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Why hasn't dancehall produced another Sean Paul?

Welcome people them. Me again, obviously. Today we here at Marvin Sparks discuss possible theories on why we feel dancehall hasn't produced another of their greatest commercial experts. This post was originally going to be a response to this ignorant post on MTV Iggy, but I held it down because that's negative energy. So, I post it as 10 years ago to the week Sean Paul scored his first UK #1 alongside Blu Cantrell. Today Sean Paul is on the verge of a top ten having already taken The Saturday's to their first top spot earlier this year and scoring the 51st best-selling song in UK last year with "She Doesn't Mind", not forgetting "Got 2 Luv U" his topped 12 national charts across the world. Longevity. ("Other Side of Love" entered at #7.)

First off, let's talk about the man in question. What makes him worthy of this post like he's a great? In short, because he is. Too often he's on the receiving end of jokes and unfair criticism, it's about time people acknowledge his achievements and celebrate him. Sean's never been a credible dancehall artist; he's an uptown yout' (middle class) doing what is essentially music from and a vocal piece for the garrison's of Jamaica. Never going to get credibility when up against people from that environment.

He saw a bit of success early in his career with songs like "Infiltrate", "Deport Dem" and "Hot Gal Today" with Mr. Vegas (both of whom did a song with DMX for and appeared in that Hype Williams-directed movie, Belly), but all those paled in comparison with "Gimme The Light" onwards.

"Gimme The Light" wasn't even spun in authentic clubs or on radio. Cobra's "Press Trigger", Elephant Man "Haters Wanna War" and Sizzla's controversial "Pump Up Har..." were all in pecking order before Sean Paul's breakout hit. If memory serves correctly, DJ's in other Caribbean islands and Miami/NY Latino community picked up on it first. Debut mainstream album Dutty Rock took the world by storm, selling in excess of 8 million worldwide, Grammy winner, boasted a feature on Beyoncé's second-longest running #1 ("Baby Boy"), gave Blu Cantrell her only massive hit, chart-topper "Breathe", nominated for best new artist alongside 50 Cent, blah dah di, blah di dah...

More importantly for dancehall (in a pop music sense), he took authentic dancehall to the top of the pops, racking up top tens and number ones on charts across the globe with fresh-off-the-dancefloor dancehall riddims.  No one else has done this so consistently in the history of Jamaican music. Sean's predecessor, Shaggy, sold over 10 million copies of Hotshot with reggae-influenced songs, "It Wasn't Me" and "Angel".

Following the VP/Atlantic partnership, an influx of big money majors pumped funds into capitalising on the wave of credible dancehall songs (not dancehall-lite or dancehall-infused/inspired or whatever else people like to call it) and all seemed like it was ready to go full-blown mainstream. Virgin finally let Beenie Man release an authentic song, "Dude" and not to mention the amount of American artists doing dancehall songs (Lumidee, Nina Sky, Christina Milian to name a few), plus Def Jam's Def Jamaica compilation. And would Def Jam have ventured to the islands for their own princess, Rihanna, without this movement?

That was all until the plug was pulled when gay-rights group Outrage! launched an attack on the artists with homophobic lyrics. "Murder music" they dubbed it. A whole heap of headlines, concert pickets and that kinda thing. Their leader, Peter Tatchell, gave speeches on the news, outside concerts and wherever he could, really. It didn't matter whether an artist said a lyric yesterday or a decade before (in case of Buju Banton), they were all banned from performing. Literally, the whole dancehall scene came to a standstill from live performances to major labels. MOBO Awards removed artists that year from the reggae award. To this day, gay rights groups still lobby events despite artists signing a compassionate act which meant artists won't perform any of those lyrics. (Check Beenie Man's video last year.)

That's probably the biggest factor. Well, in my eyes anyway. Now every dancehall artist is homophobic until proven otherwise. You'll be hard pressed to find an article that doesn't mention it. And how do you prove otherwise? It's only those who are fully in tune with the goings on in dancehall and manage to keep up with the high amount of releases who can really say. How many of those type of people work in labels or media?

