Monday, December 1, 2008

Pitchfork's Column: The Year In Reggae / Dancehall Talks with Clive Chin

Read the latest article from celebrating Randy's 50th Anniversary and much more.

Column by Erin MacLeod

Wed: 11-26-08

Column: The Year In Reggae / Dancehall

Reading the Jamaica Gleaner this week, I fell upon an article announcing the fact that six of the 10 records in the Billboard Reggae chart are by non-Jamaicans. Nothing against Matisyahu, but given the number of fantastic reggae and dancehall tunes this year, it's a shame that music from the source isn't getting as much shine.
Jamaican music went through a number of changes over the past year: 2008 marked the 50th year of the legendary Randy's Records. Located at 17 North Parade in Kingston, this shop, founded and operated by the late Vincent Chin and his wife Patricia later transformed itself into VP Records, the largest reggae label and distributor in the world. A commemorative DVD and accompanying 2xCD was released on 17 North Parade, VP's reissue imprint. Then, living up to its claim of being "miles ahead in reggae music," VP acquired Greensleeves Records in early 2008.

As Vincent's son, producer Clive Chin, says: "Greensleeves was our competitor for over 35 years. When Greensleeves was sold a couple of years ago, it was to people who were, primarily, investors. Dem nah love the music. Dem nah have nah clue of what they bought. The wealth of the company is in the publishing. Now VP has the ability to do things that they couldn't do before. It's brilliant. We don't want to dominate. But we know the reggae world. No better than VP to nurture this other label. I know that 'nuff people out there don't like the idea, but to be honest, it's the best thing that could ever be."
The depth of VP's catalogue is now that much deeper-- a good thing given the increasing attention paid to the roots of dancehall. Indeed, speaking of the international face of reggae, not only did the fellows from Heatwave draw lines of connection between the dance and present day UK MC culture in their landmark An England Story out on Soul Jazz in March of this year, but famed 1980s dancehall photog Beth Lesser, author of King Jammy's, released Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture, also on Soul Jazz. As an added bonus, the book was paired with a compilation of the best dancehall tunes from the 80s.

Speaking of history, reggae lost a few greats this year: Mikey Dread, producer of what many think are the Clash's best tunes; Alton Ellis, the Godfather of Rocksteady; and Byron Lee, the man who made Jamaicans sit up and pay attention to carnival and calypso. All innovators, these musicians are emblematic of the incredible range and breadth of Jamaican music.
The melancholy, sweeping, and spooky strains of cinematic dancehall (seriously, someone needs to use this stuff in a gangster movie) had its day in 2008. Auto-Tuned wonder Demarco continued his dominance of that whole genre, with hits like "Fallen Soldiers" and "Duppy Know Who Fi Frighten", while Vybz Kartel and Portmore Empire protégé Blak Ryno have been critically acclaimed actors in Jamaican dancehall during 2008 as well.

The equally moody Mavado got all the attention early on but he was later eclipsed by Busy Signal, a phenomenon now armed with his full-length Loaded. Still, Mavado's self-congratulatory "I'm So Special" is on top of the charts at the moment. Kartel, whose recent hit "Trailer Load of Money" is another example of this new breed of dancehall, doesn't share Mavado's opinion and renewed his and the Gully God's feud-- with entertaining results --this summer.

On the mainstream tip, Toronto's hip-hall phenom Kardinal Offishall cracked the U.S. market with the huge hit "Dangerous"; sure, he needed Akon to do it, but it's still good to see the mix of dancehall and hip-hop emblematic of Toronto get some attention-- even if the tune doesn't match up to his earlier hits such as "Ol' Time Killin'". It's too soon to know whether Elephant Man's latest kick at the mainstream-- Let's Get Physical on Diddy's Bad Boy Records-- will have expected returns for the Energy God. In the meantime it would seem that his main success lies squarely on the island...or in Beijing.

The biggest Jamaican star of the year, however, wasn't a musician, though he helped introduce elements of dancehall culture to the world: Usain Bolt took dancehall to the Olympics-- and to the world. With his coy attempt to avoid smiling before his gold-medal winning 100-meter race and his relaxed gait across the finish line-- not to mention the other two gold medals and three world records-- the man could only follow it up with a post-triumph performance of both the "Gully Creepa" and the "Nuh Linga" dances created by Ele for the two massive hit songs of the same names. The IOC's subsequent criticism of the world's fastest man's cultural exuberance is a poignant reminder of the bias present in our society but also an important sign of dancehall's underrated capacity to expose it. Bolt's wins gave notice that a new dance would be immediately created-- indeed it was just a matter of days before the "Lightning Bolt" premiered. And Bolt was welcomed home by, you guessed it, a dancehall session.

Normally, in the dance, there's a lot of talking about di gyal dem, but not a lot of gals are actually doing the talking. Thankfully, in 2008 there's been a few women who've stood out. Ward 21's girl-only Dem Gal Sittin riddim showcased a good lot of talent (Tifa, Timberlee, and Natalie Storm, for a start; as a crew, the Badda Badda Gals, these women also released a pretty wicked mixtape, Three the Hard Way, with Federation Sound). Pamputtae's husky voice and straight-ahead sexed-up lyrics, however, made her my female artist of the year. Etana's soulful singing on her spring debut The Strong One is pretty seductive, but the let's-not-mince-words charm (and dance instructions) of Pamputtae's "Pat Yuh Pussy" simply can't be passed up.

