Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.


A Rough Guide to the Irie Jamboree

You should attend this weekend’s Irie Jamboree in Queens for three very simple reasons: It will start on time, run smoothly, and deliver all of the artists advertised. I’m not being facetious here: Plenty of reggae shows, let alone all-day outdoor ones featuring more than two dozen acts, can’t boast any of the above. This seven-year-old annual institution owes its reputation as the most buzzed-about domestic reggae event of the year—and an instant fixture on the West Indian Day Parade–dominated Labor Day–weekend circuit—in part to stellar organizational qualities.

There are, of course, more vibesy selling points—the lineup, namely: a charily selected mélange of hot new acts and oldies-but-goodies, all of whom are well aware that half-assed performances will not fly at this show. This year’s concert—staged, for the first time, on the campus of York College—portions these acts into three segments representing the history of Jamaican music: a vintage reggae and rockers set, a contemporary roots-reggae set, and a dancehall set.

It’s true that what is most glaring about this year’s lineup is who’s not on it—a misfortune that the promoters, for the most part, can’t be blamed for. Reggae-soul singer Jah Cure (who rose to fame while incarcerated in Kingston on rape charges, recording music from his cell) has not been granted a U.S. visa since being freed two years ago. Also on the “visa-denied” list, and thus also not taking the stage, is the most scandalously popular act in Jamaica right now: dancehall motormouth Vybz Kartel, having lately released a slew of songs with choruses about, say, taking one girl’s virginity and “breeding” another—tunes so reprehensibly slack that you feel guilty about loving them.

Finally, Kartel’s arch rival, the “gangster-for-life” Mavado, is not on the bill, though he is (for the time being, at least) in possession of a visa. Adept at talking girls and guns with an intonation more melancholy than the blues, Mavado won’t be clashing with his nemesis this Labor Day.

Perhaps it’s a deliberate omission—Irie’s lineup eschews controversy in favor of homage. Which brings us to our first headliner: Sean Paul. Or, rather, Sean Paul’s dancers; they’re the ones you’ll really be watching while he’s onstage. That’s because, as reggae fans know, Paul is not the most, well, vivacious of performers. But he is wicked in the studio, as his new album Imperial Blaze proves yet again (and he will, indeed, show up, his PR folks say, despite backing out of a free Brooklyn show at Wingate Field last week on doctor’s orders). So even if he can’t do the latest dances, he can deftly deliver tunes like his latest single, “So Fine,” which adheres to the winning Sean Paul formula: Pared-down dancehall beats plus rapid-speed, monotone delivery equals poster-child status.

A great performance is likely to come from dancehall sing-jay Mr. Vegas, living proof that dancehall believes in reincarnation. Vegas all but had a fork sticking out of him several years ago, before a string of tunes, most with an alluringly old-school flavor, resuscitated his career, which is a good thing because he can work the stage brilliantly, his glistening six-pack on display. His latest sing-along hits, “Up Deh” and “I Am Blessed,” suggest that he’s on a gospel kick. This means shirtless wining of the waist and praising of the Lord will not be mutually exclusive.

Among those rounding up the crowd-drawing dancehall segment are Assassin, an always dependable (sometimes too dependable) DJ; boy-band turned man-band T.O.K., harmonizing tunes off their new album Our World; lone female dancehall act Spice, whose 2008 duet with Kartel, a meticulous roadmap for kinky sex called “Rampin’ Shop,” almost single-handedly sparked a censorship movement on Jamaican airwaves; and two new artists getting their stripes this year, Laden and Chino.

These last two are not so much full-fledged artists as vehicles for their feted producer, wunderkind Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor—also responsible for, among many hits, Sean Paul’s “So Fine.” The McGregor signature sound (hip-hop-tempo beats laced with a hyper-articulated, singsong flow, never short on AutoTune or other enhancements) is having a cloning effect on its beneficiaries. Chino (who had a stint with Southern hip-hop label Slip-n-Slide Records) and Laden (who got his start on Jamaica’s version of American Idol, a/k/a Digicel Rising Stars) sound a lot like each other, and both sound a lot like sanitized versions of Mavado and Kartel rolled into one (which is, redeemingly, a potential powerhouse of a combination).

Coincidentally, the 19-year-old McGregor ties the new-school dancehall segment and the vintage set together. The producer is the son of rock legend Freddie McGregor, also on the bill—the father will doubtless deliver a flawless set of classic tunes that are very, very different from the ones that his son is making. Much of the old-school segment will be a chance for those of a certain generation to lament this fact, luxuriating in nostalgia and imagining that all music was better back in the day. Coxson Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, which produced hits by everyone from Bob Marley to almost all of the artists on this part of the lineup, will be well represented: Ken Boothe will croon sweetly and impeccably, Pinchers will chat about giving her “the agony,” and pioneering artist/producer Sugar Minott will perform new tracks off his New Day album (yep, he’s still making albums).

