Safer than ten padlock: Vybz Kartel

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So Vybz Kartel was acquitted on one murder charge a couple of days ago. On the afternoon of the verdict, I went and spoke to defence lawyer Christian Tavares-Finson about the case. I wrote a piece for Pitchfork about it, but my original had a few extra details from the case and bits and pieces from Tavares-Finson that folks might be interested in…

Just two weeks ago, a bass-heavy, cracking tune called “Compass” by Vybz Kartel was unleashed. A sure summer highlight, given a recent lull in head nod-inducing dancehall tunes. “Keep yuh safer than ten padlock,” the man also known alternately as “Di Teacha” and “Worl’ Boss”, rhythmically repeats. This is more than a little tongue in cheek, given that Kartel has been locked up himself, waiting to face murder charges since September 29, 2011.

“Compass” was far from the first track released in the past almost two years. Though he is certainly not permitted by law to be recording while in jail, Kartel has oddly managed to be almost as prolific as when he was a free man. With explanations and hypotheses ranging from the use of old acapellas to voicing over the phone to straight up illegal activity, UK soundcrew Heatwave has provided a nice rundown of best (and worst) of the many tracks released since Adidja Palmer’s arrest. One of the best is the hit single from February 2013, “Peanut Shell.” It’s now a recent arty short film/video starring World Reggae Dance Champs Shady Squad.

Vybz Kartel was on the rise in 2011—a critically-praised new album, Kingston Story, produced by American producer Dre Skull and a profile in the New York Times. No stranger to controversy, from specializing in explicit lyrics to flaunting his bleached skin to his public conflicts with fellow performers, Kartel has always butt heads with someone or other. His business ventures, such as Daggering Condoms and Street Vybz Rum alongside his rather racy reality tv show “Teacha’s Pet” also did little to endear him to so-called respectable society. His detractors seemed vindicated when the deejay born Adidja Palmer was arrested for two counts of murder.

On July 24, Palmer was acquitted of one of these two murder charges, exiting the courthouse and waving to a large crowd of screaming fans. In the shooting death of music promoter Barrington “Bossie” Burton, Palmer stood accused alongside two others. Though rumors of cellphone-video footage, DNA evidence, and text messages swirled in the media and online amongst fans, the case hung on witness statements that were disallowed by the judge since the police could not secure the presence of the witnesses themselves. According to defense attorney Christian Taveres-Finson, “We didn’t believe that they had any witnesses. We didn’t believe that the police were investigating the matter properly.” Sure that Palmer will be exonerated, his legal team feel that a defamation case might be in the cards: “When he comes out, we will look at [that] very carefully.” 

In a post-verdict statement to his fans, the “Worl’ boss” remained defiant: “I had the utmost confidence from the outset as I knew I was being used as a scapegoat as usual because of my image and content and some of my music.”

What remains is the case of Clive “Lizard” Williams, who was allegedly beaten and shot to death in Palmer’s Kingston home. This case, with six defendants in total, is due to come to trial in November. According to Taveres-Finson, the evidence is again “circumstantial. We have the view that he shall be out on bail.” And how soon? “It will take a couple weeks to put the documents together, so anywhere between three or four weeks.”

Whether or not the bail hearings lean Palmer’s way, the artist that is Vybz Kartel is not going away soon. Nothing seems to stop his popularity on the streets of Kingston and in the minds of dancehall fans worldwide. After all, there was yet another new tune released just this week . . . there’s surely more where that came from. 

Party Circuit

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It isn’t an April Fool’s joke. Dancehall made the front page of the New York Times today. This was, as Annie Paul mentioned on Facebook, rather interesting considering Emma Lewis’s posting yesterday of complaints against the seemingly constant parties and night noise in Jamaica. It reminded me of Mutabaruka’s call for a study on the impact of this partying on a sleepy population. I should make it clear that I lean far more on the positive side of this argument–there is purpose in the partying. And there have already been studies–check this one on the economic impact of spring breakers or this one on partying as social and political participation. Larisa Mann has also written on how partying and politicking can come together–and how music can be a “powerful force for sharing pleasure, trust, release, and purpose across marginalized communities, and forging a radical, broadly participatory movement.” So after a day of discussing the pros and cons of letting loose, it was edifying to see Sarah Maslin Nir‘s piece “Jamaicans Get Party to Come to Them, via DVD“. Nir’s piece dealt with the way party DVDs–the long-form, unedited works filmed by the ubiquitous dancehall video men every night of the week–circulate, providing connection to yard for those abroad.

