things done changed, but everyting criss still
when i visited jamaica in the fall of 2001, i was struck by the strong presence of american music in kingston. hip-hop in particular seemed as ubiquitous as reggae. i went to a club and heard as much jay-z and nelly as beenie or ele, and the timbres and textures of dancehall sounded steeped in hip-hop.
now i find the ubiquity of american music in jamaica unremarkable. and maybe it is. it seems that american music has been a prominent feature of the jamaican soundscape at least since radio waves and recordings made them available. it is a well-rehearsed fact that ska--and its descendants, rocksteady and reggae--owe as much to american r&b as to calypso, mento, kumina, son, or any other jamaican or caribbean "folk" or "popular" source. and yet, despite jamaican music's close relationship to american pop, jamaica has produced--and continues to produce prodigiously--some of the most distinctive music the world has heard. (of course, so has the united states, but its political and economic influence often taint its cultural achievements, or at least call into question the reason for their international influence.)
meantime, dancehall reggae has become ubiquitous in the united states. before i left for my first extended stay in kingston--two years ago, at about this time of year--sean paul's "gimme the light" had only just begun getting radio play. in 2004, i routinely hear not only sean paul, but elephant man, beenie man, vybz kartel and other jamaican DJs on mainstream urban radio. frequently, the radio DJs "juggle" several dancehall tunes on the same riddim in a row, in the same fashion as jamaican radio and soundsystem selectors--for example, the "fiesta" riddim (of beenie man's "dude" fame) and the "coolie dance" (vegas's "pull-up," pitbull's "culo" [featuring lil jon and his 808], nina sky's "move your body," etc.). miami-based pitbull (who often raps in spanish) and nina sky (two 18-year-old girls from the bronx) are only the latest american artists to record directly over contemporary reggae riddims. last year, the precedent was set over the diwali riddim (after sean paul's and wayne wonder's simultaneous chart-hits on it) by lumidee, ol' dirty bastard, fabolous, busta rhymes, 50 cent, and several underground artists. (of course, boogie down productions was doing this in the late 80s. [see "live hardcore worldwide"], but BDP's ragga-inflected hip-hop wasn't exactly topping the charts back then.) taking the trend even further, nina sky's new album features tracks over several recent dancehall faves (and the remix of "move your body" features a verse full of recycled lyrics courtesy of vybz kartel [see his "picture this" on the "blackout" riddim for an earlier appearance of the same lines]). on tracks like the terror squad's current smash "lean back," which makes prominent reference to the "rockaway"--a jamaican dance from the last year--hip-hop artists seamlessly appropriate dancehall moves. that's just business as usual in the bronx. which is to say, it's not inconceivable for puerto ricans who rap like african-americans to reference jamaican dance-styles: that's how people dance in the boroughs, knamean? seen?
dancehall riddims have influenced american hip-hop, r&b, and pop at this point at least as much as vice versa: e.g., beyonce's "baby boy," r.kelly's "snake" and "toia toing," marques houston's "clubbin'," missy elliot's "get ur freak on" and "pass that dutch" (despite the bhangra borrowings of the former and the electro resonance of the latter), christina milian's "dip it low," etc. the latest britney spears album includes a track called "the hook-up" featuring a patois-inflected male vocalist and a beat that more closely resembles spanish reggae, or reggaeton--another ubiquitous caribbean style in american urban centers. in addition to blasting from many a car in any city with a significant hispanic population--i've heard it in miami, new york, boston, lowell, chelsea, cambridge, etc.--reggaeton seems to be making steady inroads into american popular music. tego calderon has recently made a number of appearances alongside more mainstream american acts, including terror squad, cypress hill ("latin thugs"), NORE and nina sky ("oye mi canto"). this level of international, cross-genre collaboration--and for such popular music--seems unprecedented in some ways, save perhaps for the regular latin-influenced cycles that have been infusing the mainstream at least as far back as the "latin tinge" that jelly roll morton heard in early jazz.
on my first night back in kingston, i got to check my assumptions about jamaican audiences and tastes once again. i went to a dance out on the palisadoes, by the airport, at the go-cart track. it was dubbed a "smirnoff experience" and the $1500 cover charge (about $30) was good for drinks all night, which--curiously enough--featured plenty of non-smirnov. the line-up was kind of interesting: reggae selectors on one-side (the crowded side), and on the other, a female DJ from Ibiza, a hip-hop DJ from New York, and Rennaissance, one of the bigger reggae soundsystems in Jamaica. the range of performers reminded me once again of how cosmopolitan a place kingston is, especially for a certain social/class set. after a short and racy fashion show, the DJ from Ibiza played a set of what I took to be standard Ibiza fare. (Ibiza, pronounced Ibeetha by those in the know, is, for those not in the know, a high-end trance-themed dance-park Spanish-island.) the techno and house tracks, and even the reggae twists she threw in, were enough to get a couple jamaican ravers (complete with big pants and liquid hands) going pretty good. the rest just kind of looked on, or wandered to the dancehall side, or got a drink.
watching the hip-hop DJ perform was a more interesting, as he was working with a repertory more familiar to the audience. he played some crowd pleasers for sure (e.g, "tipsy," "yeah," "lean back" [but not the Tego remix]), which is easy given the love for hip-hop in jamaica. his occasional attempts to rouse the crowd and make them act jamaican, however, were pretty unsuccessful. "put your gun fingers in the air," he'd say, attempting to elicit a "forward," or show of affirmation, he had not yet earned, using a term--"gun fingers"--that no one ever uses. similarly, he would shout "pull-up" over a record, and then leave it spinning, thus failing to: 1) allow the crowd to determine the quality of the selection and themselves call for a "pull up"; and 2) confirm (and repeat) the effect of the selection by actually rewinding it and starting it again. of course, it was a good faith effort to connect with the crowd, but it was just a little too uninformed not to be insulting, or at least ineffective. at worst, it was an example of blatant stereotyping of jamaican behavior, made all too disturbing by its celebration of guns. (and i'm not sure we can argue that the signifier has been divorced from its referent in this case. i fear it still carries quite a trace of signification.) at any rate, it seemed that here was one occasion when hip-hop's foundational sample-based approach seemed to fail. the DJs attempt to meet the crowd on their own terms was way too facile.
i don't mean to be picky. then again, maybe i do. i am rather curious about the differences between audience behavior/reception in jamaica and the US, especially given such an example of shared repertory. of course, the repertory has been shared for a long time, especially in jamaica, which, i am reminded as i drive around kingston, has the most ecumenical radio spectrum i've ever heard. yesterday i heard drum'n'bass for an hour on the same station that spent the morning playing a solid set of contemporary hip-hop and then transitioned to soft alternative rock (a la rob thomas). it seems a more recent thing to find jamaican/caribbean music reverberating with such presence across the american soundscape. so i am interested in the ways that people in different places hear the same music: what meanings do they make of it? how do processes of (musically-mediated) identification happen, depending on one's background, social position, and current location? how does this differ from the US to Jamaica, as well as within the various locales themselves (e.g., boston, cambridge, kingston [uptown, downtown], etc.)? i've got some ideas, but i will save them for another blog. (i need to finish this one so i can finally get it posted. let's call it done. more soon come, and more frequently, i hope.)