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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, September 6, 2002

Dancehall sound transcends its Jamaican roots

By Steve Jones
USA Today


. . .

Power Jam

• With Sean Paul, Yasmeen, Jene, Believe, Opihi Pickers, Chief Ragga Oshen

• 2-7 p.m. tomorrow

• Outdoor lot, across from Ward Entertainment Center

• $10 advance, $12 day of show

• Tickets, available at Dave & Busters, benefit Aloha United Way

Dancehall, the rapid-fire mutation of reggae that inspired Jamaican immigrant Kool Herc to start rapping over records in the Bronx in the '70s — leading to the birth of hip-hop — has been heard in varying degrees on such hits as No Doubt's "Hey Baby" and Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me," and now the music may be coming into its own.

One sign that the genre has arrived is Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light," an independent, guest-star-free single that bubbled up from the underground to land in MTV's rotation.

Sean Paul, along with other Mainland and Hawai'i bands, performs at tomorrow's "Power Jam" concert, which celebrates the Honolulu police and fire departments and benefits Aloha United Way.

Beenie Man's "Tropical "Storm" is another sign of dancehall's arrival. "Storm," which follows 2000's Grammy-winning "Art and War," is propelled by its sizzling first single, "Feel It Boy," a Neptunes-produced jam featuring Janet Jackson that's scoring on three national Top 40 airplay charts.

The album also features Sean Paul, dancehall icons Sly & Robbie and Lady Saw, alongside hip-hop stars Irv Gotti, Lil' Kim and DJ Clue. It is expected to boost long-standing dancehall king Beenie Man (aka Anthony Davis) to platinum status.

"I just think it's dancehall's time," says Beenie Man, who has been building a following in the United States for years with songs like "Who Am I" and "Girls Dem Sugar," which featured R&B singer Mya.

Ready for the real thing

"This summer has had the magic records," says Rob Kenner, Vibe magazine editor at large. "The Beenie Man thing is like an MX missile. But the Sean Paul record was done by a totally underground dude from Miami (producer Troy Rami). Sean Paul isn't part of the assembly line of pop machinery that usually produces hit records.

"People have been hearing dancehall in hip-hop for years, and they've gotten to where they're ready for the uncut realness from Jamaica."

Paul, whose album, "Dutty Rock," is due Sept. 24, says: "A lot of kids who got the chance before had to go with hip-hop rhythms at first and try to build on it. My song is the first authentic dancehall track to be on MTV and BET like that."

Earlier signs of the growing acceptance of dancehall could be heard in the music of such hot hip-hop producers as Timbaland and The Neptunes. And No Doubt's "Hey Baby" prominently featured dancehall star Bounty Killer.

And while Shaggy's brand of reggae is much more pop-oriented, the 12 million copies sold worldwide of his "Hotshot" album, with hits "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me," opened the door for Jamaican sounds in general. "Hey Sexy Lady," the first single from his yet-untitled album (due Oct. 29), is getting strong airplay after a premature leak to radio Aug. 16.

Randy Chin of Jamaica, Queens (New York)-based VP Records, whose roster includes Paul, Tanto Metro & Devonte and Bounty Killer, says the genre's rise has been gradual but steady since the mid-'90s. Now, he says, with all the recent breakthroughs, "I think the sky's the limit. People are hungry for a new sound."

Roots of rap

It's not an entirely new sound, of course. Hip-hop's reggae roots run deep-all the way to its core.

Rap owes its beginnings to Kool Herc, who rocked parties by rhyming over the breakbeats of popular songs, something that rock-steady and dancehall DJs in his Jamaican homeland had been doing for years before anyone here ever heard the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."

"Dancehall and hip-hop have always been cousins," Paul says. "A lot of hip-hop artists have been Jamaican-linked (Slick Rick, the Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes). I think we've been infiltrating for a while, and now it is time for it to fully expose itself."

Paul says his knowledge of rap lyrics helped him add a little hip-hop slang to his Jamaican patois on "Gimme the Light," which helped him hook the rap audience. He says familiar lingo helps break through a barrier for those who love dancehall beats but can't always catch the meaning of the songs.

"It allows people to follow the story line better," Kenner says. "They are kind of meeting the audience halfway. (But the dancehall slang is) like a secret language that you have to get initiated to."

While Paul and Beenie Man have embraced and been embraced by hip-hop stars, they've kept their feet firmly planted in Jamaican and dancehall.

Beenie Man says his new label, Virgin, has helped make him a star internationally, but he stays in touch with his core fan base, who expect a new vinyl 45 from him on a regular basis.

"I don't think dancehall is going to lose respect for me when I'm the person that is really big-upping the whole scene," Paul says.

Seeking a breakthrough

Chin says the cross-pollination of hip-hop and dancehall has wound up helping both genres.

"Even though reggae hasn't been mainstream music over the years, it certainly has had a lot of influence, at least on the street and the underground level," he says. "And in Jamaica, everybody has their satellite dish tuned to BET, or you hear hip-hop on the radio. So you might hear some elements of hip-hop in a dancehall song, but there was no conscious effort to do that."

But despite the inroads that have been made, getting heard remains a struggle for most artists.

Chin says videos are out of the question unless VP is sure the major outlets are going to play them.

That's what makes "Gimme the Light" so important.

"It's definitely encouraging to see Sean Paul in a really nice video," Kenner says. "For (VP Records) to step up and invest in a good video directed by Little X, who used to work with (top video director) Hype Williams, is great. It shows that these grass-roots projects are being embraced by the mainstream music market."

And don't underestimate the Shaggy factor.

"It's not reggae in its purest form, but he brings the influence of it into the mainstream," says Gary Ashley, MCA Records senior vice president for A&R "He's paved the way, and he also promotes other artists as he goes along. If you listen to his interviews, he's always talking about other artists."

Ashley, whose label is expecting another smash from Shaggy when his yet-untitled album is released Oct. 29, says Shaggy also is having an impact in Jamaica.

Beenie Man agrees that Shaggy has made it easier for him and raised his own expectations.

"People say, 'Yeah. Reggae can sell some units now,' " he says. "He reached diamond (10 million sales), so if ... I sell 1 million, I'm all right. I just want to get people to accept the music."