Why is dancehall not selling on iTunes, and blowing up the Billboard charts? And why, in the last decade, are fewer singles crossing over to move major figures in the US market?
Gyptian, an underground reggae artiste, spared Jamaican music blushes last year with the provocative breakout hit, Hold Yuh that became a global hit, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 at #78. The VP Records’ single is currently charting on iTunes top-10 reggae singles charts. It is No 3 in France, No 3 in Canada, No 4 in Denmark, No 8 in Switzerland and holds the ninth spot in the US. His success mirrored that of Wayne Wonder who had a monster hit with No Letting Go in 2003. Jamaica’s top deejay Vybz Kartel had an OK year as well and the buzz worthy single, Clarks, was a beast on the Internet and even made it to an episode of ‘So You Want to Dance Canada”.
But why is the music industry unable to repeat this sort of success with regularity?
Some schools of thought believe that the problem lies in how we market reggae and dancehall, and in the lack of a proper management structure for our local reggae and dancehall artistes. Others contend that the music is not well produced and some of the beats are sub-standard and the artistes off key. Still others believe that the major labels are intrigued by dancehall and reggae, but just don’t understand it because of the bad experiences they’ve had with “damagers” and hustlers who don’t practice ethical business practices and worse, do not respect contracts. These powerful men subscribe to the ethic that “if I don’t understand it and I can’t make any money off it, why fuck with it?”.
Radio play in the US is heavily correlated with album sales and thus, the major labels monopolise it. The labels rig request lines, dangle incentives and tips to disc jocks and even throw wads of cash at programme managers to push their artistes. The result is that the same handful of artistes are the ones who get play at several stations all across the US, especially since most of them are owned by one major organization. The labels control the stars that people want to hear so it is increasingly harder to get a breakout hit from an independent or an underground source like dancehall. But even if the payola factor is removed, it still comes down to good music. The best songs are the ones that get on these stations, and more often that not, artistic integrity is sacrificed to meet radio play criteria, so you can a lot of watered-down hip hop and R & B that is radio friendly. Street music is not selling on iTunes, and dancehall and reggae music fall into this sub-genre of underground music.
That’s what dancehall and reggae have to go up against. But, then again here is a thought. Maybe the music we are producing and using to represent us just isn’t that good. The aggressively mediocre taste of the Jamaican public has condemned our artistes to failure on the international stage because much of the music that is produced should never have been allowed to limp off the studio floor and onto the radio. A number of our top artistes seemed to have pledged an allegiance to singing quite horribly and to utterly entertaining effect just to get air play on local stations.
Mavado and T Pain
Beginning at least three years ago, and because of the T Pain Effect, a number of songs were auto tuned to the point of comic relief, and a lot of artistes did not practice any sort of self-censorship and quality control so much of the music represented a singing style between drunken bawling or a nasal whine better suited for spitting and not singing. Now, a lot of people are abandoning auto tune, but they are still singing badly. Who needs auto tune anyway when you can just sing really badly in a really high pitch.
The zinc fence mentality of Jamaican music often means that the best talents don’t collaborate with each other, so instead of a hardcore dancehall artiste linking up with a top notch reggae singer to do a collab with an awesome 16 bar with hard-hitting lyrics and a banging chorus, we have one person doing everything and making a mess of it. And what happened to the great producers who actually can tell when a singer is off-key, or if certain words are not pronounced right? Even great artistes have a problem getting certain letters right, but which of these new producers will tell Elephant Man that his lisp isn’t working, or that Tarrus Riley can’t pronounce a certain word right? Have the veteran producers been swallowed whole by a small army of teenagers who can download a copy of Fruitiloops into a laptop, or hijack some Steely and Clevie drum patterns into his MPC?
Give me a fucking break!