The internet also messed up dancehall immensely. Piracy lead to closure of most long standing independent record shops. Jamaican music forms across the decades have never been big sellers in major retailers like HMV, Our Price etc. The battle for shelf space was way too hard and probably not worth the hassle compared with the market stalls and black high street shops. Reggae sells over time as there isn't a massive marketing push for first week sales.

Also, DJ's that once upon a time had to buy the latest batch of dance floor fillers could rely on peer-to-peer or legal and illegal email blasts - even YouTube file converters. These methods are also used by average consumers. All of this had a tremendous knock-on effect in dancehall. Probably more than any of the other forefathers of modern music.

Unlike other forms of music, producers usually pay artists to record on their riddims. Long story short, producers made the money from sales (45s/singles) and licensing on compilations, artists got theirs from dubplates and bookings. Artists in the digital age still get theirs, producers don't. Producers weren't seeing the same money so the talent pool suffers.

Since Sean's breakthrough, the mainstream industry became a lot more corporate and less risks were taken as a result of the internet. Labels rarely sign anything that isn't already a hit, but how do you prove a hit without sales? In fact, labels cut back on signing dance floor fillers across the board, preferring to create their own based on graphs and equations. UK majors found the pen for floor-fillers a lot this year, so that's good. Shame they took so long or flopped on Gyptian "Hold You" and Serani "No Games" respectively.

Radio stations are (or have become more) reliant on corporate money via adverts, so as listening figures dwindle due to people listening to music on various mediums they take less risks. The music pretty much serves as content to sell adverts meaning stations play songs they know hold listeners so they can sell advertising space at premium price. This is why they rely on playlist music than ever before and why most songs sound the same. They're the tried-and-tested songs that keep listeners tuned in even though one of the main complaints by former radio listeners is they play the same songs. But that's another post.

Dancehall isn't supported financially like other forms of music and it's foreign music (no subtitles on radio for the Patois), therefore takes longer to break. Radio isn't interested in breaking songs that may alienate some regular listeners for 3 minutes cos that's less people listening to adverts. (Big up BBC Radio 1Xtra. They are able to take risks, regularly making reggae and dancehall songs A-list on their playlist because they're publicly funded.)

As a result of all of the above, sales of reggae and dancehall haven't been good resulting in a myth that people don't care for Jamaican dancehall. I make a point of saying Jamaican dancehall because we know the dancehall sound is influential in many current international pop hits. Song below is on course for third week at #1 in UK and charted in numerous territories including Australia and accross Europe.

So when you consider dancehall isn't on corporate radio nor pushed, how are people meant to buy what they don't know is available? Current sales of reggae albums are always slated in Jamaican press. I always read these articles and think "Well, how much do you expect?" Answer is probably something closer to what mainstream artists, especially hip hop and r&b do. I understand wanting the best, but you have to be real and keep things in perspective.

People that compare dancehall to hip hop in terms of exposure, radio play and sales in US are absolute imbeciles. It isn't and (probably) never will be as big as hip hop in USA. And that's another thing, why do they only judge dancehall and reggae's by its presence in America like the rest of the world doesn't matter? But again, that's another post.

So onto how things will improve.

Let's start with my take on popular dancehall in-crowd complaints/theories:

Has to sound old skool = bullshit. Lack of enunciation = bullshit. Dancehall sounds too much like other forms of American music = to some extent. Too many riddims = bullshit.

The speech thing. Jamaicans don't speak English like Americans or English so it's harder for the untrained ear. That's never stopped people in the past - including Sean Paul. A quick read of comments on his videos will all have "Sean Paulish" - a creative term coined by fans for the language he speaks. Would it help? Yeah. Is it a necessity or holding songs back? No. People love the riddims and how the artists ride a riddim. Melodies and hooks run the club world.

