Matt Robinson went to New York in 1982 to attend college, but he may have had his most educational experience on a Brooklyn street corner.
"When I would visit friends in Brooklyn, I'd see one guy on the corner of Flatbush and Hawthorne with his (boom) box playing whoever was the cool hip-hop thing," said Robinson, 30, now an independent record producer who founded the underground dance club Funky Reggae when he returned to L.A. in 1986.
"On another corner would be a black man of Jamaican descent playing the latest dancehall rocking Brooklyn. All you had to do was walk through the middle of the street to see that this has got to come together soon--it was the same exact concept."
Robinson has plenty of company now in recognizing that American hip-hop and the Jamaican reggae style known as dancehall were a natural match. As a result, reggae is having its greatest impact on the American music scene since the late Bob Marley, reggae's creative visionary, put Jamaican music on the international pop map in the late 1970s. (Marley's legacy is documented in a new CD box set. See review, Page 71.)
"It isn't a who that replaced Bob Marley in Jamaica--it was a what , and the what is dancehall," says Murray Elias, a New York-based independent producer. "Dancehall is modern reggae--the sound of young Jamaica is Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton, Super Cat and Ninjaman."
Dancehall is a faster, largely electronic reggae style driven by drum machines and keyboard bass lines and dominated by fast-talking deejays who are the Jamaican equivalent of rappers. Instead of traditional reggae's dreadlocked Rastas singing of social and spiritual concerns, it's an urban blend of gold chains, hip hairdos and frequent boasting about musical and sexual prowess.
Dancehall may be on its way to realizing one of Bob Marley's few unfulfilled ambitions: winning a significant African-American audience for reggae. The sound has forged a strong bond with the hip-hop nation--KRS-One, Queen Latifah and Heavy D. are major rap artists who have incorporated dancehall into their mix.
"The connection and the attraction is that dancehall is ghetto music in Jamaica and rap is ghetto music in America," says producer Elias, who in the late '80s signed several dancehall artists to the dance-rap labels Sleeping Bag and Profile.
"What Jamaican kids are saying to other Jamaican kids in the music is not that far removed from what American rappers are saying to their audiences. In spite of the patois language differences, there's a common reality that the kids pick up on and relate to."
The catalyst for dancehall's American breakthrough was Shabba Ranks, already a 12-year veteran of the Jamaican recording industry at age 26. His popularity grew during the '80s as he recorded a steady stream of singles for independent labels, and escalated dramatically after the sexually slanted hits "Live Blanket" in 1987 and "Wicked in Bed" in 1989. Shabba's flashy, wind 'n' grind dance steps, gruff voice and sex-symbol image helped him win the reggae Grammy last year. "House Call," his duet with British singer Maxi Priest, became a No. 1 R&B single in America. "Mr. Loverman," from the film soundtrack "Deep Cover," cracked the R&B Top 5 during the summer.
Shabba's album "As Wicked as Ever" on Epic has sold 700,000 copies, and "Rough 'N' Ready," a remix collection of his Jamaican hits released in July, is already at the 250,000 mark. A new studio album, "X-tra Naked," hit the stores last week.
Reggae's international popularity continued to grow after Marley's death from cancer in 1981, but it was written off by major U.S. labels when the search for the next Bob Marley proved as futile as those for the next Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane. But now Shabba's success has sparked a rash of new major-label signings of Jamaican artists.
Columbia has released albums by deejays Super Cat and Mad Cobra and veterans the Wailing Souls, and the label has an album by the sandpaper-voiced deejay Tiger on the way. Mercury is signing deejay Buju Banton, while MCA stepped outside dancehall for singers Barrington Levy and Ed Robinson and the group Morgan's Heritage.
"Dancehall brings an excitement to the music it hasn't had for a long time," said Tomas, reggae columnist for Urb magazine and host of the "Reggae Music Forward" radio program heard Saturday nights on KXLU-FM (88.9).
"As much as Nirvana influenced indie music in that a lot of major labels are interested in independent bands, Shabba Ranks brought the same interest to Jamaica."
Deejays have been part of the Jamaican scene since the early '70s, when U-Roy, I-Roy and Big Youth started the practice of rapping over songs and rhythm tracks, first at dances and then in the studio. The most popular artist in Jamaica immediately after Marley's death was the albino deejay Yellowman, who popularized the rapid-fire delivery that most deejays now employ.