Gold Timers: 80s Dancehall Revival
>> Jamaican music is experiencing its own ’80s revival, and the sound’s original icons — Yellowman, Shinehead, Sugar Minott and Chaka Demus & Pliers — are front and centre
Originally published July 2005 in Montreal Mirror
Way back in 1982, the legendary dancehall deejay Brigadier Jerry chatted on the mic about a “dance in a Montreal.” In 2005, we got a taste of what he’s talking about. Along with a whole range of superstar roots artists like Morgan Heritage and Gregory Isaacs, the second edition of the annual Montreal Reggae Festival featured some of the best dancehall artists that have ever come out of Jamaica.
We’re not talking about the new crop of artists like Elephant Man or Sean Paul or TOK. Instead, Montreal went back to school and took some lessons from folks who have been working the dance long enough to know exactly what it means to kick it inna dancehall stylee. There’s clearly a renewed interest in the ’80s dancehall sound — VP Records is not only reissuing 1985’s Sleng Teng Extravaganza, but Sleng Teng Resurrection, old and new hits on the Sleng Teng riddim, a three-note Casio keyboard riff that is the most popular instrumental track in the history of Jamaican music. It makes sense then to speak to Yellowman, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Shinehead and Sugar Minott to get a sense of what it was, and is, all about.
Shinehead, whose voice seamlessly travels from Brooklyn to Kingston as you speak to him, has a broad skill set that makes him comfortable working the mic, be it as a hip hop MC, a singer or a deejay, the reggae term for those folks who rap over a beat. The man responsible for 1984’s Jamaicafied cover of “Billie Jean” is quite pleased with the recent interest in the ’80s.
“Everyone is looking for something new, but what goes around comes around,” he says. “And it’s really ironic that these same riddims I’ve been saving for the last seven or eight years — [people] laughed at me and said ‘That nah comin’ back, Shine,’ and here it is! I’m making a living off those very riddims and then they’re calling me, asking me for a copy.”
Passing on the punchline
“Eighties is like a gold time for music,” exclaims Yellowman, whose success at the time led to the first major-label signing of a dancehall artist. “Now dancehall is like hip hop crossed with soca. But you know they are bringing back the roots in the dancehall so people can dance together and not smell each other. Because the dancehall nowadays, you put on your clean clothes and you dance two songs and you get sweaty. But now the dancehall is coming back, so people can dance together.”
Current dancehall doesn’t just promote stickiness; the desire to maintain the highest level of energy tends to encourage a particular performance style. “It’s punchline deejaying, we call it,” reports producer, singer, deejay and youth promoter extraordinare Sugar Minott. “The artist has a punchline and then stops. It’s easy work.” Chaka Demus concurs: “People now have it much easier, they can just go into the studio and blah blah blah, and if they end up performing [their hit] on stage, they can’t finish the song. These young deejays, they are all ‘Wheeeeeel, pull up, bupbupbup.’ It’s like they mad.”
Performers in the ’80s had to work for the approval of the crowd — the jumping and hollering of the crucial “forward”: “To pick up a forward you’d have to have long lyrics, like two minutes you’d be going on,” explains Minott. “If you didn’t have lyrics, someone is going to take over. Sometimes we’d have deejays that would have live lyrics, on-the-spot lyrics. I have some cassettes from longtime dancehall with one guy, him talking like four minutes straight, can’t stop.”
Chaka Demus & Pliers are one of the most commercially successful reggae acts of the post-Marley era, with international monster hits like “Murder She Wrote,” and they make sure to give the people what they pay for. “We had to and still ride the riddim to the end,” says Chaka Demus. “The deejays now just chant ‘ho ho ho’ in the studio,” laments Pliers, “they are not like a real deejays ’pon the soundsystem.”
The immensely powerful mobile discotheques remain the staple form of musical entertainment in Jamaica, but, according to Minott, it ain’t the same thing. “It was all about the crew, a whole network, more of a stage show. You’d be playing till about midnight, and there’d be like a midnight attraction and everything becomes versions and singing over soundsystems. Like hip hop, you know? Singing on tracks. People would come and see us because they knew we had certain artists with our sound, in our stable, so we’d draw more people. Nowadays you just have a selector, maybe a three-person sound.”
At some point in the late ’80s, the popularity of sounds carrying artists dwindled — Ninjaman’s affiliation with the Killamanjaro soundsystem is seen really as the last instance of a deejay coming up with a sound. By the end of the decade, the “juggling” style of switching from one recorded song to another, as popularized by sounds like Stone Love, had taken over.
Some also say that it’s the new digital technology that makes it fast and easy to produce new tracks quickly. The best sounds still work to make sure they’ve got exclusive, one-of-a-kind dubplates, but there’s no need to work through the cumbersome analog process of splicing and mixing tape, followed by the cutting of an acetate copy (the dubplate). If you’re gonna go through the process, you want to make sure the tune will work in the dance. “In those days,” recalls Minott, “you’d have better songs because the artists would have already practised their songs on soundsystem for weeks, you know? So when they reach the studio, it’s all premeditated.”
