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The artists defining dancehall that you need to know

Dancehall’s permeated the charts, but the mainstream has failed to recognise the wave of artists flying the black, green and gold flag

Sean Paul was part of the early 2000s charge bringing the sunny beats of Jamaica into mainstream pop. His 2002 LP Dutty Rock was filled with bangers like “Get Busy” and “I’m Still in Love with You”, as well as one of the major dancehall-pop crossovers with Beyoncé, “Baby Boy”. Alongside Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Lady Saw, Vybz Kartel, Aidonia and Shaggy, as well as a plethora of other artists, the sounds of Kingston rode global airwaves like the bubbling surf.

Dancehall’s mainstream popularity waned in the subsequent years, but recently there’s been a resurgence, with a slew of freshman dancehall acts emerging who were grafting at their sound when the rest of the world had stopped paying attention. Dancehall never disappeared, but it’s got new faces, messages and missions that need to be paid attention to. In a recent interview, Sean Paul criticised Drake, Justin Bieber and other pop artists for appropriating dancehall without crediting the genre or its artists. He called it “exploitation”, and scoffed at the recent fruition of the ‘tropical house’ genre to describe Bieber’s “Sorry”, which whitewashes what are obvious Caribbean influences.

Indeed, this year alone, Views pulled from Popcaan; Yeezus and To Pimp a Butterfly had the touch of Assassin, and Rihanna proudly asserted her Bajan roots that were so important to her “Pon De Replay” debut again on ANTI with a very distinct patois. We’ve also seen artists emerge with different takes on dancehall influences: Mixpak’s Palmistry combines the rhythms of the genre with “minimal emo pop” on his debut album Pagan, Swing Ting collective are shaking up Manchester, while Gaika’s mixtape Security is a heady genre-fuck that delves into dark trip-hop, grime and dancehall among others with collaborators like Israeli MC Miss Red and Afrobeat star Mista Silva.

Among the new charge are artists from the shores of Jamaica and elsewhere in the world, passing the deep red horizons of the Caribbean sea to put dancehall on the pedestal it deserves. These are the musicians today painting pop culture green, gold and black.

POPCAAN

We met Popcaan on the eve of his label’s showdown at Culture Clash, while the fanfare for Drake’s Views was still sounding. Poppy’s mark was all over it, with samples of “Love Yuh Bad” and Drake adopting his standout patois, although he was shafted from “Controlla” (his verse is killer, listen to a leaked version here). Growing up in rural Jamaica, Popcaan was a figurehead in the global scene, establishing Unruly and regular clashes between young emerging artists. Since 2015’s “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” with Jamie xx and Young Thug, and his smash debut album Where We Come From with Pusha T and Dre Skull, he’s gone from strength to strength with hit singles.

Popcaan emulates the storytelling technique that’s so vital to dancehall in his art, whether the tracks are observing a lover’s body, or paying homage to home. In an interview with Dazed, he explained how conscious he is of what his music divulges and dissects. He said: “I realised when I was young that I’m a leader, you know? Now I be careful with the way I influence people, you know. It’s no made-up story, it’s straight.” 

ALKALINE

At only 22 years old, Alkaline dares to be different, and shows how dancehall can be as dark as his supposedly tattooed eyeballs. Though his lyrics have drawn criticism for references to violence, graphic sex and hard drugs, he’s quick-witted and sharp-tongued with some deadly hooks. He’s described himself as an “in di streets yute” from Kingston town, with music that represents everything that society is afraid to confront.

The ‘champion bwoy’ both emulates and maintains a bold, brave irreverence towards some of the pillars of dancehall, having dissed big beat legend and mentor to many, Vybz Kartel. In his track “Lose”, he made some jabs at the imprisoned boss: “Alkaline a run dancehall all a we know a the truth this / How teacha fi run dancehall being incarcerated / Yo no affi bother chat mi know a one serious line / Yo know more time yo affi just get up and just speak your mind,” he spits.

ISHAWNA

The singjay recently dropped a sassy counter back for Alkaline’s “Block and Delete” called “Private Mi Page”. While Alkaline sounded off on “stubborn” gyals online, Ishawna called out the thirsty, bitter guys that you know are creeping your IG without the follow. “You block me, but you still alert / @mslegendary inna your recent search / You cyan style good pussy gyal, a me delete you first.” Ouch. She’s playing, but she cuts deep.

Ishawna’s a smart lyricist, and has a talent for taking elements from dancehall, the big R&B beats and smooth jazz lines to create some serious bangers. Moving between Kingston and Brooklyn, New York, and though she’s had mentors in her father Don Angelo and famous selector and producer, Foota Hype, she’s come to find her sound on her own.

