Stir it Up

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an article which explores the current upswing in popularity of Dancehall Reggae and its fusion with other genres in the US and England. Too bad they didn’t mention my man Roots Manuva, who, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of a mixing hip-hop and reggae. (And I’m real surprised that Elephant Man and the guy from Tuff Gong haven’t heard of Dizzee Rascal… go figure)

I’ve archived the complete article below…

Rap-reggae recipe brings genres to same table
Nick Marino – Staff
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Since its birth some 25 years ago in the New York streets, hip-hop has been on an upward trajectory. It has radically influenced American popular culture, altering the way the country dresses, talks and thinks. Last year, when every one of the top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 featured some form of rapping, the music arguably reached its all-time commercial peak.

Now it’s looking down from the pop-culture mountaintop, examining its foundation. What it has discovered is reggae — the longstanding Jamaican music that, in the 1970s, provided hip-hop’s building blocks.

Reggae and hip-hop have traded ideas in the intervening years, but the pace has quickened dramatically in the past few months, with the genres swapping stylistic trademarks at a dizzying pace. The cultural cross-pollination has given each genre an energy boost, sparking a major creative upswing in both.

In fact, although hip-hop and reggae have been intertwined for three decades, the recent fusion is the biggest and freshest thing to happen to either genre in some time. It further cements hip-hop’s place as an international genre and, just as important, marks the long awaited American crossover of the exciting reggae subgenre known as dancehall, which features stiff beats and flowing, half-sung lyrics.

As the genres have solidified their mutually beneficial partnership, the gap between them has narrowed to an almost invisible sliver, a margin so small that it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. The hip-hop community has embraced Caribbean pronunciations and dancehall melodies. Reggae artists have tapped into urban media. Rap stars and reggae stars perform constantly on one another’s records, and in October a joint all-star team released “Def Jamaica,” a sprawling compilation CD featuring some of the biggest names in both genres, working together.

The fusion has created a star in dancehall golden boy Sean Paul, who has sold more than 2 million copies of his “Dutty Rock” album, lent his vocals to a No. 1 hit collaboration with R&B it girl Beyonce and become the first reggae artist to grace the cover of Vibe magazine.

Dancehall’s next big thing appears to be Elephant Man, who performed on the remix of “Get Low,” a hit by Atlanta hip-hop stars Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. Jon returned the favor on Elephant Man’s 2003 album “Good 2 Go,” performing (along with fellow Atlantan Bone Crusher) on the track “Jook Gal (Wine, Wine).”

Hip-hop and reggae “are close right now — close. The reason is because the hip-hop it mesh with the reggae, and the reggae it mesh with the hip-hop,” says Elephant Man, the blond, chocolate-skinned Jamaican whose raspy voice makes Ray Charles sound like Sarah Brightman.

“The only problem was that no one was recognizing that until now. [Now] they recognize that if you put a splendid hip-hop artist with a splendid dancehall artist, it’s gonna be one of the biggest track[s], believe me. Believe me, because it’s a whole different vibe. And it’s like, they talk in proper English and we talk in patois. So when people hear that, they’re like, ‘Damn, this song great.’ And it got two different fan lines. You got dancehall fans, you got hip-hop fans. So when you collabo that, our fans gonna go crazy and hip-hop fans are gonna go crazy.”

Nuts and bolts

Patois, a kind of Caribbean vernacular, distinguishes dancehall stars from American artists only in their specific diction and pronunciation. Caribbean artists give cues about their roots with their speech patterns and accents, but that’s no different from U.S. rappers, whose own slang has pushed the words crunk and bling into the popular lexicon.

Hip-hop and reggae have several lyrical parallels, including a frankness about issues other genres are afraid to touch — namely race and class — and an ability to deliver a strong sense of place.

Any serious hip-hop fan can identify Jay-Z’s former New York housing project (Marcy), for example, because he name-checks it so often. And even casual listeners can distinguish the hard New York sound, the lazy-funky West Coast sound and the crunked-up Southern sound.

No matter where their artists call home, both reggae and hip-hop have long lyrical traditions of discussing struggle and strife. The difficult urban lifestyle has sparked songs from Desmond Dekker’s late-’60s anthem “007 (Shanty Town)” to N.W.A.’s 1988 firebomb “Straight Outta Compton” and beyond.

