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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Some recent writing on reggae…

Between a conference, a couple editing projects and a massive, ominous set of revisions, I’ve made some time to do a little writing. First, a review of a record chock full of one of my favourite genres of music–a genre I discovered while attempting to put together a “Women in Reggae” special for my old radio show, Venus. I first fell in love with “Caught You in a Lie” by Louisa Mark, but that, of course, is the tip of the iceberg. So happy to have written for Pitchfork again.

Joshua Chamberlain and I put together a little soundclash history for Clustermag to commemorate/celebrate this weekend’s World Clash events. Tonight we’ll be in Montego Bay for World Clash R.E.S.E.T. Jamaica–watch out for the tweets.

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…

Haile Roots Reggae

Ethiopian singer Haile Roots just released his first album of Amharic-language reggae called Chiggae (indicating a mix of the Ethiopian 6/8 time rhythm called “chikchika” and reggae). Arefe, of the always informative Addis Journal, wrote a post announcing the release today.

I know this record has been a long time coming…I heard of and heard Haile Roots in 2006, when I first started research into other Ethiopians doing the reggae thing. The music by the man otherwise known as Hailemichael Genet is good–though it still maintains the synthy sound emblematic of Amharic pop. This might turn off some roots reggae puritans, but it really shouldn’t. As regards the single “Mela Enimita”, I suggest that folks listen to the whole song–after all, you get to hear Luciano and Mikey General on the track too. Luciano’s vocals are terrific, and the chorus is pretty great. The video combines footage of Addis with some bits of Shashemene. Apparently Luciano was pretty darned impressed with the resulting clip. Sorry for the low quality–I can’t seem to find a better version (or one that has better sync), as this one seems dragged from one of the ubiquitous video cds slap dashed together to sell at music shops across Ethiopia. The actual video was made a while ago by Aida Ashenafi, the director responsible for the incredible Guzo, a film that documented what happened when two Addis Ababa city kids take a trip to the countryside to see what it’s like to live far from urban conveniences. The Simple Life this aint. You can get an idea of the film from this clip, but it’s a shame the whole thing isn’t online. And after, if you want to listen to more Haile Roots when you’re done, check here and here.

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.

Give me that lovin’ in a special way…

Sure, tonight’s the night that Vybz Kartel introduces what might be called his dubplate version of Flavor of Love – love, btw, that Flavor of Love is referred to as a “parody” of a reality dating show on Wikipedia. Based on the “sneak preview”, I will probably be suitably appalled, but I’ll tune in anyway.

Thing is, I can take solace in the fact that love wasn’t always played in Da Teacha’s way. Mr. Palmer could take a lesson or two (or ten) from the fine ladies of lovers rock. From Janet Kay to Sylvia Tella (seriously, how crazy amazing is this mix of “Special Way”?) to Audrey Hall to Louisa Mark, they know how love works–along with (more recently) Richie Stephens, Tarrus Riley, and, of course, Beres, Gregory, Ken, Freddie and the Crown Prince himself, Dennis Brown (among so many others). It’s also interesting how lovers was a women-showcasing response to the racially charged environment of 1970s and 80s Britain.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’d much rather hear “Each time you pass my way I’m tempted to touch” than “Ride me like a bicycle”. This aint daggering music, it’s much, much more sexy. At least I know that the folks behind the new documentary The Story of Lover’s Rock  agree with me.

It’s apparently showing next week in a bunch of cities in the UK. Check the
website for details
and please, go and see it and then tell me how much I’m missing. Big up music for big people, every time.

Rewind #2: Three Piece Suit and Ting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six years ago this week I did my first ever interview. It was with Sanchez and was in the Montreal Mirror, a paper I still write for. I was terribly nervous, but Sanchez was terribly kind and friendly. The printed piece was rather short, but I did transcribe quite a piece more–I particularly like Sanchez’s focus on the importance of soundsystems. I posted it way back when on my old blog, but given my recent revived interest in all thing Sanchez, I thought I might throw it up here again. I also hope to be updating a little more than I have been so far this year!

Voila:

E: When you first started, you were selecting on a soundsystem, and you still run your own sound, Sexylus. How important do you think the sound system is to Jamaican music?

S: It’s the most vital thing in the music right now. I think the sound system is what really puts an artist on the map because not all of that is stuff that being played on the air. And I’m sure that it’s always being played in the dancehall.

E: Do you think that sound system culture is as vibrant as its always been?

S: Any time the sound systems from Jamaica die out, I think the music will be no more.

E: You live in the US. Do you notice any change from living in Jamaica?

