Jamaican Hip Hop artistes leaving you with no option but to pay attention Image

by Biko Kennedy

When you think of Hip Hop music and its culture a few things come to mind immediately: it being the voice of the voiceless and Jamaica orchestrating the ideology behind such a culture with the Dancehall boom in the 1980's fuelling the movement.

Talking, chanting, toasting, rapping, or rhyming lyrics over previous recordings or present rhythm tracks was the primary ingredient in any dance hall session but this phenomenon has been around in the Jamaican musical since the 1950s.

The sound of the time was rhythm and blues validated by the likes of Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and Nat King Cole but at these frequent dance hall sessions, sound systems like Clement 'Coxson' Dodd's Downbeat and Duke Reid's The Trojan saw the need to interject and interact with the crowd through the act of toasting - an oral tradition with its roots in Africa that involved the DJ rhythmically chanting or boasting over the music.

The practise became so popular that persons like Ewart 'U-Roy' Beckford gave it a new flair that dramatically redefine the art in its entirety. Rather than interjecting a few phrases and shouts at convenient parts of a record/song, U-Roy would ride the pared-down instrumental track all the way through, with sizzling jive-saturated rapping lyrics.

Fast forward to the 1970's when Jamaican-bred Clive Campbell, more commonly known as DJ Kool Herc, began playing at neighbourhood parties and parks in South Bronx incorporating and introducing these two major influences from the land of his birth; the enormous sound systems which his being refer to as the Herculoids and toasting, laying the groundwork for what would become Rap/Hip Hop.

Today Hip Hop has travelled the globe over with Jamaican MCs prepared to reap the success of the seeds planted by their predecessors many years ago but not without their fair share of endless lack of support and a number of nonbelievers.

Having the right flow

"Hip Hop has gone through various stages and has multiple sub-genres… it's a very wide field… but those who know the culture from the beginning or before it became more commercialized and lucrative, understand that a certain era of the music was "golden"," explains Five Steez, a local MC whose debut album, War for Peace, has received rave reviews since its August 2012 release.

"That early to mid-90's sound in my opinion was one of the most creative periods for hip-hop in general," annexed Hip Hop beat maker/producer Inztinkz, who've been producing for close to two decades now.

The sound/golden era they speak of revolves the style called Boom Bap (an onomatopoeia for the drum sounds in the production), which is a heavy influencer for most MCs. But with the evolution of the sound and image of Hip Hop, Boom Bap has slowly slipped away from commercial gain and not recognized as much more than that 'golden era' of music.

"Hip hop has become Hip Pop. And if you're not making that, it's tough as hell getting in," expressed Washington-based producer Theory. "[One would] describe Jamaican rappers' style as "solely boom-bap" [but] these guys don't make pop music 'cause they love the "Real". Our underground Hip Hop movement is a tough road. As far as hip hop goes, the real [deal] is always underground!"

Arguably Pop music dominates the airwaves now yet rappers Nomad Carlos and The Sickest Drama (TSD) has made a pack to never deviate from what they fell in love with in Hip Hop music to begin with.

"I won't do something I'm not comfortable with…I'd experiment a little with some hooks and different type of beats once it doesn't completely abandon what I represent." Carlos explains as TSD adds "I use Jamaican slangs in my music and my lyrical content focuses on socio-economic issues not only concerning Jamaica but the third world as a whole, my producers don't hesitate to use Jamaican samples in our beats, but they chose not to do it to the point where its watered down to a predictable gimmick. Thus, integrity is maintained at all costs and at the end of the day, what more do you want? To the untrained ear they will always find something to criticize, I remain true to who I am and make no apologies for that- simply put."

The issue of trying to sound American

One of the major factors facing local MCs is the fact that the average Jamaican listener will not want to give them the time of day because they simple seem as though they are trying to sound American.

"I have always maintained that Jamaican Hip Hop is something that can bridge the gap amongst the diaspora and bring the Jamaican voice to new and interesting places it has not gone before," explains TSD. "I love Reggae music and Dancehall, but I don't have a Reggae artist nor would Dancehall artist inside of me, and it is dishonest of me in every way to pretend like I do. To me, I should be accepted to sit at the table of this local music fraternity without question or prejudice just like anyone's cousin from overseas sits at the family table after dem come home for Christmas even though they may have grown up abroad."

"Yes. I think they would understand it better and would gravitate towards it more readily," intimate Steez when asked if he thinks injecting more of the local mass vernacular in his songs persons would be more acceptive of the local Hip Hop movement.

"On the flipside, the global Hip Hop community is not necessarily that familiar with our local culture and slang, so I run the risk of alienating them. Similarly to how the Jamaican audience that is not in touch with Hip Hop may not fully understand what they are hearing. At the end of the day, I'm communicating to the world, across cultures and languages… what everyone understands is English and "Hip Hop slang", which we as Hip Hop heads in Jamaica also use in our speech," he continued.

"Most Jamaicans are usually familiar with what is commercial because that is the music which is being heavily promoted by record labels and other industry gate keepers," adds Carlos.

The industry 'gatekeepers'

Within every industry there are a few hurdles in place for artistes to clear but for the local MCs it'd seem as though the entire industry deliberately blocked them out.

"The statement is true because nobody really wanted to take a chance on us," quipped Carlos adding that "you don't see any local rappers being booked on any local shows that happen here such as Sumfest, Sting, etc. And because of that we had to create our own outlets to be noticed. I think if the industry didn't block us out then we wouldn't have to viciously put on our own shows like we're doing now. As for radio, most local DJs won't want to take the chance because they feel the masses wouldn't want to hear that."

Reiterating the same mind frame Inztinkz adds "I think there is a fear that if local hip-hop gets too popular it may take hold and the youth may choose to express themselves in this genre as opposed to the traditional reggae or dancehall," as Steez chipped in to say " in summary, we are doing for self. We are creating our own eco-system in which we can operate so that we can hone our craft, build our fanbases and establish a real movement that outsiders, the media and the local industry will begin to recognize and respect, whether they like it or not."

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