last wednesday, dami, becca, and i went over to asylum, a popular nightclub in new kingston. i had been to asylum only twice before, including a significant visit on my second trip to jamaica in november 2001. it was on that night, my first time at asylum, that the strikingly strong presence of hip-hop in jamaica really hit me. although i assumed (perhaps a bit naively) that i would hear mostly dancehall in a jamaican club, the music at asylum that night was pure hip-hop, dominated by stars-of-the-moment such as jay z and nelly. it was done in a jamaican kind of way, of course, with selectors naming each song and "pulling-up" those records that received the strongest reactions. the young crowd seemed to love it, though the dancing was tentative at best and contained little of the dancehall-inspired grinding i remembered fondly from my own high school dances--which, inevitably, segued from hip-hop to dancehall after a certain point, causing the crowd of dancers to transform into an undulating mass of bodies. dancehall always seemed to signify the sensual up north, encouraged by entreaties like mad cobra's to "flex-ah!" as it was "time to have sex-ah!" (interestingly, as i revisit the song now, i notice that it is underpinned by a beat more akin to hip-hop's and r&b's breaks than reggae's or dancehall's rhythms.) of course, as i have spent more time in jamaica, i have been able to contextualize this first trip to asylum, which seemed to suggest such a dominance of american music and culture in jamaica despite jamaica's own strong musical and cultural resources. for one thing, i learned fairly quickly that the club only devotes one night a week to hip-hop--the night i happened to go that first time--with other evenings dedicated to dancehall and oldies (meaning reggae, rocksteady, and ska), among others. moreover, at other clubs and dances i have attended here, the music usually focuses on the jamaican sources i would expect, though it depends somewhat on clientele (i.e., class): clubs that cater to the uptown market seem more inclined to embrace the cosmopolitan promise of hip-hop than the local moorings of dancehall, which is not to say that a dancehall song won't get a big forward at a place like the village cafe or weekendz.
since it was wednesday night, it was oldies night, which turned out to be both fun and interesting. for one thing, i got to hear plenty of dancehall from the late 70s and early 80s. this time period seems increasingly significant from my perspective as a hip-hop historian. currently, i am wondering to what extent early, influential hip-hop artists--from run dmc to krs-one and bdp to slick rick and eazy-e--were listening to, responding to, and incorporating contemporaneous dancehall stylings. i think the answer may be more significant than current histories of hip-hop seem to account for. in particular, i am trying to make a sound-based connection, as i am fascinated by the way music travels along socio-cultural routes, leaving things behind, carrying distinctive baggage, and picking new things up. when i hear a dancehall song from the eighties and notice the same recurring rhythmic pattern from bdp's criminal minded, my imagination lights up with connections. there's also the simple pleasure of standing in a jamaican club and feeling the music. they do bass right in jamaica--loud, low, and deep--and it pulses in one's body. watching other bodies respond sympathetically on the dancefloor is yet another thing to enjoy. (one sees some spectacular bodies in jamaica.) the kind of simple, sensual experience one can have at a club here, or a dance or a street-party, seems in-sync with the approach to ontology more generally in jamaica: there is a deep appreciation of being here, and it is exercised through the simple pleasures of food, drink, and (for some) ganja, music and the beauty of the environment and the people.