Too many riddims is another stupid one said by stupid people that don't understand the music they speak of. Trust me, calling them stupid isn't rude, it's up there with the stupidest things to say. Dancehall's always had too many riddims. Too many rubbish cuts on riddims have been about for a long enough time too. Difference is radio DJ's filtered them back in the day. Either that or you told the man behind the counter to "Nah boss" when he played a waste cut. Now it's available on YouTube so we the consumer have to filter through.

The cream always rises to the top. Ask those same people "So, which riddims would you say didn't do well because of this 'Too many riddims' criticism?" They'll be dumbfounded. Try it, I've done it numerous times. Good songs and will always be the minority. Get over it. Yes, it's extremely hard to keep up, but hear what, feel free to listen to the radio that's catching dust in the corner like you did back in the day. They still filter it for you.

The '90s produced some really big songs, but hello, the '00s contributed more authentic dancehall riddims to chart hits. And how many '90s riddims still get played today? Usually the same one. It tends to be people from the older generation saying this or people that only know a song is good because it sounds like something that worked in the past. That regressive attitude prevalent attitude in the music industry.

Just because it worked then doesn't mean it'll work now. That's the thing with nostalgia, it clouds opinion. Neither of his Billboard #1's, "Temperature" or "Get Busy" sounded like '90s dancehall. "We Be Burnin'" kicked off The Trinity album campaign and was progressive dancehall.

This leads me to the "Dancehall sounds to much like other forms of American music". There's a point in here, but you have to go to the root of it. Jamaican music changed the way much of American urban music sounded in the '00s. It wasn't unusual for big name producers such as R. Kelly, Timbaland, The Neptunes, Swizz Beats, Lil' Jon (he was massive at one point) and StarGate to create their take on dancehall music. Sean Paul acknowledges it in an interview I conducted with him couple years ago.

Some Jamaican producers take that as a "Hey, you've mixed your sound with ours and made money. I must be able to do the same and get the same results." That isn't how it works when you don't have the machine. Jamaican radio needs to leggo the overwhelming hip hop stuff too. This is the first generation of Jamaican producers that have grown under the influence of American and hip hop propaganda, so they don't value the Jamaican sound and culture the same way previous did.

Are the current crop of artists really as bad as some dancehall detractors claim? This generation isn't standing on levels with previous. Many don't offer variety or consistency as previous stars have for many reasons. But here's another reason why those who criticise dancehall are hypocrites; how many of them were saying Sean Paul would become the breakout star he is today? Chances are not many. It was meant to be Beenie Man. There are some really good artists with potential to be big with guidance. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

In my opinion, dancehall can be a force today. It's still very relevant in clubs, songs hit over 1 million views based on word of mouth and clubs. All it needs is someone at a label to understand who to sign and what to do. Thing is, if this happens the elders will shut up and understand the music is still good. But they are too stupid to understand that it takes more than a good song to sell today. It's called the music business for a reason.

Who's to say there ever will be another Sean Paul? There wasn't one before him. And all four singles released from Dutty Rock are classic dance floor fillers to this day ("Gimme The Light", "Get Busy", "Like Glue" and "I'm Still In Love"). "Temperature" and "We Be Burnin'" are classics from The Trinity. "Baby Boy" and "Breathe" are classic collaborations. That's a lot of classics. Not easy for any artist in any genre.

But after writing all that, I'd like to say I'd hate for dancehall fully crossed over. I'd be happy with a few crossover hits and a healthy industry. I know a few commercial hits would open doors for the music to be promoted properly. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be fixed internally. I can't be bothered to disclose all I think. This post is already long. You can read this and read between lines for what I didn't say. Feel free to pay me for consultancy. Email's above. Let me know if there's stuff you don't agree with in the comments. As I said, these are just my theories.


  1. I loved and agreed with most of this post, but would challenge three main points:

    1) Interestingly, I found that Sean Paul’s 'credibility issue' was only a problem in the UK. In