PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF FUSCO AND KRYSTEN LITTLES
When Beenie Man, aka the “King of the Dancehall,” flashes his joyful smile, women scream. When he circles his hips, they damn near faint. His energy is magnetic, his smile easy, his dancing finely tuned.
“A lot of men in here don’t know how to make love to their women,” the Jamaican artist tells the 1,100-plus dancehall fans who’ve come to Kahunaville, an open-air venue along the river in Wilmington, Del., on this Sunday night. “Don’t come before your woman!” he scolds them before starting his performance.
Dressed in a black Louis Vuitton suit with logo-heavy lapels, his long dreadlocks pulled back, exposing the diamond rocks in his ears, the bean-sized Beenie Man steps his game up a bit.
“Only after she’s wet, not outside but inside … ”
He slowly eases his waist forward to demonstrate.
Focusing on the make-believe female body bent over before him, Beenie slowly thrusts from the left. Then from the right.
“One time, two time. One time, two time.”
A smile slips across his face as he moves in a circular motion.
“Then wind, and wind, and wind, and wind.”
The women are jumping up and down, waving Caribbean flags and folded up phone numbers furiously in the air.
To the men in the audience, he adds one caveat to his instructions: “If you got a 3-inch dick, you got no chance.”
Dancehall is winning Philadelphia fans faster than the speed at which padded bras and brightly colored thongs are tossed onstage at live shows–like they were in Wilmington, where Beenie Man set up his own lingerie section on the drums.
Born in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, dancehall music originated in the dancehall–community performance spaces where people gather to hear the newest songs. Dancehalls have been at the heart of Jamaican popular music for the past 50 years.
Reggae went through many transitions in the dancehall, evolving from ska and rocksteady into Rasta-inspired “roots” reggae, and then morphing into spinoffs like dub and lovers’ rock before arriving at today’s dancehall sound–upbeat dance music where artists rap in Jamaican patois over digital reggae beats.
Dancehall continues to influence new musical genres around the world. Having spawned jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, it’s left its mark on even newer genres like U.K. grime and reggaeton, a blend of hip-hop and dancehall with Spanish lyrics that’s fast becoming essential party music.
Even American hip-hop has its roots in the Jamaican dancehall. The undisputed godfather of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc was a Kingston transplant who recreated his country’s sound-system culture in 1973 when he set up huge speakers and started throwing massive block parties in the south Bronx, giving birth to what would later be known as hip-hop.
But music is only one part of the dancehall experience. Clubs and concerts are meeting places, not just for native Jamaicans, but for those who live and appreciate Jamaican culture. The live shows, which borrow heavily from the call-and-response of the early island experience, rely as much on performance as they do on the music. Hypersexualized personas and lusty lyrics–known as “slackness”–are essential components.
“Wave your hands in the air if you love sex!” artists regularly call to their fans.
“Dancehall right now is hotter than ever,” says Roger Culture, who moved from Jamaica to Philadelphia as a teenager and has been DJing reggae parties in the city since the early ’90s. “Artists like Sean Paul have shown that it’s not just a music of the month. In the hip-hop clubs, if you want to get the dance floor real tight, you play dancehall music.”
In metro Philadelphia an estimated 40,000 residents report their first nationality as West Indian, and about half of them are Jamaican. But the dancehall fan base is much larger and includes the core community’s children, neighbors and friends as well as all the people introduced to the music through its hip-hop alliances.
“Black Americans grabbed into us real good,” says Jah-T the Reggae Ambassador, a music pioneer in Philadelphia. “Young people want to jump. They want to dance. They want happy music. [Reggae music’s] not about roots and culture, as it was then. That’s what makes dancehall more attractive.”
The dancehall scene relies on a small but tight-knit crew of reggae DJs, artists, nightclubs and promoters who work together to build the scene and spread the music. But despite overwhelming fan support, it’s not always easy.
A major blow came last month when Power 99 suddenly canceled Jah-T’s Sunday morning Reggae Jams show after 14 years on the air.
“I don’t know the real reason,” he says. “I went in, and they’re like, ‘Look, man, we ain’t got no money for your show and we’ve got to cancel it.’ What can I say? It was an institution for years for reggae music in Philadelphia. It’s a phenomenon how reggae has taken over Philadelphia because of dancehall,” he says. “Everybody relates to it. To say that’s not happening–I don’t buy that.”