nevertheless, i should not let my interest in dancehall and my contextualizing of asylum's hip-hop night downplay hip-hop's ubiquitous and deeply influential presence in jamaica. for all of the interplay between dancehall and hip-hop over the last three decades, hip-hop has clearly captivated imaginations worldwide in a way that dancehall has not. it is true that one finds dancehall-style djs in places as far afield as japan and germany, never mind new york. for some reason it seems less surprising to me, given the (post/neo)colonial tendency for people in the metropoles to exhibit and express a deep attraction to the exotic expressions of the subaltern, that a german lad would attempt to adopt jamaican styles than the reverse. despite the perhaps equally strong temptation in the colonies to mimic those in the metropoles (taussig's mimesis and alterity elaborates and explicates the phenomenon quite virtuosically), i still find it more interesting that a jamaican youth might feel such a strong attraction to "farran" expressive resources--even if primarily (african-)american--than those that are perhaps more familiar, more "jamaican." (familiarity is, of course, a tricky issue in an age of global media and in a country with strong connections to a diasporic community, not to mention a long history of engagement with american music.) in a sense, the issue here is about the narratives that shape our identities. the post-independence story of jamaica runs parallel to (and is buttressed by) a story about jamaican music that emphasizes roots over routes and suggests that, ever since '62, jamaican music has developed as an indigenous and internally-stimulated cultural form. similarly, the story of hip-hop privileges roots (though some of them are identified as jamaican) over routes, expunging messiness (e.g., various influence from outside over the course of its development) and disjuncture, like most historical narratives, in a move toward coherence. ultimately, such a strategy projects a limited set of meanings, deriving largely from the racialist underpinnings of the modern juggerknot known as "black music." it seems to me that colliding these two narratives, and paying some attention to the overlap and ruptures between them, could shed some useful light on both. certainly there is an interesting story in the interplay of reggae and hip-hop. their interpenetrating relationship reveals much about the way that music reflects and informs new kinds of social change around the world, including: the shift of metropoles for jamaicans (what happened to england? when was it eclipsed by the US? what was the role of culture--and not, say, politics or economics--in this shift?); the new kind of empire emerging from the US's unprecedented global power (i.e., political, economic, military, and cultural dominance); and the way such geo-political processes and projects (globalization anyone?) present new prospects for understanding well-worn concepts such as race, culture, and the global/local axis.
young jamaican artists' sights have shifted so significantly that i have heard several different people, on a number of occasions, dismiss entirely any interest in a jamaican audience. "fuck jamaica," they say emphatically. or, with a bit more local flavor, "bun jamaica" (i.e., burn jamaica). (i wonder what firebrands such as sizzla and capleton would have to say about such sentiments.) two days ago an aspiring dj told me "me nah tryna tink local." and another dj, who was born of jamaican parents and raised in the states but is trying to "bus" (i.e., "bust," "make it big") in jamaica first, cited the same concern while explaining to me why, for a dj, he uses so little patois in his songs. he tries to write in "proper english," often referencing american and african-american slang, in order to speak to a different--and, significantly, LARGER--audience. he told me, after we finished our interview, that he had trouble deciding whether to respond to me in jamaican or american english. (he chose the latter.) 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."
despite its blandness as an adjective, international is one of the terms jamaican artists use most commonly to describe their aspirations. and it is fairly descriptive. relatedly, the term also describes a certain level of production quality, one high on resources and rare for jamaica--except, perhaps, as music goes. last summer, for example, i heard a young man refer to a glossy red stripe ad as an "international commercial." for all of its descriptive power, however, international is a bit of a euphemism. it refers more to the north than the world. being such a consumer nation, the US market is, so far as an aspiring dj is concerned, tantamount to a world market. it is no suprise that a couple different "jamaican hip-hop" producers have, in conversation, cited the shining examples of wu-tang and cash money (two hip-hop crews that managed successfully to leverage their group success for solo careers and independent "deals" with big labels) when describing their aspirations for their own label, their own production studio, their own control over artist management and the bottom line. it soon becomes difficult to tease apart all the interest in hip-hop among young jamaican artists. is hip-hop viewed as an appealing expressive form or simply a successful venture? the answer lies somewhere in the middle, i suppose. but the middle is boring--unless presented with enough nuance to make it a rich place to stand and look about. i am trying to figure out what motivates people's musical choices here. i am not cynical enough to believe that some far-off promise of money is enough to motivate people to change the very language and gestures through which they express themselves. nor am i naive enough to defend some romantic notion of the artist unburdened by worldly matters. there's a lot more to it than these extremes, and a lot more that enters into the decisions that artists make, consciously and not-so-consciously: the play of race, place, and taste in the imagination, for instance; the way people come to understand themselves in their community relationships and the ways they express this in turn. these are big questions--each of them powerful enough to send a thesis down a long and tortuous road. figuring out the contours of the narrative i want to create is the biggest challenge for me these days. where do i start? where stop? do i turn off here or there?
