March 7th, 2007

Upside-Down International Sound

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m headed to London this week (tomorrow today actually!) to participate in a Caribbean music seminar at Royal Holloway College. I’m honored to have been invited to join in the proceedings, and I’m quite looking forward to the various papers, the broader conversation, and the feedback I hope to receive on some ideas I’ve been tossing around for a while (and from a group of sharp, Caribbean/ist interlocutors at that).

I’m calling my talk, “To Turn the Text Upside-Down: Versioning the Foreign in Jamaica,” but I should perhaps say “Upside-Up,” or “Rightside Up,” or “I-side-Up,” or something similarly more Rastafarian in spirit (the “upside-down” was spoken by Stuart Hall, incidentally), and I might as well add “Versioning Jamaica in the Foreign” — for how better to describe my own reggaecentric projects?

But here’s Hall elaborating on the idea of turning the Bible upside-down:

…Rastafarianism represented itself as a ‘return’. But what it ‘returned’ us to was ourselves. In doing so, it produced ‘Africa again’ — in the diaspora. Rastafarianism drew on many ‘lost sources’ from the past. But its relevance was grounded in the extraordinarily contemporary practice of reading the Bible through its subversive tradition, through its unorthodoxies, its apocrypha: by reading against the grain, upside-down, turning the text against itself. The ‘Babylon’ of which it spoke, where its people were still ‘suffering’, was not in Egypt but in Kingston — and later, as the name was syntagmatically extended to include the Metropolitan Police (…) Rastafarianism played a critical role in the modern movement that further translation, this strange doctrine and discourse ‘saved’ the young black souls of second-generation Caribbean migrants in British cities in the 1960s and 1970s, (…) it decolonized minds. [link]

Whether or not “upside-down” is the word, I find this a compelling reading of much Jamaican culture, which reinforces my sense that what Deborah Thomas calls “modern blackness” is a useful lens for making sense of (i.e., for versioning, yes) reggae’s relationship to, say, hip-hop. After discussing various texts that get turned upside-down inna JA (and the J’can diaspora) — the Bible, English, colonization, Westerns, r&b — I’ll turn in greater detail to the specific case of hip-hop and the (potentially) bexing questions it raises about who’s turning whom upside-down (and who cares). Or as Alexander Weheliye puts it, in reference to a broader context —

As a direct outcome of its growing sonic and visual presence hip-hop has come to define what it means to be black and “modern” within a global context and particularly in youth cultures. Because of hip-hop’s preeminence, Afro-diasporic youth populations habitually identify with or define themselves against hip-hop culture, creating identities suspended between the local and the global. (146)

With this sort of tension in the air, my main frame of reference will be, as it has been, directed toward and informed by a group which could fairly well be described by the passage above: the hip-hop generation of Jamaica — those who grew up on MTV and BET and Biggie and Tupac as much as with Stone Love and Irie and Beenie and Bounty; those for whom “playa-hatin” rolls off the tongue as easily as “badmind”; those for whom rap beats and flows offer a special kind of currency; and yet, those for whom adopting a Yankee style wholesale still seems anathema, unthinkable, or certainly conspicuous.

As I’ve written elsewhere,

Few DJs of this generation would go so far as to say that a Jamaican who rapped was not “keeping it real,” so to speak. As another Kingston-based DJ, Raw-Raw, put it: “If someone lives in Jamaica and him wan’ rap like him born in Brooklyn, I have no comment on that beca’ — whatever you feel [is valid].” In other words, Raw-Raw would not want to tell a performer what is in or out of bounds regarding their mode of expression. […] Other Kingston-based artists assented that such a stylistic strategy implies a serious trade-off but is a testament to hip-hop’s power. A singjay named Dami D equated the decision of a young Jamaican to write a rap song with “put[ting] away all pride.” At the same time, he attributed the phenomenon of Jamaican rappers to hip-hop’s ability to inspire people, or in his words: “That show, seh, that hip-hop, it dedeh for really uplift the youth dem.”

One thing that helps young Jamaicans to reconcile an embrace of hip-hop alongside (dancehall) reggae is an understanding of the intertwined genealogy of the two. When I asked him about the relationship between hip-hop and reggae, Wasp, a Kingston-based DJ and one of my primary collaborators, told me:

Rap, ‘pon a level now, come from reggae, seen? Dancehall now is a new ting weh come after rap, seen? So hip-hop get influence from reggae, but this what we a do now — what Dami D a do, Beenie Man a do, Bounty a do, y’know — a dancehall, and that come from rap.

