JA in the hip-hop imagination

my brother nick, who came to visit us last week, brought most of his hip-hop cds here with him. despite having access to the cds i have here and to the jamaican radio, he frequently opted to play something from his own collection. as a result, i had the opportunity during nick's visit to revisit a lot of familiar music (most of the cds nick carried with him were copied from my collection back in cambridge). i am glad that nick brought these discs, many of which i had intended to ask him to bring. in particular, i was hoping to get hold of smif 'n' wesson's dah shinin'--one of the most jamaican-flavored hip-hop albums i have ever heard, which i had inadventently left in cambridge. i was expecting to hear the disc in an entirely new way, thanks to my increased ability to comprehend patios and my deeper familiarity with the musical and ideological predilections of dancehall. by living in kingston, and listening to a lot of djs, my level of understanding has ballooned to about 80-90% of the words i hear, much of which has to do with learning idiomatic expressions and also figuring out how to parse the individual words of a sentence when the cadence is so different from the styles of spoken english to which i am accustomed. (i would guess that, on average, non-jamaicans might recognize about 5-10% of the words in a dancehall song--and appreciate the cultural nuances much less frequently, though perhaps still getting the tone or the point). what i found most striking, however, was not the uncanny amalgamation of musical and linguistic styles put forward by jamaicans living in new york; rather, it was the degree to which jamaican language and music pervaded the rest of the cds nick carried here, especially those i would have previously been hesitant to categorize as showing a strong jamaican connection. i've always known, of course, that someone like busta rhymes brings his west indian heritage to bear on his musical style. recently, i have begun to remember how much krs-one foregrounds his jamaican roots on early bdp (boogie down productions) albums. and, having heard a riddim here that i swear was the same as that on "hey young world," i have realized that as far back as slick rick, i have been hearing jamaican music in hip-hop. we could, of course, go further back (e.g., kool herc), but i am interested in tracing a lineage these days--one that illustrates a possibly constant pattern of exchange--and in mapping out a complicated circuit of influence and musical change.

while listening to nick's cds this week, it became clear how much more pervasive the jamaican presence is in hip-hop than my own memory sometimes registers. mos def, for example, seems to reference a reggae song every other track or so, and his homemade-echo singing style ("it's kind of dangerous to be an em-cee-ee-ee"), his sing-song rapping, his staccato syllables and relentlessly repeated rhyme-clusters all testify to years of soaking in the sounds of jamaica. phife dog, from a tribe called quest, seems to use a word from the jamaican vernacular at least once per song (or so it seemed from a casual listen to midnight marauders monday afternoon--i'll have better figures, and quotations, later). i heard gift of gab (blackalicious) say "cyaan" on one of the tracks from blazing arrow. (of course, these last two examples seem a bit superficial in their demonstration of musical influence.) and to listen to black thought (of the roots) after listening to dancehall tune after dancehall tune is to realize how much his impeccable east-coast flow, with its precise, staccato rhythms and penchant for sticking with the same rhyme-scheme, mirrors the rhythmic declamations of jamaican djs.

although i came to jamaica expecting to find jamaicans eagerly adopting the music, language, visual style, movements, and ideologies of american hip-hoppers (which i have certainly found to some extent), i have also found plenty of evidence to support an assertion of the reverse: jamaica looms large in the hip-hop imagination (and always has). much of this messy, mutual influence is a direct result of a large jamaican (and caribbean) population living in new york, the historical center of hip-hop production. many jamaicans are, of course, african-americans, and vice versa. to assume too stark a separation is to uphold unproductive analytical categories. when we look at the borders of identity--where jamaicanness slips into blackness (of the american sort) and blackness into jamaicanness--we get a better picture of the variety of subjectivities available to people thanks to particular social and cultural confluences. when we observe culture working as a messy, fluid, contingent process--as witnessed by the interplay between hip-hop and dancehall--and not as discrete, stable wholes crashing into each other uneasily ("clash of civlizations" anyone?), we appreciate the rich, pliant, and familiar resources that all humans share. when we observe particular patterns of exchange and expression structured along political-economic faultlines, we can appraise critically the connection between music and ideology, artistic expression and social practice, the making of meaning and common sense. when we probe the connection between musical experience and one's imagination of self and community, we understand more about the formation, revision, and maintainence of both concepts. without a doubt, music is lodged in the workings of ideology and imagination. it not only reflects but informs our understanding of the world. under this premise, i investigate hip-hop's international flows to see what music can tell us about social life in the twenty-first century.

