This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Dancehall has never really had its day in the British sun. There are club nights; Seani B's got his 1Xtra show; and student union DJs occasionally blast a "Rum & Red Bull" chorus. But it's rare you'll see a mention of the genre in the UK's mainstream music press, unless it's to do with Vybz Kartel serving a multi-decade jail sentence or Drake pouting briefly in a Popcaan video.
To me, that makes no sense. For a start: dancehall often charts in the top 20. Secondly: so much UK club music owes a great debt to the genre (jungle, dubstep, funky, and grime, that is; not necessarily the stuff beloved of people who wear Huaraches to nightclubs). Thirdly: every summer for at least the past decade and a half, a dancehall tune has become the go-to good-time jam, whether it's being played in a festival dance tent or off an iPhone on the back of the bus. Even my mom knows the melody to "Hold Yuh," because it was impossible not to get it stuck in your head if you walked anywhere near a car radio in 2010.
So why the lack of appreciation? Because there's not much of a homegrown scene, bar the likes of Stylo G, Gappy Ranks, and Lady Chann? Perhaps—but that theory doesn't really hold up: plenty of coverage is awarded to trap, and you don't get a lot of that coming out of Bournemouth or Bicester.
"In the UK, dancehall has always been bubbling as a foundation—a reference for other sounds," says Ben, an MC and one half of The Heatwave, the London bashment party crew behind the dancehall club night Hot Wuk. "Dancehall's always been a touchpoint that British producers would draw ideas and samples from, but because of being that constant foundation, it's never had the novelty of being a new scene to cover."
"The difference with the UK stuff is that it changes its name every few years, so there's a buzz," adds Gabriel, a DJ and the other Heatwave half. "Dancehall doesn't do that. It changes its sound, and the artists change, but it never changes name, so you can never be like, 'Oh, what's this new sound coming out of Jamaica?' It's still dancehall."
He's right: the dancehall of today is as distinct as grime was from garage compared to the records that came out of Jamaica in 2003, the year The Heatwave put their first night on.
"Sean Paul was big around that time, so you'd hear dancehall in clubs for, like, five minutes in the middle of a hip-hop set, but we wanted to do something where you could hear it all night," says Gabriel. "Obviously there were Jamaican dancehall parties in Hackney, Brixton, Lewisham—but the Jamaican style is more presentational. It's like: play a tune, stop it; play another tune, stop it. We do some of that too, but we mainly play it as dance music, where you're dancing solidly all night. The British clubbing culture coming in."
The early nights were organized by Gabriel and a few of his friends, one of whom is still involved, mixing and mastering the remixes The Heatwave duo produce. It wasn't until about a year in, after the parties had moved to The Rhythm Factory, a larger club nearby, that Ben got involved. "My first official role in Heatwave was just billing spliffs in the DJ booth, trying to be low-key," he laughs. "I was just tagging along, and then I started doing a bit of DJing, and then a bit of MCing."
WATCH: 'Noisey Jamaica,' a series of documentaries on artists from the Jamaican music scene.
By this point, the audience was there. Problem was, getting hold of records for Gabriel to play to that audience wasn't as simple as waiting until payday to drop most of your rent money on a Juno order.
"Back then, dancehall was treated as a bit of a novelty by the mainstream," says Ben. "People were into it almost ironically, so you didn't get any of the majors backing it, or big stores stocking the records."
"This was before YouTube—this was like the LimeWire sort of era," adds Gabriel, referring to the file-sharing site that took quite literally an entire day to download a three-minute song, which—depending on luck and fate and your singular place in the universe—may or may not have turned out to be a low-quality audio ad for an online mattress shop. "So yeah, you had to go on a mission to get the pre-releases. A lot of the stuff I bought direct from Jamaica through mail order, and then we'd go to Dub Vendor, Blacker Dread in Brixton, a couple of places in the West End—a lot of places that don't exist any more."
It was also a little tricky to book live acts for the club nights, mostly because all the dancehall artists lived in Jamaica, not London. "We'd predominantly book jungle, grime, and hip-hop artists who either had Jamaican roots or did a lot of stuff with a dancehall influence—so, like, Rodney P, Klashnekoff, Blak Twang; people like that," says Gabriel. "We were trying to do two things: show how much exciting music was coming out of Jamaica, and also celebrate the fact that so much UK music has its roots in Jamaican music."
