staying up for three stage shows

things get going late in jamaica. typically, one does not show up at a club or an event until after 11 or 12, and one rarely gets home from a night on the town before 4. stage shows are particularly tough when it comes to late starts and late finishes. still, if one can stay awake, there is a lot to see in jamaica in the wee hours of the morning.

last monday night i linked up with dami d to check out the cassia park stage show, a weekly event combining a soundsystem dance with an open mic. (cassia park is a neighborhood west of half-way tree, if i've got my sense of direction right). dami goes regularly and on many a tuesday regales me with tales of the previous night's successes and failures. i'm always amazed by the way dami can remember a good line he heard the night before and recite it back to me verbatim, complete with the right rhythm. from his descriptions, the cassia park stage show is a fairly local thing, complete with neighborhood heroes and regular performers. sometimes a big artist will drop in and thrill the crowd. (supposedly, beenie man showed up a couple weeks ago and effectively ended the stage show with a performance that no one could follow.) the stage show is a place to shine and a place to get flopped. attendees are harsh critics and will let you know immediately (with boos, hisses, and no's) that they don't rate you and that you aren't fit or ready to be on stage. but if you hit the crowd with something good, something strong, you get a forward (a sign of the crowd's approval, usually simulated gunfire). dami has performed numerous times there and says he always gets love. tonight he was not planning to perform, nor was wasp, with whom we met up prior to walking over to the show.

wasp was hanging out across the street from his house, sitting on a block of concrete. (everything is made of concrete here. it's cheap and durable, and keeps out the heat. across the island people use the stuff to erect great palaces, most of which stand half-finished, metal rods reaching for the sky where columns were to have risen. caribcement boasts in a new commercial to be the "foundation of the nation," which, as a literal statement, seems to me perhaps the only way to make such a claim.) a girl, who appeared to be in her early twenties (the same age as wasp and dami), stood beside wasp, while a tall man, who wasp described as someone who gets all the ladies and who protects him, leaned against a neighbor's wall. there was no one else on the quiet side street, but the stage show could be heard from a couple blocks away. dami and i strode up to the group, accompanied by a yound dj named vigorous. dami seems to have taken vigorous under his wing, consistently serving as a model and offering encouragement and constructive criticism to the youth. (one day last week, dami spoke at length about the importance of older, better established artists providing support for up-and-comers. he seemed to practice what he preaches.) it was about 10:30 pm--much too early to head to the stage show.

we killed time with conversation and refreshments (not all of them cold--many jamaicans prefer, at times, to have their drinks "(h)ot," as in an "ot guinness" or an "ot malta"; and not all of them alcoholic). before too long we got into a little session, freestyling and reciting rhymes on the proverbial streetcorner. everyone had their own style, and they were all impressed by mine. people are frequently taken off guard when they see and hear me rap. they hear the "realness" in my flow (produced perhaps by some combination of rhythmic-precision, cleverness, and sincerity), and respond to the sound of authenticity. dami and wasp are both skilled djs with rapid flows, interesting patterns, and killer punchlines. vigorous had a different style. although considerably younger than dami or wasp, his style was more "old school." he sounded more like a yellowman, a shabba ranks, a late eighties dj, than the post-hip-hop-dominance djs you tend to hear these days. one of the biggest differences was tempo: vigorous consistently rapped to rhythms at least 10 beats per minute slower than dami's and wasp's accompanying snaps (which they placed on the second beats of dancehall's distinctive 3+3+2). still, genre-influences aside, his style was pure badman--killing policemen with rusty AKs and shit like that. here's an example of three gunman songs rattled off in quick, spontaneous succession by vigorous, dami d, and wasp. (i apologize that the recording is a bit uneven, but conditions were not perfect. it's tough to mic a group of moving people.) note the moments of approval and appreciation signaled by simulated gunfire (bop! bop!). i was struck by the similarities and differences that emerged when i compared this jamaican impromptu, a capella music-making with the hip-hop ciphers i've engaged in back home. a few differences within similar categories emerged: snapping (JA) vs. beatboxing (US), reciting written rhymes (JA) vs. freestyling extemporaneous ones (US), a loose grouping of bodies full of big movements (JA) vs. a tight circle with bopping heads (US), big-ups/gun-shots and fist-pounds (JA) vs. occasional oohs and open-hand pounds (US). i thought about how long kids in jamaica have been doing this and what its relation is to the fabled park battles that fill the mythology of hip-hop's early days. i decided that such practices probably goes back at least to doo-wop groups, if not (way) before, in both cases (it's important to draw a line somewhere, depending on one's argument). we hung out on the street for about three hours, finally heading over to the show at around twenty-five to one.

