Dancehall is a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s. Initially dancehall was a more sparse version of reggae than the roots style, which had dominated much of the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, digital instrumentation became more prevalent, changing the sound considerably, with digital dancehall (or “ragga”) becoming increasingly characterized by faster rhythms.
Dancehall owes its moniker to the Jamaican dance halls in which popular Jamaicans recordings were played by local sound systems. These began in the late 1940s among people from the inner city of Kingston, Jamaica who were not able to participate in dances uptown. Social and political changes in late-1970s Jamaica were reflected in the shift away from the more internationally oriented roots reggae towards a style geared more towards local consumption, and in tune with the music that Jamaicans had experienced when sound systems performed live. Michael Manley’s socialist People’s National Party (PNP) government had been replaced with Edward Seaga’s right wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Themes of social injustice, repatriation and the Rastafari movement were overtaken by lyrics about dancing, violence, and sexuality.
Musically, older rhythms from the late 1960s were recycled, with Sugar Minott credited as the originator of this trend when he voiced new lyrics over old Studio One rhythms between sessions at the studio, where he was working as a session musician. Around the same time, producer Don Mais was reworking old rhythms at Channel One Studios, using the Roots Radics band. The Roots Radics would go on to work with Henry “Junjo” Lawes on some of the key early dancehall recordings, including those that established Barrington Levy, Frankie Paul, and Junior Reid as major reggae stars. Other singers to emerge in the early dancehall era as major stars included Don Carlos, Al Campbell, and Triston Palmer, while more established names such as Gregory Isaacs and Bunny Wailer successfully adapted.
Sound systems such as Killimanjaro, Black Scorpio, Gemini Disco, Virgo Hi-Fi, Volcano Hi-Power and Aces International soon capitalized on the new sound and introduced a new wave of deejays. The older toasters were overtaken by new stars such as Captain Sinbad, Ranking Joe, Clint Eastwood, Lone Ranger, Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, General Echo and Yellowman — a change reflected by the 1981 Junjo Lawes-produced album A Whole New Generation of DJs, although many went back to U-Roy for inspiration. Deejay records became, for the first time, more important than records featuring singers. Another trend was sound clash albums, featuring rival deejays /or sound systems competing head-to-head for the appreciation of a live audience, with underground sound clash cassettes often documenting the violence that came with such rivalries.
Two of the biggest deejay stars of the early dancehall era, Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse, chose humour rather than violence. Yellowman became the first Jamaican deejay to be signed to a major American record label, and for a time enjoyed a level of popularity in Jamaica to rival Bob Marley’s peak. The early 1980s also saw the emergence of female deejays in dancehall music, including: Sister Charmaine, Lady G, Lady Junie, Junie Ranks, Lady Saw, Sister Nancy and Shelly Thunder. Dancehall brought a new generation of producers; Junjo Lawes, Linval Thompson, Gussie Clarke and Jah Thomas took over from the producers who had dominated in the 1970s.
Digital dancehall and ragga
In the mid-1980s, French Antilles Kassav, the first in the Caribbean to use MIDI technology, took Caribbean music to another level by recording in a digital format. King Jammy’s 1985 hit, “(Under Me) Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, with an entirely-digital rhythm hook took the dancehall reggae world by storm. Many credit this song as being the first digital rhythm in reggae, featuring a rhythm from a Casio MT-40 keyboard. However, this is not entirely correct since there are earlier examples of digital productions, such as Horace Ferguson’s single “Sensi Addict” (Ujama) produced by Prince Jazzbo in 1984. The “Sleng Teng” rhythm was used in over 200 subsequent recordings. This deejay-led, largely synthesized chanting with musical accompaniment departed from traditional conceptions of Jamaican popular musical entertainment. Dub poet Mutabaruka said, “if 1970s reggae was red, green and gold, then in the next decade it was gold chains”. It was far removed from reggae’s gentle roots and culture, and there was much debate among purists as to whether it should be considered an extension of reggae.
This shift in style again saw the emergence of a new generation of artists, such as Buccaneer, Capleton and Shabba Ranks, who became the biggest ragga star in the world. A new set of producers also came to prominence: Philip “Fatis” Burrell, Dave “Rude Boy” Kelly, George Phang, Hugh “Redman” James, Donovan Germain, Bobby Digital, Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and Cleveland “Clevie” Brown (aka Steely & Clevie) rose to challenge Sly & Robbie’s position as Jamaica’s leading rhythm section. The deejays became more focused on violence, with Bounty Killer, Mad Cobra, Ninjaman and Buju Banton becoming major figures in the genre.
To complement the harsher deejay sound, a “sweet sing” vocal style evolved out of roots reggae and R&B, marked by its falsetto and almost feminine intonation, with proponents like Pinchers, Cocoa Tea, Sanchez, Admiral Tibet, Frankie Paul, Half Pint, Conroy Smith, Courtney Melody, Carl Meeks and Barrington Levy.
