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V/A - Dynamite! Dancehall Style

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Artist: V/A

Album: Dynamite! Dancehall Style

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Apr. 5, 2007

Approaching this album can be a daunting task, if only for the depth of history dancehall calls up. Dynamite! Dancehall Style is one in a series of Soul Jazz compilations, which currently numbers six, focusing on the broad swath of Jamaican music that falls outside roots reggae. Rather than attempting to pin down the starting and ending points of a consistent but dynamic style, it underlines dancehall’s synthetic and globalized perspective.

The compilation is timely — Sean Paul’s glossy productions aside, dancehall hasn’t broken through to American pop audiences in the way reggae has, although the genre substantially informs post-electroclash indie (the genre’s imprint is all over M.I.A.’s production and delivery and she makes overt reference to dancehall’s ur-riddim in “Bucky Done Gun”: “Sleng teng / That’s the M.I.A. thing”) and the constellation of fractal styles that makes up the U.K.’s indigenous urban music.

Most histories of Jamaican music — including that relayed in the adequate, yet weirdly slight liner notes issued within — read dancehall as a return to street-level activity following the international popularization of the roots reggae ‘style,’ which failed to address the dismal economic and social conditions of Jamaican life. Dancehall, was a heavily synthetic (in terms of both influence and equipment) form of popular music, one that took place primarily at large outdoor sound clashes. The compilation is unusual in the Soul Jazz discography in that it covers a span of 25 years — the label tends to focus on relatively brief periods of musical activity. The genre is both consistent and inventive enough to allow and even benefit from this approach. While it’s hard to overlook contemporary R&B’s imprint on the intro to Lady Saw’s “Sweetest” — from the hyper-compressed snare breaks to Saw’s own crooning — her charging, breathless delivery makes its particular lineage unmistakable.

Dynamite! singles out the role of the producer by including four instrumental tracks. These tracks not only help sensitize you to some of dancehall’s more subtle production tricks — like clipping MIDI instruments so that, instead of having attack and fade, they sit like bright blocks of sound and give the rhythm a queasy, choppy feel, almost as if the producer is doing a live mix by pressing the pause button on a CD player — but also emphasize the incredible sense of space and place embedded in the music. The panoramic “Wake the Town” and “Assault Rifle” by contemporary power duo Fat Eyes, the low-rise slumscape of Digital Mystikz’s “Earth a Run Red,” and King Tubby’s smoldering “Fade Out” are all imbued, by turns, with sociological acuity, biblical dread, and apocalyptic drama that none of the MCs on this compilation come close to touching.

This isn’t, of course, to suggest that lyrical achievement on the album is limited to “Humpty Dance”-level house party jammers. The most successful tracks on the compilation play off the tension between the narratives spun by MC and producer. While the above-mentioned sleng teng was the first fully electronic and certainly most versioned dancehall riddim, its only appearance here, in Anthony Red Rose’s raunchy “Under Mi Fat Thing,” does much to set the bar for the album impressively high. With enough patience, volume and concentration, most listeners will be able to break through the unfamiliarity of Rose’s patois to uncover gems like the line “The two of we together is like dolphin” and a reference to Yogi Bear. The pop culture references throughout the album strike closer to home than most listeners would expect — the compilation even includes a show-stopping cover of “Billie Jean” by Shinehead — yet manage to limn an experience that’s uniquely situated far from th at embodied in either American rap or a more closely related family member like Dubstep. At the same time, the compilation is very much in dialogue with Jamaica’s own profusion of styles: Governor General’s “Pompidou,” for example, clearly shares some DNA with Lee Perry. Echo-laden snare hits stampede across the track as Governor General’s gravelly flow strains to maintain its own rhythm.

By way of conclusion, it’s tempting to call in the Adbusters/cultural studies version of this story, which might claim that dancehall scrambles dominant musical codes in an attempt to embody the tensions of life lived in perpetual and deepening debt to the global North while serving as an effective means of subverting cultural hegemony. However, if Dynamite! is successful in giving an overview of dancehall — a genre that ceaselessly disseminates itself by harnessing machines for its own purposes — it does so both in spite and because of such analysis. These rarified productions, it turns out, are wildly fertile.

By Brandon Bussolini

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