Here it is, my fourth annual year-end round up of reggae and dancehall (counting 2008′s Pitchfork column). Whereas 2010 ended with a bit of a musical whimper–disappointing Sting, no real music news of note, this year has ended with a political bang. The “crushing” victory of the PNP in the polls has definitely shaken things up in Jamaica, but what about the music?
I’ve sat looking at this entry for a while. Last year there was all sorts of whinging about the state of the music industry in Jamaica and this year has been no different. One of the most engaging commentators on the Jamaican music industry (among other things), the irrepressible BigBlackBarry shut down his twitter account last year at this time, and this year he’s abandoned it for the time being.
Yes, one could list a lot of reasons that demonstrate that 2011 was a bit of a loser for reggae and dancehall, or could complain (with support from a range of, well, older folk) of how “static Jamaica’s musical progression has become”, but that runs contrary to the reality that there still was a multitude of quality releases, tunes and riddims. Sure, Buju winning his first Grammy for Best Reggae Album doesn’t make his imprisonment any less of a disappointment just like Mavado’s success in being signed with DJ Khaled’s We The Best music is difficult to celebrate as a triumph for dancehall when one recalls that the Gully God’s former rival (who also had a pile of international success in 2011), superstar deejay Vybz Kartel, ends the year in jail on murder charges.
Before the charges however, Vybz Kartel shocked the international media (from Hot97 to the Guardian) with his defense of skin bleaching. He gave a rather articulate lecture at the University of the West Indies as part of Carolyn Cooper’s Reggae Poetry class, putting Prof Cooper in cartoonist Clovis’s crosshairs. Undermining the professor’s position, numerous cartoons suggested that Mr. Palmer’s appearance at the university was emblematic of academic degeneration courtesy of dancehall. Granted, Kartel made some seriously questionable statements (making use of Haile Selassie’s famous statement “until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eye” as a defense for bleaching is but one), but he didn’t fall flat, as many twitter/facebook observers forecast.
With production from New York’s Dre Skull, Vybz Kartel unleashed Kingston Story (the string-laden, Showtime-riddim inspired lead off single “Go Go Wine” is still getting daily radio play). The New York Times (courtesy of an excellent piece by Rob Kenner) and just about everyone else sat up and took notice of the Anancy-like artiste. Then, in the blink of an eye, the hook-driven yet lyrically-challenged “Summertime”, rose in popularity to become what many observers acknowledge as the song of the year. The riddim itself was also produced by a foreigner–the Swedish Adde Productions. Sweden is known for pop know-how (see Ace of Base, Robyn and Abba for examples), so it’s no surprise that the Summertime riddim was also the basis for Popcaan’s infectious hit “Ravin”.
Drawing all the more attention and publicity, Kartel’s dating reality show Teacher’s Pet debuted this fall to much fanfare and condemnation. The program was no more or less offensive than Flava of Love (with perhaps a bit more nudity and less snappy editing), but, in the words of one Jamaican commentator, it was “sad”. Regardless, people worldwide tuned in on TV and online to see the self-proclaimed World Boss charm a range of Kartel-obsessed ladies. 2011 could have been the best year of Mr. Adidja Palmer’s career, until October 3rd, when he was arrested on murder charges. With no trial date set, Kartel is still in limbo–time will tell what 2012 has in store for di teacha.
However, speaking of the Dre Skull/Kartel combination, in February, Joshua Chamberlain, Thomas Palermo, Mel Cooke (though from afar) and I presented a panel at the venerable EMP conference entitled “Selling Jamaica”. My paper, entitled “Major Lazer, Major Money? Dancehall’s Relationship between Yard and Foreign” took a look at international collaborations such as Diplo and Switch’s Major Lazer project (a new record is due to arrive in 2012). Drawing from interviews with Dre Skull (who just unleashed a new production for Popcaan), Prodigal Entertainment’s Dylan Powe, and Red Bull distributor Wisynco head William Mahfood, I attempted to ask questions about how music is monetized in Jamaica alongside the ethics of cultural collaboration. Yes, I talked about Diplo, but folks like Venus X and Chief Boima took the argument about Wes Pentz further. The one thing that can be said about this is that more things should be said–more discussion should be had. Given that just about every UN report suggests that Jamaica should capitalize on its creative resources and the new PNP government has claimed to support cultural development, the Jamaica-specific part of this conversation will continue.
