Beth Lesser is a photographer who spent a generous portion of the 1980s capturing the Jamaican dancehall scene on camera. To celebrate Lesser’s work, the Soul Jazz label has issued a book of her photographs from the era, and a sprawling compilation of dancehall tunes on this double CD and vinyl package. Dancehall began life as an offshoot of reggae in the late 1970s. Less compact and claustrophobic than reggae, dancehall shunned many of the social and political ramifications of the genre, replacing them with a simple invitation to party.
Dancehall attempts to capture both the early days of the genre and the shift toward digital recording that occurred in the early ‘80s. The album isn’t chronologically ordered, so sizable tunes from the digital era such as Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” and Barrington Levy’s “Here I Come” vie for space with classic tracks like Eek-a-Mouse’s “Wa Do Dem.” The latter, and Yellowman’s woozy “Bam Bam” (also included here), are great demonstrations of the humor that categorized the early days of dancehall.
These joyous recordings are light years away from the kind of violence and homophobia that blighted later dancehall records and sound (perhaps deceptively) like a reflection of more innocent times. A few landmark recordings are included here. Horace Ferguson’s “Sensi Addict” is one of the first digital dancehall recordings, and it sounds painfully dated. Time hasn’t been kind to the cheap Casio rhythms and digitized handclaps of Ferguson’s track, and the same can be said of many of the ‘80s recordings included here.
That’s not to say that all the latter-era songs are without merit. Cutty Ranks’ “Chop Chop” is a real infectious highlight of Dancehall, with his gruff vocals rasping over a bubbly rhythm that will likely have even the most hardened dance-floor-phobic arm-folders tapping a toe. Another classic track is Gregory Isaacs’ “Soon Forward,” which shows how the Jamaican legend adapted his style to dancehall. General Echo’s “Arleen,” which is surely one of the sparsest songs to emerge from the genre, is also one of the most impressive recordings featured here.
As an introduction to dancehall, this compilation certainly covers many of the shifts in style the genre has been subjected to over the years. It’s also an interesting study of how early adapters of digital technology haven’t held up well over time. Half Pint’s tinny sounding “Greetings,” which contains more wretched synthesized handclaps than the human ear can bear, just can’t stand up to the warmth of Clint Eastwood’s dub-inflected “Jump and Pawn” or Madoo’s beautifully lulling “Coming From Town.” An album of mixed blessings then, but it’s worth selectively downloading some of the tracks highlighted here.