Between the old and the new is contemporary roots, made from both—the spiritual content of classic roots cloaked in the bold brashness of dancehall. Case in point: Queen Ifrica, a highly anticipated act on the roots segment, which also features Guyanese artist Natural Black, singer Etana (a kind of Jamaican Jill Scott), and Tarrus Riley, the stellar singer-songwriter whose operatic vocals and enchantingly writerly lyrics make his new album Contagious one of the best reggae releases in years.

Ifrica is a woman in a male-dominated industry, yes, but, more notably, she hit it big without presenting herself as one of the two extreme personas that reggae typically reserves for women: desexualized empress or oversexed diva. In fact, the Rasta artist, whose sophomore album Montego Bay came out this month, plays with both and limits herself to neither, singing in calculatingly un-sexy tones about what her man has going on “below the waist,” then hailing Jah as a “lioness on the rise.” Every Irie Jamboree has a show-stealer, and this year—among the dozens of artists, big-name and small-, on the bill—I put my money on a lioness. All hail the Queen.

The Irie Jamboree takes place September 6 at York College in Queens


Strictly the Best, Vol. 37 and 38

In a genre as singles-driven as reggae, mixtapes rule. Compilations are the next best thing, though, so VP Records churns them out liberally: The Reggae Gold series is its annual crossover-friendly collection (translation: hip-hop remixes and liberal doses of Sean Paul), while Strictly the Best titles serve up hot tunes designed with the massive, as opposed to the masses, in mind. The latest two editions of the latter are a convenient Who’s Who of reggae’s fresh new talent, a crew best described as righteous—in every sense of the word.

Take Tarrus Riley, one of the best Jamaican singer/songwriters to come along in years. His signature accessory—small, round glasses that aren’t tinted, and thus not a cooler-than-thou fashion statement—says it all: Specs-and-locks imply a rootsy, intellectual vibe, and that’s what’s oozing from his music. In a voice that borders on operatic, he seduces with humbly reverential love songs made of complete sentences: “Let me get my words right and then approach her,” he croons on “She’s Royal.” He also sings smart anti-violence tunes like “Protect Yuh Neck,” never crossing the line from righteous to self-righteous.

Speaking of toeing the line, DJ/singer Munga has no problem following a lyric like “gangstas don’t play around”—from the high-voltage tune “Eathquake”—with “praise Rastafari, first place,” because he’s the “gangsta Ras,” a whopping contradiction of a moniker that hasn’t thrilled Jamaica’s devout Rasta community but certainly excited the crowd at this summer’s blockbuster Irie Jamboree concert, where his electrifying chat about sex and/or Selassie stole the show. That’s a real feat for a studio-enhanced artist whose irresistible hit tracks—including the hip-hop–flavored, self-identifying big-up “I Come to Take My Place”—are awash in what might as well be dubbed “the T-Pain Effect.”

One could write a whole dissertation about women in reggae—starting with the near lack thereof—but suffice it to say that female Mungas have been few and far between because the Madonna-whore complex reigns: Women hail sex or Selassie, but not both. Etana and Queen Ifrika, then, might change the game. Both powerful singers, both more Madonna—er, Empress—than whore, they don’t overlook the body while singing about their souls. Etana’s voice is heavy and rich, and she sounds sultry even as she exhorts against “hiding the truth from the youth” on “Roots.” Queen Ifrika’s flat voice, meanwhile, is a perfect fit to capture death’s despair in “Genocide,” and used to brilliant comic effect in “Below the Waist,” a romp of a tune about a fighting couple whose fights usually end with his command: “Put on your thong, baby.”

Jamelody sings reggae-soul, too, but he’s notable not so much for his tune—”Give Thanks,” standard Praise-Jah fare—as for his origin: Trinidad, where a crop of roots-reggae artists, from I Sasha to Prophet Benjamin, are rising, ready to give all the Jamaican acts above a run for their money.


Gift of Gab

Every teacher has a would-be prodigy: a student brimming with brilliance, but more enamored with spitballs than scholarship. Tortured by wasted potential, the teacher remains haunted by hope that soon, antics will yield to academics.

Vybz Kartel is the would-be prodigy of dancehall reggae. In the late ’90s he was ghostwriting for Bounty Killer; within several years his distinct voice—hyper-articulated yet so thick with Patois, it’s indecipherable to the untrained ear—graced every other riddim on Jamaican airwaves. Lyrically voracious, he’s the anti–Sean Paul: Most Kartel tracks don’t deliver slick hooks or crossover-ready choruses; they offer tongue-twisting verses that swallow the riddim altogether. In Kartel’s musical economy, words, not beats, are currency, and Kartel spends liberally.

But his third album,J.M.T.—an uneven set of hits and misses, mostly singles released since his now-classic 2003 debut, Up 2 Di Time—reveals what lofty subjects Kartel, 27, spends most liberally on: cocks and glocks. Regarding the latter he is winningly bombastic: “Dem bwoy dem have no gun/Dem bwoy dem have no rifle/Dem collapse like Twin Tower but I am the Eiffel” (“Gun Session”). On the former he alternates between atrociously unsubtle—”I neva nyam pussy,” goes one plodding chorus—and skillfully lewd: On “Rough Sex,” he wants to “make you feel more steam than rice a just cooked.” Such tracks are the musical equivalent of spitballs: rude and crude but, artfully delivered, undeniably amusing.