we took the long way around so as to enter through the back and therefore not have to walk through the lighted area, where our arrival would be noted by everyone at the dance. (this seemed to be wasp's preference. he stayed in the shadows the entire night, and his behavior seemed consistent with the "invisible" state that artists here seem to prefer and project. it is said of the biggest artists that they are nowhere to be found, which, in such a small country, creates some mystique.) the place, which appeared to be a large alley, with houses on one side and a gully on the other, was quite loud, filled with sound by two immense stacks of speakers. dancehall was the music of choice, and the selectors played a number of favorites for the crowd, again and again. as in other events i have been to here, a song would play for perhaps the first four bars--or, sometimes, only as long as the entrance of the main drums or the vocals--before the selector would "pull-up," and spin the record backwards rapidly to land on the opening beat again. sometimes this was repeated three or four times before a song was allowed to play on, and some tracks never got past the first four bars. this was especially true during a dance-heavy segment structured around an elephant man song.

elephant man is a lisping, raspy-voiced dj with a penchant for inventing new dances, borrowing melodies from the darnedest places (r kelly's "the world's greatest" and that german 80s pop song "99 red luftbaloons" were recent makeovers), and punctuating his verses with cries of "shizzle my nizzle" and "capeesh." of the current crop of popular djs, he is one of the more hip-hop-esque. "shizzle my nizzle" he seems to have borrowed from snoop dogg (of "doggy fizzle televizzle" fame), perhaps via jay-z, who may have been the one responsible for popularizing an alternative form of dogg's "fo' sheezy my neezy" in that "h to the izzo" song. (the phrase is a coded version of "for sure, my nigga.") for all of his vocal stylings, however, it is elephant man's invention of catchy new dances that seems to have won over the massive (dancehall term for "masses"). wasp credits him with re-uniting dancehall after the antagonistic antics of bounty killer and beenie man: "once him say 'log on,' dancehall nice again." in addition to the 'log on' (which some PNP members adopted for their campaign slogan last election--"log on to progress"), elephant man is responsible for a number of other dances. at a certain point in the cassia park dance, the selectors/djs put on an elephant man song and instructed those who were dancing--as if directing a line-dance--as to which style they should adopt next. for each new style, the song was pulled-up and started again. dancers pretended to fly kites, play cricket, and row boats, among other activities. there were as many people dancing as standing and watching. the dancers were a mix of men and women, young (20) and old (40). generally, the mix of people at the show was fairly diverse. people appeared to have come from all over the city--something i tried to gauge informally by observing people's shade of brown (the lightskin-uptown/darkskin-downtown divide is strong in kingston) and mode of dress.

shortly after reaching the dance, a man who joined us in front of wasp's house earlier and who was introduced to me as too-short (he stood under five-feet tall) led me through the crowd, into the light, and over to a small structure, centrally-located, where people were selling drinks and weed. i was introduced to the "strong-man" there, who was rather friendly and welcoming. he was standing with a rasta dj who also greeted me. i got the sense that i was being introduced to the place the right way, presented as a trustworthy person (and probably as someone who would buy beers for himself and others). too-short introduced me as a producer, which is the most common tag my friends here assign to me in new situations. rapper follows, then scholar. i think this is a good hierarchy of roles. it seems to make my movements within the music world here much smoother and automatically at a higher level of access. having to prove myself occasionally with a bad rhythm, an ill rap, or a good question is a joy. i hung out in the beer-house for a little while, watching the comings and goings and looking out at the dj-stand and stage, which stood opposite the shack. after perhaps twenty minutes, during which i got the opportunity to meet the sound's engineer and watch someone crush out a gigantic pile of ganja (it was being prepared for a chalice--the rasta bong), i returned to the shadows and joined dami, wasp, and the others who were dancing in various levels of engagement, some more nonchalant, some more into it. i struck an uneasy balance of nonchalant and engaged, not wanting to call too much attention to myself or slip too far out of observer mode. at about 2:30, the music finally stopped and the stage show began. i moved back toward the beer-house to get a good view.