The genres share sonic similarities, too, but in order to fully grasp the connection, listeners need to look deeper into Caribbean music than the swaying catalog of Jamaican giant Bob Marley, which is where many Americans’ reggae collections stop.

Dancehall reggae’s sound is more compressed than Marley’s. As its name indicates, it’s also more danceable. Dancehall is insistent where Marley was patient. Dancehall throbs. The music comes out of the speaker so fast, it sounds like a train blowing by.

From there it’s a short path to hip-hop, where, as in dancehall, the biggest artists have larger-than-life personalities and the bass thump comes out of the studio club-ready. There’s a certain amount of potato/potahto jargon — beats and MCs are to hip-hop what riddims and DJs are to dancehall — but the genres share enough basic elements to make genre-hopping easy.

So why hasn’t the crossover happened until now? Why didn’t the genres fully connect in the early ’90s, for example, with the emergence of dancehall star Shabba Ranks?

“Now everybody’s calling this the second coming of dancehall,” says Cristy Barber, president of Tuff Gong Records and executive producer of “Def Jamaica.”

“What’s a little different this time — in the early ’90s, it was really hip-hop that was really breaking popular, and there wasn’t room for the two of us.”

Hip-hop has since positioned itself not as a passing fad, but as the most dominant force in pop.

“The hip-hop generation is getting back to its roots with dancehall and reggae music,” says Vibe music editor Erik Parker. “And the excitement that was generated around hip-hop back in the ’70s is similar to the excitement that surrounds reggae today.”


American music has influenced the Caribbean for generations, with R&B making a particularly big imprint on Jamaican music of the 1960s. But American hip-hop’s 1970s salad days owe a large debt to Jamaican immigrant Kool DJ Herc, who drove New York dancers crazy with extended beats, paving the way for break dancing and inspiring one of rap’s founding fathers, Grandmaster Flash.

The genres have been linked ever since: Run-DMC collaborated with Yellowman on the 1985 cut “Roots, Rap, Reggae,” and the pioneering ’80s rapper KRS-One (whose father was born in Trinidad) brought traces of the Caribbean to his Boogie Down Productions work. In the early ’90s, Shabba Ranks connected hip-hop with its reggae kindred spirit, dancehall, and was rewarded with back-to-back Grammys.

The most notable rap-reggae convergence after that came in 1996, when the Fugees released their smash hit record “The Score.” The Fugees have since disbanded, but the group’s multidimensional alum Wyclef Jean continues to embody the post-’96 genre blur. His recent solo record, “The Preacher’s Son,” spans reggae, hip-hop, folk, dance, Latin and R&B. His track with dancehall’s Buju Banton, “Who Gave the Order,” has the same yearning tone as Jimmy Cliff’s decades-old “Many Rivers to Cross.”

Jean plans to release a Creole album later this year to celebrate the bicentennial of his native Haiti, and he notes that even traditional hip-hop artists (like methodical New York rapper 50 Cent) are exploring a connection with reggae in subtler ways.

“Hip-hop always borrows from reggae, whether it’s a bass line or a drum pattern or a hook, but right now we can hear the marriage,” he says. “Like, even if you listen to 50, you hear, ‘Many men, many many many many men, wish death ‘pon me.’ Not ‘on me.’ ‘Wish death ‘pon me,’ which is the patois slang.”

In hindsight, Jean and the Fugees served as an essential bridge between the reggae-rap boomlet of the early ’90s and the full-blown explosion of the early 2000s, but Jean says the group didn’t articulate that mission at the time. The general idea behind “The Score,” Jean says, was to illustrate the group’s stylistic diversity — “to keep it street but throw that international edge on it” — which meant, among other things, laying down an eyebrow-raising, rap-inflected cover of Bob Marley’s nearly sacred “No Woman No Cry.”

“With ‘No Woman No Cry,’ I felt like it was an important record to do,” Jean says. “And nobody can touch Marley covers, you know? And it was like, ‘Yo, are you sure you wanna do “No Woman No Cry”?’ I mean, yo, throw a hip-hop beat behind it. If we gonna flip the culture, who greater than Bob? Let’s really do something.”