They turn maddening, however, in light of “Emergency”—arguably among the most compelling dancehall tracks ever released. Over the wailing “Siren” riddim, Kartel—posing “a couple question from a likkle deejay”—hurls a searing indictment of political violence at Jamaican politicians, called out by name: “Question: Kingston make no AK?/Question: How gun come inna J-A?/Question: Who run the wharf and the airport, the docks and the bay?” Such lyrics, like those of “Dutty Landlord,” an attack on Jamaican slumlords, make Kartel’s potential painfully clear: When he privileges politics over pussy, and applies his dazzling gift of gab to subjects sexier than sex, Kartel is unparalleled—dancehall’s true prodigy.


Balancing Act

What’s up in Jamaica right now is the murder rate. Should the homicides continue at their current pace—over 1,180 since January—Jamaica could end the year with the highest per capita murder rate in the world. What’s that got to do with Shaggy, Sean Paul, and other dancehall acts releasing albums this fall? Nothing. And that’s their and dancehall’s potential dilemma. Violence isn’t new to Jamaica; neither is dancehall’s role as escapism-cum-therapy. But when flamboyant dancer Gerald Bogle Levy— virtually a symbol of dancehall itself—was murdered in Kingston in January, a line was crossed: The sacred realm of the dance, outré sanctuary from the harsh realities of ghetto life, had been bloodied. More than ever, the conscious, one-drop reggae that began dominating the scene last year better fits the national mood. Soothing or seething, roots had enough fire to trivialize dancehall: The massive willie-bounced while Kingston burned.

Dancehall DJs, then, have been left pondering the line between fun and frivolous. They can lyrically address the violence, but they’d best mind the way they talk; corporate sponsors, campaigning to clean up the gun talk, are shopping for scapegoats. So on his respectable debut, Infiltration, Spragga Benz protégé Assassin takes tepid jabs at the system—lamenting his Gangsta City, or wondering why “If Saddam have so much bomb, dem cyaan find it”—but his most dramatic statement is his signature cry, bellowed fast and furiously: “A murder!” That says it all, even if it’s meant metaphorically: À la Bounty Killer, Assassin uses an enunciated, booming baritone to pummel the riddim into submission. He does this best in “As a Man,” a thrilling torrent of jabber tailor-made for Steely & Clevie’s delightfully off-kilter “Sleepy Dog” riddim, and “Idiot Thing,” in which Assassin curtly assails the foolish: “Man a dress up in a name brand suit, nah mind him yute—a idiot ting dat!”

Other DJs have experimented with an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach. They’ve tried singing over one-drop riddims, with results that sometimes—Bounty Killer’s “It’s OK,” Vybz Kartel’s “Can’t Move We,” Elephant Man’s “As Far as My Eyes Can See”—sound surprisingly sweet. Or they’ve joined the reggaetón revolution. “Rah Rah Remix”—off Elephant Man’s Red Bull of a new album, Ova Di Wall—is a compelling Caribbean mash-up featuring Daddy Yankee and Pitbull, whose verses re-enact musical history: And dancehall begat hip-hop, and their coupling begat reggaetón.

Shaggy and Sean Paul, though, haven’t much pondered their own relevance. Their new releases gaily give us more of the same: apolitical bashment music. Shaggy boasts that he’s sold more records than Bob Marley; on Clothes Drop, he struts his stuff with unsurprising pomposity—and proves himself a strikingly skilled DJ. In the best tracks on this uneven album, his sixth, Shaggy’s so-seductive baritone expertly wraps itself around a scintillating Tony Kelly riddim. Shaggy’s big-bamboo routine has never sounded more gloriously over-the-top than in “Ready Fi Di Ride” and “Luv Me Up” (want him to make you “bite your lip and roll up your eyes”?). He drops the tempo and his Mr. Lover Lover guise twice, to get serious: “Repent” is a sober rallying cry, and “Stand Up” ‘s old-school charm is boosted by a 1969 Crystalites sample. But collaborations with Olivia of G-Unit, of Black Eyed Peas, and Nicole of the Pussycat Dolls cheesily grate; generic choruses like “Let me see you get wild tonight” are an insult to vibrant verses.

Shaggy has moaned that he’s been dismissed as a warm-up to Sean Paul, who’s the real deal. But ironically, he has something that Paul lacks. Shaggy’s boombastic routine takes the DJ out of the realm of the real and onto the realm of the concert stage—where Shaggy, merrily transforming his mic into a phallus, delivers, and Paul, visibly struggling to pull off the willie bounce, doesn’t.

