Dancing music in the C20: dancehall (1977-79)

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While our history of dance music in the 20th century has mainly focused on the musical works of African-American musicians – with occasional glimpses into what was going on in Africa – the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, was no stranger to dance innovation.

Calypso, soca, ska, rocksteady and reggae had all flourished on the island – and while not specifically dance musics per se – those genres had danceable elements.

Dub, the trippy, experimental, spiritual Jamaican music, crawled out of reggae in the early 1970s, courtesy of Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby. Dub was concerned with sonics over lyrics, space and atmosphere over dancing, mixing-board-wizardry over playing skill. Dub was heavy music – it could seem paranoid and full of dread or near-psychedelic religious epiphanies and it sounds particularly good while stoned.

Dub’s studio-based delay-maze was an important evolution in reggae and in music in general, but arguably it coaxed reggae fans away from the fun and frivolity of the dancehall sound systems, shutting listeners up in their own consciousness-expanding heads.

Dancehall was maybe a reaction to that stoned reflection. The clue was in the name, but this was party music! In dancehall, the singers were the stars again, not the producers. Pre-empting hip-hop by just a couple of years, teenage boys (‘deejays’ – note, the Jamaican equivalent of MCs, rather than ‘DJs’) would freestyle over other musicians’ records at dances, taking turns on the mic to impress girls.

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One of these teenagers, Barrington Levy – known as the ‘mellow canary’ of dancehall for his distinctive voice – would become dancehall’s first star. Levy himself considers himself as a reggae singer – the term ‘dancehall’ being usually applied to the early-80s stars like Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse – but in our Spotify playlist of proto-dancehall’s period of innovation, we can see that Levy is a clear leader of this new sound.

Spotify playlist: early dancehall (1977-79)

Levy was a sometimes-homeless kid who was taken in by a Rastafarian commune, and dreamed of being a musician, but lacked any formal training.

As he told Midnight Raver blog recently:

“Look boss, Barrington Levy only know one thing. I was at my mother house and dem send me to school and they say dem want me to be mechanical engineer. All I want is music. Seen? I was born in Kingston but my mom take me out to Clarendon and we live there where she is from. I run away from home and return to Kingston. And from when I was in the country I been saying to dem ‘I can be a singer,’ I can be a singer.’ We used to have this herring pan with strings and you could play two chords on it. I never see it as a herring pan, I see it as guitar. Dem all look at me play the herring pan guitar and I was so deep into it, into the music.”

His performances at local dances in Kingston impressed emerging deejays Dillinger and Trinity, and the 15-year-old Levy ended up recorded his first hit, Collie Weed, at King Tubby’s studio with gangster-turned-record producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes.

The other tune Levy had his back pocket from singing over records at dancehalls was a lyric called Shine Eye Girl.

Barrington Levy – Shine Eye Girl

“Things were changing in Jamaica, and it was a revelation,” Chris Cracknell, former head of A&R at the Greensleeves label told Red Bull Music Academy. “When Barrington Levy’s ‘Shine Eye Gal’ came along, it was like a whole new era had started in Jamaica… suddenly people wanted that new sound.”

This new sound was danceable and fun, but retained some of dub’s sonic trickery. Emphasising the connection between the two genres, the dub innovator Scientist – a protege of Tubby’s and himself just a teenager at the time – helmed the desk for Levy’s groundbreaking early recordings.

Before Yellowman, Eek-a-Mouse and the 80s dancehall stars, these 1970s records by the likes of Ranking Joe, Jah Thomas, Joe Tex & U-Black, Michigan & Smiley and – in particular – the London-raised Jamaican deejay Lone Ranger suggested a new type of reggae, one that hadn’t descended into pure ‘slackness’ yet and was still motivated by ganja, sounds and dancing more than the sex and controversy.

Lone Ranger – Natty Dread On The Go