Dancehall is a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s. Initially dancehall was a more sparse (Dub) version of reggae than the roots style, which had dominated much of the 1970s. Two of the biggest stars of the early dancehall era were Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse. Dancehall brought a new generation of producers, including Linval Thompson, Gussie Clarke and Jah Thomas. In the mid-1980s, digital instrumentation became more prevalent, changing the sound considerably, with digital dancehall (or “ragga”) becoming increasingly characterized by faster rhythms. (The word “bashment”, a term originating in the 1990s, was used to describe a particularly good dance; for example “to go to a bashment dance”. In the Dancehall vernacular, “bashment” is therefore an adjective instead of a noun.)
In the early 1990s songs by Dawn Penn, Shabba Ranks, Patra and Chaka Demus and Pliers were the first dancehall megahits in the US and abroad. Other varieties of dancehall achieved crossover success outside of Jamaica during the mid-to-late 1990s. After the popularizing of Buju Banton’s dancehall song “Boom Bye Bye” in the early 1990s, dancehall music came under criticism over anti-gay lyrics in a few songs. The early 2000s saw the success of newer charting acts such as Rihanna, Elephant Man and Sean Paul. Dancehall made a resurgence within the pop market in the late 2000s, with songs by Konshens, Mr. Vegas, Popcaan, Mavado, Vybz Kartel, Beenie Man among others.
Dancehall is named after Jamaican dance halls in which popular Jamaican recordings were played by local sound systems. These began in the late 1940s among people from the inner city of Kingston such as Trench Town, Rose Town and Denham Town — Jamaicans who were not able to participate in dances uptown. Social and political changes in late 1970’s Jamaica, including the change from the socialist government of Michael Manley (People’s National Party) to Edward Seaga (Jamaica Labour Party), were reflected in the shift away from the more internationally oriented roots reggae towards a style geared more towards local consumption, and in tune with the music that Jamaicans had experienced when sound systems performed live. Themes of social injustice, repatriation and the Rastafari movement were overtaken by lyrics about dancing, violence and sexuality.
Musically, older rhythms from the late 1960s were recycled, with Sugar Minott credited as the originator of this trend when he voiced new lyrics over old Studio One rhythms between sessions at the studio, where he was working as a session musician. Around the same time, producer Don Mais was reworking old rhythms at Channel One Studios, using the Roots Radics band. The Roots Radics would go on to work with Henry “Junjo” Lawes on some of the key early dancehall recordings, including those that established Barrington Levy, Frankie Paul, and Junior Reid as major reggae stars. Other singers to emerge in the early dancehall era as major stars included Don Carlos, Al Campbell, and Triston Palma, while more established names such as Gregory Isaacs and Bunny Wailer successfully adapted.
Sound systems such as Killimanjaro, Black Scorpio, Gemini Disco, Virgo Hi-Fi, Volcano Hi-Power and Aces International soon capitalized on the new sound and introduced a new wave of deejays. The older toasters were overtaken by new stars such as Captain Sinbad, Ranking Joe, Clint Eastwood, Lone Ranger, Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, General Echo and Yellowman — a change reflected by the 1981 Junjo Lawes-produced album A Whole New Generation of DJs, although many went back to U-Roy for inspiration. Deejay records became, for the first time, more important than records featuring singers. Another trend was sound clash albums, featuring rival deejays /or sound systems competing head-to-head for the appreciation of a live audience, with underground sound clash cassettes often documenting the violence that came with such rivalries.
Two of the biggest deejay stars of the early dancehall era, Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse, chose humour rather than violence. Yellowman became the first Jamaican deejay to be signed to a major American record label, and for a time enjoyed a level of popularity in Jamaica to rival Bob Marley’s peak. The early 1980s also saw the emergence of female deejays in dancehall music, including: Sister Charmaine, Lady G, Lady Junie, Junie Ranks, Lady Saw, Sister Nancy and Shelly Thunder.
Dancehall brought a new generation of producers; Junjo Lawes, Linval Thompson, Gussie Clarke and Jah Thomas took over from the producers who had dominated in the 1970s.
Digital Dancehall and Ragga
In the mid-1980s, French Caribbean group Kassav, the first in the Caribbean to use MIDI technology, took Caribbean music to another level by recording in a digital format. King Jammy’s 1985 hit, “(Under Me) Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, with an entirely-digital rhythm hook took the dancehall reggae world by storm. Many credit this song as being the first digital rhythm in reggae, featuring a rhythm from a Casio MT-40 keyboard. However, this is not entirely correct since there are earlier examples of digital productions, such as Horace Ferguson’s single “Sensi Addict” (Ujama) produced by Prince Jazzbo in 1984. The “Sleng Teng” rhythm was used in over 200 subsequent recordings. This deejay-led, largely synthesized chanting with musical accompaniment departed from traditional conceptions of Jamaican popular musical entertainment.
Dub poet Mutabaruka said, “if 1970s reggae was red, green and gold, then in the next decade it was gold chains”. It was far removed from reggae’s gentle roots and culture, and there was much debate among purists as to whether it should be considered an extension of reggae.
This shift in style again saw the emergence of a new generation of artists, such as Buccaneer, Capleton and Shabba Ranks, who became the biggest ragga star in the world. A new set of producers also came to prominence: Philip “Fatis” Burrell, Dave “Rude Boy” Kelly, George Phang, Hugh “Redman” James, Donovan Germain, Bobby Digital, Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and Cleveland “Clevie” Brown (aka Steely & Clevie) rose to challenge Sly & Robbie’s position as Jamaica’s leading rhythm section. The deejays became more focused on violence, with Bounty Killer, Mad Cobra, Ninjaman and Buju Banton becoming major figures in the genre.
To complement the harsher deejay sound, a “sweet sing” vocal style evolved out of roots reggae and R&B, marked by its falsetto and almost feminine intonation, with proponents like Pinchers, Cocoa Tea, Sanchez, Admiral Tibet, Frankie Paul, Half Pint, Conroy Smith, Courtney Melody, Carl Meeks and Barrington Levy.
In the early 1990’s songs like Dawn Penn’s “No, No, No”, Shabba Ranks’s “Mr. Loverman”, Patra’s “Worker Man” and Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” became some of the first dancehall megahits in the US and abroad. Other varieties of dancehall achieved crossover success outside of Jamaica during the mid-to late 1990’s. Tanya Stephens gave a unique female voice to the genre during the 1990’s.
The early 2000’s saw the success of newer charting acts such as Rihanna, Elephant Man and Sean Paul, who has achieved mainstream success worldwide and has produced several top 10 Billboard hits, including “Gimme the Light”, “We Be Burnin'”, “Give It Up to Me”, “Pon De Replay” and “Break It Off”.
Dancehall seems to be making a resurgence within the pop market in the late 2000s with such artists as Konshens, Mr. Vegas, Popcaan, Mavado, Vybez Cartel, Beenie Man among others.
VP Records dominates the dancehall music market with Sean Paul, Elephant Man, and Buju Banton. VP often has partnered with major record labels like Atlantic and Island in an attempt to further expand their distribution potential particularly in the US market.