April 6th, 2007

Dear Wayne #8353: JA inna US & UK

While we’re in a outsourcing mood here at w&w, allow we to offer up another recent q&a —

Dear Wayne,

Hope you’re well,

This is a follow-up to an email that I sent last week regarding me possibly
conducting an interview in the near future regarding the role of Jamaican
styles in US and UK hip-hop.

I’ve been a keen reader of your blogs on this subject and would very much
like to talk to you via email about this subject as research for my
university dissertation.

Please could you get back to me either way.

Elliott P
Leeds University

Hi Elliott,

Interesting questions. I’m afraid I’m going to have to be brief, but I hope I can be helpful. Feel free to shoot back others if they arise.

1) As you’ve explored in your own research, certain songs on ‘Criminal
Minded’ by Boogie Down Productions were, at the time of their release,
groundbreaking in their use of Jamaican influences. What do you think was
the catalyst to this new approach in hip hop?

I think the main “catalyst” is the profound change in NYC’s ethnic demographics during the 1980s, combined with a related set of representations that changed perceptions of Jamaicans from “country/island” to “rudeboy/ruthless.” By the mid-80s, boroughs like Brooklyn and the Bronx not only had a good number more residents from Jamaica (and the West Indies more generally — see the work of Mary Waters, Philip Kasinitz, etc.), but in terms of actual social and cultural relationships, Jamaicans had gone from being marginal pariahs (e.g., thrown in garbage cans, as Kool Herc recounts) to dominating the drug trade, and the New York soundscape was more infused with the sounds of Jamaica — esp dancehall reggae — than ever before. The “cool and deadly” style of reggae from that era resonated with the cool and deadly postures of Jamaican posses. So for someone like KRS-One (despite himself not being Jamaican), suddenly the sounds of Jamaica offered a powerful resource for representing the Bronx.

2) Is there much diversity in the use of Jamaican influences in US hip hop?

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this. In a sense, I’d say yes, because the references to Jamaican music in hip-hop run the gamut from contemporary and classic dancehall to roots reggae (a la Bob Marley) to more obscure dub and sometimes even rocksteady references. Far and away, though, the strongest presence of Jamaica in hip-hop is from dancehall, which makes sense given its close relationship — and dialogue — with rap.

Regarding comparions between UK and US appropriations of Jamaican music in
their respective hip hop styles.

3) Can a fair judgement be made regarding the question of which style (UK or
US hip-hop displays the most authentic interpretation of a Jamaican
influence?

I’m not really sure how you would define “authentic” here, and I usually find that such assessments are bound up with various value judgments, so you’d have to tell me more in order to weigh in. Essentially, though, I don’t think a strong argument can be made that either style is more “authentic.” One might argue that UK hip-hop has a greater degree of Jamaican influence, which makes sense given the larger percentage of UK hip-hoppers of Jamaican descent and the greater presence more generally of Jamaican culture in the UK. If you’re talking about an “interpretation” that attempts to be closer to the “original” (though there’s a lot of mirror-mirror interaction going on in all of this, making it difficult to sort out), then the UK probably fits that description better. But again, UK/US hip-hop is one thing and UK/US reggae is another (and then there’s all the stuff in between). Ultimately, I think you’d be hard pressed to really make any meaningful distinctions here, as both places (NYC and London, specifically) have substantial Jamaican communities who maintain strong, close ties to the island.

4) If so, which is the most authentic and what is the criteria for such a
judgement?

I guess I addressed this in the answer above. In general, I avoid weighing in on authenticity, as I don’t think it’s something “out there” and measurable and real. Rather, it is a product of the imagination and will depend on competing discourses about the “real” and on complexly situated subjects in specific social contexts and their cultural politics. As I’ve written elsewhere, with regard to authenticity, there’s no “there” there. Even so, one can discuss it insofar as plenty of people do have strong ideas about what is authentic and they invest their music with such meanings accordingly. Getting at this, then, is less about an interpreter such as I or you deciding what is really real and instead employing ethnography to get at what other people think is really real and why.

Hi Wayne,

Thanks for your feedback on the questions. From reading my questions again a
few days later and reading your answers I can see some of the flaws in my
questions. I suppose it’s part of the learning process so thanks for bearing
with me.

Got a few more questions for you. I don’t think there’ll be many more after
this.

1) Is the oft- cited theory on the influence of Jamaican vocal styles on
hip-hop emceeing/rapping justified?

Depends on what you mean. I would say that the influence of Jamaican vocal styles on hip-hop emceeing have become more pronounced over the last 15 years especially, but in the earlier days of rap, the cadences were much more indebted to African-American styles. I think this was even true for those early DJs/MCs who were well familiar with Jamaican toasting style. Kool Herc adopted the speech style of his Bronx peers, and it was not until much later (at least 1986 or so) that Jamaican accents and vocal styles began to audibly influence rap style. Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that dancehall reggae vocal styles, since the early 80s, have themselves been influenced by rap.