But the reggae scene in Philly has cleared many hurdles over the years, and thanks to dancehall, it’s stronger now than it ever was.
“All the major DJs on the different radio stations play reggae music now–dancehall especially. It’s a part of their arsenal. They can’t go an hour without playing reggae music. It’s in the fiber now. It’s big. You can’t stop it.”
And the scene is only getting bigger. New clubs like Pinnacle, at Seventh and Arch streets, and Reef, just off South Street, have started catering to both Caribbean natives and new reggae converts, while old-school institutions like Genesis and Upper Deck (both in Germantown) have maintained their followings through the scene’s many incarnations.
Tragos Lounge in Rittenhouse introduced World Beat Wednesdays (dancehall/hip-hop/calypso/reggae) last week, while a dancehall queen competition launched in September takes place the same night over at Club Flow on Delaware Avenue.
Dancehall queen competitions, equal parts beauty and dance contest, first became popular in Jamaica in the early ’90s. Though Philly doesn’t yet have its own official dancehall queen, many of the individual clubs and dancehalls have crowned unofficial royalty.
“I love the way the music makes you feel,” says 20-year-old Sarai Jones, who will be competing in the final round at Flow this week when the audience decides who wins the crown and $1,000 prize. “It makes you want to move your body in a certain way.”
Jones says she first learned to dance to the music from Jamaican girlfriends who would return from trips to the island with new steps. But mostly she learns by going to Philly’s dancehall clubs–places like the Omni in West Philly, that open at 2 in the morning and where the dancing continues till sunrise.
“Some girls get intimidated when they see someone dancing real dancehall,” Jones warns, “so they start to do the stripper thing and take their clothes off.” But real dancehall dance requires keeping up with the constant influx of new songs and knowing how to respond when the DJ calls out the dances: Signal Di Plane! Thunder Clap! Over the Wall! Scoobay!
Real dancehall dance is most easily found at underground events in West Philly. At places like Lancaster Hall and Mill Creek Community Center, attended almost exclusively by West Indians, serious followers of the music stay up all night and recreate the parties they remember from the islands.
At 2 a.m., when most Center City scenesters are spilling out of Rittenhouse Square bars and Old City lounges to stumble their way home, the hardcore dancehall “massive” is typically just getting started. Steady crowds modeling the latest in dancehall fashion–fitted jeans and designer button-ups for the guys, tight and tarty for the ladies–line up to pay $20 covers and to purchase bottles of Moët, Hpnotiq and Guinness from makeshift bars. Rude boys dressed to sweat stand up front by the DJ and show off their Scooby-Doo and Helicopter, while girls in short skirts and sexy heels perform their most seductive moves for the roaming video cameras.
Whoever says clubbing is the same old scene in Philadelphia hasn’t yet entered the dancehall.
The person most responsible for bringing dancehall artists out of the underground to perform for mainstream audiences in Philadelphia is 31-year-old DJ/promoter/entrepreneur David Russell, aka Jamaican Dave.
Russell, who grew up in Kingston in the ’70s during Jamaica’s tourism boom, was raised by strict grandparents he credits for helping him develop a serious work ethic.
He spent much of his childhood working in his grandparents’ supermarket in St. Catherine, Jamaica, where he learned how to run a business. He worked in the resorts of Jamaica as a teen, first as a DJ, then coordinating events, and ultimately booking acts and marketing concepts to clubs.
In 1994, when he was 22, he moved to Philadelphia. On his second day in America, he visited a friend’s record store in Bensalem and was introduced to a man named Bobby Morganstein who booked reggae DJs for bar mitzvah parties. “They paid crazy money just to show up and do dances for them,” he says. And when Morganstein casually referred to Russell as Jamaican Dave, the million-dollar name stuck.
After DJing reggae-themed parties and clubs throughout the area, Russell decided he wanted to promote events. “After working at KatManDu a few years, I realized there was a market no one was capitalizing on,” he says. “I started to try and figure a way to create a business plan for a market nobody really either saw or wanted. For whatever reason reggae wasn’t perceived as a very attractive market to other businesspeople.”
Jamaican Dave Productions (JDP) was soon up and running. In the seven years since its inception, two assets have proven especially valuable to its smooth operation. One is 22-year-old Debbie Davis, Russell’s assistant and the only other person he trusts to handle his business, whether it’s sealing a contract with Elephant Man or managing damage control when a warm-up act complains of being underpaid.
