While we’re in a outsourcing mood here at w&w, allow we to offer up another recent q&a —
Hope you’re well,
This is a follow-up to an email that I sent last week regarding me possibly
conducting an interview in the near future regarding the role of Jamaican
styles in US and UK hip-hop.
I’ve been a keen reader of your blogs on this subject and would very much
like to talk to you via email about this subject as research for my
Please could you get back to me either way.
Interesting questions. I’m afraid I’m going to have to be brief, but I hope I can be helpful. Feel free to shoot back others if they arise.
1) As you’ve explored in your own research, certain songs on ‘Criminal
Minded’ by Boogie Down Productions were, at the time of their release,
groundbreaking in their use of Jamaican influences. What do you think was
the catalyst to this new approach in hip hop?
I think the main “catalyst” is the profound change in NYC’s ethnic demographics during the 1980s, combined with a related set of representations that changed perceptions of Jamaicans from “country/island” to “rudeboy/ruthless.” By the mid-80s, boroughs like Brooklyn and the Bronx not only had a good number more residents from Jamaica (and the West Indies more generally — see the work of Mary Waters, Philip Kasinitz, etc.), but in terms of actual social and cultural relationships, Jamaicans had gone from being marginal pariahs (e.g., thrown in garbage cans, as Kool Herc recounts) to dominating the drug trade, and the New York soundscape was more infused with the sounds of Jamaica — esp dancehall reggae — than ever before. The “cool and deadly” style of reggae from that era resonated with the cool and deadly postures of Jamaican posses. So for someone like KRS-One (despite himself not being Jamaican), suddenly the sounds of Jamaica offered a powerful resource for representing the Bronx.
2) Is there much diversity in the use of Jamaican influences in US hip hop?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this. In a sense, I’d say yes, because the references to Jamaican music in hip-hop run the gamut from contemporary and classic dancehall to roots reggae (a la Bob Marley) to more obscure dub and sometimes even rocksteady references. Far and away, though, the strongest presence of Jamaica in hip-hop is from dancehall, which makes sense given its close relationship — and dialogue — with rap.
Regarding comparions between UK and US appropriations of Jamaican music in
their respective hip hop styles.
3) Can a fair judgement be made regarding the question of which style (UK or
US hip-hop displays the most authentic interpretation of a Jamaican
I’m not really sure how you would define “authentic” here, and I usually find that such assessments are bound up with various value judgments, so you’d have to tell me more in order to weigh in. Essentially, though, I don’t think a strong argument can be made that either style is more “authentic.” One might argue that UK hip-hop has a greater degree of Jamaican influence, which makes sense given the larger percentage of UK hip-hoppers of Jamaican descent and the greater presence more generally of Jamaican culture in the UK. If you’re talking about an “interpretation” that attempts to be closer to the “original” (though there’s a lot of mirror-mirror interaction going on in all of this, making it difficult to sort out), then the UK probably fits that description better. But again, UK/US hip-hop is one thing and UK/US reggae is another (and then there’s all the stuff in between). Ultimately, I think you’d be hard pressed to really make any meaningful distinctions here, as both places (NYC and London, specifically) have substantial Jamaican communities who maintain strong, close ties to the island.
4) If so, which is the most authentic and what is the criteria for such a
I guess I addressed this in the answer above. In general, I avoid weighing in on authenticity, as I don’t think it’s something “out there” and measurable and real. Rather, it is a product of the imagination and will depend on competing discourses about the “real” and on complexly situated subjects in specific social contexts and their cultural politics. As I’ve written elsewhere, with regard to authenticity, there’s no “there” there. Even so, one can discuss it insofar as plenty of people do have strong ideas about what is authentic and they invest their music with such meanings accordingly. Getting at this, then, is less about an interpreter such as I or you deciding what is really real and instead employing ethnography to get at what other people think is really real and why.
Thanks for your feedback on the questions. From reading my questions again a
few days later and reading your answers I can see some of the flaws in my
questions. I suppose it’s part of the learning process so thanks for bearing
Got a few more questions for you. I don’t think there’ll be many more after
1) Is the oft- cited theory on the influence of Jamaican vocal styles on
hip-hop emceeing/rapping justified?
Depends on what you mean. I would say that the influence of Jamaican vocal styles on hip-hop emceeing have become more pronounced over the last 15 years especially, but in the earlier days of rap, the cadences were much more indebted to African-American styles. I think this was even true for those early DJs/MCs who were well familiar with Jamaican toasting style. Kool Herc adopted the speech style of his Bronx peers, and it was not until much later (at least 1986 or so) that Jamaican accents and vocal styles began to audibly influence rap style. Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that dancehall reggae vocal styles, since the early 80s, have themselves been influenced by rap.
2) Is it feasible to say that one genre holds more image and musicla
stylistic influence over the other when you compare the dancehall of Lady
Saw, Tanya Stephens etc to the hip hop of Foxy Brown Lil Kim etc?
This is hard to say. I can see/hear influence going both ways in all of these cases. It seems more difficult to me to compare individuals than, say, societies — where, I would say, though this is not really based on empirical evidence, that while US music/culture has had a pervasive effect on Jamaican music/culture, and Jamaican on English, it is less clear that Jamaican music/culture has had such a strong effect on American culture (except perhaps in certain Caribbean-ized cities, such as NY or Miami).
3) What do you feel that UK Grime music has taken from Jamaica in terms of
music and cultural expression?
Quite a bit: everything from vocal styles and accents and slang, to rhythmic predilections, focus on bass and effects and layering, use of the dubplate and riddim system, rude boy stance, etc. Of course, “taken” might be putting it strong, considering how many grime artists and producers are of Jamaican descent.
Referring back to the last set of answers you gave me, whilst I’m fairly
aware of the more obvious examples of Jamaican influence in US hip-hop,
could you help me out with some of the more obscure dub/rocksteady examples
you mentioned. Also, are there any US hip hop artists of Jamaican descent
(second-generation) you could name? I can name people like Busta Rhymes,
Grand Puba etc, but I can’t be sure of people like Mos Def or Smif an
Hmmm. Can’t do too much of this research for you, I’m afraid. But here are a couple examples: Kanye West’s sample for Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” comes from a Max Romeo / Lee Perry dub, of course, and Public Enemy sampled Mikey Dread, while Special Ed samples “Shantytown” by Jimmy Cliff and “Double Barrel” by Dave and Ansel Collins for his “Magnificent.” Something like Madlib’s Blunted in the Bomb Shelter shows another side of hip-hop’s acquaintance with dub. Plenty more listed here:
As for corroborating artists’ Jamaican heritage, I’m afraid I’ve had very little luck with that.