In the New York City of the 1980s and 90s, you knew the hottest Hip Hop and Dancehall tunes by what was blasting out of the Honda Accords, the Pathfinders and Jeeps that passed by. This was known as the Jeep Charts in weekly Tip Sheets that were handed out to A&R scouts, industry insiders, radio programmers, DJs and Record Pools. In the summer of 1992, the Jeep Charts for both Hip Hop and Dancehall were dominated by Shaggy’s ‘Oh Carolina’. On the corner of Flatbush Ave and the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, the crowds lifted their heads when that scratchy sample of the Folkes Brothers original piano intro boomed from a rattling car window. When Shaggy’s raspy baritone hit, the smiles appeared, the hands formed the ‘gun finger,’ and bodies swayed in a subtle bogle as everyone erupted into the song’s refrain “Oh ya Raas, bumboclaat!” The sun was shining, the Cross Colours shirts and Tommy Hilfiger shorts were bright with color and Shaggy was one of us: A Flatbush local, just back from the Gulf War and signed to New York’s Signet Records. The song crackled with a certain Brooklyn Yardie vibrancy: big bass, a lyrical playfulness, a respect for the Jamaican past and just a hint of hip hop flavor – the musical equivalent of eating Curry Goat on the F Train. Within months, Oh Carolina topped the charts in the UK and Europe; Shaggy got signed to Virgin Records and New York City, with a larger Jamaican population than Kingston itself, had birthed its first full on international, dancehall super star.
In the 50s and 60s, small numbers of Jamaicans arrived in New York City. By the 1970s there were full-on Jamaican enclaves in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Reggae music followed, with singers, bands, DJs and record labels coalescing around Brad Osbourne’s eponymous record shop on White Plains Ave. and Lloyd Barnes’ Bullwackies Studio on the same street.
By the 1980s, Jamaican immigration to New York had exploded. Alongside the majority of hard working, legally employed Jamaican immigrants were some true ghetto soldiers hardened in the political street wars of Kingston’s bloody years. With political clout from Jamaica, these soldiers rode the wave of the crack epidemic, smuggling drugs and guns and making a fortune in the process. Where there is a lot of illegal money, there will be the need to launder it and the music business was a perfect fit. As a partial result, New York became a reggae music capital with multiple studios, record labels, record stores, artists and sound systems all thriving.
Out of this environment was born a golden age of New York Reggae. The Jamaican immigrant experience had the interesting effect of both opening up artists and producers to new sounds and new lingo while at the same time creating a steely resolve to hold on to the Jamaican styles they left at home. Sound clash tapes, new tunes and riddims arrived from Kingston on a daily basis, acting as a bridge between the two countries. In the 1980s, the dark and murky Roots and Dub coming from Bullwackies co-existed with the digital riddims and ‘fast-chat’ styles that grew out of New York’s ultra-competitive sound system scene. As the 1990s came around, producers like Phillip Smart and Sting Intl began releasing records with a crop of NY artists that crossed over into the Hip Hop community, healing some of the tensions that had been escalating between African Americans and their newly arrived Caribbean peers. With success came the major labels who scooped up numerous New York artists with dreams of multi-national success. The Golden Age slowly petered out by the late 90s as more and more of the major Jamaican drug gangs were shut down and New York City rapidly gentrified under President Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Stores lay shuttered. Some, like Witty’s Music Master, were victims of the FBI’s war on Jamaican Possees – their entire stock impounded into evidence lockers. Sound Systems hauled their speakers into dusty garages, studios moved to Atlanta. Almost all of the labels shut their doors.
However grim that period was, New York City is now seeing a huge Reggae revival. Selectors are dusting off their old records, amplifiers are getting powered up once again and shops are opening up throughout the five boroughs. A whole new crop of NYC artists have begun to make waves internationally from the Neo-Rock Steady Rub-a-Dub of the Frightnrs and the Far East to the modern roots of Autarchi and Konshens with JonnyGo Figure keeping the Rub-a-Dub vibes alive as the heir apparent to Screechy Dan and Shinehead.
The following list compiles 15 of the biggest New York Dancehall tunes (and one LP) from this golden period. While there were amazing and influential New York tunes from the 1970s and tons of obscure and heavyweight rub a dub and digital tunes that are amongst my very favorite, this list focuses on the New York City music that had the most influence and listenership in New York, Jamaica and abroad.