fortunately, i don't have to figure out these big questions quite yet. thinking about them--all the time--is helpful, if a bit maddening. i realized this morning, however, how deeply i will need to reflect--beyond my current reflections--on all that i am taking in. in some sense, i feel overstimulated here. the amount that i observe, record, and absorb is definitely too much to unpack even in a regular forum like this one. it is almost too much to take in, forcing me to let my subconscious sort much of it out, "contaminating" my raw data with analysis all the while. but this is inevitable. i recognize that there is no avoiding interpretation, which consistently comes into play throughout the research process. some level of constant interpretation determines the very stuff of my analysis--what i collect and ponder and what i dismiss as unimportant. one reason i am enjoying the blog is that it makes the process of ongoing interpretation a transparent one. allowing me later, and in the present moment, to get a sense of the trajectory of my thinking. as much as i enjoy the intensity of being in the thick of things here (which is as much a mode of inquiry and activity as a description of actual happenings), it will be good to return to cambridge in late summer in order to gain some relative peace for mapping things out and beginning to write. (any such peace will of course be self-imposed, as cambridge is no less "thick" than jamaica for a cultural observer.) meantime, i may as well plunge myself headlong into the scene here, doing my best to collect as much info--in the name of context and nuance--that i can.
two experiences i had last weekend allowed me to broaden and deepen my sense of context here. the first took place just across the street. last sunday afternoon, dami traveled up hope road to pay us a visit. as he got off the bus (which stops in front of our apartment), some bredren of his called out to him from across the road. he promised them he'd come over shortly, bringing me with him. as it turns out, a rasta sect known as the twelve tribes of israel has its jamaican headquarters just a stones throw from here. (i was told they have others in new york, LA, and shashemane--the area in ethiopia that haile sellasie put aside for rastafarians who wish to return to the continent.) dami and i walked over to the compound. it was a good sized place, with a house-like structure in the middle (which, from what i could see, contained a band room and a refreshment stand), surrounded by cool shade trees on one side and a large lawn on the other. small groups of people seemed to be chilling out in different areas. i followed dami as he walked over to the largest group, which centered on a man with a guitar. they were all listening, however, to a booming portable stereo, from which the strains of sizzla's "thank u mamma" blasted. and though sizzla put his stamp on the riddim with his performance, one of the twelve tribes bredren had recorded his own song over it (quite a common practice here). it was your basic roots reggae track--more rock-and-roll bob marley than fire-and-brimstone sizzla. a group of about 8 of us--all rasta but me--sat and stood around, listening appreciatively. after the song ended, the man began playing the guitar and a full-out jam broke out. the gathering was multigenerational (early twenties through late forties), and each singer's style was refreshingly different from the next. there were echoes of bob, but also of djs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. they appreciated dami's singjay style, though his reference to "playa-hating" seemed a bit out of place. at times i wanted to jump in, but i just couldn't imagine that any of my material would fit in. the vibe was all thanks-and-praise, which is cool with me but--interestingly enough--not my major form of inspiration. i was happy just observing and participating though encouragement.
i got into a conversation with a tribesman who hailed from new york. hearing some rap style in his performances, i thought at first that he might have some interesting information to offer about growing up within a jamaican community in hip-hop's hometown. much as i wanted him to reconstruct a picture of hip-hop and dancehall as borough bedfellows, his answers resisted my categorical thinking. to him, it was all music. and he didn't like to think in terms of jamaicans and non-jamaicans, either. he refused to comment on whether jamaicans were doing something (e.g., playing hip-hop at dances) as a group, insisting instead that "everyone was." i understand his objections, and i appreciate his perspective. in many ways, i am seeking to call these same categories into question in my own work by looking at the way that they interpenetrate and gain meaning only in relation to each other. in order to do so, however, i need to identify some examples of interplay, to tell some good stories about the disappearance of borders, the shimmering quality of identity, the play of music and the imagination. at times, looking for the 1980s connection between dancehall and hip-hop feels like chasing a mythical missing link. i'm sure it's there. i just can't confirm it yet, aside from a few rhythms that ping-pong back and forth on recordings (i'd like some ethnographic evidence to support this way of hearing, though). on the one hand, i'm not sure i've spoken to the right people about it. on the other, i'm not sure i've asked the right questions to elicit the description of the messy milieu i imagine. the categories i was using were anathema (though he was very nice about it) to this man's conception--and projection--of the world. whereas i am seeking to use some kind of postmodern musical anthropology to deconstruct the categories with which we think and illustrate how connected we all are and how meaning is made according to slippery relationships, pan-african religion already does that (except, perhaps, for the slippery part--rastafari is TRUTH, not metaphor). the exchange made me wonder whether i am overstating all the theoretical and methodological concerns above, whether my project is a worthwhile one (and for whom?), whether my analysis will serve to uphold the very categories i am seeking to call into question. the bredren's resistance seemed to be yet another way of saying, "bun jamaica" (at least as a concept). shit, rastas been talking 'bout "bun jamaica"--or at least its babylonian aspects--for a while now.
