Lloyd “King Jammy” James | photo: Beth Lesser

How X-Rated Lyrics and Digital Beats Delivered Dancehall to the Masses

In 1980s Jamaica, slackness and gun talk inspired a new generation of electronic riddim builders


The success of “Sleng Teng” had dramatic and far-reaching effects on Jamaican popular music during the mid-1980s. Previously, singers initiated most reggae songs by bringing lyrics and a melody to a producer, whose session players would construct a musical arrangement. After King Jammy and Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” most music was constructed by technically proficient keyboard players, or non-musical technicians clever enough to build a basic computer rhythm, to which lyrics were subsequently added; such material was often created without the input of actual musicians, resulting in a rugged form geared towards sound system devotees.

Although the new sound may have baffled overseas listeners, particularly those enamored with roots reggae, in Jamaica “Sleng Teng” and its successors made perfect sense. The brash sound of computer drums reflected the harsh reality of modern urban life, providing exciting fuel for the dancehall audience, and the predominant sound had long been heading in this direction through increased use of synthesizers and electronic drumbeats.

Steelie (in front wearing white) with the Radics in front of Channel One in 1983 | photo: Beth Lesser

In conjunction with the rise of computer rhythms came a shift in form, as the new style was perfectly suited to deejays [Jamaican term for a dancehall musician who sings and “toasts” to an instrumental riddim, similar to an MC in hip-hop]. Thus, by the end of the decade, traditional singers were on the wane and the new Jamaican superstars were rapping champions of the microphone; ironically, many of the singers that maintained popularity did so by adapting old American ballads to the new digital beats. Rastafari imagery was also on the wane, as many rising stars were Christian.

Although the whole of Jamaica was rapidly turning digital, producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James kept the upper hand by working keenly with Steelie and Clevie, who soon emerged as Jamaica’s premier digital rhythm builders. Jammy remained the undisputed king of the music to the end of the decade, partly because he harnessed Steelie and Clevie early, and also because he used the astute engineer Bobby Dixon, a neighborhood sound system operator and electronics technician known as “Bobby Digital” due to his proficiency with the form.

Bobby Digital | photo: Beth Lesser / urbanimage

Although King Tubby had expanded his Dromilly Avenue studio and installed new equipment just before the digital onslaught, he somehow struggled to keep up with former protégé Jammy in the digital phase. For instance, immediately following the “Sleng Teng” explosion, Tubby cut Red Rose’s “Under Mi Fat Thing” in an attempt to steal Jammy’s thunder, but Jammy got his own back by voicing Nitty Gritty’s highly popular “Hog Ina Me Minty” on a “Tempo” re-cut, and despite releasing other popular efforts, Tubby largely remained in Jammy’s shadow in the following years.

With live musicians generally falling by the wayside as an army of new computer producers instantaneously emerged, Jammy’s digital stable became the focal point for a new set of stars, including baritone toaster Little Twitch, the uniquely talented deejay Tiger, whose expressive, exaggerated delivery seemed perfectly suited to digital music, plus singers Colin Roach and Anthony Malvo, rubbing shoulders with better established folk like Cocoa Tea and Frankie Paul.

A pivotal moment came when one of Jammy’s leading deejays, a tall youth known as Tonto Irie, got so big on the dancehall circuit that he began spending more time abroad, so Bobby Digital coaxed the pot-bellied toaster Admiral Bailey away from the rival King Sturgav sound to join in combination with Chaka Demus, a bull-necked toaster whose gruff but well-timed delivery made him one of Jammy’s finest deejays. The combination formula worked well on both sound system and record, though Bailey’s subsequent solo material was even more popular, keeping him a constant feature of the Jamaican charts during the late 1980s. Since he’s a versatile deejay, you might not immediately associate Bailey with X-rated “slackness,” yet his biggest hit was definitely sexual in nature, the song “Punany,” greatly assisting slackness’ rise.

“‘Punany’ mean the young girl’s vagina, no secret there about that, so we no have to go round no corner where that is concerned,” Bailey explains. “We express weself, so I say, ‘Give me punany, me want punany,’ because me love punany. The tunes that hit and last is tune whe you feel, and it no matter whether the punany good, bad, or whether it ah go kill me, me just want the punany—it’s as simple as that.”

Admiral Bailey | photo: Beth Lesser

Though rude records were nothing new in Jamaican music, songs were far more explicit in the early dancehall age. Before he was shot dead by police in 1980, General Echo led the way with singles such as “Bathroom Sex” and albums such as Slackest LP In The World, produced by Winston Riley and issued under the moniker Ranking Slackness. Following close behind was the internationally renowned Yellowman, with songs like “Cocky Did A Hurt Me” and “Bedroom Mazuka” for Junjo Lawes. Other early dancehall slackers include Welton Irie, who cut an early X-rated LP for Joe Gibbs, It Feels So Good, and Johnny Ringo with tunes like the extremely surreal and clearly censorious “Two Lesbians Hitch” for Tommy Cowan.

