Okay, so what you’re listening to right now is the relatively simple, deceptively bouncy beat to Rihanna’s latest single ‘Work’. This beat, which doesn’t get much more complicated than this throughout the whole song , has a light summery island vibe, which might be the reason why Rolling Stone — a magazine that has been producing music journalism since 1967 — twe eted on its release: Now this caused a bit of a stir online because of course this song is not tropical house music, nor is it descendent from tropical house music. ‘Work’ is a Dancehall song, a genre that has a rich tradition in Jamaican history. But a mistake like this is, I think, the perfect excuse to take a closer look at some of the recent trends in popular music. And we might as well start with this
term, “tropical house”, coined sort of as a joke in 2014 by 22 year old Australian DJ Thomas Jack. Tropical house is a somewhat slower tempo house music that often features pan flutes, marimbas, steel drums and other instruments originating from the Caribbean or Africa to give the sound a more mellow tropical vibe. Thanks to Thomas Jack, who by the way is now pretty much over tropical house, and other producers like Kygo, this subgenre swept rapidly across the world and right into the heart of the commercialized mainstream with mega hits like Felix Jaehn’s remix of Omi’s “Cheerleader”. And pretty much every hit of Justin Bieber’s comeback tour. I think there’s little doubt that these songs are surfing the tropical house wave. But even these mega hits it could be argued owe their sound to Dancehall. In fact, you could probably say that about the whole genre. Bieber’s ‘Sorry’, the instrumental beat of which is playing under my narration right now, is a perfect example. The Addictive drum pattern at the heart of this song is called “dembow”, which takes its name from the 1990 Shabba Ranks’ song. Shabba Ranks was probably the most popular Dancehall artist of the 90s and one of the first to gain worldwide recognition. The producer of Bieber’s ‘Sorry’, Skrillex, has a long history of bringing dancehall into his music and would know Shabba Ranks as would his recent collaborator Diplo, who frequently cites the influence of dancehall in
interviews. Indeed, another of Diplo’s project, ‘Major Lazer’, is explicitly a Dancehall group. [Sound of tape being reversed] [Forwaaard. March!] For the uninitiated, Dancehall can trace its roots all the way back to the independence of Jamaica in 1962 after over three hundred years of British rule and the rise of Ska music. You can go even further back than that since ska is really just a combination of elements already found in Jamaican Mento music and calypso music from Trinidad and Tobago and both of these have their origins in
West African tribal music. Ska takes these traditional rhythms and mixes them with the Jazz and Rhythm ‘n Blues that was popular in the United States at the time. Its emphasis on the second and fourth beats in the bar gave the music a jumpy feel. Great for dancing, which is one of the reasons it took off in Britain in the 1960s as well. But as the post-independence economic boom in
Jamaica sagged under rising poverty and rising crime, Ska eventually slowed down and evolved into Reggae, a politically-motivated genre of music that would
culminate in the global popularity of Bob Marley. [‘Stir It Up’] By the time Marley died in 1981, reggae was a worldwide phenomenon. But back in the cities of Jamaica, musicians began turning to more up-tempo sounds again. See, one of the crucial development of Jamaican music was the release of what’s called “B-side” versions, which is basically the instrumental track of the song in question on the other side of the record. Jamaican DJs began singing and essentially rapping over these versions and this is the precursor of American Hip-hop but it’s also the origin of Dancehall. Using new technologies, producers dubbed and distorted popular ‘riddims’ for DJs to perform over. The same riddim can be used in dozens of songs and that brings us back to ‘Work’. The instrumental to this song, for example, comes from the popular “Sail Away” riddim, recorded by Richie Stephens first in 1998. This riddim can also be heard in Beenie Man’s ‘Bad Man Nah Flee’ from 1999 and Sean Paul’s ‘Fit and legit’. Trends in popular music are as fickle as the public is. Dancehall rose to international fame in the 90s, then faded. What’s interesting to me now is that in 2016 Dancehall seems to be rising again, but the connection is less visible. Its signature can be heard encoded into songs that have dominated the music charts for the last year and a half. But of all these artists, Rihanna is maybe the best ambassador of this sound for an American audience. Since as a daughter of Barbados, she lives and breathes this Caribbean influence and the long history it calls into cultural memory. I have nothing against new genres of music, even something as short-lived and perhaps mischaracterized as tropical house. But I also think that it’s important to understand the lineage of popular music. It has to be said that there are few cultures in that lineage that loom larger than Jamaica. Its popularity and influence will remain durable, I think, as long as there are great artists willing to put those ‘riddims’ to… Hey guys, thank you for watching, if you want to uhm, I mean look at this dance, this is some dancing right here. How could you not pledge a dollar to support this channel by clicking the link that’s right on the screen For a guy that would dance for you like that, look at that dancing! It’s like, he’s so white but, you know, he’s trying. Anyway I’ll, uh, I’ll see you guys next Wednesday.