the host of the show was a short, older man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, who hopped onstage and amused the crowd with a stand-up comedy routine. perhaps ten minutes into it, the crowd began clamoring for music, so he performed a song, breaking into a convincing vintage-dancehall cadence. soon he let others have their turn, calling out names from a sign-up sheet. generally, the acts were unremarkable. lots of young djs giving passable performances, but not much that stood out. one act included a young jamaican calling himself an "african," dressed in a dashiki and afro-wig and wielding a wooden crocodile. he made a point to punctuate his african-esque broken-english with a funny, james-brownish grunt--heh! and occasionally, he launched into a four-bar, punchline rap that had the crowd rolling. another act drew distinction by calling on stage a white dj, who appeared, from his accent, to be jamaican. he had solid skills and, significantly, did not get flopped. but he was also unremarkable, and did not receive a "forward." a duo comprising a dj and a rapper (the only one of the night) also caught my attention. compared to the rhythmically predictable dj, the rapper sounded frenetic, loose, and a bit predictable in his own way. the crowd, again, did not seem to strongly approve or disapprove.

vigorous decided to get up and give it a shot. he grabbed the mic and was, immediately, less than commanding. one of the most important skills of a dj is the ability to speak extemporaneously before a rhythm begins or kicks in, to grab the crowd's attention and set up expectations for his performance. to do this well, though, one needs a quick tongue, a confident stance, and a good knowledge of the form, which includes stock phrases and other conventions. vigorous lacked the experience to command the stage in such a manner. when the rhythm came on, it got worse. the young dj ignored the tempo of the song and launched into the slower-paced song he had memorized. the people weren't feeling it. no's and boos assailed the young dj, who was clearly flopped in his first appearance. by about 3:30 the stage show was coming to a close, so we began to walk home. dami vocally disapproved of vigorous's premature performance. on the way home, he chided the youth for attempting to go onstage without a larger repertory of songs and a better sense of how to ride a rhythm. wasp came to vigorous's defense, arguing that it was good experience at any rate and something to be learned from. he pointed out, however, that vigorous seemed to encounter the same problem twice tonight: he did not ride the rhythms provided him, whether by a selector's record or wasp's snaps. wasp pointed out that he, i, and dami all paced ourselves to the rhythms at hand, while vigorous seemed to ignore them. it seemed to me that vigorous should simply request slower, more old school rhythms rather than adapt his style and sound like everyone else. dami, for all of his encouragement earlier, did not let up. he couldn't help but laugh while recounting the way that the crowd flopped the youth and gave vigorous a good ribbing for it. he told the young dj that he should not go back to the show next week and that the next time he decided to perform he would have to be much more impressive to counter the first impression he had just made.

vigorous obviously made a mis-step. the main problem was that he was looking for a tempo from a dancehall riddim circa 1989 and the selectors were spinning only newer tracks. of course, he also could have had a louder, fuller presence on the mic--another fault we can chalk up to inexperience. overall, the performances were on the amateur side, so vigorous was not too clearly out of his league. the stage saw its share of trembling hands and knocking knees, weak voices, and unremarkable, derivative styles. still, the cassia park stage show seems like a good place to gain experience. dami has clearly benefited from his participation there. at this point, he is cautious about performing weekly, not wanting to overexpose himself. these days he only performs if he has a new tune he wants to hype and share with the crowd. in his advice to vigorous, he noted with approval that i stood there observant, casing the joint rather than leaping without looking. i may yet perform at the cassia park stage show one of these days, but i definitely wanted to know what it was all about first. the last thing i need is to flop myself and lose valuable status within the scene here.

i got an opportunity the next night, however, to grab the mic and see if i could get a forward. becca and i finally made it to the village cafe--a currently fashionable club a few blocks from where we live. i am told that the village is the place to be at around 2 or 3 am on weekend nights, when it is totally packed. on tuesday nights, there are fewer people and a more subdued scene. typically, a live band, ting deh, plays a short set and then accompanies open-mic performances. a friend of ours, wayne mcgregor, plays guitar and sings with the band. he told us people usually get there around 10 and things start around 11. we got there around 11, and things started around 12. before the band came on, a dj was spinning the hottest new hip-hop hits, from lil' kim to p diddy. in contrast to the record-spinning at cassia park, there were no dancehall selections, no "jamaican" music. the crowd was noticeably lighter, too, including a sizeable number of white folks and quite a few caramel-colored uptowners.

