Most artists yearn to be recognized and admired by the public. But in the cutthroat world of Jamaican dancehall, fame can lead to serious trouble, particularly if you happen to be a member of the thriving Miami collective Black Chiney.
"Back in 2002 someone sent us an e-mail," says Supa Dups (a.k.a. Dwayne Chin Quee), Black Chiney's 29-year-old founding member. "And it said if we were to come back to Jamaica they would kill us. Naturally I took a break after that incident."
Formed in 1999, Black Chiney became known for remixing dancehall reggae tunes with elements of modern hip-hop. Its bootleg compilations proved an instant hit with fans and helped forge a new Americanized sound of dancehall, an offspring of reggae distinguished by breakneck rhythms and a rapid-fire singing technique known as toasting. But back in Jamaica the traditionalist reggae community didn't take kindly to Black Chiney's new sound collage. What's more, the Miami collective was remixing songs and selling them without permission from the record companies in question.
"In the beginning the Jamaican record industry thought our remixes were going to hurt their album sales, so we couldn't tell people who we really were," says Supa Dups. "But then things started to turn around for us. Our mixes were making artists more popular, so eventually [the artists] began looking for us, asking for a Black Chiney remix."
Black Chiney is made up of four Jamaicans of mixed Chinese and African heritage (and takes its name from the slang term for this ethnic combo). To call the group a "band," though, understates the breadth of what it does. In addition to creating remixes, the group acts as a production team and tours as a DJ collective.
In recent years the foursome has taken to participating in highly spirited DJ battles known as "soundclashes." Several years back they captured the winning spot at Fully Loaded, Jamaica's premier soundclash festival, dethroning local dancehall hero Tony Matterhorn.
On the production side, Black Chiney has become famous for incorporating the thump of Miami bass music into dancehall songs. In reggae parlance, a riddim is roughly equivalent to a beat in hip-hop: the instrumental accompaniment that provides a musical bed for the singer. If a riddim is considered hot, multiple artists will sing over the same one. These recordings are usually bundled together and released in street compilations known as "riddim mix tapes." Black Chiney stands as one of the top riddim makers in the dancehall scene, having creating chart-toppers for reggae superstars such as Sean Paul and Elephant Man.
Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist who has charted dancehall's growth, notes that "Black Chiney have distinguished themselves in a crowded field by being a triple threat," a major accomplishment for a group living outside Jamaica. "Being based in Miami, however, also gives Black Chiney something of an advantage since the city is such a rich musical place, so plugged into the international music industry."
The story of Black Chiney begins with founding member Supa Dups, whose family moved from Kingston to Miami when he was two years old. As a kid Dups was introduced to the world of turntables by his older brother Paul, who owned an independent DJ record shop called Lighting Sound Equipment. At eleven years old Supa visited Kingston and fell in love with reggae.
The next year he gained local notoriety when he became the youngest DJ ever to spin at Miami's number-one dance radio station, Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5). During the next five years young Supa honed his production skills using rudimentary samplers. Sensing that Supa was serious about a career in music production, his aunt made an investment that would eventually change the sound of Jamaican reggae.
"My aunt mortgaged her [Miami] house and got me a $5000 drum machine," recalls Supa, a remarkably youthful-looking fellow with a calm demeanor. "It was called the Akai MPC-3000, and it offered one full minute of sampling." The machine opened up a new world of production possibilities. He soon began remixing reggae songs using the MPC-3000 to add hip-hop beats to the tracks.
He also joined forces with Bobby Chin (a.k.a. Robert Lee), a fellow DJ who admired his skills. Together the pair began playing DJ sets across Florida, gradually adding to their sets other elements of hip-hop such as vocal samples, record-scratching, and more drum machines. Their underground mix tapes were popular, but they continued to hide their identities, fearing reprisals from the Jamaican record industry. It wasn't until 1999 that they went public as Black Chiney.
"All this time I was very broke, and I need money to pay for a $500 cell phone bill," Supa explains. "So we released the first Black Chiney remix CD, Enter The Dragon, to pay for that bill." The disc featured several artists singing different songs over Supa's hammering drum machine.
The remixes caught the attention of Miami's famed DJ Khaled of the station 99 JAMZ (WEDR-FM 99.1), who asked Black Chiney to produce more mix tapes. His support proved instrumental in winning over the Jamaican record execs, who could see that Black Chiney's distinctive, bass-heavy riddims were becoming the new rage in dancehall.
Supa and Bobby began touring as DJs outside of Florida. With Bobby Chin acting as MC, they participated in soundclashes where Chin would improvise lyrics dissing his competition. Having gone public, though, and enjoyed success both as producers and performing DJs, the duo began to experience the downside of fame: burnout.
Supa decided to cut back on touring and concentrate his efforts on production. But rather than give up on Black Chiney as a performing band, he recruited some new blood: DJs Willy Chin (a.k.a. Warren Ho) and Walshy Killa (a.k.a. Leighton Walsh). Willy was a young, talented DJ who worked at the Miami record store owned by Supa's brother. Walshy was an accomplished Brooklyn-based DJ who wanted to start a new life in Miami. Their job, along with Bobby Chin's, was to take the Black Chiney sound on the road, touring Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Meanwhile Supa Dups stayed in Miami, producing new Black Chiney riddims in the studio.
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The new DJ members took to their roles. "The first week I was in Black Chiney I was sent solo to [play] in Toronto," Washy Killa says. "So there was no room from error." As for Willy Chin it was an opportunity to expand his audience. "I used to go parties, [look at the DJs] and say, öI could do better than them,'" he says. "I already had my own sound system called the Willy Chin Sound, so Black Chiney was the next step."
In 2004 Black Chiney released the mix album Supa Chiney V 8.1, which contained a new riddim called "the kopa," a funked-up groove featuring a Southern hip-hop beat, hyper-electro snares, and undulating sirens. The kopa was an instant sensation; it not only became the top dancehall riddim of the year, it became one of the most commonly used in hip-hop, too. By the summer of 2004 the kopa had turned up on six different major albums, serving as the backing track for hip-hop stars such as Pitbull, David Banner, and Akon. It even infiltrated the American hip-hop charts, turning up on Nina Sky's hit single, "Turning Me On."
The monster success of the kopa served as a final act of vindication for the members of Black Chiney, and specifically Supa, who was recently tapped to produce a track on the latest Beenie Man disc. (His wish list as a producer, in fact, comes straight from the Top 40 radio playlist: Michael Jackson, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan. "I don't care," he says, "as long as they're original and talented.")
If there's one broader goal Black Chiney would like to achieve, it's to bring more attention to the local reggae scene. "I love the fact that everybody comes here to do something," DJ Walshy Killa says. "Miami is growing musically, every artist is coming to work down here. I'd like to see Miami become the new capital for reggae."