Exploring Jamaica's Early Dancehall Culture

Outside King Jammy’s studio in Kingston
Outside King Jammy’s studio in Kingston | Courtesy of Beth Lesser/Soul Jazz Records Publishing

Freelance Caribbean Writer

Dancehall is one of the most continuously referenced and influential sub-genres in music today. Emerging as a spinoff of reggae, the genre’s distinct sound, clothing and DJ-lead sound-system culture was introduced in the early ’80s and is now one of the most popular styles of music in the world.

Writer and photographer Beth Lesser traveled in Jamaica throughout the 1980s interviewing musicians, DJs and promoters. She captured images that provided an intimate look into the early local dancehall culture. The images were later published in her book Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture in 2008. We take a trip through early dancehall culture through her lens.

Youth Promotion Crew, 1987
U-U Madoo outside Skateland in Kingston, Jamaica

Dancehall DJs such as Yellowman, Junior Reid and Gregory Isaacs were popular in Jamaica in the 1980s. Leading the slew of new dancehall artistes, they established themselves as heavyweights of the genre and are now seen as dancehall veterans.

Junior Reid, 1985
Musician Gregory Isaacs in front of his African Museum store on Chancery Lane, Kingston

“You wouldn’t have known this was going on, looking at Jamaica from the perspective of Canada or the US,” Lesser notes on her website, “but when we got there, it was so huge you couldn’t possibly avoid it.”

Major Stitch at a youth promotion dance at Sugar Minot’s House, on Robert Crescent

Lesser and with her partner David Kingston first got involved with reggae music and its culture when they started a fanzine in 1980 called Live Good Today, for Augustus Pablo’s organization Rockers International. The zine grew and eventually became Reggae Quarterly. As part of Beth’s duties, she took hundreds of photographs that captured the rise of dancehall culture.

Youth Promotion Crew member, 1985
Outside King Jammy’s studio in Kingston
DJ Nitty Gritty in 1985

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