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REMEMBERING THE EARLY DANCEHALL YEARS

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, March 16, 2008.

 

 

When I listen to dancehall music pre-1985, I hear the same thing I hear when I listen to early hip-hop.

 

Specifically, I hear how different the DJs' styles are, and how their flows are all locked tight in the pocket. By ‘tight in the pocket', I mean they are not, unlike later MCs and DJs, trying to be complicated or tricky, or ‘scientific,’ as Rakim might say.

 

But at the same time, they’re very entertaining, because both their rhythmic sense and their individuality are so strong. The early vocalists of both hip-hop and dancehall also tend to perform their lyrics in streams of unrelated phrases; rarely is there a narrative or even much of a unifying theme.

 

This is why it can be so enjoyable to chant along with them, just as the artists intended. Early dancehall was communal music. The intent was for the audience to join in as often and as loudly as possible. To that end, most of the lyrics of early dancehall are simple, easy to remember.

 

You might not be able to repeat the actual words, especially so if you’re not familiar with Jamaican patois, but you can definitely follow the melodies, the rhythms and the chants.

 

The similarities go deeper than just dancehall and hip-hop. When I listen to early blues records like “It’s Tight Like That,” “Diddie Wah Diddie” or “Dirty Mother For You”, I hear some of the same elements:the same strong rhythmic sense, partnered with nonsensical and/or repetitious rhymes.

 

The same loose, relaxed style as in the case with early Jamaican DJs like Yellowman and Tenor Saw, the appeal of blues cats like Roosevelt Sykes and Bukka White is mainly their charismatic voices and unique styles.

 

The more you listen across genres, the more commonalities you’ll hear in the early forms of black music.

 

Here’s another one for you: whether we’re talking about dancehall, blues, hip-hop or whatever else, in the earliest forms of the music there usually isn’t much emphasis on originality in lyrical content. You’ll frequently find the same lyrics, phrases and even vocal affectations coming from different performers.

 

That said, there is usually a huge emphasis on any given vocalist having an original style. In early forms of black music, often, what you say isn't the most important thing, rather it’s how you say it.

 

With one example each from four early Jamaican DJs, let’s take a quick look at their styles and what made them interesting and original.

 

The first example is Yellowman’s classic “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” from his 1983 album of the same name. It’s as good a place to start as any because I’ve frequently heard it said that Yellowman virtually specialized in recycling the lyrics of rival DJs. And even if he wasn’t stealing, Yellow’s lyrics are often no more complicated than children’s rhymes. Here’s a quote from the first verse of “Zungguzeng”:

 

    Say, if you have a start

    You must have a end

    Say, if you have a paper

    You pass me the pen

    But me tell you Yellowman

    Have too much girlfriend…

    Say, all a them have yellow children  

 

If Yellow’s rhymes are either recycled or simple or both, why is he so popular? Why is it so much fun to listen to him do his thing?

 

It’s his vocal style and charisma. His manner on the mic is commanding, almost imperious. Even when he’s being self deprecating—and he often is; paradoxically so, considering his usually sober demeanor—he still sounds regal. In addition, his flow is so strong that, to my ears, his words take on a sort of inevitability. Once he puts a thing a certain way, it’s hard to imagine it ever having been put differently.

 

Compare all of that with the nasal, sing-song methodology employed by Tappa Zukie on his record, “Different Fashion” , originally a single, now available on the box set, Trojan Legends.

 

Where Yellowman sometimes lets his words hang almost as if he’s pausing to admire his own verbal acuity, Tappa’s words tumble out as if of their own volition, with one piling breathlessly upon the next.

 

There’s nothing inevitable about Tappa’s style at all, it actually sounds accidental. (I’m not claiming that it is. What Tappa does is at least as difficult as Yellowman’s more basic approach.) Yellow’s phrases are powerful and perfectly formed. Tappa’s are squiggly and eccentric.

 

Note too that while Yellow’s lyrics may be simple, “Different Fashion” has no lyrics at all, strictly speaking. Tappa’s words are little more than a series of repeated phrases and not necessarily related ones either. I doubt that Tappa actually ‘composed’ any of what he’s saying; it sounds more like he’s making it up as he goes along.

 

In both respects (the non-rhyming, random phrases as well as the improvised nature of the vocals), what Tappa is doing is similar to what the early hip-hop MCs did before the music was actually recorded. It’s also similar to bounce music, a hybridized hip-hop style unique to New Orleans (and some say, Memphis).

 

                        

                      TENOR SAW

 

Now check Tenor Saw’s “Ring The Alarm,” a 1985 dancehall record that should sound very familiar to fans of the Fugees.  Here, Tenor sounds nothing like either Tappa or Yellow. Listening to Tenor, the first thing I noticed is the odd quaver in his delivery – it almost sounds like his voice is bouncing around instead of coming from just one place.

 

To account for that echoing sound in his voice, I imagine him jumping around in the recording booth or maybe swaying back and forth. The Doppler effect at work? Maybe. Tenor also likes to make strange noises at unexpected times. I’m no expert on Jamaican music so I don’t know if Tenor was one of the first cats to do that or not, but you can still hear vocal affectations like his in today’s dancehall.

 

Let’s close out with “King Tubby’s Special” by the legendary U-Roy. Undoubtedly, U-Roy has the wildest, most unlikely style of all the early DJs. Instead of the more conventional approaches favored by his contemporaries, U-Roy chats in a crazed whine that for all of its lunacy is also oddly conversational.

 

U-Roy never really sounds like he’s performing, it’s more like he’s the half-nuts dude who hangs around the neighborhood talking to whoever Is wiling to listen. As if his basic style isn’t strange enough, U-Roy also frequently interrupts himself to scream his trademark “Whoah!” or break into an impromptu scatting session.

 

It may be a language barrier thing, but I rarely have any idea of what U-Roy is talking about. To me, some of his records sound like a two-way argument even when he’s the only one there. Despite all of that, I can’t help liking U-Roy’s records.

 

         

          DADDY U-ROY

 

He’s got just as much charisma (if not more) as Yellowman, Tappa Zukie or Tenor Saw, and his style is as original as they come. In fact, I think I’ve read that U-Roy is one of less than a handful of DJs who can rightfully lay claim to inventing the dancehall genre itself.

 

At the beginning of this write-up, I said that I think of early dancehall as everything before 1985. What happened recently?

 

Glad you asked. Jamaican producer Prince Jammy along with vocalist Wayne Smith dropped something called “(Under Me) Sleng Teng.” Previously, dancehall recordings had been created by the DJ reciting his lyrics over a dub plate or instrumental of someone else’s record. But Wayne and Jammy came up with a new—and, more to the point, 100% electronic—beat of their own.

 

I won’t include “Sleng Teng” here because firstly, it’s a different style than these other dancehall records. And I’ve never liked it. Another odd thing about “Sleng Teng” is that the rhythm was apparently lifted directly from a pre-set beat on a Casio keyboard. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the beat sure sounds cheesy enough for it to be true.

 

In any event, whether or not the rhythm was ripped off from Casio isn’t really the point, the point is “Sleng Teng” was like a digital line drawn across the acoustic sand. Soon, no one dared—or wanted to—cross that line and dancehall turned all electronic.

 

Along the way, there were hybrids of the old style and the new, but once people heard the crisp intensity of electronic bass, it was only a matter of time before dancehall became an entirely digital realm.

 

Eventually, the keyboards and the drum machines took over, and as the years passed, the music became harder and harder, both in style and substance.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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