when the band came on, it provided a strong contrast to the deep bass and minimal textures of top 40 hip-hop. comprising two guitars, an electric bass, and a drum set (later they were joined by a keyboard and a violin, which was barely audible), they formed a typical rock ensemble. and both guitarists, although versed in reggae and ska, seemed to take their cues from rock--classic (from clapton to ac/dc) and alternative (a radiohead riff while they tuned up). the bassist was decidedly more reggae-influenced, though he showed his stripes by taking a few solos. (bass solos are rare outside stadium or jam rock and jazz.) after their short set, which included a clapton song, a guitar-led cover of a skatellites jam, and a jazz rock version of coltrane's take on "my favorite things," the first few acts of the night came on. one of the first acts was a rap/r&b duo. they asked the band to stop playing and called for the selector to play a riddim cd they had provided. they then performed a few songs that demonstrated deep familiarity with hip-hop and r&b. although both the rapper and singer spoke with jamaican accents, they fluidly slipped into african-american-speak during their songs. before the night was over, i was able to catch a few other rappers and singers who might fall into the same camp. such performers seem to represent a significant phenomenon here: the embrace of american musical style as an authentic voice and preferred projection. this is nothing new, of course. the question is whether today's examples represent more of a continuity or a disjuncture. and, further, what is the significance of finding more of these kind of folks uptown rather than downtown? i wonder about the social and cultural changes that these musical practices express and, in turn, inform. it seems like increased migration from jamaica (and back) and the strong, relatively new presence of american mass media here (BET is king) could be significant factors in terms of the cultural resources people find available and attractive. moreover, the particular subject matter, catch phrases, and sub-styles of hip-hop that appeal to jamaicans is interesting (and rather different than what i have observed in germany, for example). i have yet to hear a jamaican rapper not use the term "playa-hater," for instance. how might international socio-cultural forces and political-economic relationships account for these patterns of musical/cultural adoption? how do local issues of race and class map onto such musical/cultural practices? significantly, the number of acts that drew on american musical styles were greater at the village than at cassia park, though the rappers in both places lashed out at playa-haters.

once again i saw a white dj do his thing. (twice in two nights!) his performance was passable but never roused the crowd. i am curious about the phenomenon, though. i wonder how much there is a parallel movement here to the eminem phenomenon in the US. the only white dj i know of is snow, a toronto-based dj from the early 90s who had an international hit called "informer." (toronto boasts one of the largest jamaican populations outside of jamaica.) in terms of authenticity, snows seems closer to vanilla ice than eminem--which has a lot to do with historical moment (both in terms of having enough white kids who growing up so steeped in hip-hop and/or dancehall to produce convincing artists in such styles, and in terms of the dynamic state of race relations in the US, their representations in various media, and their repercussions across the globe). the main difference between the "realness" of vanilla ice vs. eminem was, incidentally, explained to me just the other day by a dj named crazy b. according to crazy, whereas vanilla ice claimed to be someone he was not, eminem puts forward an idiosyncratic, believable, and therefore not easily assailable picture of himself. crazy b, who spent most of his life in the US, noted that eminem draws from unusual topics for a rapper, including his antagonistic relationship with his mother and his troubles with the media and other a-list celebs. at any rate, the white djs i witnessed this week seemed to be jamaican. i bet they have interesting stories. we'll see.