despite my disappointment, the vibe at HQ was great: positive, chill, open. since everyone seemed to be in the mood to appreciate each other's music, dami decided we should run across the street to fetch a copy of "never let go," the song we recently produced together. i was definitely curious about seeing another group of people react to the song (about which i am still ambivalent), so we excused ourselves and headed back to sandhurst mews. as we crossed the street, a bus roared past us, revealing three boys hanging on to the back for a free ride down hope road (a common enough sight, though usually it's only one or two). dami and i both laughed and shook our heads at the daring adolescents. we located a copy of "never let go" and i grabbed a copy of no substitute with the intention of sharing some of my music, too. back at HQ, reception of "never let go" was warm. one of the elder bredren called for a pull-up before the beat even dropped, charmed by the commodores sample. when the song finally was allowed to play, people seemed genuinely moved and impressed by it. they loved dami's singing and they loved the production just as much. upon learning that i produced it, the same elder who called for a pull-up asked me about my birth month--a question repeated a couple times thereafter. i replied "may," which made perfect sense to the man. as it turns out, may is the second month in the twelve tribes calendar and is identified with simeon, who was known for his powers of hearing. thus, they concluded that i was a born musician. (i only wish someone had told me this sometime before my eighteenth birthday, when i started playing an instrument for the first time.) when i played "america" for them, they seemed equally impressed. the rhythm and flow hit 'em hard ("is that him rapping?" several asked) and the words received nods of truth on several occasions. they liked the pedagogical aspects of the song. one man said that i need to put it out, quick. (if it were only that easy.) i appreciated the votes of confidence and the good vibes.
the second weekend experience to enrich my sense of context took place at a club called waves, which is located on the beach in st.clarence, just outside of kingston. on this occasion, the pendulum swung: once again hip-hop reared its american head in jamaica in all its clearly categorical splendor. i got word from dami d saturday morning that he was slated to perform that night at a surprise birthday party for nadz, a young jamaican woman who has been "rapping professionally since 1996" (according to her website). apparently she has had some success in europe and the caribbean. i called stephen ventura, nadz's manager and producer, to ask him about it. he invited me to the show and also offered for me to come down to the studio and rehearse with the band--an unexpected part of the invitation. when i got to the studio, steven was not there and some other acts were busy rehearsing, so i chilled out with dami and wasp instead, knowing that, in a performance situation, i could always simply set the tempo with some beatboxing or ride whatever dancehall riddim they wanted to throw at me. after some unremarkable opening acts (one of which, suspiciously, repeated nearly verbatim the bush/patterson phone conversation we heard at the village weeks ago), dami d and wasp took the stage. dami made his presence known and addressed nadz in a charming way, but overall he played the role of elder performer, introducing wasp to the crowd. with a number of catchy and humorous songs (in good stage-show form), wasp definitely did not disappoint. i am constantly surprised by the number of songs djs like wasp and dami d have in their repertory. though i've heard many of wasp's songs by now, i haven't heard his stage-show specials, so his performance at nadz's party was a treat. his best diddy was one about a woman with way too many children: "how many pickney does she have? twelve on the ground, one in the belly, and three in a scandal bag" (scandal bags are the ubiquitous black plastic bags that every store and vendor uses here). the punchline worked to great effect. it was a small crowd--perhaps 30 people--but "forwards," laughs, and imitation gunshots filled the air.
