linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


uptown bwoys claim roots, branches

i've got a piece in this week's boston phoenix on the new albums from damian marley and sean paul. as one might expect, i focus as much on context as content. for those who've read my previous posts about mr.marley's music, you will find echoes of the same critiques here. my main concern was to communicate some of the complexities of this music to an audience that knows very little about reggae or jamaica.

as i've done before, i will reprint a version closer to the original below, especially since in this case an overzealous copy-editor has excised some of my subtler points and, in the worst cases, replaced straightforward descriptors such as "finest producers" with slightly pejorative terms like "fancy producers." (for the record, i would never call lenky, don, snowcone, or jeremy harding "fancy.") in another instance, my array of places-that-begin-with-n-where-bob-is-big was misguidedly truncated, cutting an essential reference to "northeastern" (which i was employing as a metonym for bob's fabled frat following).

that said, i think the piece still says a lot, and i'm grateful for the opportunity to get it into print and to reach an audience outside of the blogeoisie.


Uptown Bwoys Claim Roots, Branches

It may come as a surprise to some that Bob Marley, worldwide icon and Third World superstar, finds less favor in Jamaica than maybe anywhere else.

Don't get it twisted, star: "Bob," as most Jamaicans call him, is as much a Legend, if not a demigod, inna JA as, say, New Zealand, Nigeria, Navaho Reservations, or Northeastern. But Bob's success — not to diminish the irrefutable greatness of his music — was achieved in part through the savvy marketing and executive production of Island Records' mogul Chris Blackwell, who remixed Marley's music in London studios, overdubbing rock guitars and "cleaning up" the raw and ready sounds of the Wailers, and who sold Marley to the (First) world as a righteous rock star, a Rolling Stone Rasta for the middle-class masses.

Although Kingston's dancehall massive — which, at its core, is far from middle-class — has generally endorsed Bob's success, giving thanks for the minds and markets his musical ministry opened, they have long embraced performers who speak more directly to their concerns in a voice they better recognize: Dennis Brown, Yellowman, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer. An enduring tension remains for reggae artists who seek to move the massive at home and reach the masses abroad. Striking a balance between international appeal — irresistible in its riches — and local tastes has become the goal of many an aspiring entertainer in Jamaica. Two recent reggae releases, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley's Welcome to Jamrock (Universal) and Sean Paul's The Trinity (Atlantic), reveal rather different ways of walking this tightrope.

Where Damian takes on social issues, Sean Paul socializes. Where Damian rasps his raps somewhere between Buju's gravel and his father's moan, Sean Paul emulates the smooth sing-song of Super Cat. Where Damian flashes his locks, Sean Paul flashes his watch. Jamrock features American mainstays Bobby Brown, Black Thought, and Nas, while The Trinity brings along uptown brethren Looga Man and Kid Kurup, Wayne Marshall (no, not me), and newcomer Tami Chynn. (Of course, Jamrock also hosts the likes of Eek-A-Mouse and Bounty Killer, two dancehall DJs with impeccable cred.) While Damian and his brother Stephen program their own beats and use a crack Jamaican house band on several cuts, Sean Paul employs dancehall's hottest producers: Lenky, Snowcone, Don Corleone, and mastermind Jeremy Harding. And, yet, there's something strikingly similar about the ways these two artists project their sounds and images to the world.

Despite the differences, their struts are the same. There's an uptown air about both artists, a cosmopolitan flair, an ease about floating through the world. Unlike many Jamaicans, they are free to move. (Both are jetsetters, to their credit — Sean Paul's been to Egypt twice since "Gimme the Light" set the world on fire, and Damian has called Miami home for many years now.) Yet, for all their mobility, one feels the tugs — weh do what dem got to — of Jamaican roots. Anchoring themselves to reggae's solid foundation, Damian and Sean Paul ride the waves of international pop (which is to say, hip-hop smoothed out on a R&B tip with a dancehall feel-appeal to it), and they do so with buoyancy and flow. Both performers display a strong hip-hop sensibility, mixing dancehall's steady-rock declamations with rap's multisyllabic, over-the-bar rhyme-schemes, while peppering their patois with "jiggy" slang (which is to say, often outdated, but still resonant in Kingston). Remarkably, their embrace of hip-hop style, which is far from total, neither endears them to nor alienates them from their local following.