I then proceeded to get into a big twitter argument with a reader of the piece who tried to catch Nir on her lack of differentiation between selector and MC. Selector being the one who spins the tunes and MC being the one who talks and bigs up the dance. Of course, in 2013, based on the range of soundsystem practice, there’s no really cut and dry differentiation. But it was one of those ridiculous discussions that I only seem to have on the internet. It was a shame, really, because I shouldn’t have been splitting hairs about soundsystem terminology. I should have been talking about the meat of the piece.

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Apparently Nir has been the New York Time‘s nightlife columnist for a while, so she is familiar with a party–and perhaps some of the wilder sort (a quick google reveals a portrait of the writer with a couple horses at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC). I was a little disappointed in the descriptions of dancing as “feverish”, “outlandish” and “border[ing] on pornographic” in her column and then on her twitter–where the she exclaimed that readers of her piece had to check out the “bonkers” videos. Having been to numerous dances, as well as numerous late-night affairs in my home continent of North America, I can honestly state that there is nothing more offensive happening on the streets of Kingston than that going on at certain nightclubs and during aforementioned spring breaks in Canada and the US. She writes that “by night’s end…bodies jiggle free of miniscule clothes”. Not so much. Dancehall, for all its slackness, often draws a line between nastiness and nudity. The language of the piece is a bit grating and tiresome, as it’s yet another example of a portrait of the island as a wild place–unfettered by the boundaries of civilized society. A mite problematic.

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This being said, though I think that the piece could have been more fully fleshed out, it provided an interesting narrative of diaspora circulation. I liked the inclusion of Kim-Marie Spence’s comments about seeing one’s own reflection on video, but I wished that Donna Hope had been consulted. Hope’s Inna di Dancehall, was published way back in what seems like the ancient times–2006. She discusses video men like Jack Sowah (still active today) as a key creator of dancehall culture, alongside artists, dancers, soundsystems and so on. The book also discusses the circulation of Sowah productions through out the diaspora–in places Nir discussed in her piece, such as Brooklyn and Queens, New York. But Hope’s discussion stems from the dancehall in Jamaica. According to Inna di Dancehall, dancers and “models” try to steal a piece of the video light in hopes of catching a break.

Right now you have girls wheh deh a England an America true my videocassette. Raquel from Modelling Crew is in Engald an…Little Bit…she is also in England, Mackie Boo, she’s in England, Lisa is in…no…Mackie is in New York, Lisa is in England..An…couple a dem well yuh nuh leave here an go abroad true di video - Jack Sowah, quoted in Inna di Dancehall (73)

Nir describes the videos as providing a connection with home, whereas Hope describes these same products as offering a connection with foreign. Nir describes a young woman who travels from New York to Jamaica to get herself on camera, whereas Sowah presents the videos as a ticket to get out of JA. The dancehall circuit, whether Uptown Mondaze, Boasy Tuesdays, Weddy Wednesdays or any other day, is recast as a diaspora narrative, demonstrating links between home and foreign. The parties hold promise and potential for those in attendance, and they offer up Jamaican experience to those in the diaspora. And beyond the diaspora community, these films circulate further, crossing boundaries. As Sonjah Stanley-Niaah has written, dancehall is constructed according to certain borders–boundaries in space, time and, as the consistent crackdowns and complaints about night noise demonstrate, sound. But dancehall culture becomes boundaryless through its ability to reach beyond the spaces it inhabits. As sound travels from downtown Kingston upwards, disturbing those who wish to sleep, it also travels around the world.

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Footage recorded at events in Jamaica is mostly amateur, though it may often be sold to fans, while footage generated by prominent professional videographers such as Knight Rider or Scrappy is packaged for commercial distribution both in Kingston and other places in Jamaica, and in metropolitan centres such as London, New York or Tokyo. Generally, dancehall videotapes and, increasingly, dvds circulate, at prices ranging between five and twenty US dollars, in those countries where reggae and dancehall are already established as popular forms, such as Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Canada and Japan. More and more footage is also becoming available globally through general-interest websites, such as YouTube or MySpace, as well as specialist ones, such as Dancehalltv.com - Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (168)

Dancehall and dancehall DVDs are about more than just partying. More than just noise. Yes, they do provide a series of economic opportunities, but it also presents a narrative of transnationalism, skipping across the world, bringing Jamaica abroad and abroad back to Jamaica.

Note: All photos from a heavily filmed Weddy Weddy back in 2009.

