Dancehall's catchy beats invade the club scene. Souped-up Caribbean music is redefining reggae with raunch and rhythm

By Jon Caramanica
Updated May 09, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dancehall Photographs by Alex Tehrani

This winter proved to be an unseasonably hot one on the Billboard charts. Dancehall reggae stars Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder blazed their way into the American pop mainstream with authentic, sizzling Caribbean flair. Their hits — the exuberant ”Get Busy,” from Paul’s platinum major-label debut, ”Dutty Rock,” and Wonder’s sultry, seductive ”No Letting Go” — formed a tag-team assault that shook dance floors and made car stereos boom. Not since the heyday of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh has Jamaica so suffused U.S. pop culture.

But don’t confuse the digital dancehall of today with your Marley memories of yesteryear. While ’70s roots reggae floated along on dubby rhythms and tended toward the spiritual, contemporary dancehall reggae is flashy, bawdy, and insistent. Packed with skittish electronic beats and spitfire rhymes, this relatively new subgenre is designed for dance-floor undulations in sweaty urban hotboxes. (Granted, some of the best dancehall is deeply political, but the songs that have succeeded on these shores have invariably toasted the lighter side of life.) For a young, diverse audience raised on hip-hop and R&B, dancehall is a logical, and physical, companion sound, a limber, body-moving genre offering the best of both worlds: aggressive rhythms and overt sex appeal.

And for most of the last 20 years, it’s been its own world as well. Independent of outside influence, dancehall has been percolating all over the U.S., especially in East Coast neighborhoods like the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Jamaica in Queens, and parts of Miami. The scene has its own lingo, record labels, distribution networks, dance crazes, venues, and fan base. VP Records, the country’s most prominent reggae specialty label, may have just inked a deal with Atlantic Records for select artists (including Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder), but its 24-years-strong business is far broader. ”We put out 60 albums a year, maybe two of which are on Atlantic,” says Randy Chin, VP’s vice president. ”We put out over 500 singles a year. Our main business is paramount to us.”

Paul and Wonder, too, are hardly overnight successes. March’s ”No Holding Back” is Wonder’s eighth album — ”I been doing the groundwork,” he says — and Sean Paul has been touring America since ’96, playing to crowds of up to 2,000 people, before mainstream radio and video outlets began to take heed.