Sister Carol – International Style (Jah Life 1983) Brooklyn’s Jah Life label was one of the first breakout labels operating out of New York. Label owner and producer Hyman ‘Jah Life’ Wright, journeyed back and forth to Kingston, bringing back some of the best tunes of the day from Barrington Levy, Scientist, Carlton Livingstone and more. In 1984 he tapped the talents of Sister Carol – a pioneering female Deejay, based in Brooklyn, whose first LP for Black Gold, was classic of Rub-a-Dub positivity. Her first single for Jah Life, ‘International Style’ showcased her ability to flow in a variety of styles from Rap to Swahili language. The tune set the formula for all the New York Reggae hits that would follow: An updated, classic riddim (Studio One’s ‘Love Me Forever’) and a flow that touched on the melting pot of New York while reaffirming one’s Jamaican bona fides.
Shelly Thunder – Kuff (Wittys 1988) Witty’s Music Master shop in Brooklyn was a monster. On any given night, cars would be lined up, double-parked, to get all the new arrivals. Witty’s close relationship with King Jammy in Jamaica meant a steady slate of releases featuring a mix of Jamaican and NY based artists over Jammy’s edgy digital production. For Kuff, Witty employed the talents of the under-sung musical genius, Sir Raphael to build a riddim, from a Jammy original, for Shelly Thunder’s tough-as-nails Deejay flow. The result was a classic NYC anthem that reverberated throughout the city in both Jamaican and mainstream clubs and represented the first time a New York based artist had a full on certified hit in Jamaica. The tune, built on the patois word for a smack (kuff), is a warning to all cheating boyfriends and still rams the dance to this day.
Shinehead – Rough & Rugged LP (African Love 1986) Shinehead was, undoubtedly, the first super star dancehall artist to come out of New York City. Born in England and raised in the Bronx, the eccentric and multi-talented artist was (and remains!) the perfect amalgamation of Jamaican and American influences. He got his start performing live with Tony Screw’s Downbeat the Ruler sound system and astonished crowds as he went back and forth from fast-chat DJ work, to crooning American ballads to rapping Hip Hop style and even whistling like a Sergio Leone score. Anchored by the huge cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, the LP catered to all of Shinehead’s skills with a spirited mix of singing, rapping and chatting over gritty re-licks of classic Studio One riddims (plus the monstrous Sleng Teng).
As a side note, the riddim that Shinehead sang Billie Jean over – now known as the Billie Jean riddim – started as an obscure Studio One tune called ‘Get A Lick’ by Bumps Oakley. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry versioned this riddim in the 1970s with a primitive drum machine calling it ‘Chim Cherie’. The great Jah Wise of Tippa Tone Sound brought an acetate of the tune to New York in the mid-80s where Shinehead’s producer heard it and was inspired to create the version for the song.
The album blew up in New York and crossed over to a mainstream audiences all across America. The huge success led Shinehead to sign a deal with Elektra Records, becoming the first NY based reggae artist to sign to a major label.
Sleepy Wonder & Jango – Fade Away (Park Heights 1987) In the highly competitive world of 1980s sound systems, artists were like free agents lending their skills to the highest bidder. One of the all stars of that free agent class was the nimble tongued, droopy-eyed Sleepy Wonder who often performed with Third World, Mini Mart and Terrorist Hi Fi (and many others who could front the cash!). His talents caught the eye of local record store owner, Delroy Francis who had just gotten into producing tunes for his Park Heights label. With a version of the Peenie Peenie Riddim that had an amped up bass roll and hard snapping drums, the song was a cover of Junior Byles roots anthem of the same name. For the singing, Francis brought in local crooner Jango whose style echoed the sweet but rough styling of dancehall icons Sanchez and Thriller U. He combined these with Sleepy Wonder’s all-out DJ attack. The result was a heavyweight digital anthem that paid tribute to Jamaica’s past while updating it with the new “fast-chat” Deejay style, which had become synonymous with New York and London. The tune set a new bar in both Jamaica and New York for DJ-Singer combinations.
