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It’s sexy, it’s loud, it’s Jamaican – it’s dancehall. That’s right, yet another music genre to come out of this Caribbean island and achieve global significance. Starting in earnest in Jamaica in the 1970s, dancehall dropped the overtly political messaging of earlier genres such as reggae, taking an unashamedly popular consumerist path. Often criticized for explicit sexuality and the glorification of violent criminal culture, dancehall really exploded out of Jamaica in the 1990s and was a major influence on hip-hop culture. Dancehall has its own patois–based language, and has spawned a distinct genre of dance moves. Insanely popular with young crowds in Jamaica, dancehall artists are today’s musical superstars. Get to know dancehall a little more intimately with these ten songs.
Yellowman, or King Yellowman as he is sometimes known, achieved fame in his hometown of Kingston in the 1970s. He went on the become the first Jamaican dancehall artist to sign to a US label, releasing his first album in 1982. His second album, Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, of 1983 is the one that made his name and helped establish dancehall on the international music scene. Some of the biggest names in hip-hop borrowed from Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, and subsequent Yellowman hits, thereby sealing Yellowman’s place in the dancehall of fame.
Coming out of roots reggae in the 1970s, Eek-a-Mouse (named after a racehorse), transitioned into working with some of the sound systems operating out of Kingston at the time. The hits started coming in the late 1970s and by the early 80s, Eek-A-Mouse was headlining festivals. Throughout the 80s the artist established his dancehall credentials, while maintaining a strong reggae roots influence in his music. Eek-A-Mouse is still going strong, performing in Amsterdam in 2016.
Moving us from old school and into the 1990s is Shabba! That’s right, one of the most prolific dancehall artists of all time, Shabba Ranks hails from the north coast of Jamaica. Ranks signed with Epic in 1991 and helped push dancehall into the mainstream, achieving global fame with hits such as Mr Loverman. Peaking in the late 1990s, the double Grammy award-winning Ranks continues to record today, and is generally regarded as having played a significant role in the evolution of dancehall.
One of the all time most popular artists in Jamaica, Buju Banton rose out of one of Kingston’s poorest neighborhoods. Recording his first song at the young age of 15, Banton went on to dominate the airwaves within a couple of years. By 1992 he had broken Bob Marley’s record for the most number 1 hits in a year. Banton’s popularity continued throughout the 90s and 2000s and his influence lays heavy on dancehall. This track pays tribute to the eponymous item of clothing, popular with some women in Jamaica, that is a feature of most dancehall music videos.
Another dancehall artist to come out of Kingston, Sean Paul was performing at open mic events in the late 1990s when he was picked up by a producer. He released his first album in 2000, but it was the second album two years later that achieved worldwide attention, selling six million copies. Throughout the 2000s, Sean Paul won numerous awards across different musical genres and performed with some of the biggest artists in the world. Going from strength to strength, he continues to be an award-winning artist. This track was his breakout hit, and has since been remixed by Busta Rhymes.
Elephant Man is another Kingston-born artist who achieved fame in the 2000s. His track All Out featured that Jamaican icon Usain Bolt in the video. In fact, the video was an advertisement for Puma during the 2004 Athens Olympics, at which Bolt made his Olympic debut. Willie Bounce is a more recognizable track, which popularized the dancehall move after which it is named. The willie bounce continues to be one the most commonly performed moves in dancehall, thereby by ensuring the longevity of this track.
Mavado was mentored in his teenage years by Bounty Killer, one of Jamaica’s better known dancehall artists. In 2004 he released his debut single, following up with several strong albums and achieving international notice over the following four years. He hit an entirely new market when his tracks featured on the video game Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008. Mavado continues to produce some of the top dancehall tracks to hit the airwaves today – Progress being one of the hits of 2016.
Another Jamaican protégé of Bounty Killer, Vybz was a teenage talent during the 1990s, but it was in the early 2000s that he cemented his reputation in Jamaica. From there, Vybz went from strength to strength with a series of hits. Several popular albums since 2010 and numerous collaborations with top global artists have secured his position. Despite being incarcerated for murder, Vybz Kartel continues to produce some of the most popular dancehall tracks playing today.
Continuing the trend of dancehall stars starting out as teenagers in Kingston, we have Alkaline. Achieving fame in Jamaica in 2013 aged just 20, Alkaline is a regular on the stage and airwaves in Jamaica and beyond, having toured the Caribbean, Florida and London. Alkaline was nominated for a MOBO in 2016, the year when this track was one of the soundtracks to the summer in Jamaica.
Coming to the end of our dancehall journey, Popcaan was noticed by Vybz Kartel and joined Kartel’s Portmore Empire in 2007 at the young age of 19. Popcaan’s breakthrough came when he performed Clarks with Kartel – the track achieved international popularity and helped establish Popcaan. He won a coveted MOBO in 2015 and went on to release one of the most listened-to songs of summer 2016 – Ova Dweet (Jamaican patois for ‘over do it’).