Where reggae is concerned, Tarrus Riley did quite well. His rootsy, near-gospel sound rose to the top of the heap and "Far Away" demonstrated his incredible singing voice. Duane Stephenson, who, like Riley, is produced by legendary sax man Dean Fraser, released From August Town; the title track is undoubtedly a highlight of not just 2008, but perhaps the past few years.
Other events include the attention given to dancing this year. News website reported that a one-man anti-daggering protest went down a couple of months ago, the protestor (a fellow by the name of Reginald Martin), complaining that there's simply too much simulated sex going on. Given the huge, enduring popularity of sexually explicit tunes and dances (check the Mr. Vegas's smash hit "Daggering", and the Titty Wine for a couple 2008 examples) it seems like this is not something that's going away soon. Also, gotta hand it to the girls, whose aggressive dancehall antics still do seem to compete with and beat the boys.

Not everyone is keen on this. The Jamaica Observer reported in September that lauded dub poet Mutabaruka was shocked by a statistic illustrating just how much Jamaicans party-- there are apparently 41 registered entertainment events each day. "Jamaican people a dance, dance, and dance," he said. "That is not a good sign, if a country a dance so much [sic] something wrong." Muta's in agreement with the Jamaican Constabulary force, who seem to be cracking down on sessions that don't play by the rules of the Noise Abatement Act (it states that parties have to end by 12 a.m. weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends). Reggae is renowned for its late night personality (exhibit A: the weekly street dance Passa Passa doesn't get started until well into the early hours of the morning). It's tough to tell what kind of impact these restrictions might have.

But, as the dance crazes continue to dominate the charts (see above reference to big tunes by Elephant Man), dancehall in 2008 seems to be a lot more about dancing than anything else. Underlining this change in focus is this year's end, after 10 years, of Irish and Chin's World Clash circuit. In its final year, the UK's David Rodigan took a "veterans" clash, Japan's Mighty Crown took the main event at Pier One in Mo Bay over Easter weekend, and Jamaica's Bass Odyssey snuck past Rodigan to win the UK Cup Clash in April. According to Chin, they're up to something new, but it's yet to be announced. Given that Chin told me that he thought dubplates were the problem in the clash, it's hard to think of what they might be up to: juggling clashes? 45 clashes? Who knows?

It's unthinkable to imagine the demise of these competitive contests between mobile discotheque soundsystems to see whose selectors can play the best tunes and win over the massive. The clash is emblematic of the competitive, creative, and mind-blowingly prolific Jamaican music industry. Since the 1950s, it's been the soundsystems who have tested tunes and supported stars. As a result, promoters have been experimenting with new events. A couple of weeks ago soundsystem Rebel T was crowned winner of the Guinness Sounds of Greatness final. The event had been carrying on for the past few weeks with surprising upsets-- Bodyguard beat both Bass Odyssey and Black Kat for a spot in the final. The eventual conflict was a three-round affair that set a juggling sound (a sound used to playing dances as opposed to fighting battles) against the experienced, warring Bodyguard. It wasn't a definitive victory for Rebel T, but the event-- and subsequent online discussions regarding choice of tunes, style of performance and selection of dubplates-- underline the enduring value of soundclash.

Something that pretty much everyone worldwide is celebrating-- and especially in Jamaica-- is the victory of U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama. In post-election Jamaica, my Canadian nationality now receives far less attention then that of my American pals. Us North-North Americans might have to be changing the flags on our backpacks. And the run-up to the historic election victory created fertile ground for some of the best tunes of the past 12 months. Cocoa Tea's "Barack Obama" is phenomenally catchy; that and Mavado's Obama dubplate, "We Need Barack", are among the better songs of the year.
Maybe it's time for a bit of a shakeup in Jamaican music as well. After all, as I write, Konshens's lovely and lazily sung "Winner" is rising up the charts alongside some significantly different sounding tunes. But dancehall has always been a place, not a genre—all music is welcome, and the newer the better. In recent years, the scene has been dominated by pulsating beats, party jams and pum pum tunes. Maybe I'm speaking too soon, but it looks like change might be in the air. Great thing about being a fan of Jamaican music is that there's so much niceness to listen to while waiting to find out. There's still more to come even this year: Fantan Mojah just released an album this week, and Mavado's got one in the works.

The Pitchfork Year in Reggae/Dancehall Top 15

Cocoa Tea: "Barack Obama" [Warring Lion]
Busy Signal: "Tic Toc" [VP]
Duane Stephenson: "August Town" [Cannon/VP]
Morgan Heritage: "Nothing to Smile Bout" [No Doubt]
Tarrus Riley: "Far Away" [Don Corleon]
Mavado: "I'm On the Rock" [Baby G]
Demarco: "Duppy Know Who Fi Frighten" [John John]
Elephant Man: "Gully Creepa" [Seanizzle]
Mykal Rose: "Shoot Out" [John John]
Erup: "Click My Finger" [Truckback]
Queen Ifrica: "Keep it to Yourself" [Don Corleon]
Bugle: "What I'm Gonna Do" [Daseca]
Vybz Cartel: "Trailer Load of Money" [Chimney]
Elephant Man: "Nuh Linga" [Board House]
Baby Cham: "Hope" [Madhouse]



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