In dancehall reggae, the term "background instrumental" is an oxymoron: It's the vocals that are secondary. Instrumentals or "riddims" get their own names, compilations (on which a variety of vocalists use the same riddim), and presumably their own backstage dressing rooms. This, combined with the fact that the worldwide massive rewards freshness nearly as much as goodness, ensures that dancehall's sound evolves more quickly than a B-movie space virus. A clever new (or newly recycled) sound explodes into an inescapable trend that wears itself out before most people catch its name. Last year, bhangra, or East Indian dance music, was the producers' influence of choice, spawning riddims with names like Tabla and Bollywood.
The thing is, sometimes the trends don't die but cause the genre's evolutionary path to fork. In 1986 producer Prince Jammy (not yet King Jammy) refashioned Barrington Levy's smash "Under Mi Sensi," a song about being under the influence of sensimilla, into "Under Mi Sleng Teng," a song (voiced by Wayne Smith) about being under the influence of the computerized Sleng Teng riddim and its programmed drums and keyboard bass. The new "computer dub" sound yielded a string of hits, many of which were collected by the U.K.-based Honest Jon's label on its wonderful compilation Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds from the London Dancehall, 1986-1989. Refreshingly sparse yet creative, computer dub ultimately sired ragga, the digitally built sound that most people think of when they hear the term "dancehall reggae."
Before ragga there was sampling or "versioning" Sixties and Seventies rocksteady hits. Like its source music, it featured a variety of drum patterns all wrapped up in layers of live bass, guitar, horns, and keys. This rich, eclectic sound never disappeared. Instead of digital ragga replacing traditional dancehall, each sound continued to evolve side by side. Post-Sleng Teng, versioned tracks like Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm" and Shabba Ranks's "Wicked Inna Bed" as well as programmed anthems like Chaka Demus & Pliers' "Murder She Wrote" were bona fide smashes.
What seems to be happening now is that those two paths are finally reuniting and breathing life into each other like long-lost lovers. Ragga dance floors, until recently all three-beats (a pattern of two hard hits and a tap) and robo-blips beneath the vocals, are increasingly incorporating traditional dancehall. This is partly due to improved MIDI technology that allows producers to digitally insert the sounds of live instruments while preserving the negative space between beats. But fashion is also a factor, as proven by last year's bhangra-ragga trend. Its success, after all, got ragga producers scrambling to find real drum sounds from outside ragga's "three beat" repertoire.
Check out the dozen or so hottest riddims right now -- Wave, Adrenaline, Mad Ants, Threat, Sweat, and Belly Skin. Of these, a few sound purely synthetic (the first three), but several use real instruments (keys, sampled drums, and guitar respectively in the last three). More significant, the superb Clappas, Diesel, Masterpiece, Diwali, Bollywood, and Golden Bathtub riddims experiment with everything from Diesel's marching tabla drums to Bollywood's two-stepping congas and cowbells to Golden Bathtub's electro-pop guitar strums. As far as these riddims are concerned, the production styles of ragga and traditional dancehall are no longer separate and distinct.
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The brand-new Clappas riddim, produced by the South Rakkas Crew, is a case in point. Kicking off its compilation on Greensleeves Records (#35) is a remake of "Under Mi Sensi" on which heavyweights Mr. Vegas, Alozade, and Hollow Point voice about sensi, not sleng teng, over shuffling drum licks, not a three-beat. The sound is at once old and new, traditional dancehall and cutting-edge ragga. To paraphrase Robert Frost, two paths once diverged, but which one you originally traveled no longer makes a difference.