Dancehall is a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s.[4] Initially, dancehall was a more sparse version of reggae than the roots style, which had dominated much of the 1970s.[5][6] In the mid-1980s, digital instrumentation became more prevalent, changing the sound considerably, with digital dancehall (or "ragga") becoming increasingly characterized by faster rhythms. Key elements of dancehall music include its extensive use of Jamaican Patois rather than Jamaican standard English and a focus on the track instrumentals (or "riddims").

Dancehall saw initial mainstream success in Jamaica in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, it became increasingly popular in Jamaican diaspora communities. In the 2000s, dancehall experienced worldwide mainstream success, and by the 2010s, it began to heavily influence the work of established Western artists and producers, which has helped to further bring the genre into the Western music mainstream.[7][8][9]

Music of Jamaica
General topics
Related articles
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthemJamaica, Land We Love
Regional music



Dancehall is named after Jamaican dance halls in which popular Jamaican recordings were played by local sound systems.[10]

They began in the late 1940s among people from the inner city of Kingston, who were not able to participate in dances uptown.[11] Social and political changes in late-1970s Jamaica, including the change from the socialist government of Michael Manley (People's National Party) to Edward Seaga (Jamaica Labour Party),[6] were reflected in the shift away from the more internationally oriented roots reggae towards a style geared more towards local consumption and in tune with the music that Jamaicans had experienced when sound systems performed live.[12] Themes of social injustice, repatriation and the Rastafari movement were overtaken by lyrics about dancing, violence and sexuality.[6][12][13]

Musically, older rhythms from the late 1960s were recycled, with Sugar Minott credited as the originator of this trend when he voiced new lyrics over old Studio One rhythms between sessions at the studio, where he was working as a session musician.[12] In 1970s, Big Youth, U Roy, and I Roy were famous DJs. Around the same time, producer Don Mais was reworking old rhythms at Channel One Studios, using the Roots Radics band.[12] The Roots Radics would go on to work with Henry "Junjo" Lawes on some of the key early dancehall recordings, including those that established Barrington Levy, Frankie Paul, and Junior Reid as major reggae stars.[12] Other singers to emerge in the early dancehall era as major stars included Don Carlos, Al Campbell, and Triston Palma, while more established names such as Gregory Isaacs and Bunny Wailer successfully adapted.[6]

Sound systems such as Killimanjaro, Black Scorpio, Gemini Disco, Virgo Hi-Fi, Volcano Hi-Power and Aces International soon capitalized on the new sound and introduced a new wave of deejays.[6] The older toasters were overtaken by new stars such as Captain Sinbad, Ranking Joe, Clint Eastwood, Lone Ranger, Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, General Echo and Yellowman — a change reflected by the 1981 Junjo Lawes-produced album A Whole New Generation of DJs, although many went back to U-Roy for inspiration.[6][12] Deejay records became, for the first time, more important than records featuring singers.[6] Another trend was sound clash albums, featuring rival deejays /or sound systems competing head-to-head for the appreciation of a live audience, with underground sound clash cassettes often documenting the violence that came with such rivalries.[12]

Yellowman, one of the most successful early dancehall artists, became the first Jamaican deejay to be signed to a major American record label, and for a time enjoyed a level of popularity in Jamaica to rival Bob Marley's peak.[6][12] The early 1980s also saw the emergence of female deejays in dancehall music, such as Lady G, Lady Saw, and Sister Nancy. Other female dancehall stars include artistes like Diana King and in the late 1990s to the 2000s Ce'cile, Spice, Macka Diamond and more. [12][14] Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Mad Cobra,[15] Ninjaman, Buju Banton, and Super Cat becoming major DJs in Jamaica.

With a little help from deejay sound, "sweet sing" (falsetto voice) singers such as Pinchers, Cocoa Tea, Sanchez, Admiral Tibet, Frankie Paul, Half Pint, Courtney Melody, and Barrington Levy were popular in Jamaica.

DJ theory

Sound systems and the development of other musical technology heavily influenced dancehall music. The music needed to "get where the radio didn't reach" because Jamaicans oftentimes were outside without radios.[16] Especially because the audience of dancehall sessions were lower-class people, it was extremely important that they be able to hear music. Sound systems allowed people to listen to music without having to buy a radio. Therefore, the dancehall culture grew as the use of technology and sound systems got better.

