a real forward
who can make the dance ram? (photo by brian jahn)
erin macleod just published an excellent piece in the montreal mirror which interviews some of the dancehall greats who are performing at this weekend's reggae fest. there's quite a line-up this year, with a notable emphasis on performers who made their mark well before many in the current crop of DJs had ever held a mic, among them sugar minott, yellowman, shinehead, and chaka demus & pliers. (makes me wish i could head north this weekend.)
these seasoned performers' commentary brings to the fore a bunch of issues i've been thinking about lately with regard to dancehall. their frank opinions don't come across as bitter or stodgy so much as incisive, steeped in experience. present-day DJs would do well to heed their advice. allow me to highlight a couple of the more significant sentiments (though you should definitely read the article):
- "Now dancehall is like hip hop crossed with soca," says yellowman, and i think he's onto something with this observation, its slightly pejorative connotation notwithstanding. there's no doubt that dancehall DJs' vocal deliveries have become increasingly influenced by hip-hop--even while retaining a distinctive quality (e.g., steady/on-beat flow, staccato syllables, end-rhymes, and that ol' double-time/flip-tongue stylee)--while dancehall riddims have become increasingly soca-like, with their "up" tempos (many exceeding 120bpm in the last year) and four-to-the-floor kicks against 3+3+2 snares (a rhythmic pattern also common to nuff reggae and many other carib styles, of course, but one that sounds more like soca than anything else in the 120-150bpm range). in this way, yellowman articulates concisely a stylistic shift that many others have been noticing. dancehall today sounds very different from the dancehall of yellowman's day. nothing wrong with change of course, but with shifted priorities come different aesthetic outcomes.
- one such outcome is the effect on (live) performance that has resulted from dancehall's shift from an emphasis on live DJing with a soundsystem to studio-based recordings. before the 90s, most DJs cut their teeth rocking the dancehall massive all night long with a soundsystem. this required serious stamina and serious skills. crowds were notoriously demanding and generally one would have to work for a while, riding the riddim right and landing some good turns of phrase, to earn their respect and approbation. as many dancehall observers know, things are different today. bounty killer need only say "lordamercy" or "cross!" and crowds go into a frenzy. the first strains of a tune, or the first words of a verse, and an automatic pull-up is called (often by the DJ himself). chaka demus sees this as an odd change for the worse: "People now have it much easier, they can just go into the studio and blah blah blah, and if they end up performing [their hit] on stage, they can’t finish the song. These young deejays, they are all ‘Wheeeeeel, pull up, bupbupbup.’ It’s like they mad." sugar minott concurs, remembering the days when "To pick up a forward you’d have to have long lyrics, like two minutes you’d be going on." and shinehead recalls even more extreme tests of endurance: "You get in the dance from nine o’clock in the night and the dance might end nine o’clock the next day, sun’s rising on you. You’ve got to have staying power. That’s crucial, that’s integral."
- yellowman makes an interesting and important distinction between good sex lyrics and bad sex lyrics: "Raunchy is one thing and tastelessness is another. You can be suggestive, sex is a part of life, and art imitates life, so the department of sex, it has to be expressed. But you can do it with taste also. No one should complain about Yellowman." of course, plenty of people--mostly middle-class prudes--compained about yellowman in his day, but things done changed. who knew that "under me fat thing" could ever be considered subtle.
- finally, as a guy who had to confront his share of prejudice--and did so with aplomb, claiming to be the sexiest DJ alive, despite being an albino (and therefore a pariah of sorts in jamaica)--king yellow weighs in on the homophobia debate surrounding dancehall these days (especially abroad). his position is especially noteworthy in a climate where to be against anti-gay chants is to be gay (as if we're in grade school or something). for good reason, yellowman is not worried about people getting confused about his sexual orientation, and he makes his position on the whole bun-battyman thing very clear: "I don’t do songs against gay people, I don’t do violent lyric against gay people. If you don’t like a person or you don’t like a thing, you don’t talk about it. You don’t come on stage and say kill them or burn them because everybody have a right to live."
- r.kelly tries to sell the art of cunnilingus to mutabaruka
- michael jackson gets grilled
- muta rails against "cocky starvation" and biggs breaks into song
[gun yoga: brapbrapbrapbrap!!]