For one thing, partly because of their literal and figurative distance from downtown, neither Marley nor Sean Paul has ever been fully accepted by dancehall denizens. Sure, they each have their anthems and their hits — tracks that selectors "pull-up" even at the most dungtung venues. But, in general, they are ignored, overlooked, and sometimes reviled. Sean Paul records on most of the popular riddims that come out and thus gets some play in the dancehalls, juggled alongside more hardcore acts, whereas Damian operates as more of an outsider, reaching the island's open ears on smashes such as "Welcome to Jamrock" but otherwise appearing as a specter of sorts, occupying that hallowed but somewhat hollowed place reserved for the Marley dynasty. His 2001 Grammy award tells you something about his established reputation abroad. The winning album's title, Half-Way Tree, referring to the city square where uptown and downtown meet, tells you something about the way Marley self-consciously positions himself.

For another, hip-hop's presence in Jamaica is not — and never has been — odd or problematic in itself: Jamaicans of all stripes long ago embraced hip-hop (and, more generally, the sounds of black America). Only a few months after "Rapper’s Delight" brought hip-hop to the wider world in 1979, Welton Irie worked part of the track into his tune "Hotter Reggae Music." In Jamaica, hip-hop can signify militant, pan-Africanist blackness, t(h)ug/hustler pragmatism, and cosmopolitan, pan-American dreams. Most Jamaicans, however, draw a subtle but firm line between embracing reggae's Yankee cousin and falling victim to "foreign mind." Enduring inequalities that correlate all too well with one's shade of skin, and one's freedom to move, exert no small pressure on the meanings of music and culture in Jamaica.

But meanings shade differently in different contexts, and there are many — in Jamaica and abroad — who revel in the success of Marley and Sean Paul with that consummate pride that West Indian folk feel for their fellows. The ever-increasing number of people invested in reggae — an international audience of aficionados and devoted practitioners — itself ensures an enthusiastic reception of any chunes big enough to reach a farin. Of course, mainstream America has already demonstrated its approval of both acts: The Trinity is the biggest reggae debut in the U.S. to date, with 107,000 copies sold in the week after its release on September 27; prior to The Trinity that record was held by Marley's Welcome to Jamrock, which moved 85,000 units when it was released two weeks earlier.

Their success is well earned. Author Jeff Chang rightly pronounces Damian's album to be "the best Marley album ever by someone not named Bob." Damian's got flow, no doubt, while the Marley boys prove themselves to be competent, versatile producers, if a bit hit-or-miss. At times they range a likkle too far across the map, falling into SNL-sax-style, smooth-jazz sinkholes and taking a few too many cues from Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff" rather than their father's version. But overall the beats are hard and polished, and Damian's vocals show both growth and potential. His righteousness is as inspiring as it is cloying, unfortunately, which makes for a bumpy ride but gives you a good sense of the lay of the land. And, of course, the big chune of big chunes of 2005, "Welcome to Jamrock," is itself worth the price of admission — my own, and others', qualms about its contradictions notwithstanding.

Considering that both compete in the same marketplace, for my money, Sean Paul's album is the better of the two. The Trinity is power pop par excellence. Sticking to some of dancehall's finest producers, it boasts the better riddims. No schmaltzy overproduction here, just bear Triton funk. And Sean Paul has always been wicked when voicing in the studio: his sing-song hooks are well-crafted and tuneful (if simply so), his verses immaculately delivered, and his overdubs sweet as ever in their strange-but-smooth harmonies. Sean Paul's songwriting rarely strays from seduction or sexual prowess, but perhaps that's for the best. A couple ventures into more serious topics lack the grace of his regular efforts. Mainly, they lack the levity of what we've come to expect from Sean Paul. His music is, on the main, lighter than Marley's. Maybe that's why his confections go down easier.


Blogger Alice B. said...

Hey Wayne,
I'm happy you posted the review because I couldn't find it while in Boston. So thanks for posting it. Your observations reveal, as usual, great valuable insight into Jamaican society. The last paragraph of the review begs the question: should music be judged based on how well it conforms to existing well-defined musical styles or should it be judged based on its creativity?