Then came a flood of cruder efforts stimulated by the “Punany” craze, with Grindsman offering “Benz Punany” for Dragon Records in 1989 and Little Lenny warning of “Punany Tegereg” for Patrick Roberts’ Shocking Vibes label the following year, though concurrent with Admiral’s ground-breaking hit, Lovindeer’s self-produced “The Oil” and “Panty Size” both used suggestive humor to make their effect, rather than being outright lewd, and his biggest hit of all, “Wild Gilbert,” was a non-slack tune describing the hurricane that caused widespread destruction upon reaching Jamaica in September 1988.

The excessive use of foul language was also becoming a problem at stage shows: at the 1988 edition of the annual Sting concert, held at the National Stadium, the microphone was switched off at key intervals, particularly when performers were cursing each other too vigorously. Later, artists like Mad Cobra and Ninjaman would voice discs venerating firearms (the former with “Shoot To Kill” for Captain Sinbad, the latter with “My Weapon” for the New York-based Mr Doo label), “gun talk” rising in tandem with slackness, after tunes like “Punany” pushed the boundaries of public decency.

However, it would be wrong to think of such artists as exclusively gun-oriented, since Cobra cut the occasional conscious tune along with the slackness and gun talk that made his name, while much of Ninja’s early work for Junior Reid dealt with more constructive topics, such as the biased nature of Jamaican politics and the need for a decent education; the curious “Bob Marley Way” even looked at the contradictions inherent in Marley’s lyrics, as well as in verses of the Bible.

In any case, Admiral Bailey does not see his rude records as being on par with the extremely explicit styles that would emerge in the following years, when the hardcore dancehall or “ragga” style became cinematically hyper-real. “When a man deejay slackness nowadays, him no keep it discreet or make the mind wonder what him ah talk bout—him just say it raw, dry. We used to do it so nice that even the elderly laugh, because them read between the lines. But now man just push it inna your face.”

Bailey ultimately feels his longstanding success is down to versatility, as well as his ability to keep it real. “You have different people inna the dance, so you have to please everybody: some man want to hear gun, some want to hear about punany, then a next man want to hear about Selassie or God, so you have to deejay for everybody. The whole aspect of it is catering to the people that is listening to you.”

Lieutenant Stitchie | photo: Beth Lesser

Though every deejay is required to be versatile to succeed, not everyone felt comfortable venturing into risqué territory. “I never used to sing slack songs, cause I don’t believe in lewdness,” says Lieutenant Stitchie, one of the most popular and influential deejays of the period. “You have different markets and people have different tastes, but I believe in subtlety and suggestiveness, not lewdness and slackness. The easiest way out is to speak something derogatory, so most deejays start going that way, but in my book, it wasn’t the order of the day, because it is my responsibility as an entertainer to ensure that I impart something positive to the audience at all times.”

The visual quality of Stitchie’s storytelling hits such as “Wear Yuh Size,” about a girlfriend’s ill-fitting footwear, helped him bag a major-label contract at a time when dancehall was largely off the radar. His five-year tenure with Atlantic produced several hit albums and brought him into new territories through collaborations with rap artists such as LL Cool J, the Youngsters and Big Daddy Kane, as well as female R&B trio, En Vogue, and veteran soul singer Teddy Pendergrass; he also opened for Freddy Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Gill, and even played with Luther Vandross at Madison Square Gardens. His major-label signing also pointed to dancehall’s international potential, leading labels such as Elektra and Sony to sign Jamaican performers. However, as deejays such as Dillinger and Yellowman had already discovered through previous short-lived deals with A&M and CBS, being signed to a major was inevitably a mixed blessing.

“I did three albums for Atlantic, but I was basically a guinea pig, because they never knew how to market me,” Stitchie laments. “They take me into crevices and corners outside of Jamaica that I would never normally have been in, and I got a lot of exposure from it, but I left Atlantic because you had to be doing a different sort of song to break into a certain market, and that was cutting down on your style—watering down. They treated me extremely well, but there were still limitations, so at some point, I had to break loose.”

General Trees | photo: Beth Lesser / urbanimage

Back in the late-1980s, the storytelling style yielded hits such as General Trees’ “Gone A Negril,” a number-two chart placing that recounted a gold-digging female’s fruitless entreaty for Trees to supply her with a foreign visa, despite possessing no passport. Trees emphasizes that his songs have always been concerned with reality, and like Stitchie, he refuses to be side-lined by frivolous or negative subject matter.

