Last month, avant-dance label Fade to Mind shared their latest release in the terrific debut EP from Brooklyn artist Rizzla, real name Brian Friedberg—that is, if you don't count 2012's kind of unofficial Official Bootleg release. Stylistically, Iron Cages runs the gamut from dembow and hardstyle to soca and dancehall, but the EP's real through-line is its ferocious insurrectional spirit, taking on histories of colonization, gender inequality, transmisogyny, and capitalist exploitation. Not coincidentally, the release named after George Takaki's influential 1979 study about race and culture in 19th century America, which in turn takes its name from German theorist Max Weber's studies of life under capitalism.
A bit unusually for a club producer, Friedberg also has a Master's degree in culture and communication—his 2010 thesis, We Take Control: Ballroom and the "Nu World," involved a study of the connection between ballroom and dancehall cultures partly based on his experience living in Trinidad and traveling the West Indies. On top of that, he recently began an NYU graduate school program in music technology, where he's pursuing a thesis on Carnival acoustic studies. As you might expect, Caribbean culture also plays a very significant role in Friedberg's music; along with dancehall, soca, and bubbling, the artist has cited icons of Black cultural resistance such as CLR James, Marcus Garvey, and Leonard Howell as foundational to his work, as well as the history of liberation in the Caribbean in general.
Considering his wildly expansive knowledge of dancehall, we thought it would be interesting to ask Rizzla about his favorite of the riddims—ie, instrumentals typically used for multiple songs—in the genre, irrespective of era or subgenre. What follows is the little history lesson he gave us in return, which he presented with the following disclaimer: "Anything can be lost in translation."
1) Poco Man Jam Riddim (Steelie and Clevie, 1990)
Starting with a brief, obligatory mention of the now 25-year-old riddim that pretty much gave birth to reggaeton. Enough said.
2) Playground Riddim (Jeremy Harding, 1997)
Producer/tastemaker Jeremy Harding's "Playground" gives you an immediate sense of foreboding and excitement, like you've walked into a heavily fortified garrison guarded by the assassin girl from Belly and you're not sure if she's gonna let you live. There were lots of hit songs on the riddim, but I like the instrumental in its stripped-down naked fury, and "Nike Air" makes every knee buckle in anticipation to this day. Represents the best of late 90s dancehall in all respects, and that beat hasn't aged at all.
3) Soca Escape Riddim (Hemo & Moofire, 2002)
Staples of the Japanese Dancehall and Soca scene, DJ/Producer team Hemo & Moofire have made beats for artists at home and abroad, the two women's biggest crossover into the Caribbean market being the "Soca Escape Riddim." I guess this would count as "groovy soca" or "ragga soca"; the voicings are all hype, ranging from weed anthems to romance to burn-out tunes. Definitely the first time I'd ever heard Bunji Garlin (with Benjai no less) on a weed track. Super influential to my taste in soca.
4) Doctor's Darling Riddim (Seeed, 2004)
When I lived in Trinidad, there was this little culture club in Tunapuna I went to with some friends. We bought some spliffs in the bathroom and lurked with a few uptown students we met at the university. At one point, the DJ started yelling and loosing his shit in joy over this one couple dancing, kills the music in celebration, and then "It's a Pity" happened—over and over again. 10 rewinds, almost 15 minutes straight of Tanya Stephens' signature classic back-to-back. Psychedelic, hyperemotional, violently romantic, it shook my body and burned into my brain. We had to leave shortly thereafter cause one of the girls I was with got wayyyy too high. It took me a few frantic days to track down a copy of what I had actually heard. Germaican (German-Jamaican, look it up) band Seeed versioned Gregory Isaac's classic "Night Nurse" into a more contemporary dub track. Anthony B's "Waterpumpee" is another standout on this riddim.
5) Sidewalk University Riddim (Jam 2, 2006)
With a huge lineup of vocalists, this was a who's-who of dancehall stars in the mid 2000s. Really deliberate percussion with a satisfying frequency range, a great layered kick, and dexterous lyrics across the board. Super satisfying leading click in there that makes blending with this riddim so much fun. My favorites are Collie Buddz's pitched up "Wild Out," and of course mama Lady Saw's sexually reverent "Suddenly." A lot of the "burn out" homophobia on some of the throwaway tracks that would sound (hopefully) more out of place today.
6) Inevitable Riddim (Skatta, 2006)
I think I cried a little the first time I heard this riddim. Legitimately had a euphoric breakdown. Tanya Stephens complains to producer Skatta on her version, "What is this Skatta, techno?," and then, "Take a house beat and still make it yard." It's slightly awkward, stuttering proto-trancehall that never achieved much popularity, though it did spawn a small hit in Ce'cile's "Talk Talk" (and later spawned a few house mixes). Dubbel Dutch did an excellent club reimagining of "Inevitable" a few years ago as well.
7) Hot Water Riddim (Madd Spider, 2012)
Miami-based Madd Spider and his pseudonyms/collaborators/hallucinations brought back a digi-ragga futurism to mainstream dancehall with "Wifey Anthem." The chunkiness of this production stands out to me—it's complicated and streamlined simultaneously. Those main kicks are thick and satisfying with anything that can accurately reproduce bass. Some rougher content tunes on this one, but "Gyal Fool" is the standout club banger. Chipmunk ragga.
8) Overproof Riddim with Lime (Justus, 2012)
More ragga/soca hybrids. The Overproof Riddim was retooled (i.e. "with lime") with soca iron percussion absent from the more laid-back JA original. Slow, precise wining music with trance preset synths that reminds people they're supposed to dance with each other, not just stage-gaze. Mavado or Tifa's voicing on this refix riddim always make it into my midtempo sets.
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