A year or so into their Rhythm Factory residency, YouTube came along and gave the scene a boost; dancehall suddenly became widely accessible in the UK. "When we started Hot Wuk—which was in 2009—it had gone from people coming and only really hearing the tunes at our raves, to people coming and knowing them in advance, and seeing the videos and knowing dances that went with certain songs," says Gabriel.
Hot Wuk began as a weekly night in King's Cross and quickly built a dedicated following. "There was a real community around the night there, because it became a kind of focal point for bashment in London. And King's Cross was perfect, because it's central, so people can come from north, south, east, west—and out of town as well," says Ben. "There were some girls who used to come in from Essex. They were legends, those girls."
It was also around this time that Sticky—as in the legendary UK garage DJ—got involved in the night. "He started coming to the raves, then became a resident [DJ], which was mad, because Sticky had always been this big name for me," says Ben. "He was also really helpful in developing the night. When we started, dancehall was so ignored and uncelebrated, but he helped us see that it could be huge. We were playing around England and abroad, and running a blog with a national following, but it still felt really small. He helped us to see that there was this growing audience for it."
That growing audience propelled Hot Wuk from its weekly London spot into a regular monthly night in various cities around the UK. If you've ever been, you'll know how ecstatic an experience it can be; there's no pretension or chin-stroking or lull in the party—just hundreds of people throwing themselves around from start to finish. "Nottingham loves it—there's a big bashment scene up there," says Ben. "It goes off most in the cities where people already go out to all those other UK rave sounds—because you can't help it; if you're into garage or jungle, it clicks when you hear those dancehall vocals and melodies."
In the past five or so years, a bunch of other regular dancehall club nights have sprung up in London and throughout the UK. The proliferation of dancehall parties run like raves is, in part, undoubtedly due to the success of The Heatwave, their nights exposing people to the sound and their Rinse FM show (Monday nights from 11PM to 1AM) keeping you locked in.
While raising the profile of dancehall in the UK is presumably something they're both proud of, I wonder if Ben and Gabriel miss the days when their parties were the only regular, reliable bashment nights outside of London's Jamaican dancehall scene.
"No, it's a good thing," says Ben. "It just means more people are going to hear these tunes, and fundamentally that's what we've always wanted to do. It's not like there are only 500 people wanting to go out to this music now, like it was when we first started; there are thousands of people who are up for coming out and raving in that way."
The next target in Gabriel and Ben's sights is production. While they've been pressing bashment refixes to vinyl pretty much since they started putting on club nights, they're now in the early stages of making their own music. "We used to take a big, say, hip-hop or funky tune, and turn it into bashment—put some vocals on there, or whatever," says Ben. "But then we got to the point where we wanted to put our own spin on the production side of things. In the 80s, there was a real thriving UK dancehall scene that was rated in Jamaica, and we want to bring some of that back—dancehall with a London twist."
The Heatwave's aim is to give dancehall the recognition it deserves in the UK. That doesn't mean trying to court major labels, or diluting the sound to make it radio-friendly, but instead building on the infrastructure they've helped to create, making room for more artists to find their footing and establish a nationwide movement around the music. There are, of course, already pockets of passion up and down the UK—walk around any major city on a sunny Saturday and you'll probably hear dancehall pulsating over concrete and brick somewhere—but nothing on the scale of the various British genres directly influenced by the sound.
One of The Heatwave's recent Rinse FM podcasts (Gabriel, left, and Ben, right)
Notting Hill Carnival this weekend is about the best place in the country to hear a selection of all the various dancehall sounds in one place. While The Heatwave have thrown after-parties and DJ'd on the floats before, this year is the first time they'll be playing at a fixed sound-system, Different Strokes, which you'll find at St. Luke's Road on Sunday.
"That's new for us, and it's exciting, playing on a system in the main part of Carnival, rather than on the outside," says Gabriel. "But the sound system way of doing things, in principle, is also kind of similar to how we do things. The sound system model is very much: you find the space, maybe you run the bar, you do the promotion—you create your own space. And that's what we've always done and are still trying to do—create a world and a scene that's outside of anything that already exists."
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