“I prefer social commentary,” he explains. “That’s my thinking with music: see what’s going on, put it together and relate it to people, and what you really have in your heart, that’s what you push out. Trees nah go talk slackness, and me’s a man whe can’t really portray gun culture. I move more as a culture person, love to spread a clean message to one and all, no matter what race you might be. At all times, me have something good fi tell them.”

General Trees’ hit material helped the label Black Scorpio make a dent in Jammy’s dominance, as would bigger hits from other artists released by Donovan Germain, but from 1987, the rival to really pose a serious challenge to Jammy’s crown was Gussie Clarke, who crafted a very distinctive sound at his newly opened studio, Music Works. “I think going against the grain gives one the advantage,” Gussie explains. “Everybody had an MCI, but we went to England and realized that Amek have good consoles; everybody had a Sony or an MCI tape machine, so we bought Atari, cause we just wanted to be different.”

Despite its minimal dimensions, Music Works conjured a magical sound whose futurism placed it at the forefront of Jamaican music at the end of the 1980s. From its very start, the hits came thick and fast, with “Rumours” casting Gregory Isaacs in the role of a suspected drugs “Don,” playing on the outlaw reputation that stemmed from repeated arrests, imprisonment on gun charges, and recent dependence on crack cocaine; the rugged rhythm, punctuated by disjointed synthesizer chords, gave the record an irresistible quality that saw it fill dance floors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gregory Isaacs | photo: Beth Lesser

Further hits rapidly followed on the same rhythm, including JC Lodge’s sex-talk exposé “Telephone Love,” female toaster Lady G’s “Nuff Respect,” and the group ode cut in celebration of Britain’s black community radio stations, “Pirate’s Anthem,” featuring Cocoa Tea, Home T, and most importantly, dancehall toaster Shabba Ranks, one of the most impressive talents to rise in this period. “We created a whole album with the rhythm, Showcase ’88, and nobody even tried to touch it,” Gussie continues. “Our technology and our sound was entirely different from what was happening, so it was difficult to duplicate.”

Duplication was a particularly problematic feature of dancehall’s digital form. Not only were producers constantly falling back on old Studio One and Treasure Isle rhythms, which were given cursory computerized adaptations, but any producer with a hit found dozens of carbon copies surfacing immediately. As keyboardist Robbie Lyn explains, “You had producers who kept doing the same thing over and over; if someone come with a hit song, sometimes I end up doing the same rhythm track for three different producers the same day. It was easy money, but looking back on it now, it’s not something you’re proud of, because you wish people would come with ideas of their own, instead of doing the same thing that someone just did ten minutes ago.”

Shabba Ranks | photo: David Corio

Thankfully, Gussie’s team made sure their rhythms were consistently original, keeping Music Works at the top of the heap for a couple of years. He also scored a coup by producing Shabba Ranks’ first hit album, Rappin’ With The Ladies, which contained a number of outstanding tracks, including the signature tune “Mr. Loverman.” Shabba was easily the most versatile and charismatic deejay of his generation; the way his smooth rapping flow contrasted with the hardcore focus of his lyrics gave him an outstanding edge, and his popular work for various producers showed that he could captivate an audience with any topic, be it the folk wisdom of “Peanie Peanie,” the macho posturing of “Wicked In Bed” and “Trailorload Of Girls,” the depths of slackness on “Caan Done” and “Love Punany Bad,” or the salutation of his iconic deejay predecessors on “Respect.” He was also adept at the combination style, as evidenced by the huge success of “Who She Love,” voiced for Gussie in collaboration with Home T and Cocoa Tea.

“His style’s unique,” says Bobby Digital, who scored a series of hits with Shabba in the late 1980s, during the unsettled phase when he broke away from Jammy to become an independent production force. “The way he put his lyrics together and his deliverance was different from the other guys, and he’s a commanding fellow, so this is obviously someone who’s going to get respect from the public.”

Hits like “Peanie Peanie” and “Trailorload Of Girls” helped Bobby to establish the Digital B label, while Ranks’ perpetual rise, aided by a management contract with Clifton “Specialist” Dillon, soon brought a contract with Sony’s Epic subsidiary, leading to collaborative work with hip-hop stars such as KRS One, Queen Latifah and Chubb Rock, plus rock and roll veteran, Chuck Berry, and soul crooner Johnny Gill. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, Shabba’s resounding success ultimately signaled that dancehall had become a genre of international significance.

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From the revised and expanded edition of David Katz’s book
Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, published by Jawbone Press in 2013

Excerpted with permission

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