“Dancehall a nuh hip hop. Di ting a get wack.”- Bounty Killer
Although Vybz Kartel’s initial arrest and incarceration were severe blows it felt like dancehall had been dying for quite some time. Too much island pop and imitation of American hip hop counterparts had left the genre severely lacking. As rap knows all too well, nostalgia can be a suffocating prison and many dancehall fans and observers concluded that its best days were in the past.
As a fan this grieved me as I found myself longing for the next big riddim. Dancehall has had solid moments in recent years but none comparable to the last great era in dancehall (2001-2007). That era saw Sean Paul and Elephant Man become household names, birthed timeless riddims like Coolie Dance and Diwali, but was nearly a decade ago and any honest assessment would attest that there was no hope on the horizon.
I found solace in the rise of conscious artists bringing “culture” to the forefront. I-Octane? Sign me up. Damian Marley’s “Gunman World”? Masterful. Chronixx denouncing colonialism and making clean eating fashionable? Dread and terrible indeed.
But dancehall for its intents and purposes was dead to me. No one could supplant the energy Kartel brought to the arena. Artists had their lane but none could be the dancehall hero that Kartel portrayed. In truth it felt like Kartel too was incapable of filling the larger than life pole position he created for himself. Was he merely becoming a caricature? Would he be unable to keep fans attention without further stunts like bleaching and controversy?
The release of “School” is perhaps the last gasp of influence in Kartel’s career. A nostalgia satisfying tune released in 2013 it is full of positive vibes and felt fresh on the heels of dancehall giants Supercat and Shabba returning to the public conscious. Maybe that would be the key. For dancehall to survive it had to return to the roots.
So where are we now? Several mixes and radio shows will show dancehall in the full throws of nostalgia. The biggest riddim out right now is “gwaan bad”, a call back to the “bruk out” riddim featuring a rejuvenated Elephant Man and a diss tune from Mavado to his former mentor, Bounty Killer, that isnt scathing but may be the crown jewel of this particular riddim.
Coupled with the popularity of Answer Riddim 2014, nuh fraid riddim and greatest creation riddim, 2014 well may be the year dancehall gets back on its feet. Dancehall has heroes in plenty supply but with the resurgence of classic vibes one must worry that without exciting young artists doing the heavy lifting, the genre’s late nostalgia is merely a snake eating its tail.
If Dancehall is to thrive it will do so with elders and young champions in tow.