In the early 1990s songs like Dawn Penn’s “No, No, No”, Shabba Ranks’s “Mr. Loverman”, Patra’s “Worker Man” and Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” became some of the first dancehall megahits in the US and abroad. Other varieties of dancehall achieved crossover success outside of Jamaica during the mid-to-late 1990s. Tanya Stephens gave a unique female voice to the genre during the 1990s.
The early 2000s saw the success of newer charting acts such as Elephant Man and Sean Paul, who has achieved mainstream success in the US and has produced several top 10 Billboard hits, including “Gimme the Light”, “We Be Burnin'”, “Give It Up to Me”, and “Break It Off” (a duet with Rihanna). He has also had several #1 singles, “Get Busy”, “Temperature” and “Baby Boy” (a duet with Beyoncé).
Dancehall seems to be making a resurgence within the pop market in the late 2000s, namely Christina Aguilera’s “Woohoo”, Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen” and Swan Fyahbwoy.
VP Records dominates the dancehall music market with Sean Paul, Elephant Man, and Buju Banton. VP often has partnered with major record labels like Atlantic and Island in an attempt to further expand their distribution potential particularly in the US market.
In 1992, the international backlash to Banton’s violently anti-homosexual “Boom Bye-Bye”, and the reality of Kingston’s violence which saw the deaths of deejays Pan Head and Dirtsman saw another shift, this time back towards Rastafari and cultural themes, with several of the hardcore slack ragga artists finding religion, and the “conscious ragga” scene becoming an increasingly popular movement. A new generation of singers and deejays emerged that harked back to the roots reggae era, notably Garnett Silk, Rocker T, Tony Rebel, Sanchez, Luciano, Anthony B and Sizzla. Some popular deejays, most prominently Buju Banton and Capleton, began to cite Rastafari and turn their lyrics and music in a more conscious, rootsy direction. Many modern dancehall Rasta artists identify with Bobo Ashanti.
Reggae fusion is a mixture of reggae or dancehall with elements of other genres, such as hip hop, R&B, jazz, rock and roll, Indian music, Latin music, drum and bass, punk rock or polka. It is closely related to ragga music. The term is also used to describe artists who frequently switch between the dancehall and reggae genres and other genres, mainly rap and R&B. It originated in Jamaica, North America and Europe, and first became popular in the late 1990s.
One point of dissension of dancehall from reggae, and from its non-western roots in Jamaica, is on the focus on materialism. Prominent males in the dancehall scene are expected to dress in very expensive casual wear, indicative of European urban styling and high fashion that suggest wealth and status. Since the late 1990s, males in the dancehall culture have rivalled their female counterparts to look fashioned and styled. The female dancehall divas are all scantily clad, or dressed in spandex outfits that accentuate more than cover one’s nakedness. In the documentary It’s All About Dancing, prominent dancehall artist Beenie Man argues that one could be the best DJ or the smoothest dancer, but if one wears clothing that reflects the economic realities of the majority of the partygoers, one will be ignored.
After the popularizing of Buju Banton’s dancehall song “Boom Bye Bye” in the early 1990s, dancehall music came under criticism from international organizations and individuals over anti-gay lyrics in a few songs though in recent years these attitudes have changed In some cases, dancehall artists whose music featured anti-gay lyrics had had their concerts canceled. Various singers were investigated by international law enforcement agencies such as Scotland Yard, on the grounds that the lyrics incited the audience to assault homosexuals. Buju Banton’s 1993 hit “Boom Bye Bye” allegedly advocates the murder of homosexuals by shooting or burning, or both (“like an old tire wheel”). Many of the affected singers believed that legal or commercial sanctions were essentially an attack against freedom of speech. Some artists agreed not to use anti-gay lyrics during their concerts in Europe and the United States, although some artists, such as Capleton, continue to have their concerts canceled due to the Stop Murder Music campaign.
Donna P. Hope argues that dancehall culture’s anti-homosexual lyrics formed part of a macho discussion that advanced the interest of the heterosexual male in Jamaica, which is a Christian society with strong Rastafari movement influence as well. Even while dancehall culture in Jamaica sported images of men in pseudo-gay poses and costumes, the cultural, religious, social and gendered imperatives of the society advanced and promoted the ideal man as macho and heterosexual and men who are homosexual were identified as inadequate and impure portraits of true masculinity. Dancehall music has played into and with this divide in an extreme and lyrically graphic fashion that has been rendered politically incorrect in many places globally but remains culturally relevant in Jamaica.
The popularity of dancehall has spawned dance moves that help to make parties and stage performances more energetic. Many dance moves seen in hip hop videos are actually variations of dancehall dances. Examples of such dances are: “Like Glue”, “Bogle” “Wine & dip”, “Tek Weh Yuhself”, “Whine Up” (a mix of various genres), “Boosie Bounce”, “Drive By”, “Shovel It”, “To Di World”, “Dutty Wine”, “Sweep”, “nuh behavior”,”nuh linga”, “skip to my lou”, “gully creepa”, “bad man forward bad man pull up”, “keeping it jiggy”, “pon di river”, “willie bounce”, “wacky dip”, “screetchie”, “one vice(an underground dance)” and “Daggering”