we spent most of last monday with dami d--a kingston-based dj with a sweet singing voice (making him a singjay, as they say). i met dami last summer while hanging out and recording with multicast. dami wanted to play me some riddims a friend of his made and was eager to hear what i had produced lately. we listened to beats for a while, freestyling and rehearsing favorites over the bouncy rhythms. i was glad nick got a chance to see dami perform live. he's quite the virtuoso, reciting long lines with quick, choppy-rhythms and catchy melodic contours. listening to what dami sings about, one might be unsure whether to classify him as a maker of music for the loverman or the gunman. he seems to sing about girls and guns in equal measure. so far, dami has made his name as a peaceful dj--one who takes an active interest in serving as an example for young people. (his single, "no more war," recieved some local airplay last year.) on this day, he expressed ambivalence about a new song he has done that glorifies violence in a way that seems deeply contradictory to his peaceful reputation. although dami is intensely interested in representing the stark reality of jamaican urban life (tupac is a model for him in this sense), he is also clearly torn when it feels like the chronicle gives way to fantasy. the promise of success, which a strong badman song could bring, is alluring. moreover, the power of performing such music is so great as to make it extremely pleasurable to recite and embody such sensuous language. (the seductive power of language made musical is one reason that gangsta rap, despite its often objectionable content, finds singers-along among the most strenuous detractors. i sometimes find myself saying the darndest things when rapping along to an old favorite). after discussing the dilemma with dami, who remains more committed to success than putting forward a particularly coherent philosophy at this point, i got a chance to rifle through nick's cds, playing selections that i thought dami might find interesting.

one of the first discs i put on was smif 'n' wesson's dah shinin' (1994). dami seemed fairly impressed by the brooklyn-transplanted yard-stylings of tek and steele (their individual names are not, as one might guess, smif and wessun). despite the duo's frequent use of jamaican vocabulary, accents, and syntax, however, their laid-back flow and minimal, jazz-derived, crate-diggin'-dusty beats give a cool, urbane tone to their caribbean references. this is quintessential early-90s, new york hip-hop. it distinguishes itself from the pack, however, precisely because of its west indian flavor. smif 'n' wesson draw from two languages in their rapping, often with great economy and to great effect, code-switching at appropriate moments to signify on something or to fit a line smoothly into the timeline. "sound bwoy bureill" is a particularly self-conscious, though representative, track. although each rapper appears to address the ubiquitous, anonymous challenger of underground rap myth, they are careful to name this opponent "sound bwoy"--the representative of a competing soundsystem in a clash, a jamaican dancehall competition for audience approval. the aim is to kill the sound-boy--as one might say, metaphorically, of a sporting contest (e.g., "the sox got killed," "roy jones killed ruiz," etc.)--thus warranting a burial ("bureill"). the track draws a connection between the archetypal battles of rap and clashes of dancehall. it also draws a connection between metaphorical killing and real killing. or does it? though the language they employ is frequently violent, it is not always meant literally, as this track in particular makes clear. it becomes awfully hard to tell after a while. violence gets into the language in a way so sensual and poetic that the lines soon blur between metaphor and reportage, fiction and fact, abstract and concrete. "sound bwoy bureill" opens with a satirized selector/dj (someone in charge of spinning and announcing records), who cautions dubious listeners about doubting the "champion sound." the selector rambles in and out of the track intermittently, as if during the playing of a dubplate, simulating a live dance, and the mcs take their turn, dropping patois-inflected boasts with nonchalance. significantly, the first words rapped on the track are prototypical in their violent homophobia: "boom bye-bye in the batty-bwoy head" (translation: gay man shot in the head). the selector's proclamations are uneven and unending. they seem to spiral off in blatant disregard of the rhythm, often for a longer time than one expects, only to jump back at you with a shout. these passages seem to demonstrate a deep knowledge of and love for dancehall performance. either that, or a stereotypical imitation good enough to fool me, an admittedly recent, but studious, observer of the dancehall. (sometimes i think they may be trying too hard.)