Artists would cut their teeth on the soundsystems — proving themselves to the massive, proving that it’d be worth a producer’s time to get them into the studio. “I got it, the last of what I call the ‘boot camp’ training,” laughs Shinehead. “This follows in the footsteps of the Ranking Joes, the Dillingers, the Josie Waleses. You get in the dance from nine o’clock in the night and the dance might end nine o’clock the next day, sun’s rising on you. You’ve got to have staying power. That’s crucial, that’s integral.”
Sex yes, violence no
Dancehall isn’t just a type of reggae that happens to have inspired the Black Eyed Peas to pen “Hey Mama.” It’s a place. Yellowman clarifies the situation: “A lot of people think dancehall nowadays is dancehall, but it’s not. In the ’80s sense, we deejay on a soundsystem, not with band. In a hall. So they call it dancehall. A hall, like we in a theatre with a big crowd of people and we are singing a version for the people.”
Shinehead wants to make sure that everyone knows that it’s this live chatting over riddims that laid the groundwork for hip hop. “There’s a lot of folks holding microphones and spitting lyrics that didn’t do their research,” he says with a touch of annoyance. “Reggae is the mother of hip hop. Hip hop was started by a Jamaican, the legendary Kool Herc, it all boils down to a maternal thing. But the knowledge is missing.”
In the ’80s, as hip hop was gaining ground, the sexually explicit Yellowman was king. Shinehead, however, is willing to come to bat and defend the often criticized sex talk of King Yellow: “Raunchy is one thing and tastelessness is another. You can be suggestive, sex is a part of life, and art imitates life, so the department of sex, it has to be expressed. But you can do it with taste also. No one should complain about Yellowman.”
Yellowman, for his part, is more worried about materialism and violence. “Now it’s not your entertainment or teaching. If you notice the hip hop and dancehall artists today, all they do they sing about drugs, clothes, car, house — when they can’t get it, they start get violent.” Minott cautions against this as well: “People in Jamaica have to deal with crime and violence, and if you are going to elaborate on this, then it is not really nice. The youth need something to divert their mind off of certain negative issues.”
And enough already with the violent homophobia. “Everybody listen to me,” Yellowman insists. “I don’t do songs against gay people, I don’t do violent lyric against gay people. If you don’t like a person or you don’t like a thing, you don’t talk about it. You don’t come on stage and say kill them or burn them because everybody have a right to live.” Growing up as an albino in Jamaica was not exactly a walk in the park for Yellowman — he knows what it is like to be on the outside. “I know what violence is like and what it contain and what it can do. I’m glad that the roots is coming back.”
Dancehall has roots too
Minott and Pliers are quick to remind reggae fans that there will always be incredible music coming out of Jamaica every day. Shinehead agrees. “They say that, every 10 years, reggae is bigger than it’s ever been. The only thing is, there’s a signing of a crop of artists to a major label. Whether these artists got signed to a major label or not, it would not only exist but it would prosper regardless.”
It’s still an industry in which it’s not uncommon for an artist to release a few albums a year, and Pliers’ brothers Spanner Banner and Richie Spice have found success in the dance. Chaka Demus’s son Marvellous is working the one-drop riddims. Thing is, it might be important for performers and listeners to remember that it’s not just roots reggae that’s got roots. Dancehall’s got a vibrant, significant history. “Because people like Richie Spice are coming from our school,” says Minott, “soundsystems that they used to practise their songs on. I was one of the first to record Richie Spice. Those youth are getting their background from the roots.”
Keep the riddim rolling
>> Some choice dancehall suggestions
Chaka Demus wants you to listen to the tunes. “Music is about teaching. Sometimes you feel sad, you have to make people listen to the words and let people feel. If you’re feeling down, we try to lift you up, and if you happy now and you go home and you feel down, you’re going to sing.”
When there are literally thousands of records to choose from, it’s tough to pick one, but you can get ready for the Reggae Fest with some essential dancehall from Chaka Demus & Pliers, King Yellow, Shinehead and Sugar. Sing ’em in the shower or simply crank ’em up loud.
“Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” by Yellowman: The melody behind this famous nonsense lyric has made its way into tracks by everyone from Beenie Man and BDP to Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
“Bam Bam” by Chaka Demus & Pliers: Sure, you’ve heard “Murder She Wrote,” now listen to this.
“Jamaican in New York” by Shinehead: Shinehead gives Sting’s tune a whole new perspective and, I think, makes it a whole lot better in the process.
“Buy Off the Bar” by Sugar Minott: Minott tells you when the party’s clearly rammed — there ain’t nothing left to drink.