Monday, January 19, 2015

Power 96 Presents Dancehall and Reggaeton 2005
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When all else fails, there’s always Jamaica. Other genres wax and wane (and right now, most seem to be in doldrums) but dancehall doesn’t really have “off” years. Jamaica has the world’s highest per capita rate of music production--a statistic that reflects not just the centrality of music in the island’s culture, but the fact that the dancehall industry is one of the few avenues for ghetto youth to achieve prosperity and prestige. The ferocious competition between sound systems, producers, and performers ensures a steady--at times, torrential--flow of creativity. Dancehall is simultaneously radical and conservative, reflecting its audience’s twin demands for novelty and continuity. There’s an insatiable hunger for fresh beats, sharper rhymes and ever more idiosyncratic MC stylists. But the basic function of the music--a soundtrack for sexual display and letting off steam--abides.

Judged as electronic musicians, the leading dancehall producers are easily as inventive as any critically-feted techno artist from Koln  that you’d care to nominate. Just check the madcap twists and nutty nuances woven into the Bionic Ras riddim (a term that refers not just to the beat but everything in a track that’s not the vocal). Produced by the brilliant South Rakkas Crew, Bionic Ras appears in three different versions on this compilation, ridden successively by two top MCs, Sizzla and Capleton, plus legendary reggae singer Frankie Paul. But while dancehall’s form is constantly mutating, the expressive content is unchanging. The narrow but enthralling scope for MC artistry resides in finding new twists on the same-old same-old: raunchy sex-talk, gangsta menace, blinged-out swagger, and incitement to shake-that-ass. On “Scooby Anthem,” Tony Curtis combines the last two, rhyming “Dom Perignon” with “Louis Vuitton” with “break-a-dawn”--as in, “gonna party til the…”.  

Subject matter-wise, dancehall hasn’t really evolved since the early Eighties, when slackness and gun-talk displaced the roots ‘n’ culture era. True, there are “conscious” dancehall artists, Rasta-ragga types like reformed bad boy Buju Banton. But at sound systems their Babylon-bashing serves as a brief interruption of piety amid the profanity.  On this collection, the great Vybz Kartel mischievously adapts the childhood taunt-rhyme about a girl and a boy kissing in a tree with his chorus “picture you and me/under the tree/F.U.C.K.I.N.G.”. The rest of the lyrics are so patois-thick they’re indechipherable, although I could swear Vybz says something like “spurt up ya belly like Nesquik.” The gals dem don’t go in for euphemisms either: on the insanely catchy “I’ve Got Your Man,”  Lady Saw jeers at her defeated rival-in-love, “he likes it tight and says your [digital bleep effect] is just a little slack”. 

As for the “reggaeton” part of the comp’s title, that’s basically a Latinized version of dancehall that’s spread from Puerto Rico all over the Caribbean and beyond.  The genre’s slender claim on distinctiveness is its bumpety giddy-up beat, which makes me think of that “here comes the galloping major” game where you bounce a toddler on your leg..  Dominating the middle-section of the compilation with tracks from Ivy Queen and Papichulo Crew, the style is enjoyable enough in small doses. But then so was the macarena.

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