The other is a good relationship with Clear Channel, which allows him to showcase dancehall reggae artists not just in the ‘hood but to sold-out crowds at mainstream venues like the Electric Factory, the TLA and Kahunaville. “Our goal from the beginning has been to open the music up to a broad spectrum of people,” Russell says. “We want to make the music as important or as equal to any in this city, to shine a light on the positive side of what the music really represents. We’re constantly trying to grow and expose this product.”
Russell is also working on getting a daily reggae show packaged in a hip-hop format nationally syndicated on mainstream radio. He previously hosted Caribbean Rhythms, a morning reggae show on Temple University’s WRTI-FM, which was canceled after two and a half years and replaced with classical programming. Russell says the cancellations of both his show and Jah-T’s show on Power 99 have left a void in reggae programming for both hardcore and mainstream listeners.
For Russell, the best thing about promoting reggae music is the unity it inspires. “I’m a strong believer in diversity,” he says. “So when I do events that draw a large audience that’s culturally, ethnically and economically diverse, it makes me feel really good. It breaks down barriers. To see the president of a corporation talking to a guy that’s practically homeless, that to me is unique.”
There is, though, a dark side to dancehall that threatens the genre’s booming popularity.
The music often contains controversial lyrics, much of them revolving around the term “chi chi man” (or “chi chi gal,” or “batty boy“)–Jamaican epithets for gays and lesbians. Just about all the big dancehall artists–Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, Buju Banton, Spragga Benz, Vybz Kartel, Capleton and Sizzla–are guilty of invoking these words.
Homophobic lyrics are what got Beenie Man banned from MTV’s Video Music Awards in Miami two months ago. Numerous other dancehall acts have had their shows canceled internationally for the same reason.
A representative of the Kingston-based Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), who asks that his name not be used, cites several reasons why homophobia is so widespread in Jamaica. Religion is one.
“Jamaica is a very, very Christian-based country. We have the fame of having more churches per square mile than any other country. And a lot of the Christianity practiced here comes from a very fundamentalist standpoint.”
The marginalization of men in society, as well as in the education system in Jamaica–the fact that gender socialization occurs at a very early age and involves strict codes of what it means to be masculine, and the prevalence of violence in Jamaican society are all important factors as well.
And so is dancehall.
“For the last 10 years homosexuality and homophobia has been very prominent in dancehall lyrics,” the J-FLAG rep says. “Dancehall is very prominent in our society. It’s the dominant musical genre. And a lot of the dancehall artists are seen as role models because they often come from disadvantaged inner-city backgrounds, and they’ve risen to become dancehall stars. So the messages they put out are very powerful, and young people are particularly vulnerable to those kinds of messages.”
“Before you could talk about it and nobody would say anything,” Russell’s assistant Davis says of homophobia in Jamaican culture. “But not everything that’s accepted in Jamaica is accepted in the U.S.”
(Oral sex is also taboo in Jamaica, and although far less controversial, “no nyam pum pum” [“don’t eat pussy”] lyrics make regular appearances in both mainstream and underground hits. In describing his “love doctor” prowess, Beenie Man often reminds women that “the sex limits stop at 68.”)
For a time, TOK’s “Chi Chi Man” was the hottest tune on the island, despite (or perhaps because of) its catchy chorus:
“From dem a par inna chi chi man car (For them that meet in a gay man’s car)/ Blaze di fire mek we bun dem! (Blaze the fire, and we burn them!)/ From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar (For them that drink in a gay bar)/ Blaze di fire mek we dun dem! (Blaze the fire, and we kill them!)”
As the city’s most prominent dancehall reggae promoter, Jamaican Dave Russell sometimes acts as a negotiator when it comes to settling issues between artists, outraged gay rights groups and nervous venue managers. It’s part of the promoter’s job to ensure not just a good show but also a safe show.
Before the Beenie Man concert in Wilmington, Russell met several times with the Gay and Lesbian Task Force–which had wanted him to cancel the singer’s appearance–to work out an agreement.