2) Is it feasible to say that one genre holds more image and musicla
stylistic influence over the other when you compare the dancehall of Lady
Saw, Tanya Stephens etc to the hip hop of Foxy Brown Lil Kim etc?

This is hard to say. I can see/hear influence going both ways in all of these cases. It seems more difficult to me to compare individuals than, say, societies — where, I would say, though this is not really based on empirical evidence, that while US music/culture has had a pervasive effect on Jamaican music/culture, and Jamaican on English, it is less clear that Jamaican music/culture has had such a strong effect on American culture (except perhaps in certain Caribbean-ized cities, such as NY or Miami).

3) What do you feel that UK Grime music has taken from Jamaica in terms of
music and cultural expression?

Quite a bit: everything from vocal styles and accents and slang, to rhythmic predilections, focus on bass and effects and layering, use of the dubplate and riddim system, rude boy stance, etc. Of course, “taken” might be putting it strong, considering how many grime artists and producers are of Jamaican descent.

Referring back to the last set of answers you gave me, whilst I’m fairly
aware of the more obvious examples of Jamaican influence in US hip-hop,
could you help me out with some of the more obscure dub/rocksteady examples
you mentioned. Also, are there any US hip hop artists of Jamaican descent
(second-generation) you could name? I can name people like Busta Rhymes,
Grand Puba etc, but I can’t be sure of people like Mos Def or Smif an
Wessun.

Hmmm. Can’t do too much of this research for you, I’m afraid. But here are a couple examples: Kanye West’s sample for Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” comes from a Max Romeo / Lee Perry dub, of course, and Public Enemy sampled Mikey Dread, while Special Ed samples “Shantytown” by Jimmy Cliff and “Double Barrel” by Dave and Ansel Collins for his “Magnificent.” Something like Madlib’s Blunted in the Bomb Shelter shows another side of hip-hop’s acquaintance with dub. Plenty more listed here:
http://the-breaks.com/perl/view.pl?page=1&genre=5

As for corroborating artists’ Jamaican heritage, I’m afraid I’ve had very little luck with that.

10 Comments

  • 1. Birdseed  |  April 6th, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    One more factor I think might have played a role in the integration of Jamaican sounds into Hip-hop is the preceding (just) integration of Dub into first post-punk and then freaky disco and garage, which happened around 1979-1980. Not only were dub-influenced sounds floating around New York at the time but plently of early Dancehall found itself into the clubs, too. “Boneman Connection” by Nicodemus, for instance, was a maistay at David Mancuso’s legendary club The Loft.

    More relevant to Hip-hop, tough, is the constant precence of Jamaican records at The Roxy, which of course famously attracted a mixed punk/hip-hop crowd. The “Roxy Top 100” that’s in the Appendix to Broughton and Brewsters excellent “Last Night a DJ Saved MY Life” lists the Nicodemus track, “Diseases” and “Zungzungzung” among the electro, old-school and funk material…

  • 2. Pete Murder Tone  |  April 7th, 2007 at 5:43 am

    I think KRS had JA family links
    shinehead should get a mention here as should KRS’ mate Just Ice as they both predate his efforts and their “crossovers” made a big impact on hip hop fans around the world at the time (even in Aust)

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  April 7th, 2007 at 10:06 am

    I’m not sure about KRS, Pete. Though he would certainly give that impression, the best I’ve been able to dig up is that his father was Trinidadian — and out of the picture early at that. This seems to say even more about the compelling character of JA music/style at this point in the Bronx. And you’re right about Shinehead and Just Ice — I just didn’t want to cut’n’paste my dissertation into an email or a blog post, knamean. That’s what I meant about “can’t do too much research for you.” I’d love to know more, though, about how these various figures filtered into the Australian (hip-hop?) scene.

    And thanks for the note, Birdseed, tho I think that the same underlying causes may be at play in reggae’s influence on hip-hop and dance music alike — whether one of the latter influenced the other is another question (though it seems that a lot of cross-influence was underway in the NYC dance scene during the late 70s and early 80s). It’s always been interesting to me that the “dub mix” — including clipped, ghostly vocals and plenty of echo — became a part of the (post)disco/garage scene so early on, and yet I’ve never seen much testimony around how dance producers caught the dub bug. I guess I need to catch up on my (post)disco literature / oral history.

    I’d also be really curious to know who was bringing those cuts on the Diseases riddim (all the songs you name are on the Mad Mad / Diseases, incidentally) into the Loft and the Roxy, and where they got them and why they thought they’d work there. Notably, that’s the same set of records — “Diseases” and “Zungazung” in partic — that show up on BDP’s Criminal Minded.