as dami d and wasp left the stage, stephen grabbed the mic and nodded toward me, asking if i wanted to do something. i nodded back. earlier in the evening, he had announced that wayne marshall was in the house, which must have confused people. he introduced me as "a big performer with a big name," the bostonian wayne marshall. i ambled on stage, did my best imitation of pre-song dj patter ("yes...dami d, wasp, sv...wayne&wax, don't test me"), and then began to beatbox in order to give the band a sense of the tempo i wanted. they picked it up and i launched into the verse from "recess is over," which, with its repeated rhyme and clever punchlines, seems to have a dancehall quality to it, despite its hip-hop flow. from what i could tell (it's always difficult to observe too much while in performance), people responded well. actually, they responded better than well. i didn't even finish my first line before the crowd's shouts clearly called for a pull-up. this was a very good sign, as pull-ups are just as often called by the performers themselves in a bit of wishful thinking. i was glad to have it done for me. of course, i'm sure the surprise factor of my look and my act had a lot to do with it. i turned to the band, who performed a good imitation of a record rewinding and then came back with the beat again. i started the verse over. this time, the crowd let me continue, but the gestures of encouragement kept coming. i caught an impressed smile on nadz's face, an encouraging grin from stephen, an adoring look from becca. dami d was standing up, rapping along, and exclaiming praise with gun-fingers in the air. the crowd responded especially strongly when i finished the verse with the densely-rhymed chorus from "that shit": "cause that shit gotcha doin' back flips and givin' dap quick as my fat lips spit rap scripts like from a gat's clip." (i should note that "that shit" is a bit tongue in cheek, as the subtitle, "gratuitous battle rhymes" is meant to indicate. i mean, what do i know, or care, about a gat's clip?) i spit another verse at the crowd (the first from "that shit"), followed with a chorus, and gracefully took my leave at the height of appreciation. it was clear that my performance was a bit stunning, which is just how i like it. as you can see from this review in the gleaner, one of jamaica's two major newspapers, others seemed to think so as well.
describing my own performance feels a bit self-indulgent, even if the crowd's (glowing) reception of my performance is certainly of significance to my interest in hip-hop's place here (see next blog). perhaps more significantly, there were a number of other rappers on the bill. a young performer called negus fireman had an interesting mix of jamaican, american, and british styles in his flow, reflecting his transnational experience (he told me he's lived in all three places). another rapper, charms, was much more american in style. in fact, when he was rapping, it was difficult to pick out anything that sounded particularly jamaican. his language was straight harlem, a la cam'ron (one of the hot rappers-of-the-moment), complete with plenty of bling-bling, softcore thuggery, and peppered with "ma's" as in "mami" or "mamacita"--a nuyorican term of endearment that sounds decidedly out-of-place in jamaica. (for an example of this popular rap style, check out cam'ron's "hey ma," which is built on a nice piano sample and features some clever, flirtatious rhyming that, unfortunately, quickly degenerates into misogyny.) i'm really curious about what makes a guy like charms decide to abandon the rich language (musical and linguistic) of jamaica for cookie-cutter hip-hop, though i would probably not pose the question in those terms. (does that make me a disingenuous researcher?)
nadz displayed a much more impressive and original voice. though clearly inspired by miseducation-era lauren hill, she had a convincing and distinctive flow of her own, staccato enough to conjure up dancehall styles while loose enough to remain clearly in the hip-hop idiom. ironically, considering the paucity of strong female rapper role models (though this is slowly changing), nadz may be the most convincing rapper i've heard in jamaica yet. she only performed one song on her own, "i hate this," but it was strong, complete with a catchy hook and dense verses, and socially conscious to boot. unfortunately, i don't have an example of her newer style to share here. i do have a song nadz did with dami d a few years back (ms. hill's influence seems audible even then), though i should reiterate that nadz's performance saturday night was much more impressive. i plan to speak to her in some depth soon. perhaps she'll hit me with a copy of "i hate this." having performed a flirtatious duet with charms, getting called "ma" several times in the process, maybe she can shed some light on the problem of deciding which language to draw from. i'm definitely curious about how she got to where she is.
a few days ago, in an effort to reach nadz and speak more at length with stephen, i spoke to stephen's assistant who told me they would definitely invite me out again. i hear that live music at waves on the weekend is going to be a regular thing, which should give me ample opportunities to chat with jamaican rappers and producers, not to mention rock the mic some more. but i may need to work up some more appropriate stage-show material soon. maybe i should try throwing in a couple "ma's"? or maybe i should pen a little ditty called "bun jamaica!"? i'm not sure anybody's ready for that.