Crazy Caribs: Dancehall Dub

Crazy Caribs
Dancehall Dub

In the early ’90s, the major record labels in America prepared for the Dancehall Invasion. Looking to profit from what could be the “next hip-hop”, they locked in on dancehall, the frenetic urban Jamaican sound that had come to dominate the Caribbean since Wayne Smith’s 1985 digital landmark “Under Mi Sleng Teng”.

Epic signed Shabba Ranks. Polygram snagged Buju Banton. Columbia got Super Cat. Everyone from Elektra to Profile, East West, Def Jam, and Delicious Vinyl scooped up veteran acts like Ini Kamoze, Cutty Ranks, Tiger, Shinehead, Capleton, and Tony Rebel, alongside newcomers like Shaggy, Red Fox, Jamal-ski, Terror Fabulous, Patra, and Born Jamericans. Even that damn Fu-Schnickens guy got paid.

But somewhere along the way to the musical revolution, someone forgot to tell the consumers to actually buy these albums. Sure, a few crossover hits trickled through — Mad Cobra’s “Flex”, Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper”, and “Informer” by the marketable (read: Caucasian) Snow — but the musical upheaval that was to be, never was.

Instead, dancehall simmered, doing its own thing in Jamaica as hip-hop flourished in America. By the turn of the 21st century, rap was dominating the US charts, and Atlantic Records theorized that the heavy, urban syncopation in hip-hop may have paved the way for dancehall’s acceptance. So, in 2002, they linked with the top dancehall label, VP, agreeing to jointly release a choice few of VP’s stock. With the marketing power of Atlantic behind them, hits from Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder, and Elephant Man soon steamrolled through MTV, BET, and the like.

By 2004, dancehall beats (that is, rhythms, or “riddims” in Jamaican patois) blanketed the radio. Even non-dancehall acts like No Doubt, Nina Sky, Pitbull, Kevin Lyttle, and Lumidee found success borrowing the dancehall sound.

Given this recent explosion of dancehall in the mainstream media, an album like Dancehall Dub is a no-brainer. Dancehall Dub is exactly what the title implies: dubs of dancehall riddims. For the uninitiated, dubs in the reggae world are instrumentals, typically with echoes, fades, and other spacey effects. Conventional wisdom is that dub music has to be slow, rootsy, and meditative in nature. However, those “Crazy Caribs” have turned that logic upside-down with this collection of some of the hottest, high-energy digital riddims from the past year.

It’s surprising that there haven’t been more dub albums highlighting the most popular riddims, until you factor in the uniquely reggae phenomenon of the “one riddim album”. Dancehall is all about searching for the next hot beat, and the producers who find said beat milk it for all it’s worth, with 20, 30, sometimes 40 or more acts taking their turns laying down vocals over the same track. Mundane? Yes. But the public doesn’t seem to mind. How else could Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder score hits (“Get Busy” and “No Letting Go”, respectively) with the same riddim? Ditto with Elephant Man, Pitbull, and Nina Sky (“Jook Gal”, “Culo”, and “Move Yuh Body”).

These two monster beats are of course included on Dancehall Dub, although you might not be able to tell from the names “Diwali Dub” and “Bengali Dancehall Dub”. These titles, which indicate the recent trend in dancehall of incorporating an Indian percussion, are derived from the names of the riddims, Diwali and Coolie Dance. (In dancehall, the riddim is a commodity that takes on a life of its own, earning its own name. Like a kitten.)

So, even to non-reggae fans, several of these beats will be familiar. Beyond “Diwali Dub” and “Bengali Dancehall Dub”, you may recognize “Pagwah Dub” from Kevin Lyttle’s hit “Turn Me On”. Plus, there’s “50 Pence Dub”, which adapts 50 Cent’s already Caribbean-flavored “P.I.M.P.” into a dancehall cut.

I’m not sure exactly who the Crazy Caribs behind Dancehall Dub encompass, but they include legendary reggae producers Mad Professor, Sly & Robbie, and Mafia & Fluxy. In their capable hands, what could otherwise be a repetitive bore — given the simplicity and relative sterility of digital riddims — is kept lively by incorporating traditional dub bells and whistles (literally).

England’s Mad Professor is the main force behind this project, releasing it on his Ariwa label and “writing” all of the tracks. I say “writing” because it’s Steven “Lenky” Marsden who actually created the Diwali riddim, and I’m pretty sure the Professor didn’t have anything to do with the Kevin Lyttle or 50 Cent tracks, nor the Coolie Dance riddim either. Basically, it sounds like he took these beats, layered some “studio magic” on them, and claimed them as his own (known to industry insiders as a P. Diddy remix).

Such is the mad, mad world of dancehall’s “what’s yours is mine” recycling riddim system. Proprietorship is fuzzy in reggae. Rhythms — particularly older beats taken from the pre-dancehall ’60s and ’70s — are swapped freely, recycled without much thought of royalties or credits, the legacy of a Jamaican musical system that has undervalued and underpaid artists for decades.

There’s no doubt, though, that these riddims are spicy and enjoyable, and even though you might assume that digital dancehall beats are too repetitive and unsophisticated to sustain instrumentals, the top-notch producers and musicians on Dancehall Dub keep it fresh and fun. Still, would it have killed them to credit the originators of these killer beats?

RATING 5 / 10