Styles & Forms | Dancehall | Reggae

Dancehall reggae is a vivid example of how the music perpetually reinvents itself to refresh its rebel spirit and to keep itself relevant to its primary audience: downtown Kingston (both spiritually as well as geographically). it began to appear on the sound systems at the beginning of the 1980s, when roots reggae had reached a world stage through the likes of Bob Marley.

Dancehall reggae intentionally opposed itself to what these international acts had become. Musically, it was little more than sparse, jagged rhythm tracks, often sounding deliberately computerized as it made the most of the advancing technology, and the first dancehall vocals were deejays toasting live on dub plates (special one-off acetates of songs, cut for sound system use only). In the dancehall. Because of its ‘one-off’ nature, dancehall’s popularity was always based on releases of singles rather than albums, a situation which remains the same today, although collections of singles by artists and producers do exist as compilation albums.

Returning To The People

The style got its name not only because of where it was born but because this was a form that, in its infancy, Jamaican radio would not touch, so its only outlet was the dancehall. This was an important development for a music that, for a few years, had been coming increasingly under the sway of the international record business as a bona fide branch of rock music. It was now returning to the traditions established 20 years previously by the likes of Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster and Duke Reid, whereby it didn’t have to conform to local radio’s prescribed standards, and so put the control back in the hands of the people it was made by and for. Not surprisingly, the first important dancehall producers were sound system operators. Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, King Jammy, Jack Scorpio and Bobby Digital owned, respectively, Volcano, King Jammy’s Super Power, Scorpio and Heatwave, the biggest sets on the island, and had a bond with the audience that so many of roots reggae’s producers hadn’t enjoyed. Under these circumstances, left pretty much to its own devices, reggae once again evolved into an accurate representation of its public: as in the ska days, it was responding immediately to what the people wanted.

And the most public face of this public were the deejays. Deejays were the perfect manifestation of early dancehall’s DIY ethic, as the original vibe was for anybody to get a turn on the mic in a dance and see how far their skills could take them. A decade of roots, with its protest lyrics, appeared to have made virtually no difference to conditions in Jamaica, so these deejays took a step back to when their job involved nothing more complicated than ‘bigging up’ their sound system, commenting on the dancehall soap opera unfolding around them or scatalogically duelling with the music. A sense of humour returned to reggae, as deejays such as Michigan & Smiley, Lone Ranger, Burru Banton and...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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