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The musical style known as "dancehall" derives its name from the Jamaican dance hall, a cultural institution that has historically nurtured all major genres of that country's recorded popular music. While dancehall first emerged in the late 1970s as a distinct style, its real explosion occurred in the early 1980s, coinciding with the widespread use of digital music technology by Jamaican record producers.

The contemporary roots of the dancehall movement are evident in the "toasting" records of disc jockeys, or DJs, produced during the "roots reggae" era of the 1970s. The half-spoken, half-sung improvisations known as "DJ toasting," exemplified by U-Roy and Big Youth, were a standard accompaniment used by DJs when playing reggae records to live audiences, and toasting soon became an integral part of recorded reggae. However, the DJ became much more central to reggae culture in the dancehall era, overlapping with the influence that DJ toasting had on the birth of hip-hop culture in America.

The initial domestic underground impact of dancehall in Jamaica is inextricably linked with the work of the producer Henry "Junjo" Lawes, whose early 1980s recordings helped establish both the genre in general and the careers of many of its better-known proponents, such as Yellowman. However, this phase was a precursor to the wave of digital dancehall that broadened the genre's mass appeal and significantly increased the number of available recordings, many of which utilized either the same or very similar rhythm tracks. The spread of affordable digital music technology beyond the recording studio accelerated and solidified dancehall. Producers could create rhythms more cheaply because the programmable technology freed them from both the need for session musicians and the expense of hiring a professional recording studio. The economics of dancehall production were therefore as important as the audiences' demand for the records. The crucial turning point for dancehall was Wayne Smith's massive 1985 hit "Under Mi Sleng Teng," a minimalist song overseen by producer King Jammy, which eventually led to the recording of over 400 versions.

As a result of dancehall's rapid rise in international popularity, and its notable lyrical and instrumental differences from "roots" reggae, deep divisions have arisen within reggae communities. Key observers often note that the 1980s transformation of reggae was far from being exclusively musical, but was also integrally connected to political and economic circumstances. This was an economically impoverished era characterized by widespread violence, and the conservative foreign and domestic policies of the United States and Great Britain (under President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, respectively), coupled with the domestic conservatism of the Jamaican leader Edward Seaga (prime minister, 19801989), stimulated rebellion against major social ills and the establishment identified with worsening them. This environment fostered a lack of creative innovation and a large-scale recycling of rhythms. Moreover, the philosophical and political ideals featured in many roots reggae lyrics were initially replaced by "slackness" themes that highlighted sex rather than spirituality. The lyrical shift also coincided with a change in Jamaica's drug culture from marijuana to cocaine, arguably resulting in the harsher sonic nature of dancehall, which was also referred to as ragga (an abbreviation of ragamuffin), in the mid-1980s.

The centrality of sexuality in dancehall foregrounded lyrical sentiments widely regarded as being violently homophobic, as evidenced by the controversies surrounding Buju Banton's 1992 hit, "Boom Bye Bye." Alternatively, some academics argue that these viewpoints are articulated only in specific Jamaican contexts, and therefore should not receive the reactionary condemnation that dancehall often appears to impose on homosexuals. While dancehall's sexual politics have usually been discussed from a male perspective, the performances of X-rated female DJs, such as Lady Saw and Patra, have helped redress the gender balance. By the early 1990s, with the emergence of performers such as Luciano offering a blend of reggae styles, dancehall became more philosophical, although X-rated lyrics maintained their popularity.

Dancehall has gradually become a global popular music commodity, with record sales closely linked to an ongoing alliance with the hip-hop world. The development of transnational corporate ties has also affected its popularity, as key independent record labels have been able to increase distribution through major established companies. Following the signing of Lieutenant Stitchie to Atlantic Records in 1987 (the first signing of a dancehall DJ by a major record label), commercial peaks have included the early 1990s success of Shabba Ranks (the first internationally successful Jamaican DJ) and the twenty-first-century impact of Shaggy, Beenie Man, and Sean Paul.

See also Reggae


Alleyne, Mike. "International Crossroads: Reggae, Dancehall, and the U.S. Recording Industry." In Globalisation, Diaspora and Caribbean Popular Culture, edited by Christine Ho and Keith Nurse. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2005.

Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Larkin, Colin. The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae. London: Virgin Books, 1998.

Salewicz, Chris, and Adrian Boot. Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Stolzoff, Norman C. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

mike alleyne (2005)