When it comes to unlikely stories, it's hard to top the notion that Dre Skull would somehow become a top dancehall producer. That's not meant as a slight to the Brooklyn-based beatmaker, but he's certainly taken a long, strange trip since he first surfaced in the mid '00s with a series of dance cuts that largely pulled from electro, B-more, and hip-hop. Most notably, he's founded his own Mixpak label and gradually worked his way into the world of dancehall, frequently traveling to Jamaica and collaborating with the likes of Sizzla, Vybz Kartel, and others. His latest offering, Loudspeaker Riddim, features vocal contributions from Beenie Man, Natalie Storm, Machel Montano, and Popcaan. It might also be the best thing he's ever done.
To clarify, Loudspeaker Riddim is an EP that follows in the dancehall tradition of enlisting multiple vocalists to sing over a single beat, or riddim. And as riddims go, it's hard to find fault with Dre Skull's work here. In the past few years, he's showcased a unique knack for turning out infectiously bouncy dancehall riddims, a trend that can be traced back to "Yuh Love," his 2009 collaboration with Vybz Kartel. "Loudspeaker Riddim" is no different, employing little more than a stuttering drum pattern and a series of washy synth stabs and gently swirling melodies. The production is rather simple, or at least it sounds that way, an effect that's undoubtedly by design—years of experience behind the boards has taught Dre Skull the importance of leaving room for vocalists to operate. Furthermore, although the track can accurately be described as a cleanly produced, stripped-down affair, that does nothing to detract from its potency, as "Loudspeaker Riddim" is surely capable of lighting up even the most dutty of dancefloors, even as it takes cues from big-room trance and '80s-flavored soundtrack sentimentality.
Of course, the vocal cuts are especially suitable for the dancefloor, thanks in no small part to the top-flight crew of MCs Dre Skull has assembled. All four vocalists deliver strong efforts, beginning with dancehall legend Beenie Man, who kicks things off with "Hot Like Fire," an ode to the female form that lives up to the heat of its title. Natalie Storm struts with confidence on "Rock the Runway," while soca heavyweight Machel Montano melodically salutes the art of the wine on "Go Down." Jamaican youngster and Vybz Kartel protégé Popcaan, who delivered the stellar "Get Gyal Easy"—also produced by Dre Skull—earlier this year, gets introspective on "The System," detailing the difficulties faced by his homeland's ghetto youth. It may be the EP's most serious effort, but the heavy subject matter does nothing to detract from the song's propulsive vibes. Granted, with production this strong, it would take a lot for any vocal to completely derail the proceedings. Dre Skull appears to be at the top of his game, and one can only hope that more riddims are on the way.