12:07 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

hey alice,

that's a good--and challenging--question. i guess i would start an answer by recognizing that people assign value to music according to wildly different criteria, depending on the contexts of production and reception and the perspectives of those doing the judging, not to mention various ideological and discursive currents which tend to influence the judgments we make.

in this case, i'm evaluating both albums as "pop" albums, which i think they undoubtedly are. both albums conform to norms about forms, which is not to say that one doesn't find plenty of creativity in the way that damian or sean paul work with and against these norms. frankly, though, given their similar recourse to cliches of all sorts (which is par for the course in pop music), i'm not sure i would be able to say who is the more creative or conformist of the two.

if we want to get all absolute about it, and disregard the context of the pop music industry, then i would probably agree with your implied assertion: that the measure of music should have more to do with its ability to provoke and surprise and challenge and innovate (with all the attendant sonic-social repercussions) than with its ability to meet our expectations.

but this is an aesthetic debate that has been raging for some time now in the wake of various critiques of "traditional" (i.e., eurocentric) hierarchies and discourses of value. to the extent that i can inform someone's reception of these albums by providing lots of socio-cultural context, i hope to preclude "trad," reactionary, and loaded systems of evaluation.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous ken c. said...

Okay, this is super missed by your audience right? A bit insider uptown top rankin' shit: "For one thing, partly because of their literal and figurative distance from downtown, neither Marley nor Sean Paul has ever been fully accepted by dancehall denizens." We don't all read Stolzoff and Carolyn Cooper. Of course the sense is taken but with sting and passa passa behind it (as well as a whole lotta other shit) you might wanna be more expansive here. Besides that, and the talk about going foreign (to anglicize) i think to assess the two pieces of canon fodder you gotta play riddim politics. S.P. won't really ever inspire people to jump on one but the world jam has so much niceness on it man, and that's part of evaluating without a U.S. perspective. Albums aren't a thing in JA really. The last one that did anything or was any good was Tanya's (and she's a member of a group [women] that never really does a thing in the JA [to compound the translation problem]) and it was such an American release. I guess i don't really know where I'm going with this but jamrock is huge (well contradictory as well), probably bigger than anything since...'champion' or 'murderer' and sean paul is hopelessly not that and never has been.

8:34 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

"you might wanna be more expansive here"

you can say that again, ken. but given a 1200 word limit, one can only say so much, though one can gesture at much more.

i appreciate the distinction you're drawing between damian and sean paul, but i don't hear much besides "jamrock" to get excited about on marley's album (certainly no more than any tracks on SP's, which are, admittedly, equally uninspiring, if more entertaining). and, as you agree, jamrock itself is full of contradictions. perhaps worst of all, it simultaneously glorifies (and profits on) the very inequalities and injustices it claims to chant down.

and i don't know how you're measuring "huge-ness"--but, given your examples, i suspect it's some combination of popularity and righteousness. let's face it: SP's "get busy" is huger--in terms of sales, airplay, clubplay, etc.--than any of these tunes.

i think we have to ask what kind of work is "jamrock" doing? and i'm just not convinced that it's doing anything more productive than any sean paul songs. i'm not sure it's so easy to evaluate each performer's "inspiration-capacity" and predict where that might lead.

re: stolzoff and cooper, although they've played no small role in explaining the uptown/downtown dynamic to non-jamaicans, frankly, i much prefer deborah thomas for insight into the complexity of contemporary class/race matters in jamaica, and my own perspective on these matters was informed not so much by books but by the time i've spent living in kingston. pretending that race doesn't matter in our reception of marley and SP doesn't make the issue go away. indeed, bob marley's neutralization as a fratboy party staple speaks directly to this question: what good is good, righteous, radical music if people are so woefully unable to understand it?

finally, much as i attempt a certain vigilance with respect to where i'm coming from, i suspect it is difficult for me to "evaluat[e] without a U.S. perspective." my attempt to understand meanings in jamaica are intended to enrich and complicate the meanings made here and elsewhere. that said, i am glad to be but one voice among many, and i hope to see, if not provoke, more perspectives on these kinds of questions. i thank you for sharing yours with me.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous ken said...

Ah...yeah that looked like a dig didn't it. Naw it wasn't meant to be at all (the cooper stolzoff thing) rather just a shorthand for a background about class issues in JA which you made a fairly subtle allusion to. Sorry if it was taken in the wrong tone. I'm not a dick, really.