2012 in Reggae and Dancehall

In 2012 this annual roundup turned five-years old, but, more importantly, Jamaica turned 50. It perhaps wasn’t the year for brand new moves in Jamaican music, but rather time to freely rethink and review. Maybe that was the reason for so much throwback. Appreciation for Jamaican music has always required an interest in its foundations; relicking riddims and revisiting melodies is part and parcel of reggae and dancehall.

This year, however, the past was closer to the present. The 2010 images of Jamaica presented in Vanity Fair‘s November 2012 issue as present day reportage are easy to point to as misrepresentative of what’s actually going on right now in Kingston, but they also represent a time, but a couple short years ago, when dancehall seemed just a little more vibrant. There are still enough dances to keep Mutabaruka as annoyed in 2013 as he was in 2008, but the scene seems to have popped down a little. Heck, LargeUp even stated that 2012 was a year “where some might say soca surpassed dancehall as the Caribbean’s most vital music genre.”

I know many folks will point to Tommy Lee as an example of something new in the dance, but even though the man has earned celebrity status in JA, the Marilyn Manson makeup and demon image thing seem very 1999 (i.e. the year Manson’s The Dope Show entered the charts). Sure, “Shook” and “Psycho” are catchy tunes. But they hardly represent a new movement–I talked about the spooky strains of what I then called “cinematic dancehall” back in 2008, and Mr. Sparta doesn’t strick me as deviating too much from this model.

With Kartel still languishing in prison and Popcaan, though still cranking out tunes, not quite as hot as in 2011, it seems that there is some space for a non-dancehall type of newness (and niceness). Perhaps another example of everything old is new again, live roots reggae concerts have been occurring on the regular in Kingston. And bubbling throughout 2012 has been Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and a whole heap of young folk out there who seem interested in this live, organic sound of reggae–which is key in tapping into international markets for Jamaican music. After all, the Marley movie was released last year to darned-near universal rave reviews worldwide (including my own). It provided yet another reminder of the resonance of roots reggae.

Early in 2012, one of the sons of Bob, Damian Marley, spoke to students at the University of the West Indies. When asked what advice he’d give to upcoming artists, Marley didn’t mince words: “Make one drop reggae and sell it to Europeans.” Check the star students: Kabaka’s been to Europe and back already and Chronixx, hot off his successful Sting performance and mixtape produced by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire, is set to take on Germany at the annual Reggae Jam festival this summer.

Perhaps it’s just that 2012 was so much about thinking through a whole 50 years of Jamaican music that it made concentrating on the contemporary difficult. After all, Beenie Man’s “Dweet Again” video (see above)–one of the best videos of the year–reaches back to the 90s. In mid-December, a casting call went out to any and all dancers familiar with the 90s for an upcoming Busy Signal video, so Beenie aint the only one interested in the past.

Speaking of Busy Signal, the deejay had quite the year. Arrested in July, imprisoned in the states, Busy was thankfully back in Jamaica in time to perform at Sting. Hopefully he’ll nah go a jail again in 2013. Buju is still jailed in Florida, but each week brings new news that might indicate good tidings for Mr. Myrie. In other prison news, Ninjaman was granted bail in March after three years. This does not bode well for Kartel. Ninja immediately began recording dubplates as well as a solid track with Kiprich, “The Don Gorgon is Back”. Alongside Ninjaman, Kippo won clashes with Merciless and Matterhorn at Sting. He wasn’t quite able to take down his partner in crime, but Ninjaman allowed him to take the title.

As for other musical moments that stood out in Jamaica this year, Quebec’s own Celine Dion kicked off 2012 with an appearance at the Jazz and Blues festival. She aint Jamaican, but she’s certainly dancehall. As I’ve written here in the past, the Rae Town Old Hits dance demonstrates that JA is in love with music that many foreign reggae aficionados might not expect. The complete, all-island freak out that met Celine is evidence of this. And, by the way, she was spectacular. Dropping knowledge of Jamaican food and chatting about the weather, she of the chest beating and multiple sparkly costumes dazzled the audience. Even Shaggy was impressed.

Seeing classic sounds like Bass Odyssey, Swatch, Stone Love and Rennaissance set up at the national stadium in February was a highlight of Reggae Month. Then, in April, after a year’s hiatus, Irish and Chin put on their World Clash event (they keep threatening to end it all, but it keeps coming back). Bass Odyssey took the title in a final showdown against Killamanjaro that ended far too quickly. Joshua Chamberlain and I wrote a piece for Cluster Mag about the seeming renewed interest in soundclash culture in Jamaica as well as foreign. Perhaps it’s part of the Jamaica 50 need to revisit the past, but as a clash fan, it can’t be anything but good news.

