Is something rotten in the state of Dancehall?
No, obviously not, but there has been a bit of rumbling on the usual ILX threads (from people who know more than me) about a possible tapering off from the outrageous highs of last year. I offered the following possible explanation there a while back:
From a riddimatic perspective, I think the biggest problem at the moment is that two many of the tunes are slotting into that vague patch between Egyptian and 20 Cent - Tunda Klap, Marmalade, French Vanilla, Worried etc. Such riddims are all variations around the same themes: fidgety bhangra beats, hypnotic woodwind melodies, a sort of soft endless flow that’s at once urgent and supremely relaxed. Such riddims are usually good or even great, but their interconnectness takes away something of the out-of-leftfield bizarroness of last year where stuff like Wanted, Mudslide, Coolie Dance, Fiesta, Ching Chong etc. would suddenly appear and take things in lots of different directions; certainly it was the radical inconsistency (in a positive sense) of dancehall which distinguished it from the other forward thinking groove scenes (crunk, grime). Whereas now I think the scene has almost settled into a post-Don Corleon quasi-Eastern consensus, and hearing these riddims back to back causes a sort of fading effect which is actually much stronger than in grime or crunk, where, although the grooves might share basic sonic components, everything is more bold and brashy and less fatally subtle.
This isn’t necessarily indicative of a falling off though: a huge chunk of the big '01/early '02 tunes fell into a similar patch between Liquid and Martial Arts – rigid electronic beats, big melodramatic string riffs etc. Certainly, late '02 and '03 felt like a period where the scene was unusually fragmented in terms of knowing where to go next, and thus went everywhere, but while this feeling has receded somewhat, it feels more like a collective pause rather than a total ossification. And there are more than enough great, imaginative, what-the-fuck riddims floating around, and even some emergent interesting meta-trends, to suggest that the whole scene is about to move on, somewhere else, with inevitably exciting results. So I’m going to talk about my favourite riddims and voicings from the last six months or so, in the hope that by the end I’ll be able to say something about where I think dancehall is going, or should be going, next.Vybz Kartel - Picture Me & You/Nicky B – It’s On (Blackout Riddim)
At first I was a bit conflicted as to which Blackout cut to choose as so many are great: Elephant Man's anthemic Staying Alive-biting "Doing It Right"? Sean Paul's poptastic "Bounce It Right There"? Even Vybz himself offered up another contender with his thrilling staccato flow on alternate take "Real Badman Never Afrad". Finally I had to pick two, which says something about the greatness of this riddim. "Picture Me & You" is the one I keep going back toI discovered first, but it’s also the one I keep going back too, stuffed as it is with great jokes, twists and allusions. Unlike Elephant Man, Vybz's pop culture references can be quite understated, and here he deftly strings together source material ranging from Coming To America
to Chingy in a charming narrative (mostly) concerning the seduction of a maid. Throughout he sounds unusually sanguine and distinguished, an old hand at getting one over who plies his trade perhaps simply to polish his craftmanship.
It doesn't hurt that at this stage Blackout looks set to be the
riddim of the year, for 04 what Coolie Dance was for 03 and Diwali for 02 (there's still time though!), its eastern-laced staccato stabs giving it a sense of urgent syncopated frenzy that most of the too-fluid post-Egyptian tabla rhythms can't match. If there's something which unites my favourite riddims this year, it's that, despite all the usual arrangement accoutrements, they rarely succumb to the diluting busyness that characterises many of the more generic eastern grooves. You can throw in all the counter-rhythms and strings and flutes and horns and rave riffs you like, but unless the riddim is particularly audacious and accomplished (for example, the shimmering synthcore of last year's Mudslide riddim) it's unlikely that a riddim will survive the absence of a central head-nodding, foot-stomping beat to ground and center it (my comments a while back wrt jungle grooves are relevant here). But the hyper-musical, ultra-embellished Blackout shows that this dichotomy is hardly irresolvable.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more melodic dancehall track than Nicky B’s utterly gorgeous voicing, whose link to the first track is tenuous at best. “It’s On” may share those irresistible staccato stabs, but otherwise the arrangement is dominated by floating, amorphous waterpad synths, a gorgeous launchpad for Nicky’s sweet R&B crooning, which positions him as a smoother Chico, a ruffer Wayne Wonder, flipping between long sustained phrases and hyperspeed Sean Paul-style singjay with a cool precision that never undermines the slightly yearning catch to his voice. As later entries will affirm, I’m finding myself particularly susceptible to R&B/dancehall fusions at the moment (did I ever mention that Wayne Wonder’s album from last year ended up a firm favourite of mine?), but it’s probably not just me; the gorgeous curlicues of melodosonic fluff that dancehall producers are so enamoured with right now is the perfect complement to the hyper-sensitive gentleness and girliness of the likes of Nicky B. Needless to say, riddims that don’t come with at least one slice of 21st century lover’s rock built-in risk seeming rather shortsighted.T.O.K. - Sex On My Mind (Maybach Riddim)
Like last year's ace Barbershop Riddim (see Vybz's "Bandwagonist", Sizzla's "Making A Mistake"), Maybach keeps it simple, sparse and skanking: a groovy little electric guitar figure gets slammed home with the trademarked car-backfiring noise from Clipse's "Grindin", and looped to fuck till it achieves this palpable physical intensity that oddly reminds me of Roni Size at his old best (remember the way the grooves in tracks like "Share The Fall" or "New Forms (Remix)" seemed to only grow in stature each time they roll past you?). Dave Stelfox says it reminds him of the Charlston!