The Jamaican dancehall scene was one created out of creativity and a desire for accessibility, and one that is inseparable from sound system culture. The term ‘Dancehall’, while now typically used in reference to the specific and uniquely Jamaican genre of music, originally referred to a physical location. This location was always an open-air venue from which DJs and later “Toasters”, a precursor to MCs, could perform their original mixes and songs for their audience via their sound systems.[17] The openness of the venue paired with the innately mobile nature of the sound system, allowed performers to come to the people. At the onset of the dancehall scene, sound systems were the only way that some Jamaican audiences might hear the latest songs from popular artist. Through time, it transformed to where the purveyors of the sound systems were the artists themselves and they became whom the people came to see along with their own original sounds. With the extreme volume and low bass frequencies of the sound systems local people might very well feel the vibrations of the sounds before they could even hear them, though the sound itself did travel for miles.[18]

Jamaica was one of the first cultures to pioneer the concept of remixing. As a result, production level and sound system quality were critical to Jamaica's budding music industry. Since many locals couldn't afford sound systems in their home, listening to one at a dance party or at a festival was their entry into audible bliss. Writer Brougtton and Brewster's book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life[19] states that sound systems were a product of Jamaican social lifestyle. The success of music wasn't just in the hands of one person anymore, it was a factor of the DJ, speaking poetic words to the audience, the Selector, harmonizing beats in an aesthetically pleasing way, and the Sound Engineer, wiring the sound systems to handle deeper and louder bass tones. Music became a factor of many elements and the physicality of that sound was a strategic puzzle left for musicians to solve.[20]

Dancehall 1980s

King Jammy's 1985 hit, "(Under Me) Sleng Teng" by Wayne Smith, with an entirely-digital rhythm hook took the dancehall reggae world by storm. Many credit this song as being the first digital rhythm in reggae, featuring a rhythm from a Casio MT-40 keyboard. However, this is not entirely correct since there are earlier examples of digital productions, such as Horace Ferguson's single "Sensi Addict" (Ujama) produced by Prince Jazzbo in 1984. The "Sleng Teng" rhythm was used in over 200 subsequent recordings. This deejay-led, largely synthesized chanting with musical accompaniment departed from traditional conceptions of Jamaican popular musical entertainment.

Dub poet Mutabaruka said, "if 1970s reggae was red, green and gold, then in the next decade it was gold chains". It was far removed from reggae's gentle roots and culture, and there was much debate among purists as to whether it should be considered an extension of reggae.

This shift in style again saw the emergence of a new generation of artists, such as Buccaneer, Capleton and Shabba Ranks, who became the biggest ragga star in silage the world. A new set of producers also came to prominence: Philip "Fatis" Burrell, Dave "Rude Boy" Kelly, George Phang, Hugh "Redman" James, Donovan Germain, Bobby Digital, Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson and Cleveland "Clevie" Brown (aka Steely & Clevie) rose to challenge Sly & Robbie's position as Jamaica's leading rhythm section.

Dancehall 2000s

By the early 2000s, Dancehall had gained mainstream popularity in Jamaica, as well as in the United States and Western parts of Europe. This was first seen with artists such as Sean Paul, whose single "Get Busy" (2003) became the first dancehall single to reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Unlike earlier Dancehall, the new evolution of Dancehall music was characterized by using structures of music commonly heard in mainstream pop music, such as repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and hooks. Sometimes the lyrics were cleaner and featured less sexual content and profanity.

Some of the artists who benefitted-heavily in this new era of Dancehall were; Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Popcaan, Vybz Kartel, Konshens, Mr. Vegas, Mavado Lady Saw and Spice, some of whom saw international success.

Gaza vs Gully

The Gaza vs Gully feud in Jamaica started between rival Dancehall greats Vybz Kartel and Mavado in the early 2000s and was a reason for the civil war in Jamaica, until they called for peace in 2007, after the authorities took an interest. The feud sparked diss tracks between the artists that continued after they publicly denounced the rivalry.

The reminiscence is still present in the loyalty between up and coming artists in Jamaica, for example, Popcaan was an known affiliate of Vybz Kartel after he gave him his first major feature on track "Clarks" in 2011. This meant that Popcaan would never work with Mavado.

Although Popcaan initially began his earlier career as a member of Gaza, he has since started his own label group known as Unruly.