  • 4. Pete Murder Tone  |  April 7th, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    well larry levan certainly played a bit of reggae, as did/does francois kevorkian
    + wasnt yellowman on the brink of a major US label deal at his peak?
    not sure when dancehall stated getting play on NY mix shows, but thats the link that hooked me around when criminal minded came out

  • 5. Pete Murder Tone  |  April 7th, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    wow I almost forgot arthur russell too, I bet sleeping bag records was an important meeting point: arthur russell, mantronik, freestyle, just ice etc….we worshipped NY in those days

    I suspect the NY disco folks just came across dub because they dug pretty deep across the board

  • 6. Birdseed  |  April 8th, 2007 at 3:56 am

    It’s so interesting that all the movement towards minimalism and bary bones rhythms that forms the basis of most music today happened in the same years in the late seventies and early eighties. In the space of just a few years you’ve suddenly got minimal new wave, early synth-pop, boned-down disco 12″ mixes, minimal eurospacedisco, japanese technopop, dance-punk acts like ESG and Liquid Liquid, post-punk, early HiNRG, some late P-funk material, and not least dancehall in the hands of Junjo and others. They don’t share instrumentation or production methods and they’re not causally related (just when you think you’ve found the keystone it all falls appart again), just the tendency towards “x-raying” music and paring everything down to a few rhythm and melody tracks.

    It’s a fascinating period and I’m always trying to delve deeper into it. My current theory is that it’s all James Brown’s fault.

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  April 9th, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Re: NY dance and dub — can’t resist adding this quotation from Kai Fikentscher’s “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (2000). Fikentscher doesn’t account, unfortunately, for how dub got into the dance/club scene (i.e./e.g., which club producers and DJs were listening to and engaging with dub/reggae and how and why and when, etc.), but his discussion with Victor Simonelli (from an interview on 7 Nov 1992) is pretty revealing in the ways that dub’s signposts remain central, if a lil loosey-goosey, to its conception/application in dance/club/remix practice:

    Simonelli: Now a dub gets fun, like I can experiment a lot. A dub mix is fun, because I’m able to do whatever I want.
    Fikentscher: As in “Do your thing?” “Go crazy?”
    Simonelli: Oh yeah. A dub is “do your thing.” Arrangement doesn’t really make a difference. It’s just a “feel” thing, mainly. It’s different in each situation, but I’m talking about most of the time.
    Fikentscher: Some people equate dubs with instrumentals.
    Simonelli: Sure. Like, let’s say…I mean, definitely. I agree with that.
    Fikentscher: Okay. Although some records have different instrumental versions.
    Simonelli: And also a dub version. And the difference between an instrumental [and a] dub could be a lot of delay, or vocals coming in an [sic] out, breakdowns that you wouldn’t expect, just interesting stuff like surprises you. No standard format. There is no standard format to a dub in my opinion, or I never found one.
    Fikentscher: Dub is a fun environment for you.
    Simonelli: Right.
    Fikentscher: Interesting. Because Junior [Vasquez], on the other hand, gets accused of playing too many of those at Sound Factory.
    Simonelli (laughs): To tell you the truth, most of the stuff that gets played in clubs today around the city would be considered dubs.

    Again, I would have loved to see Fikentscher ask Simonelli, et al., about their sense of such techniques’ connection to dub reggae, when it became such a staple of the scene, etc. Much work remains to be done, no doubt. Oral historians, where ya at?

    As for the JB theory, Birdseed, I suspect you’re right.

  • 8. Pale Rider  |  April 10th, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    I find it interesting that KRS-ONE’s father is from Trinidad. My favorite Reggae (not Soca) DJ in Nashville, TN is from Trinidad – I was surprised to learn that his father had a reggae sound system in Trinidad –

    Wrongly, I assumed that all Trinidadians would prefer Soca over Reggae, and I have met several that do, or like both Reggae and Soca. But not Saddest, his family and the Silver Star Sound System

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  April 10th, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Looks like your post got cut off, PR, but you raise some important, interesting questions — the same sort of questions that I’ve been asking about some Jamaicans preferring hip-hop to reggae (and which we could ask about certain Americans preferring reggae to hip-hop). I think we can learn a lot about nationalism and about social categories and community relationships more generally — as least as we ourselves conceive them, if not how others practice or discuss them — by paying attention to instances, like these, where our assumptions about cultural boundaries and local/foreign binaries are challenged. What is it about reggae that appeals in Trinidad and/or the South Bronx? What is it about hip-hop that makes it compelling in Kingston? etc.

  • 10. wayneandwax.com » N&hellip  |  April 14th, 2008 at 10:19 am

    […] tech remains a vexed vortex for determining authenticity. (And, just for the record, as I’ve said before, there is no there there when we’re talking about the […]

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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