March 16th, 2012

Rapping to the Beat

Funny as it may be, I’m pretty sure Run DMC’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman) is the first “reggae” song I ever knew. As an occasionally awkward and awfully chintzy attempt at reggae via New York, it’s an odd introduction in nuff ways. On the other hand, there are a couple moments in the song, especially during Yellowman’s verses, which make it a really excellent primer.

One such moment is King Yellow’s wonderfully concise (if slightly defensive) assertion that “reggae music is not so strange” (which served as an apt epigraph to my dissertation). But it’s a different line that I want to draw your attention to here.

At another point in the song, Yellowman offers the following definition:

Reggae music is rapping to the beat

Of course, that makes a lot of sense in a song with Run DMC, as if Yellowman wants to assure listeners that reggae really is not so strange — in fact, from a certain perspective, he suggests, it’s essentially the same thing as hip-hop. This is hardly pandering on his part, certainly by the mid-80s, when a great deal of reggae was just that: rapping over beats.

But we can extend his definition even further — back to the pre-reggae days of ska and rocksteady even, to the early days of soundsystems and mic-wielding deejays, when Yellowman’s “talkover” forbears were rather profoundly revising what it means to make music in the age of its technological reproducibility.

I’m hardly the first to propose that the conceptual and artistic innovations that emerge from Jamaican soundsystem practice, especially during the late 60s, deeply inform musical production and practice throughout the late 20th century and well into the 21st. Even so, I often find that this remains an underappreciated revolution. So it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to impart in my own classes, guest lectures, and other talks for some time.

Toward that end, I’m once again grateful to Roifield Brown for helping me to make these points — and make them more publicly — thanks to his solicitous interviewing and careful editing. Roifield’s latest episodes in his podcast series include some of my thoughts on these matters — pertaining both to the initial rise of deejays in Jamaica and to how Kool Herc transmitted & transmuted these practices to help bring hip-hop into being:

The rise of the Djs The rise of the Djs The rise of the Djs by Roifield on Mixcloud

The birth of Hip Hop – Episode 5 by Roifield on Mixcloud

Of course, it’s hard to just talk about New York in this regard and leave out London. UK soundsystem formations — from faithful to faithfully mutated — are key to understanding the resonance and reverb of Jamaican soundsystem culture, and there are few who’ve done as stellar and vibrant a job of representing that side of the story as London’s Heatwave.

You could say that I’m grateful to them too — as a teacher, researcher, and as a listener. I’ve been using their classic mix An England Story in my classes for years now. There’s simply no better resource for audibly apprehending the links that run through reggae, rave, jungle, garage, grime, and so on. So I’m pleased to note that the Heatwave has produced a fine supplement for me, my students, and unenrolled enthusiasts too: the SHOWTIME! DVD.

The DVD is gathered around a historic stageshow that the Heatwave presented last summer, bringing together an epic posse of UK bashment luminaries. Interspersed between the lively show segments are illuminating interviews with some pioneers of the scene, many crucial in forging a distinctly Jamaican-British accent. (I myself might have like to see & hear a little more from the hip-hop and grime scenes, which are represented thickly on the mix, but I can appreciate and respect the focus on reggae here.) As for further explicating the significance of the DVD and what it means, I’m going to leave that to the ever-sharp Dan Hancox, who published a deeply contextualized review just this week.

I showed some scenes from the DVD a few weeks ago in the latest incarnation of my global hip-hop class, and I can’t resist sharing an excerpt here featuring none other than Wiley, probably the UK’s most relentless, restless exponent of JA-indebted production over the last decade —

“They must have installed it in me,” he says, referring to the ways that reggae (or, rapping to the beat) insinuated itself into him — and notably naming Yellowman as prime perpetrator (perpetuator?).

Installed! I really love that. What seems at first like a bit of mispeaking actually proves entirely eloquent. He’s talking about enculturation, yes, but the slip of install for instill also says something about reggae as conceptual framework, reggae as software, reggae as operating system, reggae as memory.

Rapping to the beat by any other name, no matter wot-u-call it.

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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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