By CATCHCHA RICHARDS
When Marion Hall was just a little girl in the parish of Saint Mary, Jamaica, she used to sit in her yard and listen through the zinc fence while neighborhood deejays clashed it out with clever lyrics. She knew she could become just like one of them: clever, witty and loved all over. That little girl would grow up to become an international reggae superstar, signed to the VP Records–the leading distributor of Caribbean music – and the first Jamaican female artist to win a Grammy. Performing under the name Lady Saw, she has been dubbed Queen of the Dancehall.
Hall’s career has been helped along by the tremendous growth of dancehall music, which grew out of reggae in Jamaica in the late 1970s. Today, dancehall music has found a second home in Brooklyn’s large Jamaican community and gotten attention as far off as Japan. With lyrics rapped and sung over a reggae beat, dancehall is known for its raunchiness, talk of violence and the artists’ ability to get party-goers to dance.
New Yorkers were introduced to dancehall music in the 1980s. Veteran artists such as Yellowman spun out songs like “Zungu Zungu Zeng” and “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” his free-spirited reggae adaptation of the Frederick Loewe-Alan Jay Lerner classic “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Barrington Levy had hits such as “Black Rose” and “Under Mi Sensi.”
Demand for dancehall grew among Jamaicans living in New York and their American-born children, and spread through the West Indian community. Its popularity in the mainstream grew along with reggae.
The dancehall music Lady Saw sings was first known for the lyrical content that the deejays presented when battling each other in local competitions, on the mic or on a record. The best lyricist usually wins the rounds. Like any good deejay, Lady Saw is known for attitude in her lyrics.
Dancehall music got a boost toward the mainstream through Panamanian-born disc jockey DJ Norie of New York’s Power 105.1 radio station, one of New York’s most sought after deejays. According to Norie, listeners who tune into his program that airs every Sunday evening from 8 p.m. to midnight are “always looking forward to music from dancehall artist.” Reggae in general, he says, is headed for “higher heights.”
Because Power 105.1 is one of New York’s top urban-contemporary format radio stations, dancehall artists who want to get their music out reach out to him first. Chances are that if their music gets played on DJ Norie’s program in New York City, Jamaican musicians have reached an audience that is bigger than the local fans on their island.
Norie has been part of the Power 105.1 team for four years. He’s responsible for the big Anything Goes dancehall concert Power 105.1 sponsors annually in New York City with his Team Norie partners. This year’s line-up on March 26 at Stage 48 in Manhattan featured artists such as Wayne Wonder, Red Rat, and Tarrus Riley, among others.
Norie extends the opportunity for upcoming artists to grace his stage, so this year’s acts included newbie Mon Cherie, a 19-year-old woman of St. Lucian descent who grew up in Brooklyn, and whose manager is also one of her backup dancers.
Cherie says she met Norie by chance at another dancehall event and that they “instantly hit it off.” Her new single “Billy Boom Boom” is an anthem set out to get party-goers on their feet to dance.
Cherie grew up listening to dancehall music in Brooklyn, and said she “is growing as an artist who represents the music well.” Like Norie, Cherie says that dancehall is headed to greater heights in New York, and adds she “will be a great addition to the fraternity.”
Veteran artists such as Wallace Wilson—better known by his stage name Red Rat– also say that dancehall is catching on. Red Rat is known for the ever so popular catchy phrase “Oh No!” and hit songs such as “Tight up Skirt’ and “Dwayne.” These two songs are crowd favorites, especially “Tight up Skirt,” for which women usually start wining, a provocative dance in which the hips are moved in a circular motion.
Still, Red Rat sees obstacles.
“There is a stand-still in dancehall because many artists are unable to obtain a visa” needed for a Jamaican to enter the United States, he said when interviewed in March at the Anything Goes show. He says with deejays such as Norie broadcasting the music, that will help in “keeping dancehall ahead in the game even without artist visas.”
Some fans of more traditional reggae were critical of dancehall and its raunchiness when the new form emerged in Jamaica, and now some of the veteran dancehall artists have reservations about the newcomers’ work. “Some new artist haven’t stayed true to dancehall’s lyrical format,” Red Rat said, while older artists such as himself are “keeping the format alive. New artists will follow suit and continue to pave the way.” Red Rat performs all over the world like many other dancehall artists, but loves coming to New York City because he enjoys “the vibes that the audience in this city brings” whenever he steps on to the stage.
The dancehall genre has evolved into something more than just a lyrical clash (a type of one-on-one to come up with the best lyrics). “It will always remain a form of music that is in demand,” said Tarrus Riley, who debuted on the New York scene in 2004. “Reggae music is the voice of the people,” he says, adding that those who do not see it as such “should take a second look.”
