There are more similarities than not between dancehall and rap music. From shared musical and social histories going back to pre-Middle Passage Africa through today where rhythms and lyrics transmit at rapid speeds via modems, televisions, and the radio, the interconnectedness of these two musical forms is undeniable. DJs and rappers sample one another’s material with reckless creativity, and look to one another for collaboration and inspiration. DMX mashes up the “Sting” concert in Jamaica, while Baby Cham makes girls swoon as his album debuts in New York City. Jamaican youth sport Nike shoes and Tupac t-shirts while Americans grow dreadlocks and rock the red, gold, and green. In all of this we can feel the competing tendencies and tensions of cultural cross-fertilization, imperialism, creolization, hegemony, globalization, creative communication, etc., but we only hear one thing: that the beat goes on.
Though many of the links between rap and dancehall are more abstract, like African retentions or similarities in language use, their most fundamental relationship is a perfectly tangible one: Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell (a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc) brought his knowledge of Jamaica’s budding dancehall tradition to the Bronx, and in 1974, he invented the break beat, widely understood to be the founding moment in hip-hop music. This celebrated moment, when hip-hop music (rap) was born out of Jamaican dancehall traditions, could use a little context of its own.
Though we have come to understand dancehall primarily as a contemporary form of Jamaican popular music in which DJs and singers perform and record over pre-recorded rhythms, dancehall as a culture and concept has a much longer history than that. Dancehall is also the space where dances are held and where sound systems and artists performed long before the technological innovations of the dancehall music we hear today. Moreover, like hip-hop, dancehall refers not only to a music and a space, but to a whole culture that encompasses music, language, dance, dress, and world views.
With that context in mind, let’s get back to Clive Campbell, who left Jamaica in 1967. In Jamaica at that time, early sound systems had been playing rock steady, American R&B, ska, and roots reggae for years. DJs like U-Roy and Big Youth were also already in the mix. After being in the US for a couple of years, Campbell put together a sound system similar to those that were popular in Jamaica and he began to host parties. Finding his American audience unresponsive to the reggae beats he had brought from home, he sought out the funk and Latin-influenced tracks that were popular in New York. Because dub versions, or naked rhythm/instrumental tracks, were not common in the US, Campbell bought records of whatever snippets of bare rhythm he could find. By playing those sections repeatedly by bringing the needle on the record player back to that same spot, or switching between multiple records, DJ Kool Herc (as he was known then), kept the beat going and gradually turned American audiences onto a style of music already growing in Jamaica. This style came to be known in the States as “break-beats,” the cornerstone of hip-hop music and culture. In this way, Jamaican dancehall music and Kool Herc laid the foundation.
Hip-hop and Dancehall’s Musical Similarities
In what other ways are dancehall and rap music related? For the sake of simplicity, let’s divide these connections into two broad categories: musical links and socio-cultural links. Of course this is a gross over-simplification and it is impossible to truly separate music from the culture that generates it, but for purposes of introduction, we’ll look at the formal musical traits that rap and dancehall share.
Certainly the innovations of Kool Herc provide the defining shared musical connection between rap and dancehall, but we have to look much farther back than Clive Campbell’s immigration to see how these musical styles came to share so many of their formative elements. Rap and dancehall share two fundamental and definitively African elements: orality and rhythm, that date back to sub-Saharan Africa far before the forced migrations of slavery.
With their lyrical focus and ability to manipulate language for speed, affect, content, etc., rappers and DJs are the contemporary incarnations in a long line of orators, following the West African griot figure, or one who would spread news and stories in the community. Many writers and thinkers have also related the orality of dancehall and rap to the West African concept of “nommo,” which understands the power of the word to be the power of life itself. To speak something or to “speak on” something is to generate it, or make it come into being. (See the work of Henry Louis Gates or Geneva Smitherman.)
The second definitively African element that both rap and dancehall share is their mutual reliance on rhythm. While the foundation of music that comes out of classical European traditions is with melody, music informed by classical African traditions relies almost solely on rhythmic creativity and layering. Rap and dancehall both share this reliance on rhythm, offering their lyrics over heavily laden bass tracks full of drum machine sound effects, handclaps, and even traditionally melodic instruments like the guitar or the horn used as rhythmic accompaniment. (Think of the “one drop” in reggae or the horn section in often sampled funk riffs.)
While it’s important to acknowledge the African musical roots of these traditions, those roots are only one part of a much larger picture. That larger picture is a much more modern view in which rap and dancehall both rely extensively on newer technologies (microphones, turntables, amplification, keyboards, computers, etc.) and the extraction and recycling of old musical material into something new and exciting, a process known in hip-hop as sampling (and a habit so ingrained in dancehall it doesn’t have a name.)