Indeed, in our collaborations, Wasp frequently pushed me (or allowed me to lean, as I was wont to do) toward hip-hop. As I recounted it several years ago, revealing with the awk phrase “anti-jamaican” more about my own underlying assumptions than his —

just yesterday, as i built a riddim for a dj named wasp, i was struck by his anti-jamaican directions. he wanted the snares squarely on the 2 and 4 and the kicks avoiding any semblance of a 3+3+2. he didn’t want a dancehall sound. he wanted an “international sound.”

And yet, this was also the same guy who told me,

I just be a man weh stick to my culture, still. Our culture is like, reggae, dancehall, seen? From your yard, man, is either you have a choice between reggae and dancehall, you see me a say? […] If a man live a yard and him a rap is like, me feel like him fi just go seh, bomb, and just know seh, yo, him fi go live in other heights, y’know?

Wasp in the studio

I don’t talk to Wasp as often as I’d like to, though I do get regular updates from my man Dami D, who told me recently that Wasp was blowing up (“Wass buss,” he said in that wonderfully economical JA way) and that he had a myspace page and all that (and, as it turns out, about 3 times more friends than i&i !). When I visited, I was quite stoked to hear Wasp absolutely killing the new Black Chiney joint, i.e., the Drumline riddim —

Wasp, “A Buss Di Place”

Not only has Wasp apparently scored himself a spot on the roster for the Drumline comp with his hissed whispered wordspill — man a buss di place, no doubt — apparently he’s doing dubs, too, so if you’re looking for a tight vocal, check the man.

I’m told that soon enough he’ll have a hot new mixtape out — Kingston kids know how to get the word out, knamean you see me? I first noted the embrace of the hip-hop style mixtape format (i.e., recording your own songs over hot beats, interlinked w/ skits, etc.) in Jamaica when I was there a couple years ago and was passed a tape representing Cassia Park to the world, over the hottest new dancehall riddims and hip-hop beats alike. One track featured Wasp rocking over the beat from the Game’s “Dreams,” introduced with a sample from a classic Twins of Twins bit —
note the long pull-up around a minute in

As I wrote at the time —

it’s clear that the hip-hop format for bus(t)ing new artists and new tracks has been fully embraced by the digital-denizens of kingston. paralleling young jamaican video artists’ use of found footage (the war in iraq being a particularly popular source of images to counterpose with the ghetto) and video game graphics, among other things, young mixtape makers are increasingly incorporating not simply the classic sounds of jamaican soundsystems (e.g., screaming selectors, big-ups from bigman-DJs, gunshots, and low-fi mixer effects) but everything from silly fruityloops sounds to the latest hip-hop beats to sizzla’s signature “HAAA!” or killa’s “CROSS…” to — the clear new favorite — clips from the twins of twins’ highly popular dancehall parodies.

— they just gotta get them jawns over to MixUnit or something.

Another recent recording by Wasp, which will likely land on the forthcoming mixtape as well, features fellow hip-hop gen DJ, Terro 3000, and offers yet another take on today’s hip-hop inflected Jamaican sound —

Wasp, ft. Terro, “Buss It Off”
if you listen to the end you’ll hear a lil unintended irony — this being a myspace rip — as an uninvited pop-up voice from the Western Union website comes into the mix; seemed appropriate, so i left it in

At this point, tho, I’ve got to catch some z’s so’s I can catch an early flight across the pond tomorrow. So me haffi jus leave it right here for now. If you’d like to read more along these lines, check the dissertation excerpt I have up on the “word” page. More soon come on that front, too. //


  • 1. Channing Kennedy  |  March 7th, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Is there an easy way (or a hard way) to download te mp3s from their embedded flash player cocoons?

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  March 7th, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    For future reference, “view page source” should make it pretty easy to find and DL the mp3s. Sorry about that — sometimes I make it easy, sometimes I don’t. I’ll add some mp3 links in the text above just to facilitate. Big tunes, worth DLing, no doubt.

  • 3. Channing Kennedy  |  March 7th, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    thanks Wayne! Next time I’ll check the source, I just didn’t know if there was a Flash-scanning Webjay equivalent everyone else was using that I didn’t know about yet. Have a good flight y’all!

    Hey, are you going to be in Chicago for Lumpen’s Version07 festival (late april)?

    It would be a shame for you of all people to miss it.

  • 4. wayneandwax  |  March 7th, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Hey Channing — there’s that, too, for example:

    That festival looks fantastic. Thanks for letting me know about it. Unfortunately, I’m gonna be out of town for both weekends at the end of April. But fortunately, it looks like there’s a lot going on during the weeks, too. At least, I hope to catch some of it. Are you involved at all? (Looks like today was the deadline for submissions.)

