Dancehall crashed the mainstream in 2016, providing the sound and, crucially, the rhythm for the year’s biggest hits, from Drake’s ‘One Dance’ and Rihanna’s ‘Work’ to underground gems on Swing Ting and Mixpak. But should we be worried that, despite dancehall’s commercial clout, so few Jamaican artists are in the spotlight? Marvin Sparks reflects on a breakthrough year for the sound that should never be labelled “tropical house.”
Dancehall is usually a summer fling in the music industry. Jamaica is a hot Caribbean island, so dancehall can be used as shorthand for warm weather and carefree holidays. It’s, like, tropical and stuff. (That word “tropical” will crop up again). But in 2016, the charts told a different story. For 12 of the first 18 weeks of the year, the Billboard Hot 100 was dominated by two distinctly dancehall-sounding songs: Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ took the top spot from Adele’s comeback on ‘Hello’, and Rihanna’s ‘Work’ knocked off Bieber’s second number one, ‘Love Yourself’. ‘Work’ collaborator Drake then spent 10 non-consecutive weeks on top with ‘One Dance’, the dembow reimagining of Crazy Cousinz’s UK funky classic ‘Do You Mind’. Inarguably the song of the summer, it was toppled by Sia and Sean Paul’s ‘Cheap Thrills’, which spent four weeks at No. 1. Dancehall-styled songs eventually reigned supreme on the chart for 26 weeks – half the entire year.
On the other side of the Atlantic, where dancehall, dub and reggae have long been recognised as foundational to the scenes that created rave, drum and bass and grime, the UK singles chart largely reflected this shift. At one point a quarter of the top 40 tracks had an obvious Jamaican influence or guest feature. Much of that was labelled under a buzzy new subgenre: “tropical house” was to 2016 what “deep house” was to 2014. After 15 weeks on top, ‘One Dance’ became the UK’s longest-running No. 1 of the digital age. While Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ unseated ‘One Dance’ in the US, in the UK Major Lazer’s Justin Bieber-assisted ‘Cold Water’ was the dembow track to take its place.
Everywhere you looked this year, the Major Lazer influence was apparent
The barrage of dembow hits isn’t just coincidence – the biggest hits always produce copycats, and clever songwriters and producers were clearly following the lead of Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’, the global smash of 2015. That was the hit that no one saw coming – and then everyone scrambled to bite the blueprint. MØ, the Danish singer who fronted ‘Lean On’, returned to a dancehall riddim on ‘Final Song’, while similarly named UK girl group M.O pulled out the steel drums on ‘Who Do You Think Of’ and Beyoncé took a couple of Diplo beats for ‘All Night’ and ‘Hold Up’ on Lemonade. Everywhere you looked, the Major Lazer influence was apparent.
Perhaps in a bid to add authenticity to their blatant trend-riding, dozens of pop, R&B and rap acts hired in genuine dancehall icons, with Sean Paul enjoying his biggest year since his ‘Get Busy’ heyday over a decade ago. He landed his first US No. 1 in 9 years on Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ (a song which, incidentally, Rihanna rejected) and a UK No. 1 with Clean Bandit on ‘Rockabye’, and turned up on singles by Jay Sean, Little Mix and Matuma.
UK electro-R&B duo AlunaGeorge borrowed Popcaan for their comeback single ‘I’m In Control’, while UK producer Naughty Boy looked to Drake for guest ideas, adding Popcaan and Crazy Cousinz singer Kyla to ‘Should’ve Been Me’. There were so many more: industry rebel M.I.A. called upon Dexta Daps, rapper Kid Ink hollered at stage show boss Spice, and Fifth Harmony sampled Mad Cobra’s ‘90s classic ‘Flex’ and even sang a female reply to Vybz Kartel’s ‘Gon’ Get Better’.
It went deeper too, with plenty of US R&B artists looking to Jamaica for inspiration. PARTYNEXTDOOR sampled an unreleased Vybz Kartel vocal on ‘Not Nice’ and OVO signee Roy Woods made an impression with ‘Gwan Big Up Urself’, while Tory Lanez interpolated Tanto Metro & Devante’s timeless dancehall tune ‘Everyone Falls In Love’ for his hit ‘Luv’. The features went the other way too, with Kranium using Lanez on ‘We Can’ after bringing in Ty Dolla $ign for last year’s ‘Nobody Has To Know’. But for the most part, the guest features really weren’t as exciting as they should have been – and they weren’t reflective of who’s actually popping in Jamaica right now.
Labelling this music as “tropical house” is an erasure we don’t need
The response to this chart takeover, with publications like Rolling Stone labelling ‘Work’ as “tropical house”, was a vital conversation about cultural appropriation. Drake in particular came under fire for dropping Popcaan’s feature from the album version of ‘Controlla’, while borrowing from another genre, UK funky, to create a dancehall riddim on ‘One Dance’. But there is a difference between appropriating and appreciating. Drake – who, as a Torontonian, grew up surrounded with more Jamaican culture than the average US rapper – has been a fan of dancehall since the beginning of his journey into the pop world. Dancehall icon Mavado played the bad guy in the reggae-leaning ‘Find Your Love’ video, which was shot in Jamaica, while ‘Take Care’ with Rihanna was an attempt to incorporate dancehall sonically. So to say he’s an appropriator because of a Popcaan-less version of Controlla on Views is unfair – especially when Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar both used Assassin for uncredited album features without any similar backlash.
It’s worth mentioning too that ‘Controlla’ was produced by Supa Dups of Miami’s groundbreaking Black Chiney sound system, based on chords from millennial dancehall producer Stephen ‘Di Genius’ McGregor. So labelling this music as “tropical house” is an erasure we don’t need. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should classify this pop version of dancehall as “dancehall” – but there is certainly no house in those songs. Debaters gon’ debate, but Drake’s co-sign undeniably helped Popcaan – through casting him as a lead in the short film Please Forgive Me, sampling him on Rihanna-assisted hit ‘Too Good’ and the Red Bull Culture Clash, his price definitely went up.
