Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Are we down with the underground? Major Lazer in context

As much as Jamaican music is beloved by underground party people around the world, I don’t see Jamaican dancehall fans seeing themselves as underground party people or counterculture in the way those terms signify in the US. I have seen the term “underground” used here, but I’m not sure what it is used to mean, but it usually doesn’t seem to mean “not striving for top-40 success, material accumulation and wealth.”

Not to say that dancehall doesn’t overlap with ghetto-based, poor-people-based authenticity –uptown is definitely considered ‘less dancehall’ even by uptown people. Uptown meaning wealthy (there really is almost no middle income here, you are either poor or quite rich, although in a place where at least outside the city food falls off trees, poor doesn’t mean exactly what I’m used to it meaning).

Anyway, my experience has been that most folks in music here see mainstream success as the goal, and many respect pop stars and pop music on the basis of its commercial success. Not that they don’t talk about musical quality – but something being “commercial” is a compliment in itself.*

This means that everything that is not dancehall, reggae, and R&B, is super niche audience, and most people don’t much dance or respond to it (this includes dub, sadly). But niche doesn’t mean underground like I’m used to the term being used in the US and Europe. Most folks I know outside Jamaica use underground in the sense of resisting mainstream culture, and often with an anti-capitalist or anti-commercial attitude. There’s something going on here that relates to Birdseed’s mention of counterpublic vs. counterculture, maybe? But in a weird way… Niche non-dancehall tends to correlate with uptown, and with “cosmopolitan (but well-off).”

I don’t know for sure how the Major Lazer scene is framing themselves, but it seems like there is a sort of counter-culture vibe going. Maybe I’m wrong, and “we want to be top-40 mall music” is part of the plan? It doesn’t seem like it exactly. I get the sense that they want at least enough ties to resistance or underground scenes to stay “cool” in the eyes of tastemakers.. which again in the US is quite a different thing than in Jamaica. There’s definitely a ghetto-authenticity-“street-cred”-seeking vibe too, which I’ll address more below.

Anyway, as my own djing crosses more over into Major Lazer/Diplo style these days (although from the even less commercial side, from breakcore, jungle, dubstep, glitch, and dub). From the first time I played in JA I thought that big crowds, or especially street dances and audiences in JA would not be likely to get it – or if audiences did get into what I was doing, it would be in a different way than it was intended.

This has been true for me = I have dj’d here in Kingston, but for audiences and crowds quite different than those I play for in San Francisco, in the US generally or in Europe. Anything not reggae, or not seen as Jamaican, and not pop, is understood as “alternative” and becomes at least partlyt a marker of uptown, cosmopolitan people. A simple visual – the parking lot outside the club I play here are dominated by shiny Range Rovers, Prados, and even Escalades (and in Jamaica, a third-world country, there’s a 100% tax on cars.. so they are twice what they cost in the US which sets the owners even farther away from the poor majority and any concept of ‘middle class”). Compared to where I play elsewhere where it’s bikes, old Japanese imports, a veggie bus or two, 2 and 4-door sedans, and the occasional Scion.

So a few months ago I heard from a friend that Diplo wanted to play in Jamaica and wanted to get onto the decks at a real street dance. I wouldn’t have advised that. Necessarily. Unless they are super thick-skinned and don’t mind pissing off a crowd. Perhaps if they could bring their own dancers and hype crew and MCs, people who will raise the energy level (and be part of the audience), that could attract interest.

But I think the crowds here are mostly not interested in pushing boundaries musically – at least not without serious attention to the local conventions of dancehall djing – people want specific tunes, in a specific order – for example, a big R&B/hiphop tune from the US, followed by the Jamaican versions over the same riddim, peaking with the biggest Jamaican version. This was one of the things that got a wheel-up at the Major Lazer show. But it’s not anything you don’t get from any decent dancehall soundsystem any night of the week.

Still, it’s a nice moment in any Jamaican dancehall party I’ve been to. I think it’s a rush of local pride –taking the riddim/instrumental of a big tune from foreign and doing Jamaican vocals on it. I think people are excited to hear their language –patois- and their issues/experiences associated with a globally famous instrumental. The instrumental definitely matters – as far as I can tell it has to be one that’s already big on the pop charts – but it’s not just vocalists riding on the coat-tails of Americans. For one thing, many of those Americans are doing the same thing but more covertly, or without expecting American audiences to recognize their sources. For another, I do think there’s an element of “answering” or taking over the pop tune and making it Jamaican. Something people get a rush out of.

