THIS YEAR’S New Music Seminar featured a panel called “Reggae in the ’90s: Does Dancehall Rule?” Both Jamaican and New York’s regional enthusiasm for dancehall were thus brought to an internal forum for the first time, and the mainstream recording industry had to take notice. Not only have dancehall singles penetrated all sorts of New York nightclubs, but local black radio has been slipping them into their mix shows and drivetime programming for more than a year. Although this Jamaican music trend is considered a subset of Jamaican music, most attempts to define dancehall and how it differs from “reggae” somehow miss the mark.
Not long before his death in ’81, Bob Marley traced the progress of Jamaican r&b in terms of tempo. Young soul rebels always demanded danceable jams, according to Marley, and ’50s ska was very fast. Rock steady, which rose to prominence in the ’60s, slowed things down a bit, and reggae, born in the stressful ’70s, laid back into a hypnotic lope. Toward the beginning of the ’80s, the specific mood, feel, and topicality of Rasta-reggae competed neck and neck with lovers’ rock, which, as its name implies, focuses on romance, sex, and the lighter side of those current events that Rasta musicians imbued with apocalyptic portent. As the decade wore on, rhythms (as well as the social drugs of choice) got speedy again.
As producers, both Lee Perry and the ’70s wunderkind Geoffrey Chung called their most powerful work out of the Rasta ethos. Perry’s ear for radical blends of vocal technique, quirky polyrhythms, and calculated sonic distortion marked legendary singles by Marley, Max Romeo, and Junior Murvin, among others. Chung’s reverb-laden settings for Ijahman and Pablo Moses are still some of the most hauntingly elegiac odes on vinyl. When the Rasta philosophy lost its pop star Marley, happier minstrels (in the form of sassy “toasting MCs” like Yellowman) became Jamaican cultural heroes. The commercial imperative that prompted early island musicians to imitate then deviate imaginatively from American soul in the first place reasserted itself. Lovers’ rock stars like J. C. Lodge and a new school of younger producers sifted through long-established reggae “riddims,” stamped them with new personalities, or even grafted them onto select cover tunes from the British and American pop charts.
Sly & Robbie, whose crossover hits with Gwen Guthrie and Grace Jones proved that, yes, reggae producers could create bankable mainstream singles, became a guiding light for young Jamaican talent. Today’s dancehall vogue differs from the initial stateside reggae boom in two particulars: one, it is far less oriented toward religion and Pan-Africanism than the Rasta-reggae wave. With the welcome return of Lee Perry as artist/producer on From the Secret Laboratory (Mango), and with Maxi Priest topping the U.S. pop chart with the Chung-produced “Close to You” from Bonafide (Charisma), it’s a good time to reassess the mass market accessibility of reggae’s polymorphous hybrids.
Although some tunes on Bonafide have the stuttery, flippant speed of contemporary dancehall, the album is really a smorgasbord of Jamaican crooner formulas that haven’t changed much since the ’60s heyday of Slim Smith. Three production teams give Maxi a spin this time around: two distinctive island stylists and the Anglo-Jamaican contenders of the moment. The Soul II Soul posse deploy their normally broad range of influences on Maxi’s behalf much the way Chung and rootsmeister “Gussie” Clark do — with restraint, and a feel for the singer’s mellow persona. Just like Sly and Robbie and Willie Lindo do on Maxi’s Virgin debut last year, the producers of Bonafide work with memorable melodies, simple arrangements, and direct lyrics to show off the nuances of a performer able to sound as MOR as George Benson or as folksy as Gregory Isaacs. Priest hit the top of the pop charts a month ago not with the fervid insinuations of Shabba Ranks, or the staccato incantations of other dancehall kings, but with the mellow candor of a dreadlocked Cat Stevens.
Lee Perry is quite another kettle of fish. He and co-producer Adrian Sherwood utilize two of the best session bands on the island — Roots Radics and the Dub Syndicate — to execute an albumful of anarchic rhythm tracks over which Perry and a Valkyrie chorus declaim. According to the lyric of the leadoff track this is “scientific dancehall.” A hyper-reggae with a deeper purpose besides getting the party started. Perry’s most memorable collaboration with Marley, the subversively Dada “Punky Reggae Party,” is a prototype for the Secret Laboratory set. Considered one of the fathers of dub, Perry relishes orchestrated chaos, and once you are onto his game it can be quite a kick to sort through aural collages like “Seven Devils Dead,” which blends the bizarre and the familiar as well as a Gaudí cathedral. But, alas, this is not the stuff of which top 10 records are made.
If there is nothing on either Maxi Priest’s or Lee Perry’s current offerings that resembles the gleeful raunch of “Wicked In Bed” or the police-blotter vérité of “Gun Inna Baggy” (to name two recent dancehall hits warmly embraced by crossover club jocks in New York), it ain’t because dancehall don’t rule. It’s just a question of the subterranean location of its kingdom.
Published in: Village Voice, November 13, 1990