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.



13 thoughts on “2012 in Reggae and Dancehall

  1. Hey and fyi..a review in the the January 1997 issue of SPIN also makes mention of ‘cinematic dancehall’.

    • Thanks for the comment–Before posting, I too did the google for the term “cinematic dancehall” and found exactly what you found, but the review in 1997 isn’t in reference to Jamaican music. Drum and bass, yes, but not dancehall. I also didn’t really see myself coining any terms–nor was I really trying to claim ownership of the name of a genre. Rather, I just wanted to express the fact that Tommy Lee’s sound is in keeping with a strain of dancehall music that has been happening for some time now…

  2. Hey Erin, thanks for the comprehensive round up. v impressive! on the subject of Tommy Lee–if his sound ” is in keeping with a strain of dancehall music that has been happening for some time now…” why a) are people like Usain Bolt so taken with it if its just more of the same? and b) others so freaked out by it that they mount an extensive ‘anti-demon’ campaign to oust him? something doesn’t compute? I think your reading of Tommy Lee could be a little more nuanced but otherwise i enjoyed your account of the year in dancehall.

    • I see your point, but I don’t see Tommy Lee as representing anything different. Sure, Usain Bolt is taken with him, but Usain Bolt seems to love current dancehall. If the Olympics happened in 2011, Usain would have surely been walking down the track spouting Popcaan–as he did the Gully Creeper back in 2008. The “anti-demon” campaign is just another “anti-dancehall” campaign. Be it demonic possession or slackness or or or, there is always going to be a reason to be freaked out by dancehall, wouldn’t you say? And, don’t get me wrong, I totally see the appeal of Tommy Lee’s tunes.

      • Surely Popcaan was around before last summer, but Bolt wasn’t spouting him, it was Tommy Lee…you need to explain what that appeal is instead of trying to dismiss him…at least so it seems to me…

      • I meant more that Bolt supports the most cutting edge dancehall. Perhaps Popcaan wasn’t the right person to point to. Bolt’s still most enamoured with the World Boss, of course, and Tommy Lee is firmly in the Gaza camp. I guess I would suggest that Tommy Lee has good tunes, but he’s not really revolutionary or a game changer in any way…I think he’ll eventually drop the “demon” thing if he’s to stay in the game for longer. Talk of demons and duppys aint a new thing in JA 🙂

      • But if it isn’t new why was there such a violent reaction against it this time? You see you’re insisting on dismissing something I think signifies a little more than you suggest it does. If something is just a more recent version of something that went before it doesn’t raise hackles the way Tommy Lee has done. What is all the righteous indignation about? why are the old guard acting as if he’s a threat? So its not so much whether you personally find him interesting or not…he had an effect on dancehall that wasn’t comparable to anything else…how do we explain this?

        and by the way cutting edge is cutting edge…in your write-up you don’t identify Tommy Lee as cutting edge…although in your last comment you said perhaps that’s the reason Bolt and co like him.Yes they’re Gaza but so are many others who didn’t get the attention of Bolt in the same way…

      • Maybe I’m not seeing Tommy Lee’s impact as much as you are. I didn’t see his effect–at Sting his performance was run of the mill–safe even. At Sumfest he was hardly a highlight. I would say that Kartel probably still raises more hackles than Tommy Lee. Tommy Lee is, in my mind, more like Marilyn Manson–all image and there’s no real bite to his bark. Heck, just yesterday I had someone send me an article promoing Tommy Lee’s makeup artist! And I also guess I meant “cutting edge” as in “what’s the latest”. Usain seems to pride himself on being up-to-the-time. Tommy Lee is simply up-to-the-time. We might have to agree to disagree on this one! And we’ll also have to see where Tommy Lee goes in 2013…

      • Oh well then you missed the extended campaign mounted by Bounty and co against Tommy Lee? that was certainly very noticeable and is what I’m referring to…

        Yes, I do disagree that Bolt is simply for whatever the latest is, for years he supported Kartel and ignored everything new and the first new thing he tuned in to was Tommy Lee…

        Again this isn’t a discussion about whether Tommy Lee is or isn’t genuinely talented, all that he’s hyped up to be etc etc. or whether you personally are struck by him or not. I’m trying to get you to dwell on the effect he had and why those effects followed his emergence on the dancehall scene which certainly was a significant factor of dancehall in 2012.

        But please don’t detain yourself with it at all, i just think its worth commenting and engaging in a little argument over 🙂


      • Don’t worry–I love discussing this stuff (and rarely have the opportunity!). As for the Bounty/Tommy Lee beef, well, I didn’t include that in the roundup because it seemed to be one of those “I’m a legend and you dare step to me” things. I would have loved to see Tommy Lee clash Bounty (because I agree with Bounty that it would have been like a giant crushing an ant). It’s a shame it didn’t happen.
        I’d say that the video of Ninja and Tommy Lee at “Sting Headquarters” really tells the tale. Ninjaman spouting off insult after insult followed by a lecture in clash and Tommy Lee just sits there through the whole thing. He doesn’t have much to say. The whole thing between Tommy Lee and Bounty, I think, seemed important in 2012 because there was so little going on in the dance. And with Tommy Lee’s bigging up of Bounty at Sting, it looks like a kinder, gentler, more-respectful-of-his-elders Tommy Lee exists beneath the white lipstick and the face makeup.

      • I’m an ardent Bounty fan so remain curious about what on earth it was about poor Tommy Lee that he found threatening enough to waste so much energy on…i follow him on Twitter so see his tweets about the demon dem etc etc…no i suppose in the overall scheme of things its not noteworthy but for me it is because what i like to study are precisely the triggers for publicly expressed disapproval, recriminations, moral outrage and controversy generally speaking.

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