At Sumfest, Shabba Ranks returned, showing the yung’uns how it’s done. When introduced, legendary radio man Barry G suggested that there’s a problem that the most recent generation of artists and fans hadn’t yet experienced the showmanship of Rexton Gordon. Proving this statement true, Shabba ran through his deep selection of hits, showing up pretty much every other performer at the fest. I, for one, was pleased to see R Kelly, but his sloppy style and drunken swagger (“I’ve been chilling on the beach drinking”, he announced to the crowd) didn’t exactly win over the crowd at Catherine Hall.

Jamaicans celebrated their nation’s 50th birthday in August as well as the triumph of the Jamaica Olympic team at the London Olympics. The Shaggy-produced, more poppy-less-reggae “On A Mission” Jamaica 50 theme song was heard everywhere. The sheer ubiquity of the song made the controversy over its commissioning fade away. Usain Bolt reiterated his love for dancehall, bigging up Tommy Lee and making sure to indicate his admiration of World Boss Kartel before starting his gold-medal winning 200m.

In September, Sizzla, who hasn’t really been known for terrific live shows in recent years, stunned me (and many others) at a show celebrating Guinness Day. Performing hit after hit, he demonstrated that he can still mesmerize an audience. Everyone in the National Arena sang along to every word and it was hard not to feel sorry for Mavado. As the closing act, it was hard to top Sizzla–even with Mavado’s own catalogue of top tunes.

Rounding out the year and underlining the retrospective vibes of Jamaica 50, VP released Reggae Golden Jubilee – 50th Anniversary – Origins of Jamaican Music. A 100 song box set of key tunes as selected by one-time music producer and many-time parlimentarian the Honourable Edward Seaga. The former prime minister threw a big party to celebrate the launch of the package as well as celebrate the last 50 years of ska, reggae, dancehall and everything in between. In the middle of all this bigging up of all things Jamaican, David Rodigan quit the UK’s KISS fm at the end of November, citing “the marginalisation” of reggae at the station. To no one’s surprise, within the first weeks of 2013, it was announced that Rodigan would back on radio, hosting a show on BBC’s 1xtra.

By the end of the year, the industry had mourned a number of its own, losing deejays Ranking Trevor and Captain Barkey as well as producer Winston Riley and keyboardist/producer Lloyd Charmers.

And yes, 2012 was the year that Snoop Dogg converted to Rastafari, became a lion and recorded an album of roots reggae. Perhaps this is yet another example of throwback, and it’ll hopefully provide the payday that Vice Records most certainly expects.

So, after reading numerous rundowns and recollections (along with the last four versions of this here piece), I’ve been led to some conclusions:

1. Every year various commentators complain about the decline of reggae and dancehall.

2. Every year Jamaican commentators bemoan the spread of Jamaican-influenced music and not Jamaican performers/artists themselves. Sure, Matisyahu and Rebelution top the charts in the US, but that doesn’t mean there aint room for music straight from yard.

3. Every year there’s still damned good music (check anything Konshens released this year for details–and don’t forget that Beres is still cranking ‘em out) and Jamaica remains eternally interesting (Lady Saw turning away from slackness and towards the Lord?!?).

This year was no different. To another 50 years, Jamaica.

P.S. And, though my top tens have been posted here and here, I can say that my favourite riddim was one that didn’t seem to catch other critics. I love it. And one of my favourite moments of 2012 was hearing “Street Pledge” (big up Truckback Record’s Adrian Locke) on the fantastic system at Boasy Tuesdays. When we do road, we have fun.

Previous versions: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.

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2011 in Reggae and Dancehall – Part 2

Of course, when running down the year in Jamaican music, it’s important to get out in the street. After the tragic incursion into Tivoli Gardens of May 2010, the great Passa Passa popped down. It still takes place, though in a smaller incarnation. Uptown Mondaze has taken a bit of a backseat to Mojito Mondays. Whereas Mojito Mondays, which is located in the parking lot for Suzy’s Bakery, across the street from Savannah Plaza, home to Uptown Mondaze, used to end at around 1am, it now seems to stretch to 2 or 2:30am. A shame, really, as the venue for Uptown Mondaze is much more conducive to dancehall. The reduction in time has meant a reduction in patrons, which means less sound (and less speakers) for your $300. Sure, the punters still show up and it’s been able to stay in business, but it’s too bad folks prefer to hang around a parking lot with a small sound system (a few Mackie 450s) instead of crossing the street to experience significantly more bass from Soul Tone, who bring in the truck and construct walls of sound every week.