S: A whole lot. It’s somewhat more secure to me. It’s a place where I’m at right now for bringing up families, they’re all about kids. You know I’m a family man straight up. From get go, my family comes first.

E: Your wife is your manager, you’re very proud of your children. What is the role of family in your life?

S: Just to keep me going. For real. Them a greatest support. And I’ve got fans who support me over the years, day in day out, but a family is always there through thick and thin. Things that even my fans don’t know, my family they know about it and they just be there for me.

E: When you perform, you often sing the Jamaican national anthem.

S: That’s a thing for representing. Number one, it’s kinda shows, for me, who is in the crowd. to start off. Whenever you go on stage you say “Hands up all Jamaicans” point blank. You’re among your fellow citizens. It’s very nice because, even a boxer, a team go to play somewhere else, it’s good to hear your national anthem, it give you a boost, a sort of energy.

E:You’re know for not only your own music, but for taking other tunes and giving them a real Sanchez twist. What kind of songs do you look for and how do you think your songs differ from the originals?

S: When I’m choosing my songs I choose songs that has a good composition to it. Songs that can be played on air, a song that even kids would relate to. Something to do with love—I love to sing a song that has something to do with love, bringing people together and all of that stuff.

E: Along with your secular albums, you also have some gospel.

S: Gospel is my first choice of music. I grew up in a church, I grew up on these musics. Overall, without the father, what are we? Yeah, I look into that very deeply and I consider it a lot. You get up everyday and you eat and you visit your friends and it’s all good, but what about the man upstairs? That wakes you up. Do you think you can wake yourself up? Nobody does. So I think, at the end of the day, I’m just giving thanks to the father, man.

E: Are there any other artists that you respect?

S: I respect any artist in the field that is trying to get some positive vibes outta all of this. Not just to go out there to make money or to be famous but to truly go out there and preach on the highways and byways about more love and togetherness. And we need that.

E: You have terrific outfits that you wear on the stage that you and your wife design. How important is it for a performer to have a really strong stage presence?

S: It is number one! I think an artist could be well attired and just go on stage for the first 20 minutes and just take the show right there. Him don’t have to say nothing, just put on something nice and the right coordination.

E: And those who don’t take the time?

S: You will hear critics. You will hear people that are really true fans and they’re saying “man, did he have to come like that, he couldn’t put a suit on? he couldn’t tuck his shirt in?” For real! Some of these artists they don’t care. They think that what matters the most is just money and who is better than who. You have to remember attirement. Because a lot of artists out there could be very good, they could sing, they could write, but the state of appearance is just not there.

E: A lot of your fans are women. Why do you think your music communicates so well to women?

S: As I said before, I try to choose my songs that are really dealing with love, respect for ladies overall, just bringing people together. I love that thing about the music. I mean yes, you have the voice or the power to go out there and say something to the world, so make it positive.

2010 in Reggae and Dancehall: Part 2

In addition to 2010 being a tough year for Jamaica in terms of economics, politics and upheaval, the island also lost some cultural giants. Academics Rex Nettleford and Barry Chevannes, each responsible for researching and promoting Jamaican culture–and music–both passed away this year, both long before many expected to have to say goodbye. The music industry lost Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, Sonia Pottinger, and Voicemail’s O’Neil Edwards, whose tragic death was a shock, as were the 76 who died in May in West Kingston.

In February, the University of the West Indies held the third International Reggae Conference, opening with a speech from Jamaican Minister of Culture, Olivia “Babsy” Grange. She talked quite pointedly about the decline of Jamaican reggae and the  popularity and success of reggae produced outside of Jamaica–yes, there’s Diplo playing and producing dancehall, but even more successful is Matisyahu. The American Hasidic Jewish reggae star has had three successful studio albums and two (soon to be three) successful live albums. Is Jamaica losing reggae?

Commentator Annie Paul sees folks like Matisyahu (or Alborosie or Gentleman) as “ambassadors for Reggae, taking a Jamaican product to new brand audiences”. The fact is, reggae is a product that is bought and sold–something the Rickards bros made mighty clear in their televised trials and tribulations of Downsound’s Joe Bogdanovich. Should Jamaica protect its product’s Jamaicanness or see these outernational versions of reggae and dancehall from Paul’s perspective?

Interestingly, in the lead up to (as well as at) the end of the summer’s Rastafari conference, there was also discussion about Rastafari and intellectual property rights, some as part of a dispute over the planning/organizing/execution of the conference. The issue of Jamaican ownership over Jamaican culture is one that continues to draw attention, and this year Sonjah Stanley-Niaah entered the fray, discussing Japanese dancehall (among many other things) in her book Dancehall: From Slaveship to Ghetto, launched in July 2010. Spain’s Rototom Sunsplash continued its international discussions of dancehall and reggae, inviting Stanley-Niaah to their “Reggae University”, which accompanies the festival.

