Picture it: 1988. You're in a dim studio in Kingston, Jamaica, and Dennis Brown is on the mic. Behind him seated at the drums is a young Lowell Dunbar (aka Sly) and next to him on guitar, his bredren Robert Shakespeare. Hear the bassline. Feel the shuffle of the percussion. See the birth of the original riddim, instrument by instrument.
At that point producers Sly & Robbie had already cemented themselves on the reggae scene for a little over 10 years, and possibly had no idea that well into the 2000s, they would be the most prolific team in the musical genre, having produced around 200,000 songs.
Their roster could easily start and stop with Dennis Brown, but Sly & Robbie's production credits continue to include classics from Bounty Killer, Buju Banton, Gregory Isaacs, Luciano, Tony Rebel, and of course Chaka Demus & Pliers. And their affiliations aren't limited to reggae. They've also performed and produced with/for legends like the Rolling Stones, Sting, Bob Dylan, and No Doubt.
Now think of songs like "Murder She Wrote"...or how about Buju Banton's "Driver A" ...Bounty Killer's "Fed Up." Next, consider the countless OTHER songs that have appeared on those riddims. And then respect the brilliant minds like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare who created those riddims that will appear and re-appear in reggae music indefinitely.
The reggae riddim is something that continues to fascinate me. It is what it is...a beat. But its very construction is so unique that I am always impressed by the creativty put into it. The names of the riddims. The dances that accompany the riddims. And most importantly, I love to listen to different artists take the same one riddim, and create a multitude of songs that ride and highlight the riddim in different ways.
Some of my personal favourite riddims were created between 1995 and 1997 because of the feelings they evoke in me. It was a fun era of dancehall music, different than the rub-a-dub style of the 80s. The late-90s brought me riddims that always make me smile. Quarter To Twelve riddim. Tour riddim. Fed Up riddim. Stink riddim. Cloak & Dagger riddim. Haunted riddim. Filty riddim. During that era, it wasn't unlikely to have a great riddim contain over a dozen tunes...a DJ could easily spin say, the Stink riddim, endlessly, without tiring his audience.
Stink Riddim classics: "Old Dog" - Beenie Man, "The Mass" - Baby Cham, "Go Go Wine" - Captain Barkey, "Girls Dem Gizzada" - Merciless, "Girl Watcher" - Spragga Benz, "Dreamland" - Wayne Wonder & Frisco Kid.
1996's Stink Riddim was created by Dave Kelly, another reggae production legend, who single-handedly made the late-90s hot. He crafted the era of the Beenie/Bounty/Buju classics, starting the Madhouse lable, and subsequently rocking basement parties from Scarborough to Malton with hits on top of hits. Kelly also produced a track for Kardinal Offishall, in 2003.
What really fascinates me is the creativity behind the naming of the riddims.
You could easily create an A-B-C's of riddim names, but I'll just use B as an example: BackYard riddim (1998), Badda Badda riddim (1999), Blue Drawers riddim (2001), Bomb A Drop riddim (2004), Butterfly riddim (1993), and Buyout riddim (2001). And while the riddim names may not always ring a bell with the average listener, the tunes definitely will.
Some riddims are classic, and revisited time and time again. They are staples of reggae music: Sleng Teng riddim, Punaany riddim, Taxi riddim, Stalag riddim, Far East riddim, and even the Bam Bam and Bogle riddims. They are so deeply engrained into the heart and soul of reggae music that they NEVER get old or stale. Impossible.
From the food-based riddims: Pressure Cooker riddim, Rice & Peas riddim, Callallo Bed riddim, and Roast Breadfruit riddim...to the politically relevant riddims: Saddam Birthday Party riddim, Anthrax riddim, and Under Attack riddim...reggae music always has it's finger on the pulse of what's hot, what's timely...and in some cases, what's crazy and funny.
It's the kind of genre where you have to pay attention. Because while a riddim may be red-hot one minute, it can easily be played out the next. Not all riddims have the staying power of the Taxi or Sleng Teng...and there's always new talent, and new sounds eager to reinvent what's hip.
A newer producer on the reggae scene, Stephen 'Genius' McGregor (son of the legendary Freddie McGregor) has been producing hot tracks since about 2006 for artists like Aidonia, Mavado, T.O.K., Mr. Vegas, Vybz Kartel, and Busy Signal.
Producers like McGregor have embraced the riddims and sounds of their past, however, have managed to shape and rearrange the very sound of dancehall music into something that ventures away from the traditional 'one-drop' and drum and bass sounds of Sly & Robbie. Some would argue that the roots of reggae music (dancehall in particular) have now been heavily influenced by hip hip, pop, and dance music, and no longer contains the essence of traditional reggae, as evident in the Stalag or Far East riddims, or even traditional dancehall, ala Dave Kelly.
It's up for interpretation.
I always loved the specificity and intricacy of how reggae music is created and disseminated. It moves in waves. It brings a specific culture, style of dress, way of speaking, and method of dancing with it. From the roots of the reggae riddim...an entire sub-culture is easily created.
While hip-hop, soca (I do love my soca!), and R&B beats are often comparably as addictive and fantastic as reggae riddims are...this genre of music will always have a special place with my spirit. I adore reggae music. No other music can impress me the way reggae music does. Whether I'm forever stuck in the 90s with my Dave Kelly-influenced taste...or whether I occasionally venture out to the McGregor-produced sounds of Mavado and Kartel.
Either way, I must pay hommage to "some" of the many great reggae producers that have shaped, inspired, and created a unique sound that reflects the country of Jamaica...and reaches an international audience because of the level of committment and true genius that is behind the riddims:
Lloyd 'King Jammy' James. Jeremy Harding. Tony 'CD' Kelly. Lee ' Scratch' Perry. Bobby Konders. Bobby 'Digital' Dixon. Andre 'Suku' grey. Philip 'Fattis' Burrell. Robert Livingston. Colin 'Bulby' York. Firehouse Crew. Patrick Roberts. Winston 'Wee Pow' Powell. Richie Stephens. Ralston Barrett. Bunny 'Striker' Lee. Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd. Cordel 'Scatta' Burrell. Donovan Germain. Steely & Clivie. Donovan 'Vendetta' Bennett.........
And then bring it back to Sly & Robbie. Present time. In the studio with new artist (and one of my favourites) Bitty McLean. As much as the various producers have taken reggae music to many levels, different sounds, and evoked various emotions...the classic talent of this dynamic team can still produce current music with a nostalgic heart. Timeless riddims, that will help to keep reggae at the forefront of international musical respect and appreciation.
Sly & Robbie with Bitty McLean.
Written By Stacey Marie Robinson, Kya Publishing