Rap, Reggae, and the West Indian Diaspora in New York

Get ready for New York's J'ouvert festival with this excellent mix and history from Abe Beame.
By    June 30, 2016

jouvert kids
Photo Credit: Phyllis B. Dooney

Abe Beame stocked up at the jerk store.

It starts with King Tubby and dub in the late sixties and early seventies. Tubby was a nerd. He began repairing and rebuilding radios out the back of his mother’s house. He soon moved onto stereos. Tubby designed his own studio equipment which allowed him to play around with source material and out of his studio began isolating elements of the songs he’d produce. He’d separate the instrumental track (or riddim) from its vocals. He’d add delay and reverb, disembodied snippets of other songs, some specific to reggae and some foreign, like the Staples Singers.

But the most important thing Tubby did was introduce an idea: that like a guitar or a drum kit or a bass, a song is an instrument. It’s an instrument that can be played and remixed and reinterpreted in an infinite number of ways. That these interpretations can be as diverse and wide ranging as there are people’s perspectives on Earth to bring to it.

Jeff Chang once wrote that the blues has Memphis, Jazz has New Orleans, and Hip Hop has Jamaica. What he means is that rap as a form largely descended from reggae. The break beat is the offspring of the dub, as rapping has toasting in its DNA. We all know rap came from Seder and Sedgewick but Kool Herc and many of his compatriots didn’t. He came from Jamaica.

New York City is home to America’s largest West Indian population. When we talk about West Indians (In New York) we are referring primarily to Jamaicans, Hatians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans but the region contains a multitude of diverse nationalities from the conglomerate of clustered islands in the Caribbean. From the early 20th century on many of their immigrants have found a home in the five boroughs. With them, they brought culture: food, customs, attitudes, and music.

Rap was born and nurtured in New York so it makes sense that the bond between West Indians and rap is deep. This relationship has expressed itself in a multitude of ways. Brooklyn is home to a large and diverse West Indian population and that influence is felt in the music of many of its native rappers. There’s a rich history of Reggae songs serving as source material for great beats but there are more explicit references.

Biggie Smalls had “Respect” on his debut classic. It’s a Rap song with a sung reggae hook, a staple of that era of New York album Rap. The Boot Camp Click hails from Brownsville, Crown Heights, and Bed Stuy. Their heritage can be felt in their delivery, with lapses of patois interspersed through their bars. Outside King’s County Phife was a Trini gladiator in Queens and KRS-1 wore his Jamaican heritage on his sleeve in the South Bronx.

Ragga music is one of the more fascinating examples of cultural cannibalism to be found in the modern cannon. That is the influencer eventually coming under the influence of its progeny. The term represents a genre of Reggae under the influence of Hip Hop, electronic equipment and specifically sampling is involved in production. The genre title is short for Raggamuffin, a British colonial colloquialism that referred to the colonized impoverished youth.

It was appropriated by that same youth as a badge of honor, one of a rude boy, a survivor, and it’s a fitting moniker to the genre. It would be difficult to conceive what Bob Marley would make of Cutty Ranks or Buju Banton. This is the generation Bob didn’t live to see, who grew up not just in his shadow, but in the blood soaked ghettoes that Michael Manley, Edward Seaga, and the IMF wrought.

As reggae evolved in the ’80s and ’90s it changed radically. The subject matter changed as the very tone changed. The patter went from sung to spit, from spiritually conscious positivity to a mostly amoral confrontational cynicism. The BPMs increased and with them the swagger transformed, a certain menace inserted itself. The women would fill their chat with explicit sexuality, the men with graphic violence. It’s unquestionably the mark of Hip Hop making its stamp on the culture, and the music followed suit.

In New York, pioneers like Bobby Konders made the insight around the same moment Puff Daddy made his at Uptown. As Diddy took gritty rap beats and paired them with R&B vocals, Konders was taking Super Cat and laying his vocals over Brand Nubian, making them more palatable to a New York audience who actually started listening to the island music their neighbors blared incessantly.

On the accompanying mixtape you’ll hear a number of these remixes. What’s interesting is how the exact same vocals, transported to a rap beat, infuses the same lyrics and melodies with different energy. The reggae vocals can be alien at times or they can sound more at home over a familiar rap beat than they do over their original source material. Traces of the same DNA that have always been there, that can get lost in packaging.