Mutabaruka will still probably bemoan the huge number of parties held in Jamaica, as one off events dotted the social calender each weekday in 2011,  Swagg Tuesdays had a moment, and Wet Sundaze seemed to be back on the radar alongside events like Hammer Fridays and Container Saturdayz. Weddy Weddy remains a standby, along with the numerous events at the former Asylum and the Quad nightclubs, but the infamous Dutty Fridaze has yet to be resurrected–maybe it’ll come back in 2012. The longest running regular street dance, however, is still the venerable Rae Town Old Hits dance. Having been taken off the road in 2009, it’s been steadily bubbling back on the street over 2010 and 2011. Now stronger than ever, Rae Town attracts heaps of people, all more ready to dance than profile. Large up to Klassique (Senor Daley, DJ Troy, DJ Snow and guests) for holding it down, as well as to founders Sister Norma and Brother Bunny at the Capricorn Inn for their commitment and staying power.

Here’s hoping that 2012 brings more dancing to the dance. Sure, the experts get out in front of the video light, but everyone else stands back and out of the way. If people can let loose on Rae Road every Sunday (and in the UK too!), why not on Burlington Avenue at Weddy Weddy?

Another place where folks were letting loose this fall, for the second time around, was at the televised Guinness Sounds of Greatness soundclash competition, which kicked off in September for another season. Unlike 2009′s version, which travelled around the island, this year’s edition was held at the Chinese Benevolent Association in Kingston. Big up Jay Will and Carleene Samuels for their combined direction and production prowess. The venue held a few hundred people, but those few hundred people could certainly made a heck of a lot of noise. Outdoors, soundclash is characterized by aerosol cans turned flamethrowers, but inside, the vuvuzela won the day. Quite literally. Certain evenings it was nearly impossible to hear the tunes for the squealing of so many horns. However, on television, the competition looked and sounded great, and it exposed not only younger “hotshot” sounds like Black Blunt and Bredda Hype, but also “veteran” sounds like Bodyguard, Sound Troopa, Black Kat and Silverhawk.

Of course, comparing GSOG with hours-long oldtime clashes or even the recent (and due to be relaunched) Irish and Chin-promoted World Clash series is like comparing apples and oranges. GSOG is a made-for-tv event. That said, it’s a very exciting made-for-tv event. By outlawing all profanity, the sounds tend towards more creativity in their dubs, and the Serato-sponsored challenges kept things interesting. The showdowns leading up to the finale between Rich Squad and Trooper were all entertaining, if sometimes controversial (such as when Bredda Hype lost against Rich Squad in the semifinals). Little Richie proved to be a masterful juggler throughout the competition, but Ricky Trooper made up for his poor performance against Bass Odyssey in 2009, killing Rich Squad and coming out on top.

Unfortunately, Jamaican music had to say goodbye to a number of luminaries this year. In February, pioneering soundman Cyril “Count C” Brathwaite passed. A man whose influence on sound system culture was impressive though under reported, Count C was given a fitting tribute by Joshua “Soul of the Lion” Chaberlain, who wrote a piece about the man for Wax Poetics and produced a short documentary fit for a Count. UK fast chat star Smiley Culture was killed by police in and both his family and the reagge community are still left asking questions regarding the circumstances of the singer’s death. It won’t be until well into 2012 that inquest results will be released. Though not a strictly reggae or dancehall voice, but most certainly one who brought his Jamaican roots to the fore in his hip hop, the sudden death of Heavy D at age 44 came as a great shock. In conversation with Jamaican-Canadian hip hop star Michie Mee this November, she spoke of how significant Heavy D was as someone who maintained the link between Jamaican music and American hip hop. Another fellow who exemplified the connection between genres, specifically ska and rocksteady, Barry Llewellyn, of the great Heptones, died in November. Unfortunately, the year ended with the loss of of producer Fattis Burrell, famous for his work as Xterminator productions–arguably responsible for Luciano and Sizzla’s very best work.

