BBC - The Story of Reggae - Dancehall

  • Brash, raucous, computer-driven reggae that came to prominence in the 1980s and refuses to go away.
  • Seen by many as a return to straightforward fun after a decade of roots‘n’culture’s piety.
  • The dancehall anthem "Under Mi Sleng Teng" is acknowledged as the first reggae record to have succeeded without a bassline.
Yellowman Barrington Levy

Barrington Levy

So named because so many of the records were deemed unfit for radio airplay and therefore were suitable only for the dancehall. And the controversy didn’t stop there.

Dancehall reggae established itself through characters like Yellowman and General Echo and a penchant for slackness (as bawdy lyricswere known). This deejay-led, largely computerised, upstart music seemed to epitomise the 1980s with dub poet Mutabaruka maintaining, "if 1970s reggae was red, greed and gold, then in the next decade it was gold chains". So far removed was it from the gentle, almost hippification of roots and culture, that purists furiously debated as to whether it was genuinely reggae or not.

But this was the whole point. Dancehall represented a new generation of reggae’s primary audience reclaiming the music for themselves after ten years of roots’n’culture that: A) had not done a great deal to change the way they lived; and B) it had been adopted so thoroughly by the international mainstream it didn’t seem like "theirs" any more. This was a new wave’s way of reacting to the harshness of their environment and drew on hip hop’s brashness to express themselves with an impatience not seen in roots reggae. It needed a radical approach to shake reggae out of its seeming complacency and dancehall opted for the apparently obnoxious to satisfy nobody beyond the sound system crowds. Producers like Henry Junjo Lawes and King Jammy’s made deejay records that were as raw as those audiences wanted, with deejays like Yellowman, Josey Wales, Lone Ranger, Eek-A-Mouse and Brigadier Jerry. Not that it was all deejays, but singers such as Barrington Levy, Little John, Cocoa Tea and Frankie Paul had to struggle to be heard.

Of course the rapidly developing studio technology played a big part as it meant records could be made quicker and cheaper, with it becoming far easier to version a rhythm once it was made. This in turn allowed a flood of new talent into the business ensuring that dancehall reggae would continue to stay fresh for years to come.

Next chapter: Ragga