These sorts of riddims are a bit of a double or nothing game for DJs - an indistinctive rap on something like this is just unmemorable; a good one magically transforms the whole thing into a glorious pop stormer. And if we're talking pop then we're talking T.O.K., who, whether in quasi-soca mode or quasi-R&B mode almost always bring the hooks. Here its quasi-R&B, with a slinky falsetto chorus to die for (reminiscent of "Galang Gal") and gloriously lusty performances from everyone involved, not to mention a wonderful a capella intro – “This is for the girls who love fi have sex!” It’s hard to think of an ‘04 pop song more blazingly confident – Britney’s “Toxic” or Rachel Stevens’ “Some Girls” in the groove department maybe, but T.O.K. lick them when it comes to vocals.
The greatest advantage of T.O.K.'s group set-up is how their voices cover almost the whole spectrum of male dancehall vocals, from ominous waves of bass to uncomfortable androgyny - and I reckon they understand this asset and its possibilities more intimately than Ward 21 by a wide margin. Each time a different voice takes the lead, or a harmony comes in, or there’s a charming call-and-response moment, I feel a thrilling little jolt of recognition of the indisputable rightness of their strategy. Anyway, in an alternate universe this is a massive chart hit. Tanya Stephens - To The Top Top (Guala Guala Riddim)
Guala Guala hits all my pleasure centers simultaneously. Perhaps taking its cues from Sean Paul's "Get Busy", the riddim combines a Diwali-style syncopated handclap groove with intense and dramatic keyboard flourishes, hinting at but (in many ways to its credit) not adopting wholesale the Oriental vibes that underpin so much dancehall at the moment. I love the denseness
of this stuff: there's certain riddims that are so jam-packed with goodness that you want to play them as loud as possible as if your ears could drown in their voluptuous detail.
Guala Guala also uses its own density to perform the neat trick of being all things to all people: it doesn't stop short of merely varying the superficial melodic arrangements across different voicings, but rather sounds radically different according to which part of the mix has been emphasised. Sometimes it's a rollicking rhythmic number whose Diwali-derived beats propulsively charge the tune (see Anthony B's wonderful “Salt Ting”), at others it sounds utterly swamped in keyboards and strings such that the rhythm is reduced to little more than an ominous and hegemonic pulse, the whole construction shuddering under its own weight (see Vybz Kartel's similarly awesome “Ride In”).
Tanya's operates in something of a middle ground, wherein the tune takes on a certain bouncy optimism that provides the perfect backing for what is one of Tanya's most anthemic recent releases, up there with the marvellous "Soft Inside". What always distinguishes Tanya’s cuts however is an ability to balance such celebratory melodicism with a deeply rhythmic chatting style that cuts across the riddim brilliantly. Sizzla - That's OK (Chrome Riddim)
It says something about dancehall's turnover that this charmer from the beginning of the year is already beginning to feel like a "classic"; but then, I do tend to develop an odd emotional attachment to the Sizzla tunes I like, such that they don't resemble "hot voicings" so much as old favourites. He's an inconsistent fucker, to be sure, but I warrant that a compilation of his best work over the past year (including at the least "Love & Affection", "These R the Days", "All Is Well", "I Always Think About You", “Obstacles”, “Step Pan Dem”, "Come On", “Live Up”, “Making a Mistake” and, of course, this) would be pretty astonishing. "That's OK" doesn't make it easier
to understand why the Sizzla tunes that work work really well, but it's enough to know that somehow, despite the man's garbled warblings, frankly shocking singing voice and occasional difficulty making or following a tune, it comes together beautifully.
I wonder if anyone else can pack such a surfeit
of emotional content into their performances as Sizzla does. Of course you could dismiss Sizzla as a chronic overperformer, but it strikes me that Sizzla wields such overstatement as effectively as other artists use understatement. He feels all these things so powerfully – drunken desire, murderous obsession, unquenchable sexual addiction, bottomless love – so that we don’t have to, and in the process productively confusing the signifiers of pop for their alleged signifieds. I mean, if Sizzla ever sang “I would die for you”, you’d start removing all the knives in his general vicinity.
Almost all the Chrome tracks are great (although its own sugary R&B voicing – Chico’s “If We Try” – reveals some inherent limits to the practice), which is largely down to the suggestive
power of its sonics (those rusty and rudimentary bottletop melodies, sharp string riffs and big booming drums), evocative of a sort of ruddy-faced and menacing gentility, like it’s the personal soundtrack for some Jamaican Heathcliff figure, dressed in nice (if torn and dirty) clothes but possessed of a violent animal energy. No wonder the best cuts – “That’s OK”, Capleton’s “In Her Heart” –combine the groove with a crazed insistence upon love’s inevitability, the unstoppable arc of two forces coming together, like boulders smashing in a shower of sparks.
More to come soon!