“The protesters think the more shows we cancel, the closer we’re getting to settling the issue,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Y’all ain’t seeing this.’ No problem can be resolved without dialogue. My conversation with the artist was more about–‘Is this a necessary part of your show?’ I asked the artist, ‘Is it important to you to sing those lyrics?’ I felt the language was not necessary for the show, and the artist felt the same way.”
Russell thinks lyrics advocating gay-bashing “makes us look like we’re barbarians.”
But he also says there’s an issue of free speech involved, and the concert venue is the wrong place for protesters to pitch their platform.
Popular music has a history of influence in Jamaica that rivals church, politics and the education system.
At the Wilmington show, after holding a Jamaican flag high in the air and representing his birthplace with the song “In the Ghetto,” Beenie Man builds to the show’s most powerful moment.
“It’s another election year in America. Who ya gonna vote for?” he sings softly, slowing it down again.
The audience responds with shouts of “Kerry!”
Beenie talks from the stage about the relationship between Bush and Saudi Arabia. The crowd is quiet and attentive. Lighters and lit cell phones shoot up in the air.
“What Iraq do to America? Can somebody tell me?”
Then, after the only moment of silence in the room all night:
The audience sways and sings along to a song originally written by Barrington Levy to protest black-on-black violence and police brutality in Jamaica with new lyrics to protest President Bush’s war in Iraq.
It’s 5 in the morning, and after pit stops at Third World, an African club at 49th and Baltimore, and the Trinidadian Ibis Lounge at 54th and Lancaster, Jamaican Dave pulls up to his final destination–the Mill Creek Community Center at 46th and Lancaster.
“Don’t write anything too bad,” a girl tells a reporter at the entrance.
If you’re wearing jeans, you’ll need to cuff the bottoms to wade through the women’s bathroom, where all the toilets are clogged and the locks busted on the corroded stalls. Nevertheless, dress is “jiggy,” and the huge barnlike room packs in 1,000-plus fans. Many dancehall and reggae legends–including Beenie Man, Elephant Man and the Stone Love Movement–got their reps by performing in no-frills hardcore dancehall venues, including this one.
The music tonight is provided by Philly’s current favorite dancehall act, DJ Peter Blacks and his Reggae Vibrations Sound System, along with Daddy Chris from Vybz Xpress and DJ Wonder representing the Outlaw Sound System.
Just as there are artist groupies, there are apparently promoter groupies too, and Jamaican Dave makes sure to pay them sufficient attention while catching up with the other DJs, promoters and leaders of the city’s dancehall reggae scene, most of whom he’s met up with at some point tonight.
“It’s sort of an unspoken rule. We all go to each other’s parties and spend some money at the bar,” he explains. “It’s a sign of respect.”
It’s midafternoon on a recent Friday, and Jamaican Dave is running around North Philly, dropping off tickets at retail outlets and refreshing posters for his next big show featuring Elephant Man, known as “the Energy God.”
He stops in Ron’s Caribbean Cafe for a fish tea (a Caribbean bouillabaisse he calls “dancehall soup”) and some Irish moss (a popular Jamaican tonic made from seaweed extract).
In Sneaker Villa a teenage girl notices him dropping fliers. “That’s for Elephant Man at the Electric Factory? I heard about that.”
“Yeah. Are you going?”
“I don’t got no money.”
“With your cuteness, I’m sure you can get someone to take you.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna take me.”
“I bet you can get any one of these guys out here to take you. It’s gonna be hot. You don’t want to miss it.”
Later, he confides, “You have to sell the hype so people can buy into it,” he says of the music. “But then you have to deliver it.”
For more information on Jamaican Dave Productions go to www.jamaicandave.com
Kate Kilpatrick (email@example.com) last wrote about how the Catholic Church is trying to influence the presidential election.
A DANCEHALL LEXICON
TERMS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO.
DONE DI PLACE “TEAR IT UP”–IF A GIRL’S DANCING REALLY WELL.
UP TO DI TIME UP ON WHAT’S GOING ON, KNOWS EVERYTHING.
BUST DI PLACE SAID TO THE DJ, TELLING HIM TO GET EVERYONE MOVING.
CRAZY HYPED A REALLY GOOD VIBE.
PASSA PASSA GOSSIP, MIX UP, LATEST DRAMA.
JIGGY DRESSED TO IMPRESS.
DANCEHALL VIBES USED TO DESCRIBE A SUCCESSFUL PARTY.
BOOM FLOP THE PARTY’S A BUST.