Future Troubles: The New Dancehall Economy and Its Implications in a Digital Age

• February 2011

Jammys is not playin’ sound no more, you not gonna see Inspector Willy inna dancehall, he’s a big-ass man. Wear glasses and all that shit. But their sons, and their sons after, is the ones that gonna keep the dancehall going.
—Beenie Man, FADER 23 (Summer 2004)

As the name suggests, dancehall has always primarily been a space (though rarely contained in an actual hall) wherein actors of all sorts—musical and otherwise—interact and perform. But it is also a culture, and is a medium of exchange that connects artists, deejays, dancers, selectors, soundsystem owners and operators, labels, backers, and fans. This culture, and the informal economy arising from it, is roughly perpendicular to the major label music industry, intersecting it and yet operating by a very different logic. This logic has become especially relevant as it has spread from Jamaica and reggae culture to influence soca in Trinidad, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands, as well as international music in West Africa and the United Kingdom. Dancehall music and sensibility play a key role in the cultural life of the diaspora generally and New York in particular. The advent of the internet and web 2.0 culture has irreversibly changed the material nature of this international role and as a result the indigenous culture itself has changed.

CD Sound: The 1990s and the Transition to Digital

The contribution of both Caribbean expatriates and the dancehall sensibility to the development of hip-hop music in New York has been well documented. However, less-well-studied is the enduring and evolving state of New York and diasporic dancehall beyond hip-hop culture. In the 1980s, the primary place for members of West Indian-American diaspora to connect to dancehall, reggae, and soca/calypso culture “back home” was the music shop: places like Super Power and Charlie’s in Brooklyn, VP Records and Spice Island in Queens, and Taurus Records in Dorchester, Massachusetts. American soundsystems, presenters, and deejays, such as King Addies and Dahved Levy, were prized for their extensive vinyl collections, and their dubplates. For a variety of reasons, the marketability of dancehall reggae music to core fans was based primarily on the quality of the voice and the musical production.

The 1990s introduced high-quality music videos and compact disc (CD) technology into reggae dancehall culture. Alongside the major-label signings of Shabba Ranks, Cobra, Supercat, and Bounty Killer, this technology altered some fundamental components of the economy. Videos for “Ghetto Red Hot” by Supercat and “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus and Pliers introduced a hip-hop flavor and the concept of marketing dancehall artists through voice and image. Videos and CDs also helped to further project the dancehall sensibility, spreading music and visuals across the Caribbean and its diaspora. However, the CD culture opened the door to piracy and posed a challenge to the vinyl and dubplate primacy. Previously unattainable songs could now be easily duplicated, Amazon and other outlets offered direct sales of obscure and brand-new reggae and soca records, and communication via e-mail and web marketing allowed people outside of the local industry to participate. The center was shifting. By early 2000, various digital networks presented a major challenge to the supremacy of the Jamaican soundsystem model.

The CD, the video, and then the web enabled quicker transfer of music not only back and forth from the diaspora but also throughout the Caribbean itself, with unexpected consequences. One was the emerging threat (and promise) of Trinidadian and Bajan soca as the dancing music of choice in the diaspora. In the late 1990s, New York City’s premier reggae sound, Massive B, enlisted soca selector Ricky Indian to play alongside them. The popularity of soca artists like Iwer George (Trinidad) and Burning Flames (Antigua) and the emergence of ragga soca—reggae-influenced soca music—forced a response from Jamaicans artists. “Outta Space,” a 1999 hit collaboration between Trinidadian soca star Machel Montano and Beenie Man, was the first soca record to feature a high-profile Jamaican artist. Beenie Man subsequently began upping the pace of the dancehall he recorded, encouraging the development of increasingly intricate, complex, and hyper-sexual dance movements. The increased availability of video technology in Jamaica picked up these dance trends, led by veteran dancer Bogle, and the amateur (often explicitly so) video series Passa Passa became a hit in New York and Toronto and across the Caribbean.

These factors contributed to the arrival of a recognizable Pan-Caribbean market in the 2000s. This hybridization meant greater sales for artists who struck a successful middle ground between the dominant sounds of Jamaica, Puerto Rico (where reggaeton, essentially Spanish-language dancehall, had exploded), Trinidad, and Barbados, allowing them to cross over to a larger audience without a major label. Thus the major label deals of Rupee, Sean Paul, Nina Sky, Daddy Yankee, Elephant Man, and others could not have happened without the support of this intermediary market existing in the space between the islands and their outposts in Miami, New York, Toronto, and London, which tended to favor the socafication of dancehall. Though the rise of reggaeton and ragga soca certainly began within the barrios and mom-and-pop stores of the diaspora, it was undoubtedly amplified by the influence of Pan-Caribbean sites like caribbeanfever.com (founded by NYC-based, Bajan-born presenter Dahved Levy).

As CD, digital, and web-based technology began to erode some of the traditional power of the dancehall, new and unexpected cultural developments brought about by the same technology widened both the influences on and of dancehall.

