• Dennis Howard

Dancehall is Dead Good Riddance

Updated: May 5

Editor ‘s Note: As the ongoing passionate debate about Jamaican genres continues, Let us revisits an article which was written twelve years ago by Dr. Dennis Howard. In the article Howard outlined the changes in the music and the need for the naming of a new genre. He suggested the name One Beat for the new emerging sound. The title of the article created somewhat of a controversy at the time due to some misunderstanding that the main message was about the need for a genre label to describe Jamaican popular music and not about the dancehall genre. Let’s see if Dr. Howard was on the something.

Kingston remains one of the cultural capitals of the world and continues to influence in significant measure global popular trends. There is nowhere you can go in the world and not hear our music and its pervasive influence. Yet a disturbing trend has developed in media and music circles which tries to romanticise dancehall and reminisce on reggae. There is a tendency to hark back to the glory days of reggae without trying to acknowledge the current stream of reggae, dancehall and other forms of Jamaican music.

Despite the efforts of some musicians and producers and engineers who are on the cutting edge of innovation, too many artists and producers are unfortunately stuck in a musical genre which is no longer as potent as it once was. Dancehall is dead. It's been on life support since the late 1990s, but amazingly we do not realise this yet.

Kingston is one of the most established creative cities in the Western hemisphere, where genre trends developed at an amazing rate. Over the last 50 years, the city has contributed more genres and musical styles than anywhere else in the world. Musical genres include pop mento (different from traditional rural folk mento), Jamaican R&B, ska, rock steady, reggae, dub, dancehall, and news flash. We have moved from dancehall to two new forms, which I have dubbed dancehall fusion and one beat. Yes, dancehall is no more, but thanks to some in academic circles who came to the dance late, a clueless music production fraternity, and lazy and ignorant journalists and radio deejays, Jamaican music output is still being labelled as dancehall.

This, despite the fact that the music produced over the last ten years, bears hardly any resemblance to the original sound of dancehall, which emerged in the late '70s and came to prominence in the 1980s and until the mid-1990s.

90s Dancehall

From 1992 to 2000, Jamaican music went through a metamorphosis that has not been sufficiently recognised so far.

Producers such as Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Dave Kelly, Tony Kelly, Handel Tucker, Donavan Germaine, Sting International and Robert Livingston moved Jamaican music into a transnational sound. Merging outside elements with the Jamaican aesthetics, these producers, with varying degrees of success, transformed the Jamaican soundscape into a fusion sound, mixing dancehall, rock steady, ska and reggae with hip hop, soul, salsa, merengue, bhangra, rock and R&B to create some of the big international hits of the period.

Hits such as: "Murder She Wrote", "Tease Me", and "Twist and Shout" by Chaka Demus and Pliers; "Housecall" and "Slow and Sexy" by Shabba Ranks; "Boombastic", "Oh Carolina", and "In the Summertime" by Shaggy; and "Close to You" by Maxi Priest, were part of this fusion of sounds that exploded during the period.

Reggae Bangara

These sound innovations were not spontaneous movements. They were directly related to the involvement of independent and major recording companies in the United States, who had renewed their interest in Jamaican talent and sound. Some critics have argued that this association and the music it engendered resulted in the cultural dilution of reggae aesthetics.

Cultural analyst Mike Alleyne in his article "White Reggae: Cultural Dilution in the Record Industry," notes, "The wide cultural exposure which has enhanced the recognisability of reggae has been achieved primarily through a corporate commercialisation effected at the expense of both the lyrical and instrumental essence of the music".

This observation underscores the fusion sound that was encouraged during this period in search of the crossover appeal, which was believed to be essential for international success. This was reiterated time and time again by then Columbia A&R executive Maxine Stowe in our meetings while I worked as a publicist for the label's Jamaican roster.

The crossover imperative became the mantra for success in the American market; hence the leading Jamaican producers, through "coerced or voluntary assimilation", moved the sound of Jamaica to "more commercially compatible characteristics".

This period marked the end of the dancehall era as the most dominant genre of Jamaican music. Despite the popularity of the so-called dancehall genres and artists, none had any significant success outside of Jamaica doing straight hardcore dancehall. Even in Jamaica, the level of popularity of hardcore dancehall was grossly exaggerated, overrated and overexposed.

While these hardcore songs were extremely popular in the dancehall space, this was primarily limited to the hardcore dancehall fans who went to Asylum, Cactus, Stone Love, Sting and Sumfest.

This did not necessarily mean that these artists and songs were popular within mainstream Jamaica. The media hype was undoubtedly high for so-called dancehall artists, but this was not reflected in songs that enjoyed sustained mainstream popularity.