Eventually original production started fusing rap and reggae. Lil Vicious’ “Nika” off his album Destination Brooklyn hears the fourteen year old spitting over a “Footsteps in the Dark” flip the same year Biggie did. On the song, Vicious goes off employing an intensely musical flow that in many ways is a precursor to the rap-sung style prevalent in mainstream Hip Hop today. This also can help explain why dancehall and West Indian genres are having a moment right now, imprinting themselves back onto Hip Hop and R&B in what has become an endless incestuous cultural echo chamber.

Ragga is a story of assimilation. It’s a music and a people setting down roots in a new place, getting comfortable and announcing themselves as not just followers of culture but shapers of culture. Appropriating appropriation and creating something that is at once familiar and wholly original. It’s the evolutionary path of popular music in this country in the Twentieth Century and genres like Ragga are a very fitting postmodern ending.

In two months, the Summer of 2016 will end and on the last night in Brooklyn they will barricade a horseshoe of a parade route that begins on Eastern Parkway, snakes down Flatbush along Prospect Park and empties out onto Empire Boulevard. That night men and women of all ages will cover themselves in body paint and glitter and baby powder and feathers and flags: Dominican, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Trinidadian, Grenadan, Bahamian, Antiguan, Barbadian, Cayman, Cuban, and Jamaican among many others.

Enterprising West Indian men and women will set up Weber grills on street corners or plug in steam tables with long snaking extension cords back to their apartments and the air will carry the scent of jerk chicken and jerk pork and goat curry and jerk shrimp and snapper escovitch and stewed oxtail which will mingle with chronic smoke and tobacco smoke and malt liquor and grain alcohol and homemade ginger beer and fruit juice. Music will be coming from everywhere, car speakers and apartment windows and boom boxes bungee tied to push carts and parade float speakers and you’ll hear everything:  King Tubby and The Isley Brothers and The Gap Band and Jeru The Damaja and Mad Cobra and Biggie Smalls and The Staple Singers and Mobb Deep and Popcaan that will pile on top of each other and create this incredibly dense wall of sound.

And the people will march and dance to this wall of sound. Strangers will wine on each other and shout illegibly about nothing and everything, and they’ll be celebrating the homes they left but also they’ll be celebrating the strange home they’ve made for themselves here in New York. And you’ll be so fucked up trying to distinguish The Isley Brothers from Mobb Deep which is impossible and not even worth the effort if it was possible, but you can sway to the collective rhythm of a dozen songs spanning fifty years fairly easily, and what you’ll find is that every once in a while these disparate songs and styles delivered at wildly diverse speeds kind of converge in one place. The snare hits click or a bassline finds harmony with another bassline and just for a second everything makes a kind of sense before scattering back into the dense wall. Because everything is a riddim.

DOWNLOAD:

ZIP: Abe Beame’s Raggamuffins Mix

 

Tracklist:

  1. Mad Lion- Take it Easy
  2. Lil Vicious- Nika
  3. Shabba Ranks- Original Woman
  4. Jr. Demus- You a Bad Boy
  5. Buju Banton- Make My Day (Kenny Dope Remix)
  6. Cutty Ranks- Limb by Limb
  7. Super Cat- Dolly My Baby (Bad Boy Remix)
  8. Bobby Konders & Massive Sounds- Mack Daddy
  9. Burro Banton- Boom Wa Dis (Hip Hop Remix)
  10. Lady Apache- Rock and Comeen (Nite Time Remix)
  11. Beenie Man- Romie
  12. Bounty Killer- Just Dead (Shook Ones Riddim)
  13. Cutty Ranks- Living Condition
  14. Jackal The Bear- For Real
  15. Super Cat- Ghetto Red Hot (Hip Hop Remix)
  16. Jamal Ski- A Piece of Reality
  17. Patra- Queen of the Pack
  18. Buju Banton- Champion (Remix)
  19. Mad Lion- Shoot to Kill
  20. Kali Ranks- Kill Dem All
  21. Rayvon- Pretty (Before I go to Bed)
  22. Super Cat- South Central (Outstanding Mix)