What Paul does pull off with The Trinity, though, is an irresistible party record on par with 2002’s Dutty Rock; it’s already scored the highest-ever debut and single-week sales for a reggae artist in SoundScan history. The formula ain’t broke, so Paul doesn’t fix it: Over some of the best riddims of the past two years—Lenky’s demure “Masterpiece,” Black Chiney’s drum-driven “Kopa,” Don Corleone’s tuneful “Trifecta”—he serves up singsong choruses and a flow so impeccably rhythmic, it sounds computer generated. Speed is his friend, preventing rhythmic from turning robotic, sonorous from turning soporific. “We Be Burnin’ ” deliberately repeats “Gimme the Light” ‘s formula; brisk anthemic verses play off a thumping drumbeat, while the chorus is a catchy jingle advertising everyone’s favorite herb.

Ultimately, Paul and Shaggy are exempt from contemplating their music’s relevance, because they’re relevant by virtue of presence alone: As crossover kings who’ve made a world of fans see reggae after Bob, they’re walking Jamaican flags, always and ever statements of Caribbean nationalism. And that can never be trivial.


Pirates of the Caribbean

A recent National Geographic Society survey found that 87 percent of young Americans could not locate Iraq on a map, and 29 percent couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean. Should you think that has nothing to do with the music industry, listen to the story of Kevin Lyttle.

Not long ago, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, he was a customs officer and a struggling singer of soca, an up-tempo Caribbean music that sounds like calypso on cocaine. Visit clubs like Elite Ark in Brooklyn or Rumjungle in Queens in the coming weeks, and you’ll hear it: Soca is music for Caribbean carnivals, and since February launches the most prominent one—in Trinidad and Tobago—carnival revelry will start reverberating in our urban diaspora: at the “Soca Explosion 2K5” concert at Tropical Reflections February 25, or the Elite Ark club’s “Trini Toc Fete” show February 26.

These clubs will feature Lyttle’s breakthrough product, the pleasingly cheesy party ditty “Turn Me On.” He recorded it in 2001 with Vincentian producer Adrian Bailey, and it slowly evolved from Caribbean hit to European smash. In 2003, after touring Canada and Europe—”thousands of people coming out to hear me sing one song,” Lyttle recalls—he knew he had music industry manna: a hit single.

The major labels came knocking. Among them was Atlantic Records, fresh off a Caribbean high induced by Jamaican dancehall sensation Sean Paul. Paul’s album Dutty Rock was nearing double platinum; it had sparked a joint-distribution deal between Atlantic and Queens-based reggae label VP Records, which also landed Elephant Man on pop charts. “Via the VP deal, we gained experience working Caribbean artists into the mainstream,” explains Craig Kallman, co-chairman of Atlantic. “So it made sense to extend ourselves into other islands.”

Atlantic signed Lyttle, but there was one snag: geography. Notoriously oblivious to that which lies beyond our backyard—see above survey—Americans and world music don’t always mesh. We know Jamaica. We know reggae, and maybe even dancehall. But St. Vincent? And soca? “I tell people I’m from St. Vincent,” says Lyttle, “and they say, ‘Where? Is that part of Jamaica?’ ” Breaking a Caribbean singer who’s not Jamaican and not a reggae act is like promoting a hot, caffeinated breakfast beverage that isn’t coffee and isn’t from Starbucks.

Why should this be? Trinidadian music, after all, was Jamaican music before Jamaican music was. Literally: Jamaican mento, which eventually birthed reggae, evolved partly from Trinidadian calypso. And figuratively: Before reggae became the brand name music of the Caribbean, calypso was crossover king. When Harry Belafonte’s 1956 Calypso became the first album to sell over a million copies, record labels were modern-day colonialists, scurrying to import cheap raw goods from Trinidadian studios. “A lot of us got ripped off,” shrugs calypso legend Mighty Sparrow, whose classic “Jean and Dinah” was covered by Belafonte (and, like some 1950s songs by African Americans that were covered by white singers, has yet to earn him a penny of royalties).

But Jamaica soon usurped Trinidad as home base for the Caribbean’s commercial soundtrack. Reggae reigned, thanks to several factors: carnival music’s seasonal nature, which stunted its growth; the Jamaican government’s active promotion of its music industry; and reggae’s embrace of Rastafarianism, which created not just a music but a uniquely, authentically Jamaican culture.

To push Kevin Lyttle, then, Atlantic had to launch a brand. “Have you heard?” a publicist asked me, as “Turn Me On” found U.S. radio rotation. “Soca is the next dancehall.” Media outlets printed summertime “Soca Is Hot!” stories. Lyttle visited Live With Regis and Kelly to explain that “soca,” short for “soul of calypso,” was born in Trinidad, and that it was bacchanalian carnival music. Atlantic shored up the soca saturation by releasing a soca-filled soundtrack to the New Line film After the Sunset. It worked: Lyttle’s surprisingly addictive self-titled album debuted at number eight in Billboard, while “Turn Me On,” a ubiquitous summer smash, earned the dubious distinction of a slot on VH1’s 20 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of 2004 countdown.

“Deluged” (as Kallman put it) with sub-missions from the Caribbean, Atlantic signed another soca act: a fresh-faced singer from Barbados named Rupee, whose single “Tempted to Touch,” boldly reminiscent of “Turn Me On,” has lately triumphed in Billboard. And according to rumors, last month Atlantic signed Trinidadian soca group H2O Phlo, who rival Jamaican quartet T.O.K. for the “coolest Caribbean boyband” title.