dami appeared to enjoy the album. at the least, it was a novelty to hear such familiar language couched in such different musical form. i enjoyed it, too. i've always been amazed how easily i can listen to this album (not to mention those of smif 'n' wessun's associates in the boot camp click: heltah skeltah and black moon). it always strikes me as smooth and cool, despite its topics, tone, themes. it is one of the most enduring hip-hop albums i own, and definitely some of the most entrancing music about gun-clapping and weed-smoking i've ever heard. (gotta give it to cypress hill on that count, too. ever heard "boom biddy bye-bye"? it is perhaps the most beautiful song about murder ever recorded, though i am sure there are plenty of contenders. significantly, like the opening line of "sound-bwoy bureill," the song's title is a clear nod to buju banton's pre-rasta-conversion, anti-batty-bwoy ode, "boom bye-bye."). tek and steele seem out to show that BK and TG are as similar worlds as multicast would have you believe. "bucktown"--perhaps the most well-known song on dah shinin'--essentially renames "brooklyn" as "guntown," drawing on classic jamaican onomatopeoia for shooting a gun (usually in approval of a performance): "buck! buck! buck!" much as tek and steele and their boot camp click brethren claim to be "original gun clappas," however, they clearly take their cue from even more "original" rude boys.

carrying the comparison to an explicit extreme, talib kweli makes the BK-JA link on a song called--surprise!--"gun music" on his latest album, quality (2002). (it is no surprise, however, that a borough with as many jamaican inhabitants as brooklyn has such an affinity for the jamdown.) interestingly, kweli enlists the "authentic" dj-ish skills of tek and steele (known as the cocoa brovaz ever since the gun company sued for trademark infringement) to cement the connection. the tone is quickly set as the track begins with gunshots overlayed by a jamaican voice providing a dj-style introduction. the cocoa brovaz come in for the chorus, which announces itself with--surprise again!--some jamaican-style, onomatopoetic gunfire:

p-poi-poi, cl-clackaclack-clack
gunman music never take shot back
p-poi-poi, cl-clackaclack-clack
"ghetto red-hot"--'round the world you hear dat

significantly, the final line of the cocoa brovaz' refrain makes reference to a song by jamaican dj (and, now, new york resident) supercat--and to its global resonance. it stands as a testament to the very goal of many a young kingstonian rapper today: to represent jamaican reality, in all its awesome violence, to a worldwide audience. it seems that, for artists like kweli and smif 'n' wesson, jamaica already stands out for bearing witness--in compelling and communicative musical fashion--to the bleakness of survival in an unequal and unjust society and global system. once again, of course, reality and fantasy blur. documentation meets imagination in a medium rife with ideology, emotional power, and associate force. brooklynites like kweli and cocoa brovaz assume the accents and attitudes of jamaica's archetypal gunmen in order to claim status as gangsta revolutionaries, real militants, pragmatists. funny that hip-hop--long reviled as the music to glorify violence above all others--looks to dancehall for real badman subjectivities. kweli's musical connections serve to validate a stance that seems out of character for the "socially conscious" mc. but how musical are the connections here? there is no dancehall 3+3+2 to be found. the somewhat active, machine-gun-like kick-drum stays within hip-hop boundaries. the guitar riff is more reminiscent of late jimi hendrix, band-of-gypsies rock. falling into a hip-hop tradition of making connections between places, kweli limits himself to what seems like a cliche triumvirate: "jamaica" (later specified as "kingston"), "brooklyn" (later "flatbush"), and "ethiopia." although "ethiopia" is a less vague referent than, say, "africa," and clearly serves as a link to rasta cosmology, the connection is a tenuous one. we learn nothing specific about ethiopia in the track. i suppose we are meant to project the problems of brooklynites and kingstonians onto the inhabitants of some ethiopian city which clearly is not ghetto-red-hot enough to get itself on the map. but who can be sure? in this sense, kweli's symbolic gesture seems a bit empty (or at least under-developed) and a tad far-fetched. still, dami seemed to enjoy the expression of solidarity. moreover, he found kweli's message to be more interesting in its politics than the average dj. he requested a copy of the album to play for some friends.

