2009 is done. Mavado and Vybz Kartel are pals, Buju Banton is in jail, and Sting—billed as the greatest stageshow on earth—was underwhelming as all get out. How did we get here? Last year ended with fretting about the fact that reggae music was less and less Jamaican—Matisyahu being on top of the charts and such. This year ended in pretty much the same way. However, despite worries about the state of music—the Jamaica Gleaner spent pages of its December 27 issue questioning dancehall’s parties, professors and punny printers, wondering in print about what the future holds for reggae—and the widely circulated report of an eight-copy sale figure for Vybz Kartel’s Pon Di Gaza in its first week, it was also a banner year for dancehall on the world stage.
Jamaica is still ground zero for reggae and dancehall—those inspired by the sounds of Jamaica may travel to the country and record with artists—and this year there has been significant cross over into other genres. Indeed, the linkages between Jamaica and other parts of the world, from New York to Berlin to London to Geneva, have been more active than ever. Diplo and Switch‘s Major Lazer album (and the Kingston kickoff to the Major Lazer world tour) brought US artists to the fore, alongside showcasing the rising stature of up-and-coming Jamaican artists—not to mention dancers such as the Antigua-born, Bronx-based Skeritt Bwoy. Legions of music critics have placed Major Lazer, an album inspired by dancehall created by two very non-Jamaican fellows, on their best-of lists (heck, it’s number 38 for Pitchfork). Unlike Waterhouse, Kingston’s Terry Lynn, whose collaborations with Swiss/Canadian producer Phred were blogged, twittered, talked about and celebrated all year—heck, she was even interviewed by French Vogue—the Major Lazer project (specifically “Pon di Floor”) is getting some play in Jamaica. And Dre Skull’s “Yuh Love”, though not to be confused with the enormous hit “Love Dem”, met with a level of approval by the dancehall massive. UK Funky mixes of dancehall tunes have packed dancefloors in London (and this is increasingly happening across north America—check Heatwave for the rundown) and the glitchy sounds of recent productions lean heavily towards electronica (certain recent projects by Terry Lynn, Tifa and Natalie Storm are emblematic of this bent). Truckback records’ international remix project of 2008′s huge Billboard-charting 2008 hit “Click Mi Finger” (making use of three Canadian producers, Poirier, Grahmzilla and Lunice alongside NYC’s Nick Catchdubs) demonstrate that connection and innovation are alive and well in Jamaican music.
These cross-border relations continue to grow, something that this year DJ/Rupture memorably commented on in November’s Fader: “I love the internet,” he said, “but everything gets so much more intense and surprising when you work with people who are actually near you, real collaborations rather than download cut and paste or pay-for vocals where you fly to Jamaica and pay Vybz or Busy $2000 for 30 minutes of their time and then pretend like you’re friends. I’ve done those things in the past, and it’s just not as rewarding as sitting down in the studio and building music based on common ground with folks you know and have to deal with day in and day out”.
But if, in 2009, you’re into reggae and dancehall, is it necessary to be big in JA? Or even NYC or LDN? Does one need the credibility that comes with a trip to record in Kingston? On his album Skanky Skanky (and during his new weekly BBC radio 1 show) Sheffield’s Toddla T provides another way of mixing in dancehall and reggae influence, as is Montreal’s Poirier on his EP Run the Riddim and in ongoing projects with deejays Face T (Montreal) and MC Zulu (Chicago).
Dancehall’s relationship with foreign hasn’t been all candy canes and lollipops. Homophobia has caused problems for many artists from Elephant Man to Beenie to Mr Vegas, and, of course, Buju Banton. Buju, frustrated with the boycotting and banning of concerts actually met with gay rights campaigners in San Francisco, sparking debate in Jamaica on radio shows, television and in the streets. Even in the face of protest, the folks behind the Grammys stood by their nomination of Rasta Got Soul, but this news was overshadowed by Buju’s December arrest for cocaine. Five kilos of cocaine, to be exact. Reports of the dreadlocked Rastaman taste testing coke, on video no less, have led to all sorts of speculation, but for now, it would appear that “Driver” will continue to hit too close to home for the foreseeable future. In other crime-related roots reggae news this year, the gun battle that took place outside Luciano’s home in March, following a led pipe beating in February, made 2009 not exactly the best for the Messenger. Fans of the music have also been devastated by some far too early exits: dancehall riddim master Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson as well as Bass Odyssey’s Kevin “Squingey” Bennett. Rocksteady pioneer Alton Ellis also passed this year, but his music demonstrated its staying power with the release of Are You Ready to Rocksteady, the lovingly produced documentary/performance film that premiered at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
The party circuit back a yard has also had its share of ups and downs over the past 365. Richie Feelings’ Bembe Thursdays gave up the ghost recently and Rae Town Sundays seem on permanent hiatus. Boasy Tuesdays came under pressure, was cancelled and then moved to Shocking Vibes HQ. Asylum shut down and then reopened as Tha Building, site of Mavado’s birthday bash after police denied a permit for the event to be held at Temple Hall Estate. Tha Building is also now home to the uber popular Fresh Fridays after it moved from Hagley Park Road following shots fired at its anniversary bash. The “dancehall institute of higher learning” (to borrow from Father Pow), aka Weddi Wednesday, also experienced lock off in the weeks leading up to Christmas. One perspective on this suggests that noise abatement was the reason given for increasing pressure on weekly dances, though it would seem the rules aren’t exactly consistently applied. Other reasons reported include permit problems and violence—some dances cancelling based on police suggestion. The sadly unfortunate New Year’s shooting outside of the year-to-year annual finale, the Black and White Affair, won’t help the situation.
Tomorrow: Daggering, Dudus, Dancing and much more…