The net effect of the web on Caribbean music culture was a shift away from tradition and lineage to a more youth-based culture. No longer was it necessary to own huge vinyl collections to participate as a sound selector, or to live within radio reach of a prominent Caribbean program. International sound systems from countries with no Caribbean diaspora, such as Shashamane from Kenya, Sentinel from Germany, and Mighty Crown from Japan, used the web to their advantage, communicating directly with musical peers and producing cutting-edge riddims and international stars, such as Italy’s Albarosie and Germany’s Gentleman. At the same time younger music fans, raised on CDs and DVDs, increasingly explored and defined Caribbean identity in a digital arena, relegating the physical stores to an older and dwindling clientele.

Touch a Button: The New Dancehall Economy

Before, it was everything came out of Jamaica. It had to come out of Jamaica or it wouldn’t be real, it wouldn’t be original. But right now, through the internet—Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, especially YouTube—it’s like everyone has developed their own style.
—Antiguan-born, NYC selector/dancer Skerrit Bwoy, CNN interview, January 2011

If the transitional phase encompassing CDs and web 1.0 produced some hopeful stylistic innovations from the energy of the traditional diasporic networks it killed, the dominance of the mp3 format, file-sharing, and YouTube has all but eliminated the models for profiting from these innovations—even as the pace of change has accelerated. First and foremost, these technologies have radically amplified overproduction and devalued music as a commodity. Where easily copied mix CDs encouraged piracy in the transitional 1990s, piracy created a new set of physical objects, with attendant packaging, a secondary market, and additional profits—for DJs (and mixtape specialists like Miami’s Black Chiney Soundsystem) if not for artists and producers. Downloadable and e-mail-able mp3s however, have significantly reduced barriers to piracy and also flooded the web with disembodied music, as artists must give away more and more to maintain their currency, an environment in which not only artists and producers but even pirates struggle to make profit.

The easy translation of digital bedroom recordings into compressed audio files has flattened the tiered release structure that originally spanned months and involved several different types of media—reel to reel, acetate, vinyl 45s—to a single keystroke. YouTube has likewise eliminated the demand for the physical product of DVDs, since Passa Passa videos—established as the marker of Jamaican youth identity—have come online alongside digitized video of 1980s soundclashes and ’70s roots concerts. This put the final nail in the coffin of the old-school record shops that had chased profits into the CD market when vinyl became outmoded and then into the DVD trade as piracy killed CD sales. Any hopes concerning the ability of these businesses to weather the digital storm were finally dashed when Brooklyn’s Super Power—not only the undisputed king of dancehall record stores but the site of some of its most enduring creation myths—closed its doors, almost unnoticed, in 2008.1

All these changes have meant that live performance—the traditional counterweight to overproduction—has been more and more emphasized in dancehall. There has been an interplay between the various strata of dancehall celebrity. Dancers and choreographers (Ding Dong, Chi Ching) have become almost-artists; touring internationally and demanding fees for their appearance/attendance at shows and clubs. Meanwhile, selectors (Skerrit Bwoy, Tony Matterhorn, Swatch) have become almost-dancers, stepping out of the DJ booth to engage dancers and fans in wining and daggering, mock-sexual battles emphasizing physicality and shock-tactics over skill or originality in the choreographic sense. As a testament to this development, the popular website dancehallreggae.com advertises booking information for dancers Gillian the Sky Daggera and Marvin, alongside that of selectors Slim J and Fire 20. This encapsulates nicely where digital technology has carried the dancehall economy—it has in some sense eliminated “media” from the economic equation. Where representation is instant, ubiquitous, and devalued, new media becomes a means to circulate booking information, not commodities. Dancehall e-commerce barely exists as such but the web and other digital technology have connected artists, selectors, and dancers to a much larger arena for live shows, in effect extending the potential space of the dancehall and the interaction of the physical players to global proportions.

Soundcrash: Rescaling the Dancehall Model

Even as riddim auteurs attempt to transcend the crabs-in-a-barrel competition of the 45 market, the mainstream industry at the end of the crossover rainbow seems already to have been infected by the soundsystem model. Its future looks eerily like handheld video, clashes and yard-tapes as pop artists invent feuds to sell records and turn to internet and mixtapes DJs for buzz. These days, even Ne-Yo and 50 Cent hope for rewinds, airhorns and bomb-a-drop sound effects to give their shit the proper shine when they release a new tune to radio.
—“Island Life,” FADER 50 (Fall 2007)

Not coincidentally these changes were taking effect just as the same complex of digital symptoms was also wreaking havoc on the sustainability of the mainstream music industry. But ironically, the majors—where they have survived—are adapting or at least experimenting with strategies that look peculiarly like dancehall-specific tropes. The disappearance of physical stores and devaluation of music as physical commodity has put the emphasis on so-called 360 deals that use recordings as a sort of loss-leader for the ever-more-expensive concerts that are the sole remaining generators of revenue. These make the most sense for rock stars with a fanbase established in the pre-web era and have been trumpeted by many as the salvation of major labels. Newer and smaller artists have found that having a label is simply not a feasible proposition and that they are better off self-distributing and self-promoting online, making use of the web’s propensity to aggregate small niches of specialized consumers. Using blogs and social media, they are in effect creating informal virtual mirrors of the mom-and-pop networks that once connected tiny labels with record shops and videomen with the collectors who traded reggae paraphernalia over long distances.