But back in Jamaica, the business of music is exemplified by the increasing levels of sponsorship for dancehall and reggae events. As Mel Cooke explained in a November 2010 Jamaica Gleaner article, whereas but five years ago companies were shying away from sponsoring dancehall, viewing it as crass and immoral, now these very same companies are supporting the dance. From beer to cellphones to furniture to food, dancehall sells. This is a good thing, as Cooke also recounted, given that, beyond the big corporate-sponsored events like Sting and Rebel Salute, the independent shows and dances have fallen in number–a direct result of the world wide recession.

Speaking of independent and local dances, the Tivoli incursion meant that West Kingston (and Jamaica in general) lost the Wednesday night/Thursday morning Passa Passa, a dance that had acheived world wide fame. The dance does still keep, but in a much different incarnation than at this time last year. Dutty Fridaze promoter 2 Gran is convinced that 2011 will bring a rebirth of the infamous party, but perhaps a little earlier than its traditional 4am start time. Mojito Mondays at Suzie’s Bake Shop in Half Way Tree made its mark in 2010. Uptown Mondays, taking place right across the street is still holding, but as always, there’s been pressure on the dance. There’s been increased enforcement of the pesky Noise Abatement act of 1997 which requires volume reduction from 12am on weekdays and 2am on weekends (though permits for later performance can be obtained on certain occasions). Though disruptions in the dance have been part of dancehall forever, it was too much for a group of Finnish “dancehall tourists” who, early this month, complained about the police’s habit of locking off dances early. But given the resilience of the street dance in Jamaica, it will be interesting to learn where the next hot spot will crop up.

To end off this overview of 2010, though there’s been numerous best-of-lists, Soundclash is happy to present Prodigal Entertainment producer Dylan Powe’s best of the year. After all, he was responsible for one of the most interesting connections of 2010–getting UK grime king Wiley into the studio JA:

Some good records came out this year. Sad to say a lot of them were the wrong records for our genre and the machine which we have at our disposal to push them.
These include and fall in the Island Flop category:
“My Heart”-Wayne Marshall
Records I really really like:
“Wifey Walk Out”-Liquid (basically the whole One Day Riddim)
“One Man”-Gaza Slim/Kartel
Cosa Nostra riddim-Timberlee, Nats and Lexus tunes

“Look Pon Me” and “It’s Wiley” from me but I don’t think they constitute Jamaican records really.

Bigga tings fi 2011.

2010 in Reggae and Dancehall: Part 1

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been a little caught up with providing a bit of a musical round up for Haiti and the francophone Caribbean, so svp excusez moi for the lateness of my third annual roundup. Hey, Gilles Peterson isn’t revealing his Worldwide Winners until near the end of the month, so I think I’m safe, no?

At the end of last year, there was all sorts of questioning about the state of the music industry in JA. Though the Mavado/Kartel beef was squashed (with the visa-less Kartel concentrating on the local and Mavado taking it international), there was more than enough to chew on in terms of frustration with not just the music industry, but politricks as usual in Jamaica (check the cables for evidence).

Buju is out of jail for now, voicing dubs (reportedly at a discount, if you’ve got some cash lying around), and performing this weekend in Miami. Sting was even more underwhelming than last year (if that was even possible). With collaboration instead of clash as theme, Sizzla, back from his repatriative stint in Zimbabwe, was the highlight of the show. So where are we now?

First, let’s go back to last year at this time. On twitter, there was discussion amongst folks including Johnny Wonder, Julian Jones-Griffiths, Jeremy Harding, Dylan Powe and others about the best way to market/develop/profit from Jamaican music. An interesting conversation to watch from the outside, it was also interesting to observe the developments that seemed to either stem from or reflect this discussion.

Johnny Wonder, king of the email blast, was tweeting and mailing out tunes until late January. Then, the tweets stopped linking to downloads and, instead, linked straight to iTunes. The Deseca produced (and aptly titled) Genesis riddim underlined a new approach. Fader’s Eddie Stats described the promotion strategy as  “working some reverse psychology shit on the over-saturated dancehall market by being hyper-selective about who they leak the tracks to“. Seemingly running opposite to other facets of the music industry (check this NPR report where it’s said that “the power of internet leaks to create buzz for a topic in the media has proven itself in 2010 and the music industry is jumping on board”–thanks to 45 Shootout for the link), in Jamaica there was an attempt to promote a less-than-free-ride for reggae and dancehall fans, instead incentivizing support for the music through actual purchases.

