, the patois is the glue that holds the music together. Without the cool flow, smooth speech-like singing and seemingly unintelligible words, dancehall would just be decent dance music. There are a lot of different subsets of dancehall reggae, one being reggaeton and it… well… it just kinda sucks. Listen to this:

Same beat pattern, similar instrumentation, but it doesn’t have the accent. Also, N.O.R.E. doing reggaeton is dumb as hell. Just stick to “Nothin’” type shit, would you? And get Nina Skye the fuck outta here too. Lumidee, too; “Uh Oh” was the bane of my existence for a solid six months. It’s just wack as fuck, and I don’t want to hear it.

Despite the basic similarities between all of these songs – the beat, the instrumentation, the patois – they all sound unique. I don’t know how that’s possible, but all of these songs are dope. I don’t even like to dance, but the second some dancehall comes on, I fight the urge to start air humping like a madman.

Now, I can’t pretend to be an authority on this subject. I came late to the party. I just love the music for its feel-good, covertly filthy, ass-shaking vibes. I don’t have the requisite experience in clubs or parties where good music gets played, but maybe there’s someone who could offer a different perspective. Someone with knowledge about the more mellow yet equally fresh side of dancehall… In other words, damn, reader, I can’t write it that well, but I know somebody who can — @Catf1sh?

Guest Writer: Catfish Speaks

Everyone has the first time they encountered reggae. I don’t have such an explicit memory as my homie Will, but I have a memory nonetheless. I remember turning on BET one afternoon (I know, I know) and catching a fine ass Caribbean woman that went by the name of Rachel. I had no idea what the show was about but I was so smitten that of course I had to watch the entire episode. What I was watching was a video similar to RAP City but only catered to island/reggae/Caribbean music. I had never heard this kind of music before, but two of the songs from the rotation stuck out to me.

The first was “Boombastic” by some cat named Shaggy. This deep frog-like voice was hilarious to me at first and infectious soon after. I couldn’t get this song out of my head for months. I just liked how the music behind him kind of swayed and had a great feel to it. To me, reggae is all about the vibe that it brings to the listener.

The other song that caught my attention was “Mr. Lover Man” by none other than Shabba Ranks. This had the same breezy feel to it as “Boombastic” but this time I had no clue what the singer was talking about. This would prepare me for my later studies of reggae music. The singers are speaking English but with such thick dialects that you really have to work at deciphering what the artists are talking about. Kinda like a Skyzoo record.

I took a long sabbatical from reggae music while I dove deep into the depths of hip hop and R&B. However, I was once again caught off guard by the infectious nature of the one and only Sean da Paul. Sean da Paul should go down in history as being of the greatest reggae artists of all time for how he was able to crossover and achieve mainstream success while staying true to the sounds of reggae. Probably didn’t hurt that he was extremely light-skinned, but I won’t touch on that right now. I’ll just touch on the music, and the music was undeniable.

Sean da Paul simply ran the dancehall circuit. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Like Glue” or his collaboration with Beyoncé, “Baby Boy”. Those songs didn’t make me a believer though. The song that did it was “I’m Still In Love With You”. What can I say; I’m a sucker for reggae with a soft-voiced angel of a songstress over the top. Had me “dutty wining” before I even knew what it was.

After Sean da Paul peaked my interest I began to actively search out new reggae music to add to my playlist. I didn’t delve too far into the vaults, as I primarily went for new singles and other songs, but I still amassed a few cuts that stay in rotation on my iPod.

Dancehall music will always have a place in my heart. It’s one of the few genres of music that doesn’t have any ulterior motives. It is all about getting the party started and getting the people moving. It’s provocative without being pretentious, and I’ll forever be grateful for it.

Still Jammin’

While America has mostly let dancehall slide by us, the Caribbean islands continue to pump out jams for those of us who listen. One of those artists, Vybz Kartel, has one of the most interesting backstories you could ask for from a musician. Not only does he have beef with rival artists, he’s currently being held on a murder rap and has his own line of skin-bleaching soap about to drop. Just look at this:

Dude’s skin and teeth are the color of an ashtray. Compared to how he used to look, he looks like Mekhi Phifer’s character from 8 Mile swam in marshmallow fluff. Even so, that song is fucking awesome.

For your benefit, I’ve compiled a bunch of mine and @Catf1sh‘s favorite dancehall tunes in this Spotify playlist. Listen to it, feel the vibes, and get your freak on… or something, I won’t judge.