Similarly, small and big labels alike have tried new versions of tiered releases (for instance, snippets and YouTube clips, then streaming, then downloadable audio) to eke maximum promotional value out of the previously disorganized, unintentional process of leaking songs. Likewise, lyrical battles between rap artists, which have long been a facet of hip-hop culture, have been incorporated into the promotion of major label releases to an extent that mimics the clash-model of dancehall economics—to the extent that hype can be generated over a rift fought not in lyrics but in the choice of release dates. The recycling of backing tracks for multiple “remixes” (per dancehall riddim-runs) and experiments positioning music as promotion for a sponsoring brand rather than a commodity in itself all follow the Jamaican example.

Some similarities may simply be parallel developments—Kanye West’s use of autotune, for instance, represents a case where dancehall and major label rap have felt the effects of the same technology at roughly the same time. But many of these tactics represent a fundamental change in American music economics that is beginning to resemble the classic dancehall model. This remarkable change of perspective is mirrored by the sonic mimicry that rap and its radio outlets have begun engaging in of late, borrowing dancehall’s audible signifiers of “hype”—rewinds, airhorns, sirens, and explosions—for use in their regular repertoire.

On a different scale, many hallmarks of dancehall have been successfully incorporated into the strategies of emerging scenes and genres globally. Sonically and visually, many African musical movements have, through YouTube and mp3s, accessed and reappropriated dancehall sensibilities, most notably in the coupe decale style in Cote d’Ivoire and the kriolo style of kuduro in Angola. Not only sonically but strategically and organizationally, the cumbia rebejadas and champeta scenes (in Mexico and Colombia, respectively) bear the imprint of the dancehall model, right down to dubs, soundsystems, and clashes. Other rising third world markets in Africa, Latin America, and (to a lesser extent) India offer both ripe, new markets for dancehall music and a complimentary challenge to the primacy of the US corporate model of music production and distribution. Much more detailed study is needed, however, to support a thesis that dancehall can spin third-world durability and global appeal into a “leapfrog” effect.

Black Survivors

If Arnold Schwarzeneggar was a tune / He wouldn’t be as tough as this
—Robot-voice Intro, Beenie Man and Merciless, “We a Star” (1998)

All these developments point to the unexpected possibility that the dancehall model, as well as some practitioners of it in its present form, may actually be better equipped to survive the current economic pressure—the perfect storm formed by the painful market correction of the transition to digital and the worldwide recession of 2008 to present—than the ungainly major labels. However, such an outcome cannot be taken for granted. As the adoption of dancehall tropes in both the United States and emerging markets after signings or distribution deals demonstrate, what is most communicable about dancehall under the current conditions may be simply a set of strategies that can be replicated and applied to other styles and products without necessarily conferring any value to its inventors.

In fact, one can see dancehall itself as a set of survival strategies—and at the same time a sort of war machine, part of a whole genus across the African new world (Trinidadian kaiso, picong, calinda stick-fighting; Brazilian capoeira; the New Orleans Mardi Gras “Indian tribes”) that sublimate martial impulses into the creative sphere, allowing both art and resistance to continue under brutal social circumstances. As such, survival and replication may be more important measures of dancehall’s “success” than profit or development in economic terms. Although the health of the dancehall economy is currently reliant on many factors (curfews, visas, musical and technical education) that have nothing to do with digital technology, the web in a sense opens up two far horizons for dancehall: (1) a global marketplace for its products and performances and a space for it to develop and potentially compete on even terms with the corporate model; and (2) an open space for the dissemination of its strategies to replicate in viral-fashion, profitlessly and perhaps at the expense of development. If we could identify the area where more intellectual work is needed it is in exploring whether these two different ways of looking at dancehall can coexist and even support each other in the digital space. And if not, which one will win out?

 

As a DJ and contributing editor for FADER Magazine, Eddie STATS Houghton is largely responsible for the hipsterization of dancehall music in certain circles and does not even have the decency to be apologetic about it. In the last ten years he has DJed MIA’s first live performance; written the first major stories on Mavado, Gyptian, Drake, and Ricky Blaze; and toured Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka as a guest of the US State Department.

Rishi Bonneville writes about soca, reggae, and black/third-world electronic music. He has spent ten years working in music distribution, releasing music by David Banner, dead prez, Large Professor, Alison Hinds, and Far East Movement.

 


1 We must note here, however, that the sustainability of the New Dancehall Economy is subject to many pressures that have nothing to do with digital technology per se: a high crime rate—and the curfews it brings—has a dampening effect on the dancehalls themselves, the ultimate sources of innovation (Passa Passa—the Wednesday night street dance in Tivoli Gardens that launched a thousand dance steps and as many bootleg DVDs—was shut down in 2010 when the area was cordoned off by JDF forces participating in the effort to extradite Christopher “Dudus” Coke); the revocation of US visas for many Caribbean artists undercuts their ability to tour in the United States—for the moment, still the world’s most lucrative music market; and various factors have steadily eroded Jamaica’s technical and music education, which severely limits dancehall’s musical gene pool.

 

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