  • 5. Channing Kennedy  |  March 8th, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    I’ll only be performing this year (on one of the weekends), unlike last year when I also did the NFO XPO (I didn’t have this years genius NFO XPO submission idea until the day after submissions closed). The highlight last year, for me, was crawling through the trunk of a giant elephant-head-shaped inflated Tyvek igloo, and, upon emerging into the cranium, being handed a beer by a stranger. So. I would recommend it. There is also academix to be had but it makes for less snappy anecdotes.

    Also, there’s a rumor that Konono will be playing (not related to Version) in Chicago on the 24th!

  • 6. i  |  March 9th, 2007 at 12:34 am


  • 7. bruksi  |  March 16th, 2007 at 3:14 am

    either that or him want a roots reggae sound – except him might want to put the kick on the 2 and 4 too for that.

    mi realy like dem contents yah
    some real local thing to the core

  • 8. bruksi  |  March 16th, 2007 at 3:30 am

    “but this what we a do now — what Dami D a do, Beenie Man a do, Bounty a do, y’know — a dancehall, and that come from rap.”

    mi nuh agree with dah part deh
    when kool hurk come a farin man did deh a yaad a dj
    same thing weh dem call rap ina di US.Some time dem used to call it toasting
    and it trikkle down to daddy Uroy and nuff a dem man deh

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  March 16th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    i see what you’re saying bruksi, but i think that wasp is getting at a slightly more complicated interpretation of the historical relationship between hip-hop and reggae. for sure, the kind of toasting herc was doing has its roots in the talkover stylings of u-roy and dem, but once rap emerges with its own (african-americanized) voice, which happens pretty early on (indeed, herc himself has been known to play down the jamaican roots of hip-hop), it seems fairly clear that hip-hop style rapping ends up having at least some influence on dancehall style rapping/DJing. this is more pronounced in the latest generation of DJs (e.g., wasp and dami d), but i think it’s even audible to some extent in the performances of beenie and bounty, etc.

    even as early as 1980, with welton irie’s cover of “rapper’s delight” (on “hotter reggae music”), one can hear a yankee style creeping into dancehall. there’s a lot of back and forth a gwaan throughout, however, so it’s tricky business to try to draw these lines too starkly.

  • 10. bruksi  |  March 17th, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Yeh man mi agree with that, true thing, there’s been influences going on back and fort even from a very early stage.

    “i think that wasp is getting at a slightly more complicated interpretation of the historical relationship between hip-hop and reggae”

    In that case a more relivant analogy on
    my part would be that: what dem
    a duh is been influence by both reggae/dancehall and hiphop
    with an extend that vary from artist to artist such as beene an bounty, and so on.

    What i also notice with reggae/dancehall and hiphop is that
    there are some similarity that seem to develop independently of each other.
    not only in the music i also found the same thing in the languages.

  • 11. kevin r hollo  |  March 18th, 2007 at 8:57 am

    one thing that is immediately coming to mind is the polemic view one can see taking up shop in JA (and other countries, eastern and western), this idea of “to make it/be successful/have a career/whatever” i’ve GOT to get to the states or at least get my music there OR the alternative which is to seek insular or hermetic peace of mind (reliance on community/a spiritual gain/whatever). while this is reading (to my mind) like a crass oversimplification, i’m aware of the BLEEDING that occurs between the music of hip hop and the musics of JA, aware of its cussive force.

    what’s detrimental (to my tastes, but also i think from a larger worldview in which disparity has greater currency than sameness) is the suffering from a production standpoint. sorry, but if this bleeding means more of a crunk sound, or a ghettotech sound, and less of a DANCEHALL sound, count me out. perhaps its an evolution, but for a diasporic music to turn native and in a sense (if the historical connections you’re so eloquently pointing out are as strong as we both think) cannabilize itself, for the striving to succeed both financially and to rise up out of (just) jamaica, it just doesnt cut it musically. i guess i’m seeing less of a hybridization and more of a co-opting, which smacks of laziness. or maybe i just havent herd enough of whats bubbling up.

    either way, love the blog and what you do here. keep it coming! and i’ll keep coming back.


