The history of Jamaican popular music has a source: dancehalls. Since the 1950s, because of limited access to personal audio equipment and listening devices in Jamaica, dancehalls—open-air dance parties—have served as the primary site of Jamaican popular music’s circulation. At dancehalls in Kingston, Trench Town and Rose Town, and, later, Brixton, Queens and Tokyo, local "sound systems"—music collectives comprised of MCs, deejays, audio engineers and massive sound-systems—blast Jamaican style music into the night, and people dance. Jamaican billboard charts nearly always reflect what is being played there.
But Jamaica is small, and Kingston is even smaller, so music quickly becomes a battle ground. Sound systems compete over money, over territory, over abstractions (sound, status, masculinity). The "sound clash"—like a freestyle rap battle, but between sound systems—is how these disputes are settled: whose crew is baddest? Whose music makes people dance? Whose sound is heard?
In order to win sound clashes and defend the boundaries of their dancehall, sound engineers process sound at maximum levels. Horace McNeal, Chief engineer of the world-famous Stone Love Sound System, discusses how this pushes sound clash volume forever upward: "If you play 10,000 watts and you play it and play it and play it, after a while next man down the road come with 20,000 watts. And him say: bwoy me light now, them gone to the 20,000 watts" (interview taken from Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies). According to McNeal, for sound systems to remain competitive, they must constantly improve their sound and play music at volumes as high as mechanically possible. Right now, there aren’t any entertainment speakers + amps + engineers that can generate more that 15,000-20,000 watts, so competitive sound systems all play at that level. This means that sound systems operate at the limits of technology.
There are over 100 sound systems in Jamaica, playing at this volume. Just to give you some perspective: in the US, because of state-level noise ordinances and the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1972, the loudest music festival you’ve ever been to, the loudest concert, wasn't a unit above 5,000 watts.
Jamaica is literally the loudest country in the world.
With all this power in sound, it is not surprising that the dancehall hosts a culture of violence, hyper-sexuality and global communication. "Post-Nationalist Geographies: Rasta, Ragga, and Reinventing Africa", by Louis Chude-Sokei, examines these relationships in profound ways by considering dancehall culture’s impact on race, blackness, and masculinity. It also has a badass playlist of dancehall cuts from the earliest days of the genre. Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah's essay "Dis Slackness Ting" likewise provides insights into dancehall culture by detailing the ways in which it destabilizes traditional gender roles and sexuality.
The genre of dancehall, however, as it stands today, is somewhat divorced from its decades-long marriage to this culture and its sound systems. Like house and trap music, disco, and opera, it is named after a space rather than a sound, but has long since been imported to the internet and fragmented into a million pieces, artists, labels, and interpretations. Based on its sound, contemporary dancehall music is different: the below playlist is less aggressive, less vocals-driven, and less representative of dancehall culture than it once was. Now, rich and colorful pallets of synth, drums, and electronically generated horn instruments accompany artists who half-sing-half-rap in ways that compliment the overall sound and production. Artists from as far away as Lagos and Jo’burg and NYC join in the fun, taking dancehall and transforming it into whatever they want it to be. And guess what, it sounds good as hell:
|0:00||"Single (feat. Wizkid)" - Burna Boy - On a Spaceship|
|3:31||"City" - Alkaline - (2016)|
|6:04||"Needle Eye" - Spice - (2015)|
|8:22||"Nah Go Home (feat. Popcaan)" - Chi Ching Ching - (2015)|
|11:11||"Never Sober" - Popcaan - (2015)|
|15:00||"Shabba Madda Pot" - Dexta Daps - (2015)|
|17:13||"History" - Kranium - Rumors|
|20:28||"Ghetto Uman" - Feya Uman - Mzansi Reggae Sistas, Vol. 1|
|24:20||"Ring Ring" - Burna Boy - On a Spaceship|
|27:45||"My League [prod. DJ Khaled]" - Mavado - I Changed a Lot|
|31:05||"Unruly Prayer [prod. Dinearo]" - Popcaan - (2015)|