Speaking of the relationship between Jamaica and foreign, a couple of days before year end, the insightful Erin Hansen tweeted that “Sometimes it seems like Jamaican, American and British dancehall lovers are never on the same page.” I’ve written a little bit this year about the heavy emphasis on melody that exists in Jamaica. Sure, there are dancehall bangers, but you a just as likely to hear a sweet reggae or poppy tune that begs for singalong. This year a few of these that stand out are Richie Stephens and Gentleman’s anthemic “Live Your Life” (over a hundred thousand Europeans can’t be wrong), the made for repeat “One by One” by Laza Morgan ft. Mavado, Demarco’s triumphant “I Love My Life” (apparently huge in Haiti–according to Etienne) and heaps of tunes on the (admittedly more dancehall) Overproof–a riddim that shows no sign of age even after becoming the soundtrack of just about every cab ride I’ve taken since September.
Want an example of the differing taste in the US of A? In response to what I considered to be a reasonable run down of the top dancehall tunes courtesy of NPR (written by Baz Dreisinger), a discussion on Facebook (amongst Americans) treated the selection with disdain: “swill” and “weak” were two comments, “billboard top 5″ was another. The list included “One by One” and “Summertime” by the way. Thing is, dancehall is pop music. Whereas in North America there’s often a premium placed on rooting through tracks in search of the rare, in Jamaica, radio and soundsystems respond to the massive’s taste. And when you look to the general population, the people pick pop. It’s more likely to hear Rhianna played in the dance than an intense Ward 21 track.
But if you are interested in that heavy, driven intensity that is rife in some hardcore dancehall, take a trip across the pond to the UK, where London crowds seem to appreciate a little more boom in their bass. The UK dancehall scene is experiencing more than a little bit of growth. The Heatwave have been holding it down for a while now, but 2011 gave way to a group of women whose many guises have provided an increasing number of parties and playlists. From Susannah Webb (DJ The Large) of Shimmy Shimmy and No Ice Cream Sound zine to Siobhan Jones (DJ Whydelila) and Physically Fit to Karen Cazabon (DJ Cazabon) of Hipsters Don’t Dance (alongside Inie Banigo, aka Hootie Who?), these ladies will play some of the singy songs, but as their end of the year round up proves, their selection in music leans more towards the Ward 21 end of the spectrum. Again, dancehall aint the same everywhere you go and it’s all according to the taste of the massive. And I still can’t understand why anyone likes Specialist’s “Street Hustle”.
Speaking of hustling, back in Kingston, a range of young musicians have been working hard to fit their roots and culture sound amongst all that dancehall. Whether at the African Village Cafe at Regal Plaza in Crossroads, on Wickie Wackie Beach, at the Manifesto JA festival, or at the launch of I Wayne’s Life Teachings, musicians like Jah 9, Kalissa MacDonald, Chronixx, Infinite, The Gideon and Kabaka Pyramid are pushing things forward with conscious, clever tunes. A couple favourites are Chronixx’s “Start a Fire” and the Occupy Wallstreet-worthy “Capitalists”.
Next: In the dance, Guinness Sounds of Greatness, saying goodbye, looking ahead.
Note: After posting this, I had an interesting conversation on Twitter with Gabrielof the Heatwave, who wasn’t sure about my distinction between the UK and JA. Though Gabe said ”I think there’s a bit of the cheesier stuff that doesn’t do so well here, & a bit of the harder stuff that does better here, but the main core of dominant tunes is pretty similar”, I might have overstated the case. I would love to know what other folks think…