Thursday, April 18, 2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS, The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000
ELEPHANT MAN, Comin' 4 You!
Uncut, March 2001

by Simon Reynolds

From early Nineties jungle to 2-step garage, dancehall is the vibe-it-up spice, the pungent flava added by producers for that extra tang of rudeness. Beyond this subordinate role as a pantry full of patois vocal licks ripe for sampling, though, dancehall has its own forceful claims as Electronic Music. Just check the madcap creativity of Beenie Man's "Moses Cry" on this Greensleeves double-CD Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000 for sounds as futuristic and aberrant-sounding as any avant-techno coming out of, say, Cologne. Produced by Ward 21 & Prince Jammy, its assymetrical groove is built from palpitating kick drums, garbled rave-style synth-stabs, and an eerie bassline that sounds like a human groan digitally mangled and looped. Or check the quirktronica pulsescape underpinning Beenie on "Badder Than the Rest", or Elephant Man's amazing "2000 Began," which is basically acid techno a la Plastikman.

It's easy to overlook dancehall's sonic strangeness, though, because the performers' personae are so domineering. The mix seems lopsided, in-yer-face voices battling with the beat to control the soundscape, and crushing the rest of the music (strangulated samples, perky videogame-style blip-melodies) into a skinny strip of no-man's land in between. The ragga voice, jagged and croaky, is a form of sonic extremism in itself. Dancehall's got to be the only form of modern pop where the typical range for male vocals is baritone to basso profundo. Obviously related to the culture's premium on testosterone and disdain for effeminacy, ragga's ultramasculinist bombast sounds simultaneously absurd and intimidating. From some DJs, like Buccaneer, you'll even hear a Pavarotti-esque warble, hilariously poised between portentous and preposterous.

Elephant Man's own voice is a pit-of-belly boom that opens up like an abyss of menace, enhanced by a sinister, serpentile lisp. Combine this sort of gravelly machismo with typical lyrics about exit wounds and tonight being the opposite of your birthday (ie. your "deathnight") and you've got some seriously chilling Staggerlee business. "Replacement Killer," a series of boasts about how coldblooded Elephant is, actually utilises death-rattle gasps as functioning elements of the beat. No surprise, then, that there's a mutual trade pact between dancehall and gangsta rap. "One More" is based on DMX's "One More Road To Cross," "E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T" rips a Dre/Snoop chorus, and the album's fiercest cut "Somebody" rides the clanking rampage of the Yardbounce riddim, a fusion of dancehall with the New Orleans bounce style popularized by Cash Money Records.

With six appearances on Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000 Capleton reaffirms his supremacy over the dancehall already established by 2000's awesome More Fire LP. Like Malcolm X, he belongs to the syndrome of the self-reformed Staggerlee; like Buju Banton, he's a raggamuffin who turned Rasta. But Capleton's sanctimony doesn't sabotage his records because instead of soothing roots reggae visions of "one love", he concentrates on Old Testament-style wrath and armageddon: Jah as the ultimate Enforcer, the Don of dons, smiting the corrupt and ungodly. The gloating relish with which he wields the brimstone imagery of divine retribution is as powerful as ragga's ultraviolence. Capleton's righteousness and Elephant Man's ruthlessness are flipsides of the same cultural coin as; God's fire simply replaces gun fire. Even though he's a "good guy" now, Capleton still sounds like a rude boy.

Bonus Bit, from Blissblog Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Still reeling from the Greensleeves launch party for Elephant Man’s third album Higher Level, probably the closest I’ll ever get to attending a proper bashment. What a strange-looking gentleman the self-styled “energy god” is—as my companion Sci-Fi Paul remarked, with his bright yellow tendrils of hair and homely face Elephant looks uncannily like Harpo Marx. And what gives with the bizarre patchwork corduroy suit in shades of brown, beige and white?

Elephant is probably the biggest dancehall deejay of the last few years, at least inside Jamaica itself, and offhand I can’t think of an event where I’ve witnessed such audience love: the front six rows were a forest of mini-cameras and camcorders, a panorama of adulatory faces and frank female lust. The first half-hour of the show was one of the most intense performances I’ve ever experienced, in impact terms on a par with Swans and Diamanda Galas. Perhaps the most exciting and thought-provoking aspect was the collectivity: it was meant to be Elephant’s show, but apart from a bizarre, extremely long and mostly (to me) incomprehensible-owing-to-patois speech right at the start of the performance, he mostly let his retinue of crew members and guests shine. Hardly any songs got played for more than a minute, and some got cut off after about 20 seconds; it was a chaos of MC freestyles and singers crooning lover’s rock and R&B in delirious falsetto (one chap actually sounding like a soprano, so womanly it was almost disturbing). And even though the event started to flag a bit about two-thirds through, owing to the excessive number of people onstage and the incessant swapping around of the mic, I’d still say this was way more entertaining than any hip hop show I’ve ever seen.

Which may explain the looks of sheer delight on people’s faces. After years of going to moody jungle and UKG events, it was a surprise, and refreshing, to witness such full-on enjoyment and joyousness. In a really interesting way, dancehall stars seem to simultaneously be treated as gods and yet have a representative-of-the-people quality that makes them accessible and down-to-earth. Maybe this is related to the way that dancehall’s turnover is so intense that most star deejays return to the street real quick. But while they’re in the spotlight, boy do they revel in it. Elephant, the bastard, made us wait two hours, basking in the VIP room as TV crews (presumably from JA) jostled for his attention, and members of his entourage seized their moment in front of the camera, firing off their mammoth “big-up” namecheck lists and performing their trademark vocal licks.

And along with the sense of fun and release, my god, the style of the audience: with the men, it was sometimes so exquisite, it verged on (and this is damn weird all things considered) gay. The whole experience did make me sympathise with wigga types who just decide ‘"nah, white culture can’t compete with this’"and dedicate their whole lives to the pre-doomed fraudulence and pathos of trying to pass for black. There were a handful of white wannabes at this event, looking distinctly awkward. And of course there was ginger-haired Bobby Konders of Massive B/Hot 97 fame. (Talking of your white custodian/Steve Barrow-Barker types, I was given a flyer for a David Rodigan event: have you ever seen a picture of this guy, he looks like Alan Partridge gone totally bald!).

And the album? It’s great—-my favorite track at this moment is “Tall Up Tall Up”, with its Yuletide dancehall versioning of “Joy To the World”, complete with string quartet. At a certain point I realized I was never going to be more than a dancehall dilettante, ‘cos to really keep on top of it is a full-time activity, entailing many hours in record-store basements whose walls are covered with 7 inch singles. But I look forward with renewed eagerness to the dilettante's annual ritual: buying the Greensleeves and VP "anthems of the year" comps.

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