There’s lots to look forward to in 2012–from the growing UK scene (you know things are good when a guy like Marvin Sparks says “I don’t remember bashment having this impact on over here, as in British artists having so much dancehall material in it’s rawest form in my lifetime”) to the fact that Celine Dion–yes, THAT Celine Dion–will be performing in Jamaica at the end of January. For me, my top moment of 2011 was seeing my folks dancing to disco at Rae Town Old Hits and realizing that some tunes I thought were total crap become life-affirmingly amazing when played on a sound system. I don’t really have a list of favourite tunes or riddims, but I do know that I like music played loud. Big up all sound men and women. Bigga sound fi 2012.

2011 in Reggae and Dancehall – Part 1

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…

Madonna meets Lionel Richie uptown…

I’ve been involved in a couple online discussions in recent weeks about the fact that there’s a sense that Jamaican music is on the wane. The country that first gave the world reggae in the so-called “golden-era” of the 1970s and then dub, which, to many, gave birth to a broad range of bass music (see Simon Reynold’s analysis of what he calls the “hardcore continuum” for details), has popped down. In an article about Croatia’s Outlook Festival, ClashMusic suggested that “the former empire of reggae and dub forms ha[s] stagnated to become caught in a pool of pop and R&B orientated inertia”. This sounds a little odd to me. I know that Gabriel Heatwave argued on Twitter for the relevance of today’s dancehall–and I think he has a major point. John Eden, of the always excellent Uncarved blog, also brought up the fact that those interviewed about the “inertia” of present-day popular Jamaican music were all men in, well, let’s say the late prime of their careers. I know that Rodigan has his complaints about today’s Jamaican music–his comments on contemporary tunes were pretty derisive today while he played at the Boilerroom.

I’m not going to get into an argument about whether or not Jamaican music is less than inspirational these days. I think you could argue either way. I do, however, think that the very basis of ClashMusic’s statement is faulty. It was pop and R&B from which “reggae and dub forms” originated in Jamaica. Just watch this excellent short (if you haven’t already seen it) that showcases Count C: The Wizard of the West, an early soundman who played R&B and pop (as well as calypso and probably a few of mento-influenced tunes) back before ska and reggae.

Whether folks in Croatia or Europe in general like the poppy and R&B sounds of some Jamaican music, it’s always been a part of the scene. Sure, if you love sailing on a sea of dubstep wobble, it might be hard to link with the melodic strands of what seems to me (over the past month of attending dances) to be one of the biggest and best songs in Jamaica right now–Laza Morgan (ft. Mavado) “One by One”.

But after a trip to Rae Town, where the classic sounds of Klassique play everything from 50s rock and roll to 70s disco to Rick Astley (yes, Rick Astley), it’s hard not to spend time focusing on the other part of Jamaican music. Yes, Jamaica is a Bass Culture, but it’s also home to some of the most amazing melodies (and amazing singing voices for those melodies) this here music lover has ever heard. In fact, I think that “One by One” takes a little piece of smooth Lionel Richie R&B a touch of the pop personality of Madonna, and a dash of dancehall, courtesy of Mavado, to create what is a spectacularly catchy song with a melody that deserves every lick back it gets.

Aside: All this might give some insight into why Bredda Hype playing Madonna (specifically, “Like a Virgin”) and Beyonce (specifically “Single Ladies”) got such an insane reaction at last week’s Guinness Sounds of Greatness. I’m still trying to sort that out in my head.

Major Lazer, Major Money?

Next time I need to talk to Snob about their collaborations...

Today Mr Vegas retweeted a Racialicious post dealing with ethics, sampling, appropriation, culture, race, collaboration and, of course, Major Lazer. I guess there’s no better time than the present to point folks towards a presentation I gave at this year’s EMP Pop Conference at UCLA. I was part of a panel called “Selling Jamaica”, alongside three excellent folks: Joshua Chamberlain, Tomas Palermo and Melville Cooke. My paper, entitled “Major Lazer, Major Money? Dancehall’s Relationship between Yard and Foreign talked about various collaborative initiatives–including those of Diplo and Switch. My goal was not to trash Major Lazer, but rather look at how collaborative processes work between JA and the outernational world. Won’t say too much more, but in preparation I did speak to a whole wack of people (like Dre Skull) for and about the issues I saw as being important, and at the conference I had a lot of people say to me “man, I really wish I’d come to your panel” (which, incidentally, took place at the same time that Chuck D decided to come to the conference, along with a million other great papers–so I understand if those things took precedence!). Thanks to the wonder of the internet, however, you can now check out my paper, others from the panel, and all sorts more from the conference. I’d love any thoughts or questions or comments…