“For this era, I humbly follow the blue-print that Island Records and Chris Blackwell laid out back in the day,” says Kallman, referencing Bob Marley’s major-label signing and citing Atlantic’s mission: to “share a wealth of talent from a region of the world that’s incredibly fertile.”

To fans of Caribbean music, this narrative has the ring of familiarity. Remember Shabba Ranks, walking with Nelson Mandela and entertaining Arsenio Hall? Or Super Cat, collaborating with Notorious B.I.G? Both dancehall dons are M.I.A. now, but in the early ’90s, they—like Sean Paul—were bigger than artists; they were ambassadors for a culture whose colors you now see everywhere on Puma’s Jamaica-themed clothing line, on trendy red, gold, and green armbands. From Bob Marley to Sean Paul, Jamaican music has, via select poster children, endured boom-and-bust cycles: One minute it’s America’s jerk-tinged flavor of the month; the next, it’s Chinese leftovers.


Today’s Caribbean crossover boom, however, is flavored by more than just jerk. “Ten, 15 years ago it became hip to be Jamaican,” explains Dahved Levy, host of two Caribbean music programs on WBLS. “And suddenly everyone was Jamaican and everything was Jamaican. Athletics: Jamaican. Music: Jamaican. But in the last few years, people are getting out of that, and you’re hearing about Barbados and Trinidad and St. Vincent.”

And Puerto Rico, adds DJ Buddha. His Caribbean Connection mix CDs blend reggae and soca with reggaeton-Spanish dancehall, which is also enjoying its crossover moment: “Oye Mi Canto,” which sets rapper N.O.R.E. alongside Nuyorican duo Nina Sky and reggaeton veteran Daddy Yankee, has rested in Billboard for over four months now, and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” is following in its footsteps. Buddha says that Yankee—and a host of other reggaeton acts—are being bombarded by major-label offers.

If all this talk of crossover has made you, Caribbean music fan, indignant that your scene is being co-opted—well, get over it. Caribbean music is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than music. In 1997, Jamaica’s recording industry contributed $300 million to the Jamaican economy—as compared to $2 million garnered by music in Trinidad and Tobago. The idea of soca going mainstream has thus thrilled Trinidadian economists; a recent editorial in Trinidad’s Express heralded soca as “our most likely breakthrough product” and welcomed BET’s coverage of Carnival 2005 as part of a “dream which, quite apart from its value as an additional marketing tool, earns hard foreign exchange invariably deposited here.” The Barbados Nation celebrated Atlantic’s signing of Rupee by pronouncing “the need for Barbados to emulate Rastafari by pushing indigenous culture and artist creativity.” Caribbean tourism would wear an altogether different face if the islands were perceived as culture-rich vessels, not vast tanning beds. If this Caribbean crossover boon bears fruit—if soca finds footing without, as purists say, “selling out” in the process—that’s good news. So dare we be optimistic?

Rupee is an optimist. Backstage at Club Exit, where he’s the token non-Spanish act at a reggaeton show, the singer has more positive energy than an AA meeting. For good reason: His dulcet album, 1 on 1, is slated for release this year, and Rupee—light-skinned and poster-child charming—is being heralded as the Sean Paul of soca. Like Paul’s pop-making predecessor Shaggy, though, Rupee garners gripes for not being “authentic” enough to rep his genre: He’s not from Trinidad, birthplace of soca; he likes “blending [soca] with other genres,” he says, in order to “pave the way for pure soca to make it to the mainstream.”

Purity: Rare is the crossover artist said to possess it. But what is “pure” soca? The genre was inaugurated in 1973 by Trinidadian Lord Shorty, who felt the soul of calypso was as multicultural as Trinidad’s population: a near even split between peoples of African and East Indian descent. Hoping to set this cultural pilau to music, Shorty sped up calypso—itself a mongrel of African, Cuban, and European musical forms—and infused it with Indian tones. Once soca was born, it morphed. “Ragga soca” merged soca and reggae; “chutney soca” added dhol drums and sitar; “parang soca” fused soca with Latin Christmas music; “rapso” added rap and spoken word; and this spring VP Records releases a “popso” compilation, which is—well, figure it out. If postcolonialism had a theme song, it would be soca: The music is an exhilarating earful of cultural hybridity that muddles all talk of pure versus impure, selling out versus staying “true.”

Soca’s chameleon-like nature, though, is its blessing and its curse. The genre can blend into playlists smoothly—so smoothly that it’s not called soca anymore but, say, dancehall or r&b (Kevin Lyttle has been deemed both). “We are sometimes known as ‘Trickydadians’—we have the ability to blend in and sound like anybody, act like anybody,” says Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin, whose deep-toned delivery and gangster-happy image evoke Jamaican DJ Bounty Killer. His music is frenetic, hovering at 165 bpms, and given this tempo, Garlin says he’s honed in on a potential niche: “It’s easier for my kind of soca to cross over into the techno or the house market.”

