A Beginner's Guide to Dancehall Music
    • WEDNESDAY, JULY 12, 2017

    • Posted by: Olivia Lewis

    Over the past couple of years, influence from dancehall music has been making its way into the music of some of pop's and hip hop's biggest stars, including Drake, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber. You may recognize it as the "tropical" sound of Justin Bieber's "Sorry" or Drake's "One Dance," but just what is dancehall?

    Dancehall originated in Jamaica in the late 1970s, evolving out of the roots reggae style that had dominated popular music in Jamaica for most of the 70s. The genre was named for the actual dance halls that were created in the 1940s by the people of inner city Kingston. One defining feature of dancehall is the use of Jamaican Patois (a.k.a. what Rihanna was speaking/singing on "Work," not gibberish as some people initially thought), rather than Jamaican Standard English. The genre is also very heavily defined by the culture surrounding it; dancehall was played by local "sound systems," or groups of deejays, engineers and MCs. In the genre there's a focus on the instrumental backing tracks or "riddims," which are reused and reinterpreted by all different singers and MCs. Another aspect of the culture that grew in popularity over time was the "sound clash album," an album that featured rival deejays or sound systems competing over a track for the audience. These clashes could sometimes get violent, as documented in underground cassette recordings.

    So, what does actual dancehall sound like? I put together a list of five influential or well-known dancehall artists to give you an idea:

    1. Yellowman

    Yellowman, popular in the 80s, was one of the most successful early dancehall artists, enjoying for a time a level of prominence comparable to that of Bob Marley. He was also the first Jamaican deejay to be signed to an American record label, Columbia Records. Yellowman put out a sizable amount of music, releasing over 40 singles and up to 5 albums every year during the early 80s.


    2. Lady Saw

    Known as the Queen of Dancehall, Lady Saw was the first female deejay to win a Grammy Award and to be certified as a triple-platinum artist. She adopted an especially brazen sexual persona in an attempt to keep up with the best deejays, and ended up lyrically surpassing much of the competition, both male and female. She made dancehall a successful career for more than two decades, and has since changed directions drastically, choosing the spirituality of gospel music instead.


    3. Super Cat

    Super Cat is considered one of the greatest dancehall deejays of all time. Early on, he created his own record label, Wild Apache Productions, and began producing his own records. As he became more successful and his music became better known in the U.S., he began working with major labels in America like Columbia Records and Sony Music. His 1992 album Don Dada was one of the first dancehall albums to be released on a major label.


    4. Shabba Ranks

    Known for his instantly recognizable voice, Shabba Ranks was one of the most popular deejays of his generation and was one of the first Jamaican dancehall artists to be recognized worldwide. Shabba Ranks gained his fame through rapping or "toasting," rather than singing. He signed with Epic Records in 1991, and after releasing five albums for major labels, he is one of the most prolific dancehall artists to break into the mainstream.


    A$AP Ferg even made a song about Shabba Ranks back in 2013, aptly titled "Shabba." The dancehall legend made a rare cameo in Ferg's video.


    5. Sister Nancy

    Sister Nancy is widely known as the first female dancehall deejay. Her biggest song, "Bam Bam," is also one of the most easily recognizable dancehall songs, with the riddim and her vocals being sampled in countless other songs, including Kanye West's "Famous." Sister Nancy was born into a conservative environment, and was therefore expected to uphold conservative values like staying in the household and being family oriented. She was rebellious, and although her father continued to try to convince her to pursue Christian music instead of dancehall, the latter was her love. As a teenager she got into dancehall, and often was the only girl at the dance.

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