PATORANKING

‘Ranking’ in Jamaican slang means ‘chief’, or highly respected, and Patoranking is definitely leading the pack with a fighting, ambitious spirit. The Nigerian dancehall-reggae artist released his debut studio album, God Over Everything, just last month, with big features from the likes of Wizkid and Elephant Man. Getting into the creative arts as a street jam and carnival dancer, he grew musically by producing DIY records with underground artists around his home Ebute Metta.

His music draws attention to the socio-political issues that cause him concern, illustrating dancehall’s inherent morality: he speaks of his love of his community, and the struggles of growing up in the Nigerian ghetto that’s informed his perspective. In 2014’s “Girlie O”, he speaks to a woman who’s suffered domestic abuse.

SPICE

The St. Catherine-born artiste spit and wined onstage with Popcaan and the Mixpak crew at Culture Clash a few months ago, leaping into the splits to tell rival clash team leader Wiz Khalifa to “eat mi pum-pum”. Spice calls dancehall don Professor Nut one of her major influences – an artist who effectively combined comedy and social commentary with dancehall. It’s this level of wokeness with a comically acid tongue that makes Spice, Spice.

She’s been in the game since she was 17, performing on local cable TV stations, and her debut EP So Mi Like It put Spice up on the pedestal she deserves as the contemporary queen of dancehall. With tracks like “Conjugal Visit” she showed a fluid sensuality, whereas “So Mi Like It” she’s calling on women to break free and “skin out my pum-pum”. “Like a Man” successfully clapped back at a male-dominated industry to a killer beat, and “Whinne Inna Di Dance” illustrates a feminine sexual aggression. Wining her way into the mainstream, she recently appeared on Jeremih and Kid Ink’s “Nasty”.

DEXTA DAPS

Born and bred up in Seaview Garden, Jamaica – an area that’s spawned dancehall and reggae mainstays like Bounty Killer, Shabba Banks and Elephant Man. His childhood was marred by poverty, and his and his community’s struggles are woven through uplifting, sunny tracks.

“I would hear the melodic voices of the kids crying for help, and the sadness of the people. Their voices, and hunger for retribution was very inspiring for me, and made me want to sing songs of happiness and joy,” the artist once said. Daps is one dancehall artist that’s bridged the gap between the OGs and the new gen, working with the likes of Mavado, I Octane and even M.I.A on her new, slow spine-rolling “Foreign Friend”. 

TIFA

Tifa’s first foray into dancehall was with playful “Crawny Gal” and “Bottom of the Barrel” back in 2008 – telling us defiantly even then she’s “not goin anywhere gal, grab a snickers”. Since then, she’s consistently spun out bangers alone or on killer collabs – the DIY dancehall girl group TNT with their tongue-in-cheek mixtape 3 The Hard Way, “Spell it Out” with Dexta Daps and her “Classic Man” freestyle, in which she calls herself a ‘handicap gyal’. Tifa has Blount’s Disease, which affects bone growth, and she’s happily become the musical champion for anyone with a struggle. 

On her last mixtape, 2015’s Stay Away, Tifa celebrated sex in a way even dancehall had yet to touch on – enveloping the female gaze to talk cunnilingus, masturbating and her superior, double-jointed vagina.

KONSHENS

Konshens has been on the scene grafting since 2005 – initially, he was a huge hit in Japan, with a Japan-only release. With an upbringing split between military garrisons and local ghettos, and bold independent artist path, his debut track “Winner” was lauded for his gritty lyrics about working hard and keeping his hustler mentality all along in times of turmoil.

His music recalls the golden days of Gyptian and Sean Paul, encouraging all the dutty wines, bruk upping and serious waist-working.

TOIAN

Toian’s voice is like the physical manifestation of sun beaming through palm leaves, riding the wave of reggae and chilled out dancehall. She’s been on the riddims with Vybz Kartel for “Ice Queen” and released her debut EP “Retrospect” last year. Often compared to a Good Girl Gone Bad Rihanna, Montego Bay-raised Toi molds the vibes with a silky smooth voice.

Her most recent track “Ride the Wave” is one to wine slow to, and it’s screaming for a Vybz or Popcaan remix.

KRANIUM

Kranium is New York’s major dancehall offering. As a city with a huge West Caribbean community birthing many Jamaican dons like Shaggy. 25-year-old Kemar AKA Kranium found his sound in the sweaty, pumping house parties of Queens, recording his smash debut “Nobody Has to Know” in NY, as well as “Lifestyle”, a track dedicated to next gen.

His signing to Atlantic Records – the same as Sean Paul – was a major turning point for the genre, edging it towards the mainstream even in 2014. He’s also one of the reasons for the definite dancehall sound on Rih Rih’s eight studio album ANTI. Now, he’s set up to join Tory Lanez’s I Told You tour.