History of Dancehall music
Dancehall music first became popular in the late 1970s, a decade after dub music had already demonstrated the rich possibilities for reggae subgenres. Dancehall began in the Jamaican dancehalls as when people wanted something different from the roots rock that dominated the Jamaican music scene at that time. Local soundsystems began experimenting with new songs that were simpler, more pop, less political, and less Rastafarian.
Some people link this transition to Jamaican political changes as a new right wing government replaced the nation’s socialist government. (If you’ve ever wanted to experience fascism in action, just stop by your local dance club and try arguing with a bouncer.)
Ironically, dancehall’s sound came from the past rather than new directions as Sugar Minott, Don Mais, and their contemporaries began recording new vocals over 1960s riddims. Early dancehall luminaries were singers including Junior Reid, Barrington Levy, Frankie Paul, Don Carlos, Ali Campbell, and Triston Palmer. Some older reggae musicians such as Gregory Isaacs and Bunny Wailer also evolved their sound into the new dancehall phenomenon.
Dancehall also experienced a surge in the popularity of deejays who toasted and rapped in a U-Roy style instead of singing, with artistes such as Captain Sinbad, Ranking Joe, General Echo, and Yellowman capturing listeners ears and dancers’ bodies. During the early 1980s these deejays became more popular than the more traditional singjays, often receiving first access to new riddims.
As dancehall’s sound became less harmonious and more macho, so did it’s content, with a new format – sound clash – evolving to feature deejays and soundsystems competing on albums, mix tapes, and at live shows. There was some variation within this aggressive trend though, as Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse rose to fame with distinctly humorous lyrics and female deejays including Lady Saw and Sister Nancy also rising to fame.
Ragga (also known as “Raggamuffin”) is a rap-influenced form of dancehall reggae that mixes hip hop-style lyrics and electronic instrumentation. The term raggamuffin comes from the description of impoverished Kingston youth who in turn applied the word to their music. Ragga describes the purely digital dancehall sound that emerged in the mid-1980s. Though it is a descendant of reggae, ragga bears little resemblance to the roots rock of the previous decade due to it’s digital riddims and synthesized deejay vocals. Some reggae purists debate whether ragga is really a genre of reggae music.
The dancehall sound continued to change in the 1980s, becoming more digitized. In 1985 King Jammy released the hit single (Under Me) Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith. While it may not have been the first purely digital reggae riddim, it was the first that became widely popular, ushering in the ragga sound.
Wayne Smith – (Under Me) Sleng Teng video
Ragga deejays included rough-voiced deejays such as Capleton and Shabba Ranks as well as more melodic singjays such as Pinchers, Cocoa Tea, Frankie Paul, Half Pint, Carl Meeks, and Barrington Levy. At home in Jamaica, many deejays such as Bounty Killer, Ninjaman, and Buju Banton adopted a violent aesthetic similar to American gangsta rappers. Internationally, dancehall music began to appear on the hit charts in the US and other countries, including Shabba Ranks‘ Mr. Loverman and Chaka Demus and Pliers‘ Murder She Wrote.
Modern Dancehall music: controversy and new directions
In the 21st century dancehall music’s popularity was challenged by critics of it’s frequent homophobic content, the most notorious song being Buju Banton’s 1988 hit Boom Bye Bye, which advocates shooting and burning gay men. In addition to journalists and music critics, civil rights activists began the Stop Murder Music campaign and openly campaigned against homophobic dancehall artists and concerts featuring those artists. As a result, some concerts were cancelled, police opened investigations of some artists, and international governments blocked some artists’ travel. The artists countered by arguing that their lyrics were permissible free speech and in some cases compromising by changing their lyrics for American and European shows.
At the same time that the homophobic backlash and other violence amongst popular dancehall artists spiraled out of control, some prominent dancehall deejays “found religion” (Rastafarian, of course) and began the conscious dancehall (aka conscious ragga) movement, which replaced violent content with the kinds of conscious, ital, and cultural messages that dancehall had originally left behind in the 1970s. Artists such as Garnet Silk, Tony Rebel, Sanchez, Luciano, Anthony B, and Sizzla built purely conscious careers, whereas other previously-violent deejays such as Buju Banton and Capleton transitioned over to a conscious direction (often bouncing back and forth between conscious albums and more pop/dancehall content).
More recent dancehall stars include Mavado, Bounty Killer, Lady Saw, Shaggy, Diana King, Spragga Benz, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, and Sean Paul, who has released several Billboard hits in the United States.
(For everyone who is writing research papers, this article was written by a guy named Chris Keane (me) on June 4, 2009. I’ve updated it a few times in the intervening months. If you do finish your paper and would like to share it on the site or contribute any other articles, please leave a comment!)