during breaks, wayne mcgregor kept asking me if i was going to perform and encouraging me to do so. as at cassia park, i wanted to observe the scene a bit first. after seeing the other acts, though, i decided that it would be fun--and not terribly threatening to my "cred"--to get up and rap a bit. i went over to sign-up and told the emcee my funny name. he got a kick out of a white wayne marshall from boston. he asked me if i sang, and i told him i rapped. concerned that after a few rappers my presence on the stage might seem redundant, i assured him that my style was "not na normal ting." even so, he made sure the band played a few more songs first. at 1 am, i thought it would be my turn at last, but the emcee brought on another performer instead. it was not the kind of act one would like to follow. a young, handsome man with a commanding presence took the stage and launched into a cover of usher's "got it bad" (which, after several years, remains a very popular song here). he had a strong voice, but it was not his singing that got the crowd going: it was his impersonations. first, he spoofed a phone conversation between george w. bush and jamaican prime minister, p.j. patterson. his bush accent sounded like a redneck with a stick up the ass, and for patterson, he exaggerated the long pauses p.j. often takes between words and syllables. the crowd loved it, especially when, as bush asked patterson to commit jamaican troops to the war in iraq, patterson replied: "we don't...have e...nough fight...a war...with......tivoli." but this conversation was nothing compared to the one he staged between dubya and elephant man. with an impeccable lisp and plenty of elephantine slang, the singer-comic had a skeptical elephant man accept an invitation by bush to perform "the bombing"--a song the dj wrote about the effects of 9/11--at the white house. bush's request for some high-grade weed and his twangy assurance of "shizzle my nizzle" brought the house down.

"the bombing," by the way, is one of the best dancehall songs of the last year. it presents a particularly jamaican take on the "attack on america" and its aftermath. on top of rhyming "bin laden" with "cannot be forgotten," its chorus mixes truth and humor to great effect: "everybody 'fraid fi fly through the bombing / bush na trust na guy through the bombing / so many innocent die through the bombing / looks like a world war three 'bout fi happen / now weed can't smuggle again through the bombing / can't pass custom with a pen through the bombing / everybody cry for men through the bombing..." and at other points, "visas get denied through the bombing." of course, "shankle my nankle, bin laden get trample" is a pretty funny variation of elephant's trademark phrase. and one hears "capeesh" several times, including a couple "capizzles." (i wonder if italian djs have snatched up that one?) elephant man propels his verses over the appropriately war-like riddim known as the "martial arts," produced at king of kings studio, where i also made a stop this past week. (see next blog.)

at any rate, after declining requests to imagine a phone conversation between bouty killer and bush and after a pretty funny ninjaman impersonation, the very entertaining performer stepped down (about 1:30 am) and the emcee began to introduce a wayne marshall from boston to the strains of eminem's "lose yourself" (my friend wayne was ribbing me a bit--it's tough to avoid the comparison here, or anywhere for that matter.) i accepted the gesture, grabbed the mic, and began beatboxing along to the band's reconstruction of em's beat. becca overheard a woman near her say, "that sounds nice." it felt good to be performing again. i was getting a good vibe from the crowd: occasional fingers-in-the-air forwards, attentive and appreciative faces, and no indications of anyone trying to flop me. i opened with some of my favorite battle-rhymes--verses drawn from that shit and recess is over--and then freestlyed for a third verse, mentioning becca in the crowd, kingston, the village, and other topical references that the crowd seemed to appreciate. for my second and final song (i decided it would be much better to give the crowd a little less than they might want than too much), i performed the first and third verses from america, prefaced with a dry admission that "this is a song i wrote about being an american, which is an interesting thing to be these days." i had given wayne some indications about the kind of musical backing i wanted: a two-chord vamp (perhaps A to G), with two bars a piece on each chord. i set the tempo with some beatboxing and the band quickly joined in and provided a fine backing. the crowd listened attentively to my little ambivalent rant about america. several lines elicited forwards, with someone in the crowd raising a gun-shaped hand into the air in approval. it was clear that they "rated" my performance, which, in turn, made me a better performer. wayne said he liked my flow and that i could perform with him anytime. the next act to come onstage complemented me on my rapping and said it was good to hear a "conscious" american citizen and that there should be more like me. i appreciated the votes of confidence. i also appreciated the effect my performance had on people's perceptions of me. i was able, for instance, to walk up to the entertainer who preceded me and introduce myself without much explanation. he also said he liked my flow. i told him that he put on an act that was hard to follow. there were several people at the village who i would love to talk to about their take on hip-hop in/and jamaica. my successful performance makes such links easier to make.