But all of these successes would only amount to a chart fad if dancehall wasn’t fueling the underground as well – and it felt like everywhere you turned, the Jamaican influence was shaping the scene. Mixpak, the Brooklyn label formed by US DJ and producer Dre Skull, led the charge with a bold grab for the Red Bull Culture Clash crown. Lined up against Wiley’s Eskimo Dance, UKG All Stars and Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang, they were written off as no-hoper underdogs, despite Dre Skull and label manager Suze Webb drawing for a solid line-up of Popcaan, Spice and Kranium, who represented the core of dancehall while appealing to a wider spectrum of ravers. Sound clash king Tony Matterhorn and the well-versed entertainer Serocee helped cut some stone-cold killer dubs for the team – from crossover legends Shaggy, Chaka Demus & Pliers and Sean Paul, to rising Jamaican talent Dexta Daps, to diaspora music contemporaries Top Cat and Major Lazer – and, against the odds, steered the ship to victory on the night. No other team had a dubplate of a track that went to No. 1 around the world (an exclusive version of ‘One Dance’), and in the final round they brought out a real ‘Lean On’ dub to counteract Taylor Gang’s fake. Mixpak brought out the best guests too, from grime champion Big Narstie to UK rap’s bashment-friendly pioneer Sneakbo and UK rap’s afrobeats-friendly pioneer J Hus – fresh out of jail! Just like on every major vote this year, the experts were wrong. Mixpak didn’t fluke it.
The wider music industry still ignores Jamaican music – just look at the BBC Sound of 2017 list
Elsewhere, one of the year’s big word-of-mouth successes belonged to Jamaican duo Equiknoxx, whose spooky, mutated dancehall became an underground club staple, with their album Bird Sound Power dropping on Demdike Stare’s DDS label and the irresistible ‘Bubble’, featuring Devin Di Dakta, appearing on Swing Ting. Manchester label/party Swing Ting was one of the most committed underground outlets for dancehall-adjacent sounds, from Samrai & Platt’s team-up with Kemikal on the dreamy ‘Tease Me’ to DJ Florentino’s dembow splicing and parties with globally minded DJ duo Hipsters Don’t Dance.
That broadening of the dembow sound meant that dancehall increasingly overlapped with reggaeton in the clubs this year, a trend that can be mapped onto the proliferation of Latin American music beyond Spanish-speaking borders. Outside of the 4×4 beat, the dembow pattern is possibly the most used rhythm in the world, and many of the year’s crossover hits contained the pattern (cooked up in Jamaica) frequently associated with reggaeton. Charly Black’s 2015 single ‘Gyal You A Party Animal’ continued taking huge strides in Latin countries, while reggaeton stars Nicky Jam and J Balvin increased their popularity with ‘Hasta el Amanecer’ and ‘Ginza’ respectively, and J Balvin’s 2014 single ‘Ay Vamos’ crossed a billion views.
Meanwhile on the island, a separate musical ecosystem continued to produce its own hits, and in the core Jamaican dancehall market, two songs stood out from the rest. A dancehall party is dead without the ladies and the gal dem love nothing more than songs appreciating what they bring to the dance: Konshens ‘Bruk Off’ and ‘Fever’ by the incarcerated Vybz Kartel were the best for that scenario. In terms of consistency, Alkaline showed he’s closest to owning the post-Kartel era – debut album New Level Unlocked was filled with club hits: ‘Champion Boy’, ‘City’, ‘ATM’ and ‘Wait Yuh Turn’. The ‘Cure Pain’ riddim proved to be most popular, and T20 World Cup winning cricketer Dwayne Bravo dropped the celebratory ‘Champion’ single. Dexta Daps’ ‘Shabba Madda Pot’ held on strong to become this year’s carnival smash, and newcomers Jahmiel, Masicka and the eccentric Tanto Blacks also made strong entries.
Popcaan gave us a 2016 anthem with ‘Ova Dweet’, but Drake’s friend was the just about the only dancehall star not called Sean Paul to feature on international singles, demonstrating the continuing disconnect between the real dancehall and pop takes. The wider music industry still ignores Jamaican music. Just look at the BBC Sound of 2017 list, the annual poll voted for by journalists and industry figures to predict next year’s stars. Despite the dancehall surge in 2016, not a single dancehall artist was included on the list. While Jamaican artists like Alkaline, Konshens and Popcaan are making obvious strides towards crossing over, none of them were mentioned.
Is the industry ignorant because pundits only look to their Twitter timelines and email inboxes to find out what’s hot? Can this same industry be trusted to report on what’s actually popular when they hear dancehall and decide to call it “tropical house”? You can decide – but if this year has proved anything, it’s that we can’t trust the polls.
The wave of dancehall-influenced pop hasn’t showing any signs of slowing down yet. We could see Nicki Minaj tapping into that lane next year; a forthcoming collaboration with Major Lazer may prove that intention. Major Lazer’s next album Music Is the Weapon is overdue already, and another Rihanna album could pack in more of the ‘Work’ vibes that Anti overall lacked. Will Jamaican artists benefit from the trend? I’m still optimistic. We are still in the cycle – a cycle that has been growing since Rihanna jumped back to her Caribbean roots with ‘Rude Boy’. And if Sean Paul’s new deal with Island Records is successful, there will no doubt be a hunt to find “the next Sean Paul”, like 2003 all over again. Maybe a major label will take a punt on Popcaan, too – I don’t see why not. But the rest will have to wait.
Marvin Sparks is on Twitter