  • Mavado
  • Vybz Kartel

Dancehall 2015-Present

Dancehall saw a new wave of popularity in Western markets in the mid-late 2010s, with immense commercial success being achieved by a number of dancehall-pop singles, including Rihanna's "Work" (2016) and Drake's "One Dance" and "Controlla" (2016).[8][9][21][22]

A variety of western artists have spoken of being inspired by Dancehall music, including Major Lazer, whose commercially successful singles Lean On (2015), Light It Up (2015) and Run Up (2017) all heavily rely upon dancehall music. Several hip-hop and R&B artists have also released material inspired by dancehall music, including Drake, who has cited Vybz Kartel as one of his "biggest inspirations."[23][24]

In 2014, Drake took an interest into Popcaan and linked him up with MixPak producer Dre Skull to release his debut album 'Where We Come From'. This saw huge commercial success and went on to receive a UK MOBO award for Best Reggae Album in 2015. The year of 2016 saw Popcaan’s rival-artist Alkaline release his debut album 'New Level Unlocked' under DJ Frass Records, which topped the charts in Jamaica, as well as being well received in the US and UK.

Popcaan and Alkaline have always been rival music artists in Jamaica and it is much debated who the new Dancehall King, since Vybz Kartel was incarcerated in 2011. It has been said that Popcaan's success is largely due to early support from Vybz Kartel and more recent support from Drake.

By 2016, Dancehall had re-emerged into global popularity, artists such as Alkaline, Popcaan, Masicka, Aidonia and Rygin King are known as some of the most profound and active artists of this period to date, as well as UK Dancehall artists such as Stefflon Don. Competition is fierce in Jamaican Dancehall music as an active Dancehall artist might have to release over 12 singles per year to keep up.

Since 2017, Dancehall artists from Jamaica have been frequently collaborating with UK acts such as Chip, Stefflon Don and J Hus. This is well in-tune with the boost of urban acts in the UK rising up, and the re-birth of Grime in 2014.[25]

The changing sounds in dancehall have largely been down to the producers behind the tracks. The most notable producers creating the new sound of Jamaica today are: DJ Frass, Notnice and Lee Milla.


Donna P. Hope defines dancehall culture as a "space for the cultural creation and dissemination of symbols and ideologies that reflect the lived realities of its adherents, particularly those from the inner cities of Jamaica."[26] Dancehall culture actively creates a space for its "affectors" (creators of dancehall culture) and its "affectees" (consumers of dancehall culture) to take control of their own representation, contest conventional relationships of power, and exercise some level of cultural, social and even political autonomy.

Kingsley Stewart outlines ten of the major cultural imperatives or principles that constitute the dancehall worldview. They are:

  1. It involves the dynamic interweaving of God and Haile Selassie
  2. It acts as a form of stress release or psycho-physiological relief
  3. It acts as a medium for economic advancement
  4. The quickest way to an object is the preferred way (i.e., the speed imperative)
  5. The end justifies the means
  6. It strives to make the unseen visible
  7. Objects and events that are external to the body are more important than internal processes; what is seen is more important than what is thought (i.e., the pre-eminence of the external)
  8. The importance of the external self; the self is consciously publicly constructed and validated
  9. The ideal self is shifting, fluid, adaptive, and malleable, and
  10. It involves the socioexistential imperative to transcend the normal (i.e., there is an emphasis on not being normal).[27]

Such a drastic change in the popular music of the region generated an equally radical transformation in fashion trends, specifically those of its female faction. In lieu of traditional, modest "rootsy" styles, as dictated by Rastafari-inspired gender roles; women began donning flashy, revealing – sometimes X-rated outfits. This transformation is said to coincide with the influx of slack lyrics within dancehall, which objectified women as apparatuses of pleasure. These women would team up with others to form "modeling posses", or "dancehall model" groups, and informally compete with their rivals.

This newfound materialism and conspicuity was not, however, exclusive to women or manner of dress. Appearance at dance halls was exceedingly important to acceptance by peers and encompassed everything from clothing and jewelry, to the types of vehicles driven, to the sizes of each respective gang or "crew", and was equally important to both sexes.