  • 12. wayneandwax  |  March 20th, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    a powerful polemic of your own, kevin! (&thanks for the kind words.) i just find such lines to be awfully difficult to draw sometimes, which is why i love when they come up in the process of collaboration, allowing one to get a strong sense of how someone else hears genre coalesce with historical and social meaning.

    but i would often be hard pressed to say when the reggae becomes the hip-hop or the vice versa. sure, we can talk about 3+3+2s and skanking upbeat accents and one-drops and rimshots and such, but even these seemingly stable markers have been localized and changed over time. reggae’s vaunted sub-stylistic tradition has been propelled, to my ears, by Jamaican musicians’ embrace of new technologies and new styles (many of them African-/American). that’s no contradiction; that’s cultural politics (or is it just culture?)

    finally, to hear dancehall as ghettotech will require, I suspect, the same sort of (willful?playful?) ignorance that the current celebration of all things ghetto requires: a repression of the knowledge of (their complicity with) the “poverty and pain, especially for black people” with which Lord Jamar slammed the White Rappers (or at least John Brown), and with which today’s ghetto celebrants, no matter how ironically or (nu)sincerely, proceed to give themselves a pass.

    sure, plenty of rastacrunk nuh mek it. there’s always duds out there, but there’s plenty of good stuff bubblin up too. &some of it has just the right slant to it, such that one would do well to note, sameness notwithstanding, the distinctive way it sway —

  • 13. kevin r hollo  |  March 21st, 2007 at 9:17 am

    true nuff. great response, and it makes me smile to hear my post referred to as a polemic! i’ve so often drawn myself up (particularly in academica) as a true nomad, blurring lines between agora and periphery, trying for real moments of interdisciplinary collaboration, etc

    i do so love collaboration, particularly generic collaboration wherein we get a mash up of hip hops with dancehall, i think it’s just my aesthetic coming through like a siren…witness the sometimes awesome sometimes lost ’em compilation from def jam, ‘def jamaica.’ there are SO many duds here, even tho a lot of my favorite artists from both worlds are present. perhaps the most successful moment, that perfect mix of computer and jungle (how i’ve always thought of dancehall) comes halfway through the ‘frontin’ remix, when vybz takes off in flight and the beat rises up to match him. lovely.

    i thnk where the polemic comes into play is the same place it crops up in my discussion of current hip hop affairs. there’s a reason i am so in love with cutty rank’s ‘from mi heart’: the sound has captured what it means to have a “session,” and i cant help but invoke the spiritual side of tings (make is a session, not a nother version). another part of me thinks it has something to do with riddims, in the sense that there is a simliar ride going on in current hip hop production (and i’m obviously only speaking of the popular radio variety) where we see the same beats resurface with a different wash, compression, echo or splash or whatever the effect might be. at least in the dancehall world someone says, “well, i’m going to take this named beat and make it a bit different and produce it as that named beat.” that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, tho, one i think you would do well to address: what to make of a named beat or rhythm which INVITES interpretation/interpolation? contemporary pop hip hop doesnt invite, it only assumes, which is what makes it so ugly. and that’s why i think the collaborations can turn out more duds with ease.

    this book has meant a lot to my understanding of diasporic language:

    give it a look.


  • 14. wayneandwax  |  March 22nd, 2007 at 10:04 am

    i’m totally with you on Def Jamaica. so much potential, and so little delivered. my sense, tho, is that the overly commercial quality of the thing undermined the endeavor; the hip-hop-reggae and raggamuffin hip-hop that people have been making in NY and JA (and London) alike for years does a far better job than such a preconceived project (not to mention the degree to which it was limited by record label affiliations). not sure about the “jungle” metaphor, mainly b/c the connotations still seem so unsavory in such a racist world. (long before dancehall, or even jungle for that matter, people in the US were calling ska “jungle music” — and they didn’t mean it in a good way.) the nomad metaphor is interesting, tho, so thanks for the reference to that book on diasporic poetics.

    as for the idea of the riddim system and whether or not it translates to US circumstances, this is indeed something that i’m planning to address in various writings over the next year or so. it’s a lot more complicated, i think, than you imply. the riddim system in jamaica arose in part out of performance practice — much in the same way that hip-hop’s aesthetics of sampling also emerged from live DJ events — and was shaped by an absence of copyright law. but one finds, i would argue, both the same sort of crass commercial appropriation of pre-existing riddims/beats/tracks as well as a similar sense of reverence to tradition in both reggae and hip-hop. simply depends on the examples we choose.

    incidentally, peter manuel and i discuss a lot of this stuff — with partic ref to the reggae tradition — in our article, “the riddim method,” in case you haven’t seen it.

  • 15. » W&hellip  |  March 15th, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    […] likkle background here […]


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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