Dancehall Music….How Do I Describe It?
The other day I was listening to some country music (not by choice) and a song came on called “All I Wanted Was a Car” by Brad Paisley. He sings about how when he was sixteen years old he really just wanted a car so he could drive around and be cool as a country teenager.
First of all I can’t stand country music because the lyrics seem so….ummm….country! Then my mind wandered to the different genres of music and how that song would differ depending on the genre that sang it. A country boy just wanted a car. A rap artist would steal that car and put hydraulics on it. A pop artist would go on a road trip in that car. And a Jamaican dancehall artist would simulate sex on top of the car at a street party. Maybe the wholesomeness of country music isn’t so bad after all.
Jamaica has two different genres of music; the world renowned genre of reggae which would be the angel on one shoulder. And then the little devil on the other shoulder called Dancehall. I’m not going to focus too much on reggae since everyone in the world knows it because of the legendary Bob Marley and other greats that helped create the smooth sound of reggae.
Dancehall on the other hand, one could talk about the ins and outs of this genre for decades and still not finish explaining it. There are two overwhelming tones to dancehall music; sex and violence with a bunch of party vibes thrown in for good measure. I guess that makes it sound pretty similar to rap music except dancehall sounds so much better and the artists are exceptional lyricists. The music is so catchy that even though I know the songs I sing along to are disgusting I still get lost in the overall sound of the tune and find myself singing lyrics I’d never speak in a million years!
The first thing you need to know about dancehall music are riddims. A riddim (which translates to rhythm in proper English) is the music behind a song and each riddim has a unique name which is surprising because riddims date back to the beginning of reggae music. I can’t believe they keep coming up with names that aren’t repeats. Is there a vault somewhere that keeps prehistoric records of all riddim names that they can refer back to when inventing new names?
Examples of riddim names could be something simple such as “Overproof” riddim or “Nice Time” riddim, which make sense in proper English. Then you’ll come across names like “Tun Up Tun Up” riddim and “Dem Time Deh” riddim which make no sense at all if you don’t understand Patois.
One of the unique things about Jamaican music, whether dancehall or reggae, is that several artists make songs on the same riddim. It’s not unusual to find five or six different songs to the same music and ALL of those songs could be major hits at the same time. When was the last time you heard five pop artists sing to the same music and each song does well on the radio or in clubs at the same time? Never. This is not only common but normal in Jamaica.
One of the most odd things about Jamaican dancehall music (as compared to mainstream North American music) is that it seems mandatory to shout out the song producer in the song. Like who else does this? You will never hear an American call out the name Stephen many times in their song. I bet lots of you have heard that but don’t know who the hell Stephen (McGregor) is. Another thing each artist seems to have is a signature word or sound they say in each song. Only Busy Signal would place a “HOTHEAD” right in the middle of a romantic ballad, and only Bounty Killer would start a song by being “Cross, Angry and Miserable”. I’ve never figured out why Jah Vinci is “out clear” all the time though.
As I said there are SO many ins and outs to dancehall music that I could write for years and still not cover it all. Just one more way Jamaica is and will always be unique in its own funky way.