By Jacob Katel
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Since dancehall's dawn, performers have often blurred the line between deejaying and singing. But the styles remained distinctive in the blueprints created by rhythmic singers like Barrington Levy and melodic deejays like Yellowman. Like children of separate tribes, they were permitted to date but never marry. Suddenly, however, "singjays" are everywhere, mixing the two styles in interesting new ways, and proclaiming versatility to be the prime virtue of major vocalists.
Deejaying, of course, originally nursed on the singer's teat. When ska slowed to rocksteady in the late Sixties, jive talkers like U-Roy coaxed crowds to keep bouncing while the crooners crooned. The two styles were beholden to each other well into the sound-system Seventies, when gifted gabbers like Big Youth and Dillinger codified the deejay style, emphasizing wordplay and syncopation nearly independent of melody. When dancehall came to prominence after Bob Marley's death in 1981, it was hailed as the sound of the streets largely because the vocal chatter was starkly different from the singing style that Senior Gong had carried to crossover success. Ever since then, deejays have taken pains to keep those differences alive so that their style would warrant credibility as a street-level art form, a talent that mere singers could never quite replicate.
But after about a quarter of a century deejays are running out of new ways to shout, growl, or chat their rhymes. (And singers, for their part, still long for street credibility.) Moreover, deejaying has grown so common that everybody and their cousin seems to rhyme over beats -- and rhyme well. Combine a continuing demand for freshness with a swelling supply of talent and you can count on top-notch artists finding new ground somewhere. Since there seems to be nowhere to go vocally outside of singing or deejaying, today's artists are exploring the territory between the two like never before.
When singer Mr. Vegasrecovered from having his jaw wired shut after a beating in 1998, voicing bite-sized melodies without moving his mouth much, that was not, as some have reported, the birth of the singjay. The resulting single "Heads High" was, however, a boomshot heard 'round the world. The timing was perfect for revolution: Five years later, the singjay bandwagon is big enough to rival the singer and deejay camps in dancehall. There are so many artists aboard -- Buju Banton, Capleton, and dozens of other talents -- that at this point, dancehall deejays actually come off as somewhat limited if they can't double as their own back-up singers. Now it's melody that counts in large amounts. In fact for deejays who can't hold a tune, alliances with singers have practically become a must. It's to the point where combos like Tanto Metro and Devonte, or Danny Englishand Egg Nog, may eventually have to hyphenate into a single name. Drastic.
Indeed the singjay movement is so popular that it has spilled out of the dancehall and touched roots music, of all things. In the time since Vegas's unwiring, Sizzla shifted from the consistently righteous crooning of 1997's Black Woman & Child to a slew of albums that explore the entire spectrum between rootsy singing and ragga-style deejaying. While he often alternates between the styles, he also blends the two together on many tracks, dropping an easygoing, singsong flow over midtempo beats. After his commercial success proved that strange middle ground to be fertile, Junior Kelly and Anthony B moved in and set up shop. And together, those heavyweights achieved the critical mass the new sound needed to really take off.
Now up-and-comers Natural Black and Turbulence have set their eyes on the rootsy singjay prize. But if the former illustrates the singjay style's synergistic potential, with his tender tenor and capable flow, the latter simply illustrates its trendiness. Neither especially lyrically sharp nor quite able to hit the high notes, Turbulence comes off on his recent album Different Tingas a nice young fellow with some damn catchy hooks, riding high on the public's thirst for a specific sound.
It might be argued, then, that this trend lowers standards, occasionally bumping capable young deejays from bookings in favor of more fashionable, but less talented, singjays. But generally speaking, it actually raises the bar for vocalists to distinguish themselves because a tight flow is no longer enough to earn a breakthrough. That's pretty rough on upcoming artists. Of course the challenge ultimately benefits consumers because the voices that reach the streets will have to show exceptional talent and versatility.
One criticism about the singjay style that might actually be legitimate is whether or not it signifies the deejay style going soft and abandoning the street culture that first distinguished it in favor of the more feminine culture of song. Do rude boys really sing? Really?
But sure they do. If singers have survived in the dancehall for this long, then singing isn't inherently soft. Shoot, even hard-as-flint Bounty Killer is sounding downright melodic lately. Care to bitch-slap him?If one's soul is rooted in the streets, one can yodel and still sound tough. Singjays just have one more weapon in their arsenal.