Wednesday, November 2, 2022
Ragga Dancehall / Elephant Man / Capleton
The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2000
Comin' 4 You!
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 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 the Greensleeves compilation, 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.