The future

Beyond boosting traditional hip-hop and reggae artists, the rap-reggae fusion has made it easier for such between-the-cracks artists as Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall to break through. When Offishall, who is of Jamaican heritage, releases his new record this year, he may be able to capture both reggae and hip-hop audiences. Until the recent genre convergence, that would’ve been difficult.

“In many ways, it’s definitely opened a lot of doors,” says Offishall’s manager, who goes by the name Mr. Morgan. “A lot of people come to us now, and they want to get Kardinal on a song. And a lot of times it’s for something reggae-influenced, which is cool, but he by no means presents himself as a reggae artist.”

Famously unconcerned with genre boundaries, England has spent the last several years immersed in garage music, which distills reggae, hip-hop and dance music into a stuttering hybrid. Garage has launched the U.K. careers of two promising new artists — Ms. Dynamite and the Streets — who don’t generally sound much alike but who’ve each released catchy singles (“Booo!” and “Let’s Push Things Forward,” respectively) with a reggaesque emphasis on the upbeat.

Strictly speaking, the 19-year-old British hip-hop star Dizzee Rascal is no more of a reggae artist than the Streets, Ms. Dynamite or Kardinal Offishall. But as one of England’s most lauded new talents, he has absorbed and reinterpreted the various reggae offshoots (including the dark ragga sound and the jittery dance subgenre drum-and-bass) that percolate in his country’s musical culture.

“Ragga, even drum-and-bass, garage, hip-hop,” Rascal says, “they’re all popular musics, underground and on the mainstream.”

Rascal’s beats are slower and sharper than dancehall riddims, and his tunes generally lack the hook-laden singability of Sean Paul. The music does, however, release a raw and infectious vibration. In his thick British accent, which creates his own kind of patois, Rascal describes his music as an industrial strain of Southern crunk — a sound bred in Atlanta.

In short, Dizzee Rascal makes unclassifiable music — not exactly traditional hip-hop and not at all traditional reggae — and yet he may represent the next logical step in both genres’ internationalization.

It makes sense that Rascal would come out of England, where Bob Marley was a star before he hit big in the States. In the U.K. the black population is closely tied to the Caribbean and Africa, and genre-mashing tends to happen more naturally than in the stratified United States.

On Tuesday, Rascal will release his U.S. debut, “Boy in Da Corner,” which is already a hit in England, where Rascal is beloved for his synthesis of East London slang, Jamaican dancehall energy and American hip-hop machismo.

“People love Dizzee Rascal because he represents the youth of London,” Mr. Morgan says. “Not to say he’s their 50 Cent, but he is what all these kids around him [are]. That’s the way they talk, that’s the vocabulary they use, that’s the way they dress. He’s representing them, which is why he gets so much love.”

Still, without a U.S. record, Rascal has yet to get comparable love in the States. Some of America’s most notable critics have already begun raving about “Boy in Da Corner,” but Vibe’s Erik Parker says Rascal doesn’t resonate with urban audiences the way dancehall artists do. (To wit, when asked about Rascal’s music, Elephant Man and Tuff Gong’s Cristy Barber drew blanks.) While mainstream rap and reggae crossed Wyclef Jean’s bridge to a promised land of unification, Dizzee Rascal swam to the other side on his own, and he must now wait for America to catch up.

Besotted with the new possibilities of the rap-reggae fusion, it remains to be seen whether America’s urban music community is ready to take the next step. But even if Rascal, the Streets and Ms. Dynamite never become Stateside stars, they’ve already done something artistically significant: synthesizing their American and Caribbean influences, they’ve sent hip-hop back across the Atlantic in a new form.

“It’s just time, innit?” Rascal says. “Things slip around. That’s the beauty of music, innit? Because . . . no one can claim music. Everyone’s got their contributions, and it just all passes around, d’you know what I mean? It just goes from to and fro, from to and fro.”

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1 comment

  1. yeah, a nice thorough article. i have some points of contention, but it is a worthy subject that few writers seem brave enough to cover.

    and, yeah… Roots Manuva is dope! he’s got those ill hybrid beats. he did a great posse cut called “Showtime” with other Big Dada artists like Mike Ladd and Ty, I think.

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