Various Artists: Dancehall Dee-Lite

Christopher Orman

Various Artists

Dancehall Dee-Lite

Label: Heartbeat
US Release Date: 2003-11-18
UK Release Date: 2003-11-10

Bravo's recent biography on reggae clearly revealed how dancehall arose from the Kingston's sound systems in the 1980s. As cocaine permeated the ruffian streets, taxing the inner-city community, discord between what reggae promulgated and what really transpired became an antinomy for burgeoning artists. Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" or "Rat Race" may have applied to Africa or America, but it didn't apply to the ghetto. The food still couldn't be found and rather than "sharing the shelter" looters were shooting you while in bed to claim it as their own.

As a direct result dancehall's cultural assimilation mirrors rap's mid-'80s ascendance. Both elucidated the blue-collar public's problems to the unknowing public. Both provided a forum where anyone could orate their opinions, as freedom of speech returned to a long silenced group. Eventually they rallied enough people together to make the affluent public concerned. They noticed, but didn't care.

They probably still don't, according to most newspapers.

But the most audible difference may have been the beats themselves. To reflect the differences, the harder, heavier lifestyle, reggae's standard 1-3 beat became a pounding, hard bass driven boom. Fulgurating up and down with purely electronic accompaniment to reverberate from the sound system through the ghetto. Hammond B-3s or gently swaying guitar strums were omitted, mainly because they were Island Records' way of palliating the music, of stealing the voice.

Flash forward 20 years, and suddenly the hip-hop nation has discovered the connection between New York and Kingston, opening a spigot for Shaggy, Sean Paul, and Bounty Killer to enter a vast, lucrative market. But in the transition, the rough-raw qualities of Yellowman, Half Pint, and other dancehall pioneers have been virtually ignored. The lyrics are victim to the same hard cold cash culture of P. Diddy and Cash Money. Like introducing rap to someone via P. Diddy without letting them hear Tupac or NWA, the American public has entered in media res. How Tosh's train has stopped here, after being somewhere else, doesn't enter the conversation.

Heartbeat Records' Dancehall Dee-Lite was on that train, and yet wasn't the conductor. Instead, the album was a passenger just long enough to detail the changes, deciding to get off in the big city for economic prosperity. The mere release of the album should come with some skepticism, as it occurs at the crest of the American dancehall craze, providing a strong selling point in a world dominated by price points and sales. But on the other, the artists selected, from Culture to Buju Banton, strongly deviate from the current MTV trends.

Elements of reggae's original goals are heard in LMS' "Love Remains the Same", where the possibilities of unity remain impervious to the cynicism caused by Jamaica's socio-economic problems. There even exists the possibility that the same Jah mentioned by Marley, now in a dancehall downbeat, has made it through the sound systems to a new realization. Not quite as idealistic as the Jah Marley intoned about, but transcendence nevertheless through a match of music and lyricism.

For a compilation dubiously trying to "cash in", the selections are grounded in this renewed revolutionary message. Some of which can be explained by the inclusion of Culture, Toots, Michael Rose, and Half Pint, who directly experienced those times. When Rose outlines his "Rough Life", he does so with roots-reggae behind him and understanding of what the 1980s sound systems meant to the future. Change doesn't appear around the block or in the government yard, but hope remains.

Like most decent dancehall, the production on Dancehall Dee-lite is exquisite. The famous (or infamous, depending on your disposition) Fat Eyes crew's lithe knob-turning instills a flow throughout the album, allowing horn-soaked rock steady flashes to fuse with bass bottomed beats. Again signaling the train, in melding the past with the wildly popular present. A decent feat for a compilation.






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