In the music business, it can be hard to tell when a trend is really a trend. Take dancehall reggae. No one can deny that this Jamaican sound — a steady stream of patois-heavy rap over high-energy Caribbean rhythms — has made a dent on the American charts. A number of these records have been pop, rap, and R&B hits over the past few years. And now Mad Cobra’s ”Flex” and Shabba Ranks’ ”Slow and Sexy” have made Billboard‘s Top 40.
American record labels, though, have reacted as if dancehall meant instant money. Last summer, record-company scouts swarmed all over Reggae Sunsplash, Jamaica’s largest music festival. ”It was totally out of hand,” says Pam Turbov, associate director of A&R at Columbia Records. ”Reps were standing around with contracts in hand, ready to sign acts as they were coming off the stage.”
Until recently, the music of a handful of artists was licensed, record by record, to small American indie labels. Now the majors have begun to sign the musicians themselves — at last count nearly two dozen are under contract. This increased competition has definitely benefited the artists. American labels typically used to pay something like $20,000 to license an album, with most of the money going to Jamaican producers, not the artists. But Shabba Ranks is rumored to have gotten $250,000 from Epic Records for a multialbum deal.
”This is the first time Jamaican music has received this sort of attention since the days of Bob Marley,” says Vivian Scott, Epic’s national director of A&R, who signed Shabba Ranks. Some music executives, however, feel too much attention is being paid. ”The majors can glut the dancehall market all they want,” says Danny Goodwin, an A&R vice president at Virgin Records, ”but that doesn’t necessarily imply that people are going to buy into it. I don’t think people will.”
So far, dancehall’s streetwise attitudes — including fiercely Pan-African messages, boasts of sexual prowess, and threats against enemies — have appealed primarily to younger urban listeners in the United States. But there is a downside to dancehall’s macho stance. Buju Banton, now signed to Mercury, recently made headlines because of ”Boom Bye Bye,” a song he recorded for a Jamaican label that calls for violence against gays. Attitudes like this may keep dancehall from crossing over to the general public, but for now, American labels are content to make a quick buck.