As the pandemic drags on keeping concert venues and other entertainment shut down, thousands of people log in to watch artists “battle” each other week after week on Verzuz. On Tuesday, August 11th I was doing my morning check of social media handles when I came across a post from Sharon Burke, President of Solid Agency, a management and booking agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Ms. Burke is a giant in the dancehall music industry. Her clientele includes Bounty Killer, Sean Paul, and Shaggy among others.
The post from Ms. Burke was angry. She was upset that Billboard magazine had left Beenie Man and Bounty Killer off of its hardcover about Verzuz, including them only on the digital version of the magazine cover (see above). As I scrolled through other posts I saw that Beenie Man commented something to the effect that dancehall music is not respected by the people who stole from it, suggesting that hip hop is merely a spinoff dancehall.
Later on that day, I got my daily “This Day in History” email from history.com. Included in that email was a post about DJ Kool Herc and the first party he played in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, that in hindsight is widely considered the starting point for what is now one of the most influential genres of music and culture in the world, hip hop. What a coincidence. It prompted me to want to know more about the history of dancehall’s influence on hip hop. I always heard that there was a connection, but how? Kool Herc is Jamaican, but is that it?
According to the journalist, Sally Helm, at this party in August 1973, Kool Herc focused on a part of a song called the break. “It’s the instrumental section with percussion, bass, a driving beat…the break is when the dance floor fills up, when the energy is best,” says Helm in the History This Week podcast titled “The Birth of Hip Hop”. Herc prolonged the break beat using two turntables. He extended it by playing two identical records on the turntables. When the break ended on one record, he picked it up from the beginning on the other so it didn’t have to end. This new musical style grew and spread as Herc played parties around the Bronx for the next three years. In those years, “scratching” and “toasting” were a part of not only Herc’s style but other DJs such as Grandmaster Flash. Here is the connection to Dancehall according to Raheem Veal in an article written for Revolt.tv:
Many of us are familiar with the technique of “scratching,” which is when a DJ uses records on a turntable to cause friction and create a rhythmic, high-pitched noise. Though this method became popular in New York’s South Bronx, it was actually created in Jamaica as “dubbing.” Reggae records would have an A-side of fully composed songs; the B-side would contain chopped-up remixes of the original songs that allowed the record cutters (the original DJs) to manipulate different components of the track.
The mastering of dubbing in reggae allowed an artist to “toast”—the predecessor to rapping or emceeing—over instrumental versions of songs. Jamaican DJs usually existed only to hype up songs, but dubbing pioneer King Tubby set a new standard with his emphasis on giving bass and rhythm a prominent spot on his remixes. Tubby commissioned DJ extraordinaire U-Roy to toast over his head-knocking mixes—which is recognized as the true creation of rapping. There is strong speculation that hip-hop’s forefathers—Barbados-born Grandmaster Flash, Jamaica’s Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa—gained their inspiration directly by King Tubby and U-Roy.
If you agree with this strong speculation, dubbing would have been what influenced DJ Kool Herc to do what he did at his now legendary parties. This would make sense because Kool Herc is Jamaican. However, not everyone agrees. An online search into the topic gave me results that are in agreement and disagreement with this opinion. For example, a Reddit user in 2019 claims Jamaican DJs did not extend break beats, or dubbing, in the 1970s, therefore, Herc and dancehall by extension did not influence hip hop. He or she goes on to say, “I also want to point out that Kool Herc migrated to the US at a very young age. He was too young to have witnessed the Dancehall scene in Kingston.”
As someone who spent many summers in Jamaica during my childhood, I can attest that the last statement is irrelevant. I went to my first dance (club or party) in Jamaica at the age of nine-years-old, Bodyguard sound system on the wharf in Black River, St. Elizabeth. Further, you didn’t have to be in a dance in Jamaica to be influenced by music. The music was everywhere. You could hear it sitting on your verandah or on cassettes recorded from the dance, something that was hugely popular in Jamaican music culture until cassette tapes became obsolete. I’m speaking of Jamaica in the 1980s and 1990s, but I assume that 1970s Jamaica wasn’t much different in this respect.
According to jamaicanmusic.com, dub styled music started in Jamaica in the 1960s and extended through the 1970s. It is widely accepted that dancehall as it is known today debuted in the 1980s. Whatever your stance on dancehall’s influence, or lack thereof, on hip hop, there’s no disputing that hip hop is a product of those parties in the Bronx in the 1970s. Those parties were played by DJs who migrated from the Caribbean, who undoubtedly were influenced by music from their mother countries. Even if that were not the case, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer deserved to be on both covers of Billboard’s Verzuz cover. Anecdotal evidence suggests that their’s was one of the most popular Verzuz battles to date. They were the first of the Verzuz battles to give viewers a real show. They gave us a concert; one I would have gladly paid to see.