The late 1970s saw the emergence of a vibrant and diversified music industry in Jamaica. This era gave rise to the genre known as “dancehall.” Dancehall music adopted reggae’s sinuous rhythms but lacked the energy of live performers. It favored taped or digitally generated compositions with simple, catchy beats. Also, the subgenre supported lyrical material that preferred worldly pleasures above the mystical and spiritual vocabulary of traditional or roots reggae.

Origin of Dancehall

The word “dancehall” refers to the dance halls that hosted parties in Kingston and other inner-city neighborhoods of large cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Dance halls featured music played through local sound systems. These include amplifiers, a turntable, and prominent, portable speakers, which a selector controls. These audio systems played early varieties of reggae like rocksteady and ska, as well as R&B from the United States.

The DJ’s job in such a sound system was generally to compose original lyrics for instrumental tunes. They also made riddims (pronounced “rhythms” using Jamaican patois) and delivered them in a manner resembling hip-hop rapping. DJs like Sugar, Count Machuki Minott, and U-Roy became famous because of the practice called toasting. The earliest dancehall records were made in the 1970s by Jamaican artists like Duke Reid and Henry “Junjo” Lawes. They took existing instrumental tracks or sections from songs with vocals and rerecorded new vocals with other singers and deejays.

Notable Legends

With the help of these early dancehall songs, artists like Junior Reid, Gregory Isaacs, and Barrington Levy became well-known. The 1980s saw the emergence of artists like U-Roy and Yellowman, who laid the groundwork for contemporary Jamaican dancehall music. Over hard-driving taped beats taken from old reggae records, songs featured toasting. Early Caribbean popular music genres like calypso and mento influenced the lyrics’ salacious theme. This later came to be known as slackness. These characteristics clearly distinguish roots reggae, performed by artists like Bob Marley, from dancehall reggae, which was less socially and spiritually aware.

Many of the greatest artists in dancehall rose to prominence in the 1990s, notably Bounty Killer and Shabba Ranks. Although certain singers, like Mavado and Buju Banton, encouraged “rude boy” behavior like gunplay and drug usage, lyrics promoting laziness predominated their songs. A surge of female dancehall musicians like Lady Saw, Sister Nancy, and Lady G provided a counterpoint to these tunes. In the new century, dancehall expanded into new markets throughout the world.

Dancehall in Recent Years

Sean Paul, who in 2003 released the track “Get Busy,” became a chart-topper in the US and other countries. The track helped pave the way for other dancehall performers, including Elephant Man, Spice, Aidonia, and Vybz Kartel. Their recordings later ditched the slackness and incorporated pop and dance music components.

Many performers use Riddims, the rhythm tracks in dancehall music, on various records. A single riddim, such as the one Wayne Smith used in “(Under Me) Sleng Teng,” inspired twelve or more creative compositions. By 2006, more than 250 tracks had used the riddim as the foundation of “Real Rock” from 1967. This unusual custom dates back to the early days of dancehall, which featured a deejay toasting live over the selector’s albums.

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