The mainstream's appropriation of black culture isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Elvis Presley did it back in the day, and Justin Timberlake does it now. But Switch and Diplo's side project, Major Lazer, definitely hits a nerve, because despite reggae's mainstream crossover, the majority still knows very little about Jamaican dancehall and riddim.
A YouTube video uploaded in February accused Major Lazer of being another vehicle for the white man to humiliate black culture. The ten-minute "exposé" points to the highly suggestive dancing and exaggerated facial expressions to make its case. The argument seems plausible if you aren't familiar with dancehall culture, but a little research shows the dancing and facial expressions found in NSFW videos such as "Pon de Floor" are the norm, even tame by comparison.
"Me and [Diplo] are just trying to document what it is we like about Jamaican music and culture," Switch explains. "There is so much talent, not just in the music but in the dancing and the whole style and fashion there. We just wanted to incorporate everything. That was the cool thing about Major Lazer, which is based on Jamaican artwork from the '80s found on record sleeves."
Major Lazer with DJs Mike Deuce and Jessica Who? Saturday, May 15. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Show begins at 10 p.m.; tickets cost $25 via wantickets.com
When performing live as Major Lazer, Switch and Diplo stand in the shadows, allowing MC Skerrit Bwoy and the dancers to take center stage. Switch says the placement is intentional because the performance isn't about them, but highlighting a culture that is obscure to most. "We wanted the shows to be a definite separation from people coming to see me or [Diplo]. And Skerrit Bwoy is so animated and so into the whole Major Lazer concept that he is sort of the perfect candidate."
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The concept behind Major Lazer, fictional Jamaican commando zombie killer aside, is to take traditional dancehall and meld it with electro-house beats. The result is sort of the First World-meets-Third World sounds that have become the duo's signature, particularly when producing tracks for artists such as M.I.A. and Santigold.
"We want to include everything we love about Jamaican culture and music. Not a lot of record labels support the wealth of talent that is in Jamaica, so we wanted to do something that would bring it attention."
But good attention aside, is this just another case of rich record producers slyly invading a developing nation and stealing its sound? Even M.I.A. sings on the track "20 Dollar": "I put people on a map that have never seen a map." But who is to say those people wanted to be found?
"We didn't want to make a record in Jamaica that would have Jamaicans saying, 'Another two tourists coming to exploit.' Instead, we mixed things we are excited about and things we do along with that scene."