Ask a dancehall fan what sounds and trends defined the music in 2007, and most would surely respond “drama.” It was a year of celebrity break-ups (Beenie Man and D’Angel), veteran returns (Buju Banton and Ninja Man), and intimidating new talent (Mavado, Busy Signal, Munga). Thanks to the work of production crew DASECA and Stephen McGreggor, dancehall beats took on cinematic effects and lofty classical motifs, with a number of riddims based around military drumming and choral singing–a trend not entirely unexpected as the war dragged on in Iraq. Auto-Tune pitch-correction software was also a major player.
Previous years have provided their signature grooves. In 1992, Buju Banton popularized the Bogle dance and introduced us to the throbbing beat of “Batty Rider,” while other minimalist water-drum riddims dominated. By 1995, sharp, staccato beats, like Bounty Killer’s “Suspense,” jostled with tamer tunes like Beenie Man’s bubbly, Dave Kelly-produced “Wickedest Slam". By 1997, it was all about “Romie”, a harder, reconstituted version of the classic Punany version.
As the new century dawned, dancehall music quickened its pace with speedy, 120-BPM tempos like the Diwali and Applause riddims, while thematically, the music darkened, reflecting the spiraling murder rate in Jamdown. The past year has seen a distinct sound emerge in dancehall, signified by battle-scene symphonic swathes and other dramatic sonic accessories.
Riddims like Black Chiney’s Drumline, DASECA’s Dreaming, and Stephen McGreggor’s Power Cut and Tremor riddims each featured combinations of rolling or marching snares, bold horn and classical-string flourishes, and punchy synth stabs.
Similarly dramatic, Don Corleon’s Silver Screen riddim (the backing track for Cham’s hit “Conscience” features a bouncy minimal beat draped in velvety strings. Mavado’s “Dying” took lyrical inspiration from 2Pac’s grim-reaper reflections and put them to a mournfully slow, Southern bounce, while Busy Signal’s hardcore-rap-inspired “The Days” rails profanely against haters and “friend-enemies.” Munga Honorebel’s “Bad From Mi Born” and most of Mavado’s material definitely take the trophy for Most Liberal Use of Auto-Tune.
With a new political party in charge in Jamaica, and an election year approaching in the States, one wonders if ballot-box themes will seep into dancehall’s consciousness and onto 7” singles. More likely, we’ll hear yet another technological studio innovation that only dancehall’s forward-thinking producers could dream up.