I’ve been asked a few times how I “got into” dancehall. It’s pretty simple: I’m from New York. (Anyone asking me this is usually not from here). Jamaican music has been a familiar soundtrack for nearly as long as I can remember. I think it was around 1990, when I was 11, that it first left an impression. New York’s twin Black radio stations WRKS (“KISS FM”) and WBLS were playing records by Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra. Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” first came out around then, beginning its steady rise to Bar Mitzvah/White Folk Wedding-level ubiquity.
Truthfully, I didn’t like the stuff at first. Not knowing too many Caribbean folk at the time, the lyrics, particularly from gruff deejays like Shabba, were initially tough to decipher. And the rhythms, made more for the dancefloor than passive consumption, didn’t grab me the way hip-hop beats did then. My gateway drug came in the form of Shabba Ranks’ “The Jam,” a collaboration with the reggae-absorbent KRS-ONE, and Bobby Konders and Mikey Jarrett’s “Mack Daddy.” This was dancehall, but with a hip-hop beat, and I was hooked. I’d heard rappers like KRS toss around patois in their own songs, but the sound of Shabba and Jarrett’s full-throttle toasting over the familiar thrust of a hard-hitting breakbeat grabbed me in a way I can’t quite explain so many years later.
It took me a few more years before I came to truly appreciate proper dancehall, but from then on I had a special appreciation for anything existing in that intersection between hip-hop and reggae. One of the aspects of Biggie that was so appealing was that he wasn’t trying to be on the Caribbean thing with his music but, as a Brooklyn-bred Jamaican, his heritage came through. He tossed out patois and Caribbean cultural references in a way that was below the average listener’s radar, yet plain to those in the know. The next wave of Caribbean MCs from Brooklyn, such as Foxy Brown and Shyne, took this style and ran with it, albeit in a more explicit fashion (Shyne Po and Fox Boogie’s respective best songs, “Bad Boyz” and “Oh Yeah,” are collaborations with reggae artists that get spins in both hip-hop and dancehall sets.)
Hearing the barrage of car stereos jamming hip-hop, dancehall and soca across Brooklyn this Labor Day weekend, I’m reminded of why I refer to the integration of these strains as “Brooklyn music.” Sure, one could make the case that it was uptowners KRS-One and Doug E. Fresh who first popularized such hybridization—or even point to U.K. acts like Asher D and Daddy Freddy. But it was Brooklyn, home to the world’s thickest concentration of Caribbean expats, where the culture clash really went down. In the 1980s, a number of established Jamaican artists (like the late Nitty Gritty, who met his fate outside of East Flatbush’s Super Power Records) came to settle in the borough while others like Red Fox, Louie Rankin and Nardo Ranks first established themselves as Jamaican artists working in New York, not the other way around.
As hip-hop grew to be the dominant sound the city, it was only natural that it would cross-breed with something as stylistically similar as dancehall. Bobby Konders—a DJ for WBLS at the time—and future super-producer Salaam Remi began to remix and create original tracks for these artists as well as others in Jamaica, typically using a combination of extant rap beats and trace elements of popular reggae rhythms. I’m speaking of records like Supercat’s “Ghetto Red Hot (Hip-Hop Mix),” Cutty Ranks’s “Living Condition,” et. al. The Trackmasterz remix of Louie Rankin’s “Typewriter” is another classic early example.
The ultimate document of this culture clash is NYC Badmen, a 1993 compilation on StepSun Music Entertainment, a label started by one-time Def Jam president and Bomb Squad/Public Enemy co-founder Bill Stephney. With the exception of Buju Banton’s “Yardie,” which fits into the project on the basis of its lyrical content (it’s about the treatment of Jamaicans abroad), the album consists entirely of wizened deejays laying heavy gunman talk over big, booming beats from Konders and Remi. “Ghetto Red Hot,” a massive local hit in New York a year earlier, is included. So is Burro Banton’s “Boom Wa Dis,” a relentlessly aggressive track pushed as NYC Badmen‘s lead single (Though not quite a hit on the level of “Ghetto Red Hot,” it did produce this amazing video).
The cover of the LP features a quintessential Brooklyn scene: four young men dubiously congregated at a payphone outside a West Indian takeout spot (The guy in the doo-rag is Jabba, Konders’ long-time radio co-host and the voice on NYC Badmen’s “Intro” track). NYC Badmen is also notable for including one of the earliest—and most hardcore—recordings by Shaggy, who spends much of his “Mattress Jockey” whinnying like a donkey. Equally remarkable is the competitiveness that comes through on certain records. “Typewriter, Louie Rankin keep it,” Jr. Demus says on his vicious “You A Bad Boy,” invoking Rankin’s signature hit. On his “No Move,” Rankin retaliates, noting the slight from earlier in the LP in an ingenious, and somewhat unprecedented, intro:
Now hear me likkle punani mout
Going and run up di route
To talk about a bad boy and a gun dis and a gun whatnot
Watch your mout cause you’re in my route
And if you’re in my route and run up your mout, I will get ya out
Ya understand what you’re drinking, Heineken or stout?
NYC Badmen never made much noise. Like the hip-hop/dancehall hybrid in general, it’s appeal for audiences in other, less Yardie-intensive parts of the country was probably pretty limited. But the lack of other releases or even mixtapes (one exception being Reggae Meets Hip-Hop, another, even more obscure compilation released on Bobby Konders’ Massive B label in ’96) makes it indispensable as a document of Caribbean New York, and specifically Brooklyn, in the ’90s. For me— I didn’t hear of NYC Badmen myself back when it came out in ’93 but instead learned of it while searching out some of the included tracks on the Internet back in the nascent days of file-sharing—it’s somewhat of a holy grail, the only release that properly explains and captures a moment in my own personal musical evolution.
Jesse Serwer is the music editor for Jamrock Magazine and a regular contributor to Billboard, XXL, Time Out New York, Wax Poetics and XLR8R. See more of his work at www.jesseserwer.com/blog.
*Update: Jesse just posted a followup post to this piece over on his blog. Head over there for more hip-hop infused dancehall tracks.