The crowd wants a superstar, now. A parade of wannabe microphone masters tries the patience of the first fans to arrive at last month's Reggae Shock Festival. Later in the night, this annual event will feature some of the biggest names in Jamaican reggae and dancehall music. At the moment, however, the restless young men who came early to stake out front-row seats at the AT&T Amphitheater stoically stare down a series of mostly local, mostly unknown DJs. Women swish past the concession stands to the spare electronic beats of dub music, showing off their legs in high-heeled sandals with straps that wind from ankle to shin like asps. With stinging indifference the audience ignores the best efforts of the first artists to "ram dancehall," to get the party started. Enter Kingston duo Black Rat and Max Wayne, making their first appearance in the United States. Swooping across the stage with the force of a Boeing 747, the deep bass voice of Max Wayne does loop-the-loops while Black Rat's falsetto climbs and dives with his signature affirmative, "Nyaa." "It's a way of saying 'yes,'" Black Rat later explains, "but with more style -- like an airplane."
Decked out in bright yellow-and-white Fubu and Tommy Hilfiger jerseys, the pair races from the back of the stage to the center of a platform built out into the bleachers. Their knees fly up toward their chins as they zigzag from right to left, ducking their heads high and low like old-time vaudevillians. Black Rat, the tall, skinny one, pauses at the edge of the platform to introduce a song. "Some girls, when they see a man, their eye goes, 'Hmmm, another target.'" Max Wayne, the roly-poly one, takes up the tale of a gold diggin' gal who comes to a sorry pass when she sets her sights on the wrong man. "And he shot her," the story ends. To punctuate the macabre joke, the comedian jogs in place while his partner, hunched low like Groucho Marx, runs away from the audience in a flash of yellow. By now the women in the stands have stopped posing. The faces of the tough guys guarding the front rows light up with laughter. When the duo runs offstage for good, the crowd demands they return for an encore -- three times.
A modern-day Laurel and Hardy in designer sportswear, Black Rat and Max Wayne carry on a long-standing practice from the Jamaican countryside. In the days before radio and television, wandering troubadours served as community newspapers by turning everyday events into humorous songs. The most famous of these songsters, Slim Beckford and Sam Blackwood, brought their traditional tunes to Kingston in 1929. In their history of Jamaican music, Reggae Routes, Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen write of the beloved Slim and Sam: "The customs, whims, wiles, and living conditions of the masses on the island are an open book in their hands." Dancehall toasters like Black Rat and Max Wayne still report on the life of the Jamaican "massive." Now part of a transnational multimillion-dollar music industry, these contemporary chroniclers reveal the customs of common people less concerned with the next crop of coffee or sugar cane than they are with the newest line of name-brand sneakers.
Black Rat and Max Wayne (born David Bingham and Milburn Barrett), first hit big in Kingston in 1998 with their debut single "Fraud Brand." As a horror-film organ creeps ominously over a bass line created by famed rhythm-meisters Steelie and Clevie, "Fraud Brand" warns "ghetto youths" to "move clever" and not be taken in by the designer knockoffs sold on street corners. Clearly striking a popular note, the song spent eight weeks on Jamaica's Top 10, and the pair went on to win recognition as that year's "Best New Duo" from the Kingston daily the Gleaner.
Still in their early twenties, Black Rat and Max Wayne know well the hard times young Jamaicans face. The two met as hangers-on wandering the lobbies of the countless Kingston recording studios that put out more than 200 new releases each week. Max Wayne says he started out in the schoolyard "basically biggin' up the girls at St. Catherine's High" while Black Rat began rhyming not just to get into girls' hearts, but to get himself out of trouble, hoping to use laughter as a way to sidestep a fight.
"I like performing gimmical," Black Rat explains. "Like sometime mommy and daddy might find out you don't go to school one day. So I come up with a song: 'Gimme a chance/Nobody beat me again/with the big belt/against my swelling skin.'" Although regulars at the most important music festivals in Kingston, Black Rat and Max Wayne have kept their world view close to home. "We literally see something on the road," says Black Rat, "and we think, This is something people need to know about."
For the songs on their new album Go Fah (released domestically on the Pembroke Pines-based Brickwall label), Black Rat and Max Wayne move back and forth between humorous observations on neighborhood life and the familiar dancehall themes of sexual and musical prowess. One of the more melodic tracks, "Lyrical Youth," makes light of reggae's pervasive presence at home: "The yard we live in is a lyrical yard/with a lyrical fence/and a lyrical dog." "Give Thanks," another rootsy track, lists the household goods listeners should be grateful for: color television, a standing fan, electricity, and a four-burner stove. Although marred by Max Wayne's atypically off-key singing in the chorus, "Give Thanks" is telling in its description of the poverty that threatens the community the duo describes. When the basic comforts of modern life become luxuries, material goods grow increasingly important as signs of status. The album's title track lists the humiliating errands the penniless gopher must run for his wealthy boss: waiting on his woman friend, ironing his clothes, washing his car, even rewinding his music cassettes. Still, in a marked change from the aesthetic currents that ruled Jamaican music of past decades, "Go Fah" does not condemn the boss. Rather, it ridicules the servant. Women, clothes, cars, and music make the man.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The high stakes in ghetto manhood also make the street-corner rip-off in "Fraud Brand" more than just a bad shopping day. "You walk on the street and you think you wearing Nike," Max Wayne explains earnestly. "Then someone come up and say, 'That not Nike.' You feel shame, shame." Accordingly tracks such as "When Last" sound like a dramatic reading from the inventory at Bloomingdales with their chorus of "Polo Sport, Boss, Versace, Versace, Versace."
Couldn't the duo do their part to ease this fashion pressure by paying less attention to name brands in their own songs? "But you're asking us to commit suicide," Black Rat protests in response. "If we get up and sing, 'Don't wear Fila. Don't wear Fubu,' the people are going to look down at their Fubu shirts and Fila pants, and they're going to kill us!"
The revenge of the designer-brand-deprived comes in Go Fah's best track, "Man Ginep," a Jamaican phrase for a man who literally can't get it up. The head-bobbing "family riddim" created by Jack Scorpio gives "Man Ginep" a corny East Indian flavor that adds a memorable zing to the ridicule of a wealthy but impotent man. Although the man ginep may have the most "women, cash, and fashion," once he rounds the corner, the girls "can't stop laughin'." As Western consumer culture constructs a ghetto status system where the people with the least money are the most desperate to show off what money can buy, for Black Rat and Max Wayne, the only defense may be a powerful erection.