Then there’s Machel Montano, soca’s Beenie Man: a blazingly charismatic child star who grew up to be an industry staple. Montano says he now sees himself and his band Xtatik as “a live outdoor festival group,” a “punk band” that promotes wining, meditating, and moshing: “We’re Rasta alternative-rock soca.” His current carnival hit, meanwhile, is a hip-hop collaboration with Doug E. Fresh.


Montano’s 1996 hit—the house-flavored “Come Dig It”—is one of few soca songs to hit the mainstream. Others are what Rupee calls “grass skirt, drinking-out-of-a-coconut type of novelty music”: “Hot Hot Hot,” recorded in 1983 by Montserrat artist Arrow, covered by Buster Poindexter, and featured at a wedding reception near you; and the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” which won a Grammy in 2000, landed the Baha Men on tour with *NSync, and is featured at a Foot Locker near you.

Both Montano and the Baha Men enjoyed stints at Atlantic. Montano signed in 2001, but claims he was expected to “fall into a machinery that was making a certain type of music—to go pop.” He says he left because “I didn’t want to come off as a solo artist with two dancers and a DAT machine,” but Kallman puts it differently: “We really didn’t quite hit on ignition-type singles that could break [Montano] all the way.” Ditto, Kallman says, for the Baha Men: “Big crossover success is driven by hit records. ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ was a huge hit single; ‘Back to the Island’ wasn’t.”

“Major labels,” industry veteran Levy argues, “do not totally comprehend Caribbean music, and they’re not totally committed to it for the long haul.” The Sean Paul prototype can work magic, but not for everyone. And if overhyped, this major-label model starts looking—to up-and-coming Caribbean acts—like the über-model. Which in turn stunts the growth of a local Caribbean industry that could thrive alongside an international one. “Everybody right now is trying to run to Atlantic to get a deal,” says Bunji Garlin, “but you need to conquer your homeland first. Before we go outside and have a big industry for soca outside, we need to have a proper industry back home in Trinidad.” Garlin laments that it’s taken so long for that to start happening: Last year, Trinidad—mecca of soca—launched its first all-soca radio station, to complement two new soca-driven television networks.

Back in the diaspora, though, Kevin Lyttle is thrilled with his three-album deal (and the vocal trainer who came with it). Kallman ardently vows to continue promoting Caribbean acts while keeping them “fertile in their hometowns and home markets.” And if you listen hard, you’ll hear talk of a U.S.-based network that has yet to announce a launch date, but is, confirms an insider, coming soon: MTV Caribbean—poised to take Caribbean crossover where it’s never been before.


Zagga Zow!

There are no guest rappers on Beenie Man’s new album. I repeat: no rappers on Beenie’s album. In the infamous words of dancehall fan Lil Jon, “Whaat?!” Couldn’t Virgin dredge up just one bottom-of-the-barrel rap star—you know, for that radio-friendly crossover single?

Odder than this omission is the reason for it: Beenie is of the peculiar opinion that Jamaican music doesn’t need to pimp hip-hop in order to sell records—that dancehall, a genre in and of itself, can (gasp!) stand alone. You’ve seen the evidence, from Sean Paul: Before becoming the jerk-flavored side dish to Beyoncé and 50 Cent and Tony Touch, he hit big using only a smooth patois flow.

Beenie Man knows a thing or two about hitting big. He was “the next Sean Paul” back when it wasn’t “the next Sean Paul,” anyway, but “the next Shabba Ranks.” Beenie’s 1998 hit “Who Am I?” landed a Jamaican artist (who’d gone from pint-size child star to quart-size adult superstar, who learned to DJ shortly after he learned to talk) on MTV. He spent years bobbing in and out of the mainstream, getting a crash course in the complex dynamics of musical crossover—dancehall’s equivalent to hip-hop’s “keep it real”: Both involve toeing the fine line between selling and selling out.

Back to Basics is Beenie’s mea culpa for his last two albums—which obliterated that fine line. The final straw, for hardcore dancehall fans, was ’02’s “Feel It Boy,” Beenie’s superpop duet with Janet Jackson. Where, fans lamented, was the old-school Beenie, the one who wanted “a girl with the wickedest slam”—not the wickedest abs? Mercifully, he’s on Back to Basics, a true comeback album that starts with a comeback single. “Dude” is the funnest duet to hit pop radio in years. Attribute that partly to Dave Kelly’s playful “Fiesta” riddim, partly to Miss Thing’s cavalier, nasal-toned homage to “a dude who will tie me to the fan.” But attribute it mostly to Beenie. Only a master of comic delivery could make macho braggadocio so likable. When he describes a girl who wants “a real man; she don’t want a nerd,” one who’s looking for “rude bwoy loving with a little romance,” we know Beenie’s the man for the job.