Riley, nicknamed “Singy Singy” for his sweetly melodic voice, played at Anything Goes with his friend Sean Paul, an international dancehall reggae artist whose album “Dutty Rock” sold 65,000 copies in its first week and whose album “The Trinity” landed No. 1 on Billboard’s reggae charts in 2003 and 2006, according ot the Jamaica Observer. His songs include like “Gimme the Light” and “I’m Still in Love.” Paul was also featured on singer Beyoncé’s debut album “Beyoncé” in 2003 on a song titled “Baby Boy,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks.
Paul shared the stage with his friend Riley this year just for the fun of it. They performed alongside Norie, singing one of Riley’s songs, which caused pandemonium in the club.
Jammin Events company founder George Crooks, who has been promoting reggae concerts since 1979, said he prides himself on “providing quality Caribbean musical entertainment to the people of New York City.”
When interviewed in February, he was in the midst of planning for a major show held April 10 at the newly renovated Kings Theatre in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, featuring several different dancehall artists in a concert named “Dancehall Rising.”
The Flatbush Avenue venue drew top dancehall stars such as Mavado, a lyrical powerhouse whose nickname is “The Gully God.” His music, though sometimes filled with violence, is very popular among dancehall fans. In a telephone interview, Mavado said his music represents the life and struggle of many people he knows. As much as he sings of violence, he also sings of love, and with love comes heartbreak, so he sings of betrayal also.
Since debuting his “Gansta for Life” album in 2006, Mavado has been carrying the torch of dancehall popularity in New York and elsewhere. This afforded him the opportunity to work with people such as rapper Nicki Minaj and to sign a deal with DJ Khaled on his We the Best record company
Mavado admits he doesn’t like to be questioned about the content of his music–which made his interview very short. He preferred to talk about the then-upcoming “Dancehall Rising” concert and the fans who would attend.
The Queen of the Dancehall, Lady Saw, was also featured on the “Dancehall Rising” bill. Lady Saw is known for loud, obnoxiously raunchy lyrics, dissing both men and women. She says her name was inspired by a leading reggae artist who bears the same last name. She recalled “sitting in my back yard as a kid listening to Tenor Saw battle and win neighborhood clash against other local artist from the community.” She “loved the way Tenor Saw was able to form simple words into rhymes in a clever way that made the crowd go wild.”
Hall says she thought to herself, “I could be great at this.” From that day forward she adopted the name Saw “out of respect for Tenor Saw,” the artist who made her love the dancehall art form.
Lady Saw, referred to as the Queen of the Dancehall or Muma, said she believes that if the competition from other female artists “focused less on trying to take the throne,” that “they can reach very far, if they focus more on themselves and try to perfect their art.”
Lady Saw has performed in venues in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, as well as White Plains and Mount Vernon. She resides in Jamaica, and said she loves coming to New York.
Among New York venues, NY Tracks Café located on Ralph Avenue in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn is a popular spot to hear dancehall music. Urieke Browne, a 26-year-old legal assistant and dancehall fan who lives in Brooklyn, says that “dancehall music brings the dancer out in anyone.” She was introduced to dancehall music by listening to her older brother and school friends play the music. Brown, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the melting pot of West Indians helped feed her curiosity for the Jamaican music. Browne says whether she was walking to school or just going to the mall with her mom, passing store fronts on Flatbush Avenue with dancehall music playing or cars driving by with dancehall blasting through the windows helped her “love the music even more.”
“It was everywhere,” Browne says. She likes the classics from artists such as Shaggy, and Buju Banton, who were very popular dancehall artists in the 1990s and are still sought after today.
“That’s where dancehall started and ended.” She says that today, “Dancehall is now running on the strength of those same artists.” Today’s “new younger artist takes the raunchy content too far at times,” she adds.
She enjoys NY Tracks Café on Wednesday nights. “It’s a very mellow atmosphere; you can eat and dance, and can also steal the opportunity to meet the deejays who entertain the crowd” with dancehall music “because it’s not as hectic or as crowded as a weekend night would be,” she says. DJ Norie is one of the performers on Tracks Café’s line-up.
When Norie plays outside of Power 105.1, his partners from Afrique Sound –the name of a group of other deejays- usually accompany him.
Afrique Sound is a compilation of several deejays usually hired to work at clubs, concerts, birthday parties, and weddings. A spokesman for the Afrique Sound, Two Chune, says that “Afrique Sound stays true to dancehall lyrical” intent and won’t promote new artists who stray too far from dancehall format.
Chune says Dancehall “have a long way to go.” He wishes that “newer and younger artists will take a little bit more time to perfect their craft before they put out music.” In doing so, he said, “they will create music that has staying power like many dancehall tunes heard in the nineties that are still a hit at parties today.”
Photo: DJ Norie, left, has helped make dancehall music more popular through his radio show. He is interviewed by reporter Catchcha Richards.