Again with the "U.S. perspective," not dig but just my own idea about evaluating an artist in terms of single rather than album since I feel the albums are for consumption by ... ? They're just weird man. So rather than look at the two albums I wanted to look at how many other artists (and the type) that feel they have to follow on the same riddim with a (sort of) response as well as what the singular tune does (in imagination if not fact) towards galvanizing a sort of transnational Jamaican music listening community. What for? eh... just doing something like that, at point of reception, is something at least and that's why I see Jamrock as being "bigger," big like Buju's 'Murderer' (or, less fortunately, Boom Bye Bye). Sean Paul didn't sell his comtemporaries on the Diwali with Get Busy I don't think but I'd argue that World Jam's popularity is directly a result of Damian (and yeah I know when I say that there's a lot behind "Damian" besides just the person that went into the Jamrock phenomenon).

P.S. I've got some serious issues with those two authors' work who I mentioned in the first post as well, and academic writing about subjects like dancehall in general (which is why, in general, I stick to dead white men to write about), mostly because the artists themselves have already said it all and don't necessarily need to be translated for glass house people. I prefer Ninjaman for the social commentary (even though some is very hard to untangle for my midwest ears). One piece I find really exciting and fair and self aware, however, is the transcript of Louis Chude-Sokei's inaugural Bob Marley lecture given at UWI Mona titled 'Dr Satan's Echo Chamber' because it doesn't presume much rather than that its audience understands the importance of the "break" and will allow that importance to be articulated in terms of dub. Anyway that's off topic but as a non-sequiter to a nonsequiter it's time for me to go watch my Hurricanes demolish the tarheels.

8:42 AM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

ah, thanks for clearing some of that up, ken.

once again, you direct us to questions of audience, which are paramount. my imagined audience in this case--at least primarily--is the (local) readership of the boston phoenix, which, despite some diversity therein, is precisely the group (i.e., not the Kingston massive) to whom these albums are being marketed. so i wanted to tease out a bit about the meanings behind the music since so much of the marketing (if not the music itself) glosses over all that. i totally see your point with regards to a big tune's ability to galvanize the transnational listening community, and that's why i have never downplayed the hugeness of "jamrock." but i wouldn't go so far as to idealize it either. your idea, though--to examine the follow-up recordings on "world jam" (if not alongside the kamoze)--would definitely be a fruitful one. unfortunately, it wouldn't be quite right for the forum in which i was writing.

and, though i don't want to get into this quagmire right now, i suspect that i share some of your serious issues not just with the two writers in question but with writing on popular music and culture in general. at the same time, i couldn't imagine retreating to (and reinforcing) the safe world of dead white men, though. (and that's not a dig, trust me.) given how powerful and important this music is, and how deeply i think that music informs our ideas about self and community, i feel a certain responsibility to approach it with the critical engagement it not only merits but engenders. of course, i agree that it is absolutely essential to bring the kind of enthusiasm, fairness, and self-awareness to such an enterprise that you felt in chude-sokei's work. i humbly hope to do the same, if in my own way--and in the right forum.


9:10 AM  
Anonymous matt s. said...

Thanks for 're-printing' the article for all to read. First off, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writings and musings on all things cultural, musical and technological. Especially the first two. Not being nearly as familiar with Jamaican music as I should be, but being moreso than your average American, I don't have much to add, criticize or congratulate from a music aspect. What caught my eye was your ability to smoothly transition back and forth from Jamaican patois and other cutural slang to more scholarly/academic/journalstic(?) tone. The reason I even mention it is the discussion that Scoop Jackson's article concerning Phil Jacksons' recent comments on the NBA's new dress code: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=jackson/051101.

Scoop is extremely liberal with his cultural expressions and hip hop slang that is probably lost on a fair number of ESPN's readers. I find the parallel interesting. Scoop obviously has the wider audience, but like you doesn't he still have an obligation to his readers to make a better attempt at blending his cultural influences with his duty as a journalist? I'm not articulating my thoughts as well as I'd like, but I was curious as to your opinions on a writer/journalist's duty to both their core demographic based on the topic of their writing and a wider (in this case national) audience as a whole.