He spends the album convincing us. Variety is of no priority here; Back to Basics is seduction, straight up. If you, lady listener, don’t come away wanting to bed Beenie, the album has failed. Who wouldn’t want to sleep with an artist known as “the doctor”? For details, consult track four—”Dr. Know,” another spirited ride on the “Fiesta” riddim—or track five, backed by a marching-band beat and advertising Beenie as a “Grindacologist.” He chats ceaselessly, seamlessly about the power of “Mr. Johnny,” his beloved “lead pipe”—and even the iciest princess can’t help cracking a smile. It’s Beenie’s foolproof tactic: Make a woman laugh and she’s yours for life.

So it goes in music: Beenie is dancehall’s king because he’s a brilliant theatrical comedian—the sort you’d find in Jamaican revues or classic British slapstick. Drum-heavy, pared-down riddims behind the thudding “King of the Dancehall,” the beseeching “Get on Bad” and the un-FCC-friendly “P**** Language” showcase what he can do with his voice. He takes it from up here to down there, as if staging conversations with himself; he delivers singsong choruses, slightly off-key; he decorates tracks with signature outbursts—”zagga zow!,” “wha!,” “Selah!”—that stand in for a laugh track. Back to Basics doesn’t always transcend the liability inherent to dancehall albums: Most songs in the genre work best not as finished singles but as 30-second snippets, meant to be sampled in a selector’s riddim-based set. There are plodding tracks here, but also standout collaborations: “D-O or G-O,” in which underrated Jamaican singer Ghost hits higher notes than Menudo ever could, and the choir-backed gospel track “If a Neva God,” which turns Beenie from skirt chaser to God praiser—and leaves us offering our own hosannas: To dancehall, undiluted!

Beenie Man plays the Carifest at Coney Island August 1.


Party Hard

The YoungBloodZ proclaim, “If you don’t give a damn, we don’t give a fuck, HEY!” over a tune as pretty as Prokofiev. Despite their boisterousness, they’re the crunkers with the lightest touch. The raps in Drankin’ Pat-naz show dexterity in accenting offbeats and snaking across measure bars, the beats have a fine time ricocheting around in their lottery bucket, and the accompaniment uses crunk’s typically gorgeous minor-key motifs (there’s as much of this Euroromanticism in Southern hip-hop as in dark metal, though with more of a suspense-movie feel, uneasy anticipation rather than the trudge through the sludge).

But for all the YoungBloodZ’ agility, they feel a need to sound hard and menacing, which can get ponderous over the length of a song. Actually, the single “Damn” is pretty great as is, and has deservedly leaped Top 10. It’s got thick-throated Lil Jon as guest, and it follows his pattern: Compose a bare, eerie melody, wrap gang shouts and kegger cheers around it, imitate a bullfrog, and start bouncing. “Sean Paul” has a beautiful riff—an almost Asian whistle tone—but gets tiring without Jon’s rah-rah to buoy it up. Too much darkness-darkness and not enough euphoria.

Drankin’ Patnaz is fascinating anyway, as a putative party record. (Cleaned up for radio, the rap goes “If you don’t give a damn, don’t throw it up,” or something. Hurl your lunch in the air, and wave it like you just don’t care.) Oddly, a couple of strong tracks are built on the 1990 international house sound (“international house” meaning not the old W.C. Fields flick, but the “Get Ready for This” shrieking-brakes tone that was one of the first widely used house-music clichés outside Chicago) and feature women rappers who slink around enticingly while the guys remain grave.

So strange: “Can you lean low to the floor, can you work it, can you work it, let me know,” spoken in ominous tones appropriate to “As Nazi troops approached the tank-axle factory at Minsk, the gallant Russian women stuck to their posts, and production continued 24 hours a day.” We live in an interesting world.


The Riddims Method

While Sean Paul and other DJs are quick to capitalize on the lucrative potential for overlap with hip-hop, if anything, current dancehall’s debt to American pop is shrinking. Whereas a few years ago Jamaican DJs were falling over each other to proclaim themselves “gangsta,” the predominant mood of the last year has been buoyant, with an avalanche of tracks devoted to dancing itself—often hyping up a particular new dance style, from the butterfly to the blasé. Rappers are usually reluctant to directly acknowledge the purely physical component of their music, perhaps for fear of marginalizing their personas; but so much of Jamaican DJs’ personality is located in the very sound of their fervent torrent of words that their sense of self seems never in doubt.

This is the secret of dancehall’s renewed crossover success: Between the thick patois and the suspended syncopation, its identity is so unshakable that, paradoxically, the music can be anything it wants. The grooves veer from dense bhangra to spluttering electro to frantically strummed Spanish guitar, while DJs sift, vulture-like, through history in search of hooks—the particularly opportunistic Elephant Man, say, bites melodies from “Eye of the Tiger” and “Ding-Dong Merrily on High.” But somehow this diversity never collapses into weak-minded eclecticism, and while dancehall producers have embraced post-Timbaland melting-pot sonics with fervor, there’s an underlying unity of purpose that serves to obscure just how unusual their productions actually are.