Knight Rider – Bad Boy Stepping (Witty 1988) / Bad Boy Wadat While many New York tunes had touched on the dark side of city life in the 1980s, none quite reached the intensity of these two Knight Rider tunes. Over the Kuff and Needle Eye Punaany Riddims, Rider’s gravelly voice and percussive stutter spoke of actual streets and real-life characters to create a cinematic illustration of the gun-laden streets of Brooklyn where drug wars had driven the murder rate to record highs. They were instant classics in the dancehall, beloved by rude bwoys and civilians alike who, for the first time, experienced their everyday life becoming elevated into living mythos.
Sluggy Ranks – 95% Black (Witty 1988) In the 1980s Jamaica exploded with unique singing styles that seemed tailor-made for the dancehall from Singjays like Pinchers and Pliers to the plaintive ‘Waterhouse’ sound of Tenor Saw and King Kong to the nasal flow of Little John. While NY had developed a distinctive DJ sound and had plenty of great singers like Jr. ‘Willow’ Wilson and Trevor Sparks, they had no signature vocalist until Sluggy Ranks appeared. His flow was instantly recognizable combining a Singjay’s rhythmic awareness with his own utterly unique wail and doubled harmonies. Over Witty’s re-lick of the Peenie Peenie Riddim, 95% Black took on a conscious subject matter and black empowerment to create an instantly recognizable New York based sufferer’s classic.
Alton Black & Blacka Ranks – Gal A Watch You (Witty 1991) Mixing the rough with the smooth has always been great musical idea. Over a digital re-cut of the Techniques 1967 Rocksteady hit, ‘Love is Not a Gamble’, Gal a Watch You casts Alton Black as the seducer with a smooth croon and Blacka Ranks closing the deal with his rough DJ work. Everything about the song reeks of sex and it is still guaranteed to get those shy couples to finally get down to business.
El General – Te Ves Buena (1990) / Nando Boom – Ellos Benia (Dem Bow) Released at around the same time, these two Spanish covers of Shabba Ranks songs became the genesis of Reggaeton music. Whether or not the language was Spanish, the tunes were very much the product of New York. Throughout the 19th century huge numbers of Jamaicans travelled to Panama to work on the railroads and later the Panama Canal. In the 1980s, many of these Pana-Jamaicans – including El General and Nando Boom – joined the larger West Indian migration to New York. It was as if long separated twins had been reunited, and ‘Reggae Espanol’ (as it was then called) was born and forever changed the global music landscape.
Super C – Bad Boy (Gyasi 1991) Neither before nor since has any song announced, with such ferocity and bold confidence, that NYC Reggae was nothing to fuck with like Super C’s Bad Boy. Producer Gyasi Adae took apart 1967’s Ba Ba Boom Riddim, and rebuilt it with a Hip Hop swagger from the drums to the Lyn Collinsesque sample (‘Hit It….Wooo’) made famous in Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two”. Eschewing the somewhat gimmicky fast chat style that had dominated in the 80s, Super C opted for pure menace, inventive word play and hardcore flow to tell the story of bringing the badness from Jamaica to New York in an all-out campaign of drug game domination. The tune named names, painted pictures and elevated gun talk to the level of pure poetry. Not just one of the greatest NYC tunes of all time, but one of the greatest overall dancehall tunes to ever be cut.
Mikey Jarrett – Mack Daddy (Mercury 1992) Hip Hop and Reggae grew up together in New York in a state of constant conversation from Kool Herc’s emulation of the sound systems of his Kingston childhood to BDP’s extrapolation of Toot’s 54-46 for “The Bridge is Over.” Throughout the 80s and early 90s there were some hip hop remixes of Reggae songs and Hip Hop artists like Just Ice sprinkled patois into their offerings. But 1992’s release of Mikey Jarrett’s Mack Daddy represented, for possibly the first time, a true New York based Reggae veteran cutting a tune on a straight up Hip Hop beat. The tune was a huge club hit and sealed the intricate relationship between NYC Reggae and Hip Hop.
Shaggy and Rayvon – Big Up (Jet Star 1993) Before Oh Carolina, Shaggy had his first breakout hit with Big Up, a dancehall smash that never ages. The producer, Sting International, was a straight-up studio rat, an audio/sound-system maven with omnivorous musical taste and knowledge. His productions just sounded different – more professional, cleaner with mixing and mastering that were custom-made for high-end club speakers. In what had become a signature NYC production move, Sting crafted the Big Up Riddim by combining a reimagined older riddim (Marley’s ‘Could You Be Loved’ lick) over a driving dancehall beat peppered with chopped up samples. Like ‘Kuff,’ Shaggy and Rayvon drew upon Jamaican slang for the hook, making the term ‘Big Up’ part of NYC’s common vernacular.