One major theme behind dancehall is that of space. Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, in her article "Mapping Black Atlantic Performance Geographies", says

Dancehall occupies multiple spatial dimensions (urban, street, police, marginal, gendered, performance, liminal, memorializing, communal), which are revealed through the nature and type of events and venues, and their use and function. Most notable is the way in which dancehall occupies a liminal space between what is celebrated and at the same time denigrated in Jamaica and how it moves from private community to public and commercial enterprise.[28][29]

In Kingston's Dancehall: A Story of Space and Celebration, she writes:

Dancehall is ultimately a celebration of the disenfranchised selves in postcolonial Jamaica that occupy and creatively sustain that space. Structured by the urban, a space that is limited, limiting, and marginal yet central to communal, even national, identity, dancehall's identity is as contradictory and competitive as it is sacred. Some of Jamaica's significant memories of itself are inscribed in the dancehall space, and therefore dancehall can be seen as a site of collective memory that functions as ritualized memorializing, a memory bank of the old, new, and dynamic bodily movements, spaces, performers, and performance aesthetics of the New World and Jamaica in particular.[30]

These same notions of dancehall as a cultural space are echoed in Norman Stolzoff's Wake the Town and Tell the People. He notes that dancehall is not merely a sphere of passive consumerism, but rather is an alternative sphere of active cultural production that acts as a means through which black lower-class youth articulate and project a distinct identity in local, national, and global contexts. Through dancehall, ghetto youths attempt to deal with the endemic problems of poverty, racism, and violence, and in this sense the dancehall acts as a communication center, a relay station, a site where black lower-class culture attains its deepest expression.[31] Thus, dancehall in Jamaica is yet another example of the way that the music and dance cultures of the African diaspora have challenged the passive consumerism of mass cultural forms, such as recorded music, by creating a sphere of active cultural production that potentially may transform the prevailing hegemony of society.[32]

In Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall Nadia Ellis explicates the culture of combined homophobia and unabashed queerness within Jamaican dancehall culture. She details the particular importance of the phrase "out and bad" to Jamaica when she writes, “This phrase is of queer hermeneutical possibility in Jamaican dancehall because it registers a dialectic between queer and gay that is never resolved, that relays back and forth, producing an uncertainty about sexual identity and behavior that is usefully maintained in the Jamaican popular cultural context.”[33] In discussion of the possibility of a self identifying homosexual dancer performing to homophobic music she writes, “In appropriating the culture and working from within its very center, he produces a bodily performance that gains him power. It is the power or mastery, of parody, and of getting away with it.”[33]

Ellis not only examines the intersection of queerness and masculinity within the Jamaican dancehall scene, but suggests that the overt homophobia of certain dancehall music actually creates a space for queer expression. In general, homosexuality and queerness are still stigmatized in dancehalls. In fact, some of the songs used during dancehall sessions contain blatant homophobic lyrics. Ellis argues, however, this explicit, violent rhetoric is what creates a space for queer expression in Jamaica. She describes the phenomenon of all male dance groups that have sprung up within the dancehall scene. These crews dress in matching, tight clothing, often paired with makeup and dyed hair, traditional hallmarks of queerness within Jamaican culture. When they perform together, it is the bodily performance that give the homosexual dancers power.[34]


The popularity of dancehall has spawned dance moves that help to make parties and stage performances more energetic. Dancing is an integral part of bass culture genres. As people felt the music in the crowded dancehall venues, they would do a variety of dances. Eventually, dancehall artists started to create songs that either invented new dances or formalized some moves done by dancehall goers. Many dance moves seen in hip hop videos are actually variations of dancehall dances. Examples of such dances are: "Like Glue", "Bogle", "Whine & Dip", "Tek Weh Yuhself", "Whine Up", "Shake It With Shaun" (a mix of various genres), "Boosie Bounce", "Drive By", "Shovel It", "To Di World", "Dutty Wine", "Sweep", "Nuh Behavior", "Nuh Linga", "Skip to My Lou", "Gully Creepa", "Breakdancing" ,"Bad Man Forward Bad Man Pull Up", "Keeping it Jiggy", "Pon Di River", "One Drop", "Whine & Kotch", "Bubbling", "Tic Toc", "Willie Bounce", "Wacky Dip", "Screetchie", "One Vice" and "Daggering".[35][36][37][38][39]


Cultural elements

Dancehall combines elements of American gangster materialism and stories of hardships of Kingston, Jamaica.[40] This is seen in the use of gun talk by artists like Buju Banton and Capleton, or the sporting of bling-bling by "Gangsta Ras" artists like Mavado and Munga.[41] The term Gangsta Ras, which comines thuggish imagery with Rastafari is according to Rasta critics, an example of how in dancehall, "the misuse of Rastafari culture has diluted and marginalised the central tenets and creed of the Rastafari philosophy and way of life".[42]

