Introducing Foundations of Dancehall. Where we will break down the crucial elements of Dancehall; explain their importance in the development and growth of the genre; and explore how these foundations have altered the sound of dancehall throughout the years.
Our first article is focused on possibly the most crucial foundation of dancehall. Riddims.
Crucially, the voicing and instrumental remain separate. Resulting in the riddim being ‘voiced’ over by various different artists.
Riddims have long been a part of Jamaican music and have not just been unique to dancehall. With many dating the concept back to the 1950s.
The prominence of this form of production has often been explained by the soundsystem culture that has remained in Jamaica. With dance music tending to be played through sound systems opposed to live bands.
In the 1950s these soundsystems would mainly play R&B singles from the US, as Jamaican popular music did not really begin to flourish until the 1960s.
As Ska began to emerge in the 1960s, the recording studio became the focus of the Jamaican music industry. The culture of borrowing instrumentals and songs began to be seen very clearly. With one of the first international hit songs coming out of Jamaica ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small, being a cover of an obscure R&B song of the same name by Barbie Gaye dating back to 1956.
These releases were often aided by the lack of copyright laws that were enforced on local releases.
The first clear steps towards the riddim production that is seen in Jamaican music today began in the early 1960s. Producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd would record local artists singing over imported records from the US, such as recording The Wailers singing over Dion & The Belmonts 1959 single ‘A Teenager in Love’.
Around this time the method of delivering music also started to change. Deejays began to play a bigger part in popular Jamaican music.
This started with the practice of Deejay’s ‘bigging up’ themselves at soundsystems. Which would usually consist of a deejay chanting over a song whilst encouraging dancers and patrons of the soundsystem. These interjections then started to become more stylised and began to start featuring over instrumental recordings opposed to already recorded songs.
This also explains the confusing characteristic of Dancehall, with artists being referred to as Deejay’s and what would traditionally be called a DJ being referred to as a ‘selector’.
The production of King Tubby brought this style of production further into the maintstream. He would record U Roy toasting over older rocksteady instrumentals. This is demonstrated by U Roy’s masterful deejaying over the Paragon’s classic ‘On the Beach’.
Another element started to push riddim production to where we see it today. The inclusion of having the B side of a single contain an instrumental opposed to another song. Soundsystems began to utilise these instrumentals as a way of increasing crowd participation by getting the audience to sing along to the instrumental. But more importantly, these started to be used as backup tracks for skilled deejays such as U Roy to ‘voice’ over at soundsystems.
As Reggae exploded internationally during the late 1970s and 1980s. Dancehall began to develop even further in Jamaica. Reggae was becoming more internationally focused and further removed from what was favoured by young Jamaicans.
Riddim culture started to develop into what we see in modern dancehall, with deejays at soundsystems lining up to ‘voice over’ popular riddims. This began to extend into the studio as producers would race to get deejay’s to voice over popular riddims. These riddims were normally old B side instrumentals from Coxsone’s Studio One or Duke Reid’s Treasure Island.
At the start of the 1980s Dancehall underwent some more important changes. Producing re-licks of older riddims became the norm. Producers such as Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd began stripping down some of his older instrumentals into more deejay friendly forms.
The style of ‘voice overs’ also began to change, as deejay’s moved away from the loosely structured chanting of pioneers like U Roy and more towards rhythmic and on beat chanting that was being introduced by acts like Lone Ranger.
This style of deejaying continued to gain popularity throughout the beginning of the 1980s, with deejays like Yellowman and Eek A Mouse further developing the craft.
Hip hop also began to have an impact on the sound of dancehall. Acts like The Sugarhill Gang were gaining popularity in Jamaica. This influence is well demonstrated in Welton Irie’s cover of their 1979 hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’ with his 1980 track ‘Hotter Reggae Music’.
One of the biggest steps towards modern riddim production came in 1985 with the release of Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’, which was produced entirely on digital keyboards by King Jammy. Riddims were moving towards short ostinato’s (a repeated musical phrase or rhythm) opposed to B side instrumentals and this track has since become a landmark in dancehall history.
Following the release of ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ digital production became the norm. The number of producers and studios exploded across Jamaica, as producing riddims became easier than ever. Keyboard synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines began to takeover from live music production.
Since the 1980s riddim production has not seen any groundbreaking changes, as digital based production has remained the norm. The majority of songs are still ‘voiced over’ well established riddims that are popular at the time.
The 1990s saw riddims moving further away from the skanking friendly roots-reggae rhythm, which is typically around 60bpm. Moving instead towards a faster 3+3+2 beat, which was beginning to become more popular as a new wave of producers began to takeover dancehall. With producers like Gussie Clark, Sly and Robbie and Bobby Digital at the forefront of this movement.
Towards the end of the 1990s, dancehall saw further development, as there was an more and more internationally and crossover sensitive riddims were being produced. New talents like Dave Kelly and Jeremy Harding were producing riddims that were beginning to have larger crossover appeal in large markets like the UK and US.
The 2000s saw another shift in the sound of riddims, as dancehall-pop started to emerge. Production was focused around traditional elements of pop music, such as repeated choruses, melodic tunes and hooks. This saw unprecedented success for dancehall, as Sean Paul secured the genre’s first US number in 2003 with ‘Get Busy’, which was voiced over the Diwali Riddim produced by Steven ‘Lenky’ Marsden.
In recent years dancehall has become increasingly decentralized, with the advent of social media, streaming services and easier, quicker methods of producing. More and more producers are having an effect on the sound of dancehall with producers from across the world being able to have an impact.
During the recent explosion of the Trap Dancehall sound, a variety of producers have been able to have an impact on the sound of dancehall with producers from across Jamaica being able to record some of the biggest artists involved in the movement, with producers like Shab Don Records, One Time Music, YGF Records and Hemton Music gaining huge popularity.