These changes took place in urban points in the African DiasporaKingston, New York, etc. The technological innovations of the second half of the twentieth century are really the musical heart of rap and dancehall. These technological advances include allowing the sampling of recorded material, and transporting an entire sound system not only across countries but also across oceans. Certainly the earlier innovations, like record players and microphones, were central to the musical forms, but it is the more recent developments in information technology that are speeding up the relationship between rap and dancehall music and the cultures out of which they come. Louis Chude-Sokei gives a good example of the profound effect these new technologies have on the daily routes of Jamaican and American urban music:
The legendary team of Steely and Cleevie in Jamaica, or maybe Bobby Digital in Kingston, may send a floppy disk with the basic rhythm track to Daddy Freddy, who is in London . . . This track may feature the latest craze in dancehall rhythmssampled Indian tablas mixed with Jamaican Mento patterns from the 1950’s. After a brief vocal session that same information could go to Massive B in the Bronx for hip-hop beats or to Sting International in Brooklyn where R&B touches are added. Again, all of this is by modem or floppy disk. Within a few days the mix is booming down the fences at the weekly sound clash between Metromedia and Stone Love somewhere in West Kingston, or in a community center in Brixton.
Chude-Sokei illustrates exactly how it is that we can hear a Bounty Killer song at a club in New York City over a hip-hop beat, while at Asylum Nightclub in Kingston, one can hear a JA Rule song over the latest Jamaican rhythm that same night. Though these musical routes of travel are enabled by modern technology, both hip-hop and dancehall share the same roots of a Diaspora whose musical and cultural heritage stretches across centuries.
Hip-hop and Dancehall’s Socio-Cultural Similarities
Having looked briefly at the roots and routes of the shared musical elements in rap and dancehall, what are the extra-musical issues that surround and connect these musical forms and cultures? How can we understand the similarities in subject matter in so many of dancehall and rap songs’ lyrics? Music about love and relationships are universal–rap and dancehall are no exception. But what about the uncanny similarity when it comes to lyrics of property, sex, resistance to an oppressive system, violence, drugs, God, and marijuana? It is more than coincidental that so many of these lyrics are common across the ocean. In fact, if we think of the creative geographies of rap and dancehall, the inner-city, we realize just how much extra-musical context they have in common.
The realities of the government yards of Trench Town, immortalized by Bob Marley, and the project yards of Brooklyn, recycled in classic Diaspora-style by the Fugees, are very similar. The economic austerity, marginalization from the rest of society, prevalence of gun violence and drug dealing are overarching. There is a seemingly endless creativity in the face of hardship, in both rap and dancehall, and the reward of prestige and social climbing that can come from succeeding within those contexts. In order to understand why these economic and social realities may be shared across the ocean, we again have to look back to history and to the ongoing ramifications of racism and classism in post-slavery, neo-colonial societies. Just as Diasporic communities across the world share the wealth of inherited and transformed African and New World Diasporic traditions, they also share the short end of the stick in terms of access to formal education, good jobs, safe neighborhoods, etc. Though there are significant differences between Jamaican urban life and American urban life, the extent to which the realities overlap are heard in the lyrical similarities of rap and dancehall.
The wider social and cultural issues that connect rap and dancehall are not all doom and gloom, however. There are new systems of communication and routes of travel that connect these communities in very positive ways. Jamaicans living a foreign,’ and Americans and others living in Jamaica, still have families at home, and they continue to communicate with friends and loved ones even as they work and make music elsewhere. They visit home, call home, mail things home, email home, etc.
Jamaican musicians and DJs travel to the U.S. constantly seeking the lucrative cross-over market, while rap stars travel to Jamaica to perform at large stage shows, film music videos, and work with world-renowned producers. There are also both formal and informal imports and exports that carry music and culture back and forth between the two countries–Nikes go to Jamaica, canned Ackee comes up here. R.Kelly CDs go to Jamaica, Sizzla CDs come up here. Of course, this import/export relationship is not equal by any means, and American exports have far more economic reach than do exports coming into America from Jamaica or elsewhere, but significantly, Jamaica is the only so-called “developing country” in the world with net profit exports in the music industry. This inequality in the import/export relationship (see Stephanie Black’s documentary “Life and Debt” for a deeper understanding of this problem) leads to an informal import/export economy in which people illegally trade guns, drugs, clothes, and CDs across borders to make money not controlled by the government. The music industries in both Jamaica and the U.S. are deeply affected by this informal economy in all kinds of ways, from bootlegs, to artists’ individual connections to organized crime. (If you don’t believe me, just listen closely to the music Which brings us to another shared lyrical tendency: boasting and posing as a “bad man” when you may or may not have done all the things you say you have. Although suffice it to say, many of the connections and claims are true.)
This has been a bare and decidedly incomplete introduction to some of the relationships and connections between rap and dancehall music and culture. More exploration can be done on topics like language, or the relationship of music to money and the market.
For examples of musical cross-breeding, it is fair to say that any dancehall album you listen to will have clear hip-hop influences, if not several guest rappers. Hip-hop albums similarly co-opt Jamaican traditions and artists for cameos. Beenie Man’s recent spate of appearances with everyone from Lil’ Kim (Straight from Yard) to Janet Jackson is one example, as is the Wu Tang Clan on the recent Capleton single “Judgement Morning.”