Reggae songs and fusion songs ruled: songs such as: "Rock Away", "Double Trouble", "Putting Up Resistance", and "Full Attention" by Beres Hammond; "I Got News for You" by Shalome; "Lord Give Me Strength" and "It's Me Again Jah" by Luciano; "Kette Drum" by Beenie Man and Determine; "Black Woman and Child" and "Praise Ye Jah" by Sizzla; "Fire Pon Rome" by Anthony B; "Ghetto People Song" by Everton Blender; "Teach the Children" by Tony Rebel; "Intimate" by Red Rose & Bounty Killer; "Kingly Character" by Garnet Silk; "By His Deeds" by VC; "Longing For" by Jah Cure; and "Not an Easy Road" by Buju Banton had wider popularity, sustainability and potency when compared to dancehall hardcore tunes such as: "Copper Shot", "Benz and Bimmer" and "Stucky" by Bounty Killer; "Ole Dawg", "Nuff Gal" and "World Dance" by Beenie Man; "Handle the Ride" by Tanya Stevens; "Bogle", "Love Mi Browning" and "Boom Bye Bye" by Buju Banton; and "Caan Dun" by Shabba Ranks.


90s Dancehall

We now come to the development of the current genre that the music fraternity or media have not recognised. Genres are developed by what Fabian Holt calls centre collectives. According to Holt, centre collectives are "clusters of specialised subjects that have given direction to the larger network. ...they include influential fan communities, critics, record producers and, above all, artists whose iconic status marks them as leading figures".

During most of the production periods of Jamaican music, these centre collectives have been unusually active due to the Kingston music industry's competitive nature and unconventional business model.

However, during this latest period of cultural reproduction, the centre collective seems to have hibernated and has not claimed the creative innovations of the last 15 years. Are we to believe that dancehall has lasted over 30 years in a creative city that has in the past created over four music genres in under ten years? Through the process of appropriation and what I have called genre bonding, the new sound of Jamaican has evolved into what I have dubbed "one beat".

Why one beat? Well, global music production has, for the first time since the rise of rock n roll, been driven by one instrument, and that is the drums. The drums have become the central instrument in most popular genres, rock, pop, hip hop, and even country. Just listen to Green Day's "21 Guns", Linkin Park's "Divide", Usher's "OMG", Black Eye Pea's "Boom Boom Pow", Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone", "Cowboy Casanova" by Carrie Underwood and "Death of Auto-Tune" by Jay Z. The drum and bass, the aesthetic of the Jamaica soundscape, now rules global popular music production.

Drum driven pop

One drop hip hop

In Kingston, the fusions of the '90s continue in the twenty-first century and what has emerged is a new sound led by producers such as Sly & Robbie, Steven McGregor, Skatta Burrell, Daseca and Don Bennett, who have all forged a unique mixture of hip hop, pop, soul, electronica, techno, reggae and dancehall to create the new sound of one beat, a new sound with many influences but one beat... the drums taking centre stage.

Artists such as Movado, Chino, Serani, Vybz Kartel, Voicemail and Protege are not dancehall artists but are leading lights of "one beat". In a recent Jamaica Observer article, Cleveland Brownie - of Steely and Clevie, two of the leading dancehall producers, argued that dancehall is no longer dancehall.

One Beat

He agrees with the argument that a genre shift has occurred. He states in reference to a new name for the shift, "I would love it if that happened because it has changed so much from what I created as dancehall that it probably needs a change of name if it moves any further. But someone will have to name it." The new name Mr Brownie is one beat.

A music scene is only vibrant when ripe with innovation and a regular infusion of new talent. The Kingston music scene possesses all these important components. What is lacking is the will to move on from the now stagnant dancehall classification. It is time the centre collective of Kingston awakens to the new day.

In Britain, black music producers and artists are aware of the importance of constant genre reclassification; Black Britain is ripe with genres such as grime UKG, drum and bass, dubstep and broken beats. This has allowed British producers to collaborate with many hip hop and pop stars in the United States. London is fast becoming one of the hot spots for global popular music, a position once held by Kingston.


Jamaican artists have been under siege at home and abroad for the ineptitude that informs many of our current popular music productions. The new sound, one beat, while vibrant creatively, has been criticised by established artists and producers for being too diluted, and they are encouraging young producers to "go back to the roots". This is an exercise in futility, music is never stagnant, and questions of authenticity will always be an issue. However, there is no doubt that the music has moved on, so it's time we embrace it. Dancehall is dead! Good riddance. One Beat to the world!

Taken From the book Rantin From Inside the Dancehall