links were in effect again last night when becca and i went out to the garnett silk anniversary concert in mandeville. garnett silk was a popular reggae singer who died in a tragic, freak accident before his short but promising career could really take off (here's a short bio). we drove out to mandeville with marvin hall. as it turns out, some friends of marvin play in a reggae band called roots underground movement, the concert's opening act, so we got to hang out backstage during the show, which was a great vantage point. we could get directly in front of the stage if we wished, but we could also hang out behind and around it, in the thick of performers and their entourages. being spotted backstage also contributed once again to my cache here. i bumped into a few producers who i had met previously and who i would like to interview at some point. they both seemed to register that i was important enough to be back stage and were quite friendly and willing to talk. also backstage were reggae bands from japan and israel, in addition to plenty of locals. there were quite a few white rastas milling around, including a singer called ras fire, a quadriplegic fellow from holland. the japanese group especially knew their genre well, and the waist-length dreads on a few of them signalled serious commitment. the japanese band accompanied a few jamaican djs, complete with full-ensemble pull-ups. then one of their own djs took the stage. he got the crowd going with his impeccable jamaican accent and spot-on stage banter. he clearly knew, for example, that a condemnation of gays ("bun batty bwoy!") would get a rousing forward every time. of course, every dj seems to know this, and most abuse it. the anti-batty boy song or statement is clearly a performance crutch--something to get the crowd on one's side or to summon applause without actually having to perform well. at the cassia park show, the emcee of the event warned performers about making anti-batty big-ups, arguing, perhaps not with much better politics, that such a recognition is still a recognition--a batty-bwoy big-up is a big-up all the same. his warning was directly followed, however, by the next dj's entreaty for the crowd to make noise if they rejected homosexuality, which they did. i've had conversations with many people about the alarmingly ubiquitous and violent homophobic rhetoric in jamaica. a local academic assured me that it is more of a public exhibition than an actual practice of discrimination or persecution. behind closed doors, she said, people live their lives and love and accept their gay friends and relatives. in other conversations, though, it is clear how deep these anti-gay feelings run and it is striking how commonly they rise to the surface. one young man told me that the only time he could ever imagine committing suicide is if he inadvertently had sex with a man he mistook for a woman, in which case his only option would be to kill that person and then himself. it is a strange and disturbing undercurrent here. and it gets old real fast, especially at a stage show.

the japanese entourage also included dj kentaro , the most dexterous turntablist i have even seen perform (and i've seen q-bert and kid koala, among others). the diminutive dj (and that's dj in the hip-hop sense) had to stand on crates to reach his turntables. he used no headphones yet seemed to know exactly how far back to pull his records. it was the best show of beat juggling i have ever seen. beat-juggling is a practice in which a dj selects a beat to play with (usually a standard breakbeat), gets it spinning on two turntables with identical records, and proceeds to cut and paste from each record, creating variation after variation by manipulating the records in turn. frequently, a beat-juggling dj will begin by looping a bar or so from the beat, quickly rewinding one record while the other plays. the dj at the show began juggling this way (sometimes using a beat from a reggae record), producing ever shorter loops until reducing the beat into its smallest component drums, moving rapidly back and forth from turntable to turntable, and spinning the original beat into all kinds of variations: from baroque rhythms to spacious kicks and snares, from frenetic drum and bass breaks to dancehall's 3+3+2. it is extremely difficult to keep such an act going without a record skipping or kick-drum falling a fraction of a second too late. this dj, however, barely stumbled and always recovered well, retaining a sense of pulse even while he played with it. his mix of hip-hop, dancehall, and other turntable-based musical styles was fascinating but not too surprising, especially for a japanese bloke. the beginning of his set featured a poignant tribute over a cool hip-hop beat (refreshing in its difference from the dancehall and roots reggae that preceded it) as he alternated between scratching "garnett silk" and then "rest in peace" (a la the last track on gangstarr's moment of truth). he even demonstrated a command of deep-house-style spinning. [read a short interview with kentaro, conducted shortly after he won the 2002 technics/dmc world dj championship.] i thought about the way that hip-hop and dancehall often travel together, wondering to what degree, and in which countries, their identities collapse in on each other.

before the show was over we got a chance to see a number of other big-name djs and singers that we hadn't seen live yet, including junior kelly, anthony b, and sizzla. wayne marshall and bounty killer were also supposed to perform, but by 5 am, ten hours into the concert, with sizzla still going strong, we were unable to stand up and keep our eyes open any longer, never mind pay attention. (and, ironically enough, you generally can't get a cup of coffee in these parts.) so we got in the car and drove home. we got back into kingston at 6 this morning and slept until 1. i hope to get plenty of sleep tonight. it might be another late night down at cassia park tomorrow.