Not rootsy as music from the 1970s or commercial as sounds of the 1990s, dancehall music from the 1980s produced a number of original artists and sounds. Some are forgotten but others made a mark that continues to influence contemporary trends.
New book released
In October, British company Soul Jazz Records released Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture, a book first released in 2008. It features a number of photographs by American Beth Lesser who captured the transformative decade through frequent trips to Kingston, the Jamaican capital.
‘The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture’ gives an up-close and personal view of the music scene in Kingston over 30 years ago, and persons who broke music from Jamaica’s inner-city communities to major cities including London, New York and Tokyo.
Early leading dancehall personalities
Two of the leading figures of the era were producer Lloyd ‘King Jammys’ James and singer/producer Lincoln ‘Sugar Minott’ Minott. Lesser and her Canadian husband spent considerable time during the 1980s at both men’s studios where some of the most talented artists hung out.
Among these artists were, Nitty Gritty, Tenor Saw, Junior Reid, Yami Bolo, John Wayne and Wayne ‘Sleng Teng’ Smith. Typical of Jamaican artists, they recorded for different producers, mainly James and Minott whose companies released a flood of hit songs.
Dancehall pushed by sound system network
Interestingly, many of those songs never got airplay on Jamaica’s main radio stations. They found favor in the dancehall through the sound system network that originated in Kingston during the late 1940s.
Lesser, who lives in Toronto, said she and her then fiancé David Kingston were reggae fans who went to Jamaica to gather news for their radio show and magazine. What they found was an explosion of restless talent harnessed by independent producers like James, Minott and Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes.
Tenor Saw, a youth with a troubled upbringing, was arguably the most talented of the artists. His unique, distinct yodel on songs such as Pumpkin Belly, Ring The Alarm, Roll Call, Golden Hen and Run Come Call Me endeared him to hardcore fans.
However, he died in the United States under mysterious circumstances in 1988 at age 22.
“Tenor Saw was a very strange, very intense youth. He wasn’t a broad talent, but he worked with what he had,” said Lesser.
Minott, who died in 2010, nurtured the careers of Tenor Saw, Bolo and Tristan Palmer through his Youthman Promotions, located in a gritty section of Kingston. While James produced more hit songs, Lesser believes Minott’s father-figure image earned him the trust of insecure youth.
“He was good at discovering and developing talent,” she said.
Replaced by edgy sounds
After Bob Marley’s death in 1981, the roots-reggae bubble in Jamaica slowly lost air. In its place came edgy sounds from Kingston’s ghettos from men like the flamboyant Lawes whose Volcano label and sound system helped make stars out of Barrington Levy and Yellowman.
Sleng Teng rhythm
The game-changer came in 1985 with the Sleng Teng rhythm, a computerized beat and song of the same name. Recorded on a cheap Casio keyboard, it heralded dancehall’s digital age and enabled small producers to compete with their more established counterparts whose productions were done in large, well-equipped studios.
Over 100 songs were done on the Sleng Teng beat including Smith’s massive number one of the same name, and Pumpkin Belly.
Many of the songs and fashions from the 1980s endure. Like Minott and Tenor Saw, Lawes, Smith, Nitty Gritty and John Wayne have all died, but their work has been embraced by a new generation of dancehall and hip-hop fans.
Lesser no longer follows Jamaican music, but is not surprised the era she copiously captured through her lens continues to captivate a diverse audience.
“The music was so unique,” she said.