However, as a DJ concern, again, it’s not new music per se that makes an audience here happy –dancehall audiences appear to happily listen to, and demand, the same songs every week, even the same song several times in a night. The songs change, but pretty slowly by my estimation – Mr. Vegas’ “I am Blessed” has been big here since I came in January, as has Mavado’s “So Special” and of course the almighty “Ramping Shop” and a slew of other daggering tunes (RDX’s “Bend Over” etc), and lots of Elephant Man’s dancing tunes, especially “Sweep.”

The point being, if you don’t include that stuff, people don’t get into it much at most mainstream events. Even at the uptown “alternative” events, most people don’t really dance except to dancehall. They dance a lot less than at downtown events anyway. But overall, even when I’ve gotten nods and smiles and compliments on my djing, it never translates into dancing except for a very few people (some of whom are gay --but also uptown and cosmopolitan-- speaking of subcultures or counterpublics). So I’m not surprised at the reception of the show last week. And I’m not now, given what I have learned, surprised that the place that has been most welcoming to me musically has been the artsy, uptown, alternative crowd.

For whom, by the way, I am djing, as well as everyone else who can afford the cover, tomorrow night at club FICTION, in Marketplace, Kingston Jamaica. And Thursday I will accompany an art opening at Olympia Arts Center, in front of U-Tech on Hope Road…

* People do criticize lyrical content, and commercialism gets mixed up in that sometimes. People imply or say outright that bad content is done for the money, where real art is done for the message. But this is all mixed up with commercialism of distribution – Payola is apparently a huge problem, so radio djs and other promoters of the music get paid to play music. So this means people talk more about how if only we could get the bad content out of the way (that is being put forward by people for some bad reason like being paid for it), then the good stuff would have commercial success ‘naturally’ because it is better.


  1. Jon Caramanica's live review of Major Lazer is worth reading - NYTimes.com somewhere. Best track on the LP isn't on the LP - Prince Zimboo freestyling on "Hold the Line" on Youtube...

  2. Great post, I've been loving all your stuff from Jamaica. This part:
    "But overall, even when I’ve gotten nods and smiles and compliments on my djing, it never translates into dancing except for a very few people (some of whom are gay --but also uptown and cosmopolitan-- speaking of subcultures or counterpublics). So I’m not surprised at the reception of the show last week. And I’m not now, given what I have learned, surprised that the place that has been most welcoming to me musically has been the artsy, uptown, alternative crowd."
    Would this be different in the U.S.? Maybe SF has its own thing going on, but from shows I've seen with glitch, breakcore, other more leftfield electronica mixed with tropical/hip hop, the crowd and vibe seems really similar. College educated, whiter, into art & underground stuff, often not really dancing that much...

  3. Thanks for the nice words, and thanks for commenting!

    Overall, I would say yes my experience has been totally different in the US. That was the contrast I was writing about here - what my expectations are given my 12 years experience as a DJ in the US and Europe and canada, vs. how people respond in JA. I regularly play to crowds of people dancing like maniacs, especially at Surya Dub. And when I go to, say, Tormenta Tropical here in SF, that's what I see. Any detailed reports from the Dutty Artz parties in NY? AS for breakcore - I think dancing has been a big part of it, and whatever it's mutating into seems pretty dance-oriented.

    SO, yeah, basically most places I have djed (which is a lot at this point - 15 countries and counting) I see people dancing to what I play. JA was a surprise to me for that reason.

    But in rereading your comment, too, the phrase "leftfield electronica" suggests a different vibe than the other music I'm talking about, maybe more like what I think you're getting at? Basically that phrase implies coffee house music, to me at least. Not at all the vibe I get from the music I play (to which people in JA respond as if it's coffeehouse music).

  4. Ok, fair enough. I think my experiences have been a little different. Leftfield electronica might be a bad term, I was thinking of like IDM-ish/breakcore stuff, as it seems like that crowd has moved in a dancier direction. When I see that mixed in with dancehall, hip hop, tropical whatever whatever, it's in venues trying to attract hipper more cosmopolitan crowd, sometimes indie rock venues.