Baja Jedd & Screechy Dan – Big Bills (Signet 1992) The heart and soul – the glue that binds it all together – of the New York Reggae community has been and remains, the Don, the General Screechy Dan. Arriving in Brooklyn from Trenchtown in the early 80s, Screechy immediately garnered deep respect from the streets both for his music and his ability to befriend everyone from the most dead-eyed gangsters to the old, Jewish ladies lining the benches of Eastern Parkway. Skill-wise, if the Bronx had Shinehead, Brooklyn had Screechy Dan, a dangerously versatile threat as lyricist, singer and DJ with the uncanny ability to imitate any vocalist. He tore through the dancehalls of the 80s representing for all the biggest sound systems and his Star Tone and Vital family. No one could touch him lyrically or style-wise; in the studio, he was a monster – cutting big tunes for all the NY labels of the time including Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. He was also a resolute professional and producers knew that he could line up great talent for recording sessions and handle ghost writing duties when the need arose. So it was at Signet Records, as Screechy helped to bring together the Flatbush crew (Red Fox, Shaggy, Nikey Fungus, Baja Jedd) who became the label’s heart. Riding the same Big Up Riddim, Screechy and Baja Jedd expertly combined for this tribute to the fashions of the day (pum pum shorts and batty riders) and the seamless juggling between ‘Big Bills’ and ‘Big Up’ has steadily blasted from speakers from 1992 until now.
Red Fox & Screechy Dan – Pose Off (Tan-Yah 1991) In 1992, Jamaican producer Bobby Digital scored a hit with Dirtsman’s ‘Hot This Year’ over an updated version of the Studio One ‘Drum Song’ riddim. Phillip Smart (pupil of King Tubby and owner of Long Island’s HC&F recording studio) took the Bobby Digital version and built it up sonically with New York polish and extra kick. He brought Screechy Dan and the big voice Deejay, Red Fox in to touch the riddim. The day before, Screechy and Fox had been indulging in the great New York City pastime of hanging out on their Flatbush stoop watching the girls go by. Inspired by a particularly fine gal, Screechy started singing “Girl, you look so every time you pass in your pum-pum shorts.” The hook fit the riddim perfectly and a classic summertime anthem was born.
Shaggy – Oh Carolina (1993) Sting had learned his lesson from the success of ‘Big Up’ – take something old and flip it with a new flavor. ‘Oh Carolina’ pushed that formula right to the edge and it became a worldwide smash. The song itself was a cover of the Folkes Brothers 1961 hit, and it sampled the original’s ska-shuffle piano intro to set the tone and tempo. There was nothing else in the dancehall world that sounded like ‘Oh Carolina’ when it came out and yet the tune itself was both familiar and totally fresh. The beat wined like a woman’s hips and Shaggy’s cadence and flow matched the unusual tempo to perfection – add to that the ‘Peter Gunn’ sample and the call and response hook: “Oh Ya Ras, Bumboclaat” and the tune was unstoppable.
Red Fox & Naturalee – Down In Jamaica (FM Force 1989) In 1977 Stephen Bishop released the easy listening hit ‘On & On’ – the tune was covered by Aswad and numerous other Jamaican artists but, Red Fox & Naturalee took the tune by the balls and turned it into a certified dancehall classic. The tune was the first on Peter McKenzie’s propulsive, bass-heavy ‘Sick’ riddim. Fox already knew how well his bigger-than-life delivery melded with a singer’s sweetness, and the ‘Sick’ riddim, which had a certain hard-edged swagger to it, was the perfect vehicle to ride that combination. The sound-clash ready riddim mitigated whatever might be too sweet, or a little too cheesy in the lyrics or the vocals. The tune was huge in dancehalls from Brooklyn to Kingston to Toronto and beyond. And the ‘Sick’ became the standard war riddim for Dub Plates from then until now.
There are far too many tunes to give an “Honourable Mention” but want to say Big Ups to all New York artists, sound systems, labels and record stores who created a sound that changed my life forever. To take a listen to all these great artists, please take a listen to these three podcasts that give a sonic illustration to the greatness of this period:
For the rarest and wickedest Reggae vinyl on the web visit: www.deadlydragonsound.com