Kingsley Stewart points out that artists sometimes feel an "imperative to transcend the normal", exemplified by artists like Elephant Man and Bounty Killer doing things to stand out, such as putting on a synthetic cartoonish voice or donning pink highlights while constantly re-asserting hypermasculine attributes. Donna P. Hope argues that this trend is related to the rise of market capitalism as a dominant feature of life in Jamaica, coupled with the role of new media and a liberalized media landscape, where images become of increasing importance in the lives of ordinary Jamaicans who strive for celebrity and superstar status on the stages of dancehall and Jamaican popular culture.[43]

Another point of dissension of dancehall from reggae, and from its non-western roots in Jamaica, is on the focus on materialism. Dancehall has also became popular in regions such as Ghana and Panama. Prominent males in the dancehall scene are expected to dress in very expensive casual wear, indicative of European urban styling and high fashion that suggest wealth and status.[44] Since the late 1990s, males in the dancehall culture have rivalled their female counterparts to look fashioned and styled.[45] The female dancehall divas are all scantily clad, or dressed in spandex outfits that accentuate more than cover the shape of the body. In the documentary It's All About Dancing, prominent dancehall artist Beenie Man argues that one could be the best DJ or the smoothest dancer, but if one wears clothing that reflects the economic realities of the majority of the partygoers, one will be ignored.[46]

Anti-gay lyrics

After the popularizing of Buju Banton's dancehall song "Boom Bye Bye" in the early 1990s, dancehall music came under criticism from international organizations and individuals over anti-gay lyrics in a few songs[47][48][49] though in recent years these attitudes have changed.[50] In some cases, dancehall artists whose music featured anti-gay lyrics have had their concerts cancelled.[51][52] Various singers were investigated by international law enforcement agencies such as Scotland Yard, on the grounds that the lyrics incited the audience to assault homosexuals. Buju Banton's 1993 hit "Boom Bye Bye" advocates the murder of homosexuals by shooting or burning, or both ("like an old tire wheel"). Many of the affected singers believed that legal or commercial sanctions were essentially an attack against freedom of speech.[53] Some artists agreed not to use anti-gay lyrics during their concerts in Europe and the United States,[54][55] although some artists, such as Capleton, continue to have their concerts cancelled due to the Stop Murder Music campaign.

Donna P. Hope argues that dancehall culture's anti-homosexual lyrics formed part of a macho discussion that advanced the interest of the heterosexual male in Jamaica, which is a Christian society with strong Rastafari movement influence as well. Even while dancehall culture in Jamaica sported images of men in pseudo-gay poses and costumes, the cultural, religious, social and gendered imperatives of the society advanced and promoted the ideal man as macho and heterosexual and men who are homosexual were identified as inadequate and impure portraits of true masculinity.[56][57]

Some scholars have theorized that these explicitly homophobic lyrics are actually what make it possible for queer performances spaces to be created within Dancehall culture. In her paper "Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall", Nadia Ellis explains that queer masculine expression is allowed in specific situations within Jamaican culture with “homophobic lyrics actually opening up a space for increasingly free expression”. Explicitly homophobic songs such as “Boom Bye Bye” are constantly replayed at dancehall venues, despite the fact that the culture is defined by constant renewal and the search for the new. These songs, despite often being over ten years old, are actually necessary to “consecrate” the spaces as straight and masculine. Once a song like “Boom Bye Bye” is played, the area is open to expression of queerness because the song acts as a disclaimer or a free pass, blessing anyone participating with a stamp of straightness and normalcy. Ellis sums it up succinctly: “The songs are played; no one is ‘gay’; everyone can turn a blind eye.”[58]

However, Dancehall music has played into and with this divide in an extreme and lyrically graphic fashion that has been rendered politically incorrect in many places globally but remains culturally relevant in Jamaica.[59]

The international backlash to Banton's violently anti-homosexual "Boom Bye-Bye", and the reality of Kingston's violence which saw the deaths of deejays Pan Head and Dirtsman saw another shift, this time back towards Rastafari and cultural themes, with several of the hardcore slack ragga artists finding religion, and the "conscious ragga" scene becoming an increasingly popular movement. A new generation of singers and deejays emerged that harked back to the roots reggae era, notably Garnett Silk, Tony Rebel, Sanchez, Luciano, Anthony B and Sizzla. Some popular deejays, most prominently Buju Banton and Capleton, began to cite Rastafari and turn their lyrics and music in a more conscious, rootsy direction. Many modern dancehall Rasta artists identify with Bobo Ashanti.


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