History of Dancehall Music

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 Music

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 RanksMr. Loverman and Chaka Demus and PliersMurder 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!)

27 Responses to History of Dancehall Music

  1. jeneil plaza says:

    thnx alot for this info it helped me out alot thnxxxxxxxxxxxx

  2. samantha says:

    So I’m trying to cite this in a thesis but cannot find an author.. help please!

  3. dubman says:

    Hey Samantha, I’ll send you an email with more information so you can cite it. Look for an email from dubman at dubandreggae!
    Chris AKA Dubman

  4. Oscar says:

    I’m writing a research paper and need to cite this also, can you send me the information as well?

  5. Jahnoi says:

    Good day,

    I’m writing a paper on this topic and would appreciate you send me information relating to the author so that i can create a reference.

    Thank you.


    this is some very useful information for my studies. thx alot :-)

  7. Antonio Bleasdell says:

    This was really helpful, can you send me the information relating to the author so i can use him as a reference. PLEASE, thank you in advance.

  8. dubman says:

    Hello to everyone who has commented here. I’ll update the article to include the author’s name – Chris Keane.

  9. k says:

    This “history” did not mention Super Cat. He was the originator of the dancehall movement in the late 80s early 90s

  10. Khasi Jamieson says:

    thanks alot, can u send information on the author. really need to cite this for my thesis

  11. hulk2010 says:

    some more information please

  12. uniqua says:

    im working on a dance in class an want to know is rihanna a good artist to dance to, i really love rihanna so her culture in music should be good right ?

  13. Ruttikwa says:

    I need to cite the author of this piece also could do with more info. of the interwining of reggae and dancehall. would appreciate any help you can give. thanks

  14. dubman says:

    What specifically do you need for the citation? The author info is in the last paragraph of the article. Let me know what other details you need and I’ll add them.

    Chris AKA Dubman

  15. neicy says:

    could u tlk about some of the effects of the most recent dancehall music on our youth plz?

  16. musatosh says:

    man i lyk all dat an im tryin all means 2 adance hall artist here in ug .so any givemi tips 2 make it work 4 mi eg lyk makin lyrics 4 me that could hit.thanks

  17. Gracelo says:

    hi,I’m doing a research on dancehall music effects and influences on youths,can you help me some info…and what theorists have said about this phenomenon.thanks

  18. dancehall-lover says:

    uhmmmm so where was the first dancehall stage show held???……info is ok tho

  19. Josh says:

    Hey, thanks for the info, and yes, I am writing a paper over history or Reggae and Caribbean music. Great info thank you much!

  20. takunda says:

    hi gud research

  21. VAG says:

    Hey, I’m currently preparing to do a small presentation on Caribbean music and I’ve choosen to narrow in on a few genres. This information will really been a big help to my presentation. Thanks!

  22. tashe says:

    this is really helpful but i need to cite it

  23. Shonte DaCosta says:

    Hey Im presenting a paper can you send me the info Im also trying to cite this…thanks in advance!

  24. Carmen C says:

    I need help with citation!!! Nice site :) Very informative!!

  25. shenet says:

    hey good work got lots of info for my project on the influence of dancehall music on youth

  26. rmb says:

    i like your article. i am doing a research paper on the the impact of dancehall music on youths. i have a lot of information but is unsure if i am really following the format and also applying the right information relevant to the research. plz respond. thnx

  27. karina says:

    thanks!! nice search! please, do not stop updating your article.
    contributed greatly to my studies, thanks again.

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