7:21 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

hey matt,

thanks for your kind words and your challenging question. addressing the latter could easily create a post of its own, but i don't have time for that at the moment, so allow me to respond in brief.

first off, i think that scoop's language--especially in the context of blasting phil jackson--is quite deliberately steeped in hip-hop. even if he writes this way more frequently, we can read his employment of hip-hop slang as a kind of militancy, a refusal to bow to "mainstream" (though, what's more mainstream than hip-hop?) stereotypes about what is and is not proper, and an articulation of his perspective and his sympathies in no uncertain terms.

in terms of my own very mixed discourse--and you are right to note the jamaican slang, hip-hop slang, and academic slang (which i hope tends more toward precise language and less toward jargon)--i do so for a variety of reasons, including, to some extent, those i speculate are motivating scoop.

i like to combine all of these discourses because that is the way i think. these are the words that i use and that i have learned to use in the various communities and contexts in which i find myself. as a writing strategy, i like the way it is at once playful and provocative, allowing me to shift back and forth between insider/outsider perspective and to communicate my serious engagement with all these worlds.

in this way, one of my role models and sources of inspiration is the great greg tate, who has been tearing up language and culture and american complacency for years in the village voice and other publications. (see his article "yo hermeneutics!" for a great example of how hip-hop can teach the academy a thing or two, as well as how they can harmonize.) tate epitomizes a certain kind of music writing that, for me, rises to the level of the music it attempts to represent and interpret, playing as much with signifiers and associations and cultural critique as the object in question.

with regards to notions of "responsibility," i can't say that i feel particularly torn between communicating with a "core" audience (whoever that might be) and a wider audience. i most definitely seek to communicate with as wide an audience as possible, but i also believe that the audience has just as much responsibility to make efforts to understand new ways of saying things and seeing things.

interestingly, if you look at the edit that actually ran in the phoenix, the "overzealous" copy-editor actually changed a bunch of my jamaicanisms (which is understandable, if a bit annoying). clearly, for that editor, there was a more pressing need to make the piece comprehensible. whether that radically changes the meanings of what i'm hoping people will comprehend is another question, though.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...


Thanks for the reply and recommendations. I'll check out Greg Tate when I have a free moment.

It's tough to judge a writer's sincerity and authenticity when he writes in the style that Scoop does. On one hand, maybe he's just representing himself the best way he knows how. On the other hand, I can't shake the feeling that it's all a contrived gimmick. To my untrained eye (I'm a scholar of the sciences, not the humanities), it reads as if he's trying to hard to rep his hip hop background. I don't know if going to speak to an auditorium full of college students, wearing jeans that "were hanging off my ass" helps more than it hurts. I know that there's some sincerity there, but it feels as if he's trying too hard. He wants hip hop to be in the limelight too badly. Instead of making the point and moving on, it felt like he was beating it into the ground from all angles. Maybe it's just a matter of personal opinion.

I'll be keeping an eye out for your post on my latter question.

12:58 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

i see what you mean about scoop, matt. and i guess i wasn't really appraising what he does so much as affirming his license to do so. his style is definitely not on the subtle side--nor is it terribly original, save for the context (though sportscenter announcers have been cleverly referencing/incorporating hip-hop for a long time now). comparing him to tate is sort of like comparing g-unit to anti-pop consortium: one recycles cliches and rides the bandwagon, the other invents in a tradition and pushes it along; one stereotypes, the other types stereo. (but let's not belabor that metaphor, aiight?)

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comparrison between Sean Paul and Damian is natural but when you said The Trinity is a better album I had to laugh. Welcome to Jamrock is a masterpiece. As for Sean Paul, I don't own anything he's ever released, and I own nearly 1000 store bought discs. Oh, and I don't plan on buying any Sean Paul in the near future. I'm sorry that you are listening impaired. Perhaps you should listen to the Island Bob box set to re-adjust your ears and then listen to Damian and Sean again. Like I said MASTERPIECE! Sean Paul is good but he's no Marley... Bob or otherwise!!!!!!!!!!

4:09 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

i compared the two because they came out at the same time. in retrospect, i'm not sure whether i still think the sean paul is stronger than the marley, but i know that i preferred it at the time i wrote this. and i really don't know about masterpiece. (the horrible bobby brown cut pretty much precludes that.) there are some strong tracks on jamrock, no doubt, but let's hope damian's masterpiece will be more consistent.

1:14 PM  

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