The dance halls of Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s were home to public
dances usually targeted at younger patrons. Sound system operators had big
home-made audio systems (often housed in the flat bed of a pickup truck),
spinning records from popular American rhythm and blues musicians and
Jamaican ska and rocksteady performers. The term dancehall has also come to
refer to a subgenre of reggae that originated around 1980.
Dance hall owners and sound system operators often competed fiercely with
other owners/operators to capture the attention of their young clientele.
The competition often led to the hiring of Rude boys to break up a
competitor’s dance, which fostered the growth and violent tendencies of
this subculture. Dance halls contributed to the rise of ska as the
predominant form of popular music at the time, and gave rise to a new
social power in the form of major sound system operators like Duke Reid,
and Coxsone Dodd. It was in the dance halls that ska dancing first
Jamaican dance halls of today still bear strong resemblance to the days
when Dodd was spinning the latest release out of Studio One. Dance halls of
today often serve as competition grounds for DJs, just like they did in the
early days, though today’s competitions end less often in the dance being
broken up by rude boys.
Notable early DJs
Coxsone Dodd was born on January 26 1932 in Kingston, Jamaica. He began at
a young age playing bebop and jazz records in his parent’s liquor store for
their customers in the late 1940s. He then moved to United States to work
as a cane cutter, and it was there that he began to listen to rhythm and
blues. After a short period of time he moved back to Jamaica with his own
PA system, turntable, and box of records. Dodd set up his first sound
system, the DownBeat, in 1954 playing boogie-woogie, jazz, and R&B. Prince
Buster was born Cecil Campbell in 1938 in Kingston, Jamaica. After working
for the Coxson Sound System, he created his own sound system in 1962 called
The Voice of the People. Campbell dedicated himself to providing a voice
for the African diaspora.
Influence on hip hop
According to many music historians, hip hop began with DJ Kool Herc, a
Jamaican who lived in the urban neighborhoods of New York City. Dance
Parade honored him as Grand Marshal in the first Dance Parade on May 19th
2007. According to him, breakbeats were created out of his understanding
or belief that the bass and the drum were the elements of music that moved
people to dance. In an interview in 1989 with Davey D, DJ Kool Herc says
“Hip hop, the whole chemistry of that came from Jamaica”. Kool Herc was
known in the Bronx for his sound system the Herculoids, which was a huge,
heavy, and loud speaker system. He traveled around playing for free in the
neighborhoods and parks of New York City. However, this new American
phenomenon was not just common in New York. International dance culture,
including hip hop, has adopted this practice.
Ever since music has been produced in Jamaica, Jamaican music has been dancehall music. Ska arose from the need for hard rhythm & blues, that in the USA was replaced by rock’n’roll and soul, and for that reason was interpreted so distinctly by Coxsone Dodd’s studio musicians that a new style emerged with the characteristic offbeat accent. Ska– Jamaica’s first original pop music–was then slowed down one incredibly hot summer by rocksteady, which established the bass-heavy sound, shortly thereafter igniting the birth of reggae. And in whatever directions the music next developed, including roots and culture, deejaying and dub—the sound system was always the driving force, the seismograph of the audience’s needs, the speaker’s corner for many voices and opinions, test track and maiden flight for every technical innovation. So it’s actually misleading to speak of a dancehall era, because firstly reggae never was anything else and secondly this era continues through today.
Photographer and author Beth Lesser is aware of that. But still rightly titles her book “The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture,” because the years from 1980 to 1985 mark the last significant period of change in the island’s music history: the time when the dominance of Rasta spirituality ended, when Bob Marley first left the island, then the earthly world, when slackness and gun lyrics became popular. Cocaine and crack replaced weed as drug of choice, dances became more hedonistic, riddims got “computerized.” Fashion changed from dreads and the Afrocentric sufferah look to three-piece suits, Kangol hats, Clarks booties and bling. How could that happen? 1980 was a fateful year for Jamaica. The People’s National Party (PNP) under Michael Manley, which was actively supported by representatives of roots reggae, had won the ’76 elections at a high price for the island: armed gangs had carried out the election campaign in Kingston’s streets against gangs hired by the opposition, Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The oil crisis and insistence on nonaligned status distancing Jamaica from the US had weakened the economy. Jamaica had fallen prey to the IMF and, together with the US DEA, Manley had also started a war against exporting marijuana (as referenced in the song, “Police in Helicopter”).