Listen to Greensleeves’ Ragga! Ragga! Ragga! 2003 round-up, and you can hear how easily this music ranges across settings and moods. Vybz Kartel’s hypnotic and sensual “Sweet to the Belly” rides the Egyptian riddim’s bubbling tabla, weaving in dreamy gypsy strings and the heavy murmur of a lust-distracted woman, while Mad Cobra’s “Lazy Gal” (on the frantic 20 Cent riddim) is almost lost in explosions of computer bleeps and door-slam beats. Mad Cobra’s performance is fascinatingly bizarre, his hyperspeed chanted verses evoking images of a psychotic knife-wielding gym instructor, while the choruses are sung in a weedy falsetto that’s now eerie, now comic. Recent crops of popular riddims have tended to form a vague consensus that can be traced back to Lenky’s paradigm-busting Diwali: a consensus defined by producers’ studious avoidance of the skeletal frame that for so long made dancehall instantly identifiable.

Often the most thrilling grooves are those that edge closest to preposterousness: the Sign riddim boasts profuse layers of clicking tribal percussion, gibbering flutes, and an insanely pounding tabla that might be menacing if it weren’t so ridiculous. Maybe it’s the counter-intuitive perversity of the arrangements that incites DJs to respond with increasingly familiar and anthemic vocal melodies in an attempt to hold the track together: On “My Dickie” Beenie Man bravely matches Sign’s groove to Missy’s “Work It” flow in an unlikely collision worthy of the Freelance Hellraiser.

Ragga! Ragga! Ragga! 2003 falls well short of comprehensiveness, with an astonishing number of fantastic riddims and performances left uncataloged. Yet for the casual observer, overwhelmed by dancehall’s schizophrenic, sprawling vitality and largesse, it’s an invaluable document: the inviting tip of a vast and enigmatic iceberg.

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Comps Illustrate Both Halves of Reggae’s Dancehall Coin

Best-of collections are to music what Cliffs Notes are to literature. So? They’re still fun for dilettantes and music nerds alike. No one knows this like a reggae fan: Only the ultra-devoted (and pocket-heavy) stay on top of the staggering musical output emerging annually from Yard, where music’s “next big thing” is over before it began.

Give thanks and praise, then, for two very different time-and-money-saving compilations. A ritual for over a decade, VP Records’ Strictly the Best series documents, well, strictly the best crop of current reggae songs. The latest volume, 31, serves up a diverse helping: nostalgic lover’s rock by Beres Hammond; sweet-and-conscious tunes by Sizzla; feel-good dancehall by T.O.K; pop reggae by Shaggy (who, trumped by undiluted dancehall, now seems positively old-school). Throw in the obligatory hip-hop remix—Wayne Wonder featuring Mobb Deep and Fat Joe—and voilà! a West Indian smorgasbord.

But there’s a rub. Track-based reggae “greatest hits” albums are only half the story, because dancehall devotees deal in beats, not songs. Dancehall is born when producers make a riddim (patois for beat) and artists—of statures big and small—write lyrics over it. The result is musical democracy (or, for the cynical, survival of the fittest): If the song is good enough, reggae DJs add it to their sets, which are back-to-back tunes over a series of riddims; if the riddim is good enough, VP or Greensleeves will release it on an entire CD devoted to just one beat—guaranteed to confound the uninitiated.

One beat can go a long way, though, and Jamaicans have long been resigned to producing something from nothing. When listeners didn’t notice that two recent hits (Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” and Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”) had the same Diwali riddim, it exhibited what good dancehall artists do. Paul and Wonder both made a universally available beat their own.

Listen to the popular (and Diwali-esque) Coolie Dance riddim: hypnotic drumming punctuated by claps, the basis of two Strictly the Best tracks that couldn’t be more different. On “Girls Alone,” Sean Paul keeps up with the riddim, spitting lyrics in rapid fire; on “Genie Dance,” Elephant Man slows down the riddim with a nursery rhyme chorus. Or take the Fiesta riddim, an acoustic guitar riff (think George Michael’s “Faith”). Beenie Man—the most joyous man in dancehall—and Miss Thing milk it for a singsongy (and X-rated) pop melody called “Dude”; the hip-hop-styled Baby Cham chats over it gruffly to produce the brilliant “Vitamin S.”

Diwali, Coolie, and other riddims are material for the Greensleeves comp The Biggest Rhythms. Riddims sans songs reveal the recipe used by Jamaican producers like Don “Vendetta” Bennett and Stephen “Lenky” Marsden: deep bass (it’s dancefloor friendly), a dash of synth-born sound effects (the subtler and stranger, the better), and funky names (international connotations desired: Bollywood, Amharic, Egyptian). Some riddims have the tuneful feel of a movie score (Cordell “Scatta” Burrell’s C4 is for that scene in which the hero gets amped for his mission). Others—riding the Diwali wave—are pared down and clap heavy, consisting of simple guitar licks (Good to Go) or bass drum (Sign, which complements intense drumming with snapping and faint jungle sounds).

Pared-down riddims leave artists plenty of room for interpretation—and thus evoke the mantra of dancehall: Be original, or don’t bother. Dancehall artists can’t hide behind a hot beat or expensive producer; without unique personas or chatting styles, they’re out of luck.

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