Digital distributor 21st/Hapilos (the aforementioned Mr. Wonder is executive vice-president), reportedly had a successful year. Time will tell if this approach will pay off, but pointing fans to iTunes, Amazon and others, definitely does underline the fact that Jamaica, the last bastion of vinyl pre-eminence, is now a fully digital industry.

The shake-up in the the way reggae music was marketed and sold was near forgotten in the wake of the deadly incursions into Tivoli Gardens at the end of May. Some songs were penned about the siege, but, as Tarrus Riley put it, “Jamaica nuh need no song right yah now, we need some solutions. We have nuff songs long time from Marley dem days. We need a collective effort from everybody – the singers, the taxi man, the Government, everybody.”

An important statement, but interesting pointing to Marley as a source of music that might be a fitting response to the tragedy of Tivoli and the wider social and governmental issues of Jamaica. Word, sound and power, after all. Music and song have been a part of Jamaica’s history and the dance (as well as the clash) can often provide not only commentary but also a space for the discussion and development of ideas. Sure, not everyone enjoys the academic perspective, but folks like Obika Grey, Carolyn Cooper, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, Donna Hope, and even Kingsley Stewart (when he’s not busy with all that mixup) have been arguing about the power of Jamaican musical culture to both comment on and build Jamaica and Jamaican identity.

This being said, it’s interesting in that Riley reached back over three decades to Marley. Is there not anything between “Marley and dem days” and now that stands out as a proper as the type of song that speaks out against the shitstem? Or is it just the fact that there hasn’t been many in the recent past?

A twitter conversation between the now sadly defunct @bigblackbarry and @zjsparks about the lack of rebelution in the music told the tale. Yes, Sparks argued, there are good cultural artists out there, but, as Barry responded, there just aren’t voices of protest. David Rodigan tendered his top tune list of the year with a statement “to the reggae industry of Jamaica”:

The rest of the world looks to Jamaica as the ‘head of the stream’ for reggae and dancehall music, but compared to some of the glorious recordings that Jamaica has given us over the decades, the output for 2010 left much to be desired. We love reggae and we love dancehall, but we don’t need imitation hip-hop, R&B, and banging house beats from Kingston featuring Jamaican patois vocals. “Rise up ye mighty race”—when one considers the roots reggae anthems that have inspired people all over the world, we have to ask ourselves: why is it that we are no longer hearing that type of music again, with just a few obvious exceptions?

Giving weight to Rodigan’s complaint was the rise of music that I called Jamaican bubblegum or raggapop in this space last year. In 2010, however, it was given the monicker “Island pop”. As Erin Hansen explained in her thorough dancehall roundup of the last 365, “2010 seemed to be name-tagged the year Jamaican music ventured into “pop” to create a new style (that’s to say the lines weren’t blurred already). The marking of its coming was due in part to the release of the Razz and Biggy mixtape titled ‘Island Pop‘ and newcomer Richie Loop’s catchy ‘My Cupp‘ tune. However, the new genre title began, and shortly ended, when the ‘cupp’ ran dry.”

But with the reported crazy forwards being received for Kartel’s response to Rhianna’s question in the form of Federation Sound’s remix of “What’s my name?”, perhaps there’s still an appetite for a little island/raggapop…

As for other memorable international combinations, Diplo’s fascination with JA continued (one can only guess if that’s what drew the Vice folks to provide their “Guide to Everything”-approach to dancehall, which aint available for viewing up in Canada), but it’s hard to tell what a sequel to Major Lazer might look like. Hopefully not like the video for Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen”, which, as catchy as it is, seems to take dancehall out of Jamaica and all the Jamaica out of dancehall.

But dancehall is outernational–and what better to demonstrate its world-spanning popularity than Red Bull’s late 2010 announcement that it would be building a studio in Kingston to be opened in February 2011. The idea is to “not sell studio time but offer it on an invitation basis for free…in some cases they will set up collaborations with international artistes.” What impact will this have on the music? On the studio culture in Jamaica? On producers or artistes?

However, beyond a Blackberry spokesmodel and a brilliantly marketed energy drink, with the grime/electro/dancehall “Showa Eski” riddim, featuring a terrific voicing courtesy of UK MC Wiley, and the upcoming elements of the Showa riddim series, as well as the announcement of New York producer Dre Skull producing Vybz Kartel’s next album–to be released Spring 2011–there’s still nuff international link ups to look forward to.

Coming up: Rastafari, big business, pressure on the dance, saying goodbye and more…