next, i moved on to the selections that i was most curious to play for dami. having given so much thought over the last couple years to JA in the US and the US in JA, i have ignored the jamaican diaspora elsewhere. (of course, one needs to limit one's scope or one will say very little about too much.) nevertheless, i have heard an insistent murmuring from across the atlantic, and my theoretical model has been challenged by the concept of a jamaican rapper living in neither the US nor JA. since last december or so, i have been fascinated with a third point on the map: england. how does the UK fit into the story i am trying to tell? how much more messy and complicated does the story get when we consider the phenomenon of lifelong british-citizens of jamaican descent expressing themselves most comfortably, most "authentically," if you will, with the (african-)american form of hip-hop? is this degree of cultural hybridity--which seems, in execution, a bit oil-and-water--a limitation or an advantage for such performers? do they have three, or more, languages at their disposal or none? (sometimes it seems like british-jamaican rappers employ such an esoteric creole as to communicate only with themselves.)

in some ways this british-jamaican-hip-hop seems like the most interesting, and perhaps the most appealing, of the three--the one that testifies most directly to the social and cultural flows of post-colonial life, the one with the most global currency. on the other hand, it is neither here nor there (considering how much these performers appear to look to the US and JA for inspiration). england has yet to really break a compelling rapper on the world stage, and its homegrown genres (two-step, jungle) come no where near the worldwide impact of jamaica's, and certainly the US's, popular musical forms. all the same, there is something to the phenomenon. at the least, it demonstrates a convincing synthesis. from another angle, it presents additional evidence for my argument: jamaica's central place in the hip-hop imagination (and idiom) accommodates british-jamaican sensibilities and styles rather easily. moreover, the scene appears to be coming into its own of late. a recent compilation, romantically and cleverly titled extra yard (2002), serves to showcase the distinctive expression of jamaicans in england with an eye toward manhattan. on tracks like the posse cut, "witness the swords," roots manuva, the most famous of the bunch and the first to kick a verse, creates a musical world that seems equal parts kingston, london, and new york. and his brethren exhibit distinctive styles of their own. the sometimes cryptic confusion of combining three symbolic systems makes for a rich experience. dami was impressed and seemed quite surprised that such a thing even existed. he requested a copy of extra yard, too.

a week later dami visited again, and i gave him copies of extra yard, mos def's black on both sides (which i decided was more worth damie's listen than the kweli album), and justin timberlake's recent solo effort (on damie's request--he's got a sweet spot for r&b). i got the timberlake album from nick for christmas, and, yes, i asked for it. to be quite honest, i was deeply curious about the neptunes' and timbaland's production work on it, which is stellar overall. (i can do without timberlake's michael jackson impersonation.) tell me that timbaland's beat on "(oh no) what you got," idiosyncratic as it is, isn't dancehall-inspired, or at least in the space between hip-hop and dancehall where they both lose their names, and i'll tell you to read my dissertation (sometime next year, of course). [i apologize, by the way, for the insipid, twelve-year-old directed lyrics; listen to the beat!] i plan to tease out these musical issues at another time, but the 3+3+2 is in there: check the snare-drum. jamaican rhythms clearly are influencing more than hip-hop these days.

meantime, let's face some methodological issues. what kind of research is this? doesn't it compromise my results if i give cds of jamaican hip-hop from new york and london to jamaican hip-hop artists in jamaica? couldn't this kind of confrontation lead to an "unnatural" reconsideration of musical style and identity for someone like dami? what about sending dancehall rhythms i have produced up to rappers in boston? or teaching young people in boston and kingston how to make both hip-hop and dancehall rhythms? am i guilty of trying to manifest destiny somehow by forcing hip-hop and dancehall to merge in my own musical practices? how can i ever hope to observe something if i interact so directly with the phenomenon?

i maintain that being a producer and performer allows me to get closer to musical and cultural issues than i would be able to as a fly on the wall--an imaginary and impossible role at any rate. once in the thick of things and relating to other people, i draw no clear lines between friend and "subject," acquaintance and "informer." i am unable to think of people in these scientific terms anyway. i am living in jamaica and trying to enlarge my perspective on the world. at the same time, i am trying to share different perspectives with as many other people as possible. i try to do this in my music, in my relationships, in my daily social interactions, and in my writing. i am working on a big, complicated, and fascinating story. a story based on experience, research, and critical analysis. a story that is bigger than me, and bigger than any of the people i talk to. hip-hop and dancehall have been recombining and converging for some time now. i do not grant myself the self-importance to think that i can change the course too much. nor do i think, as heisenberg might remind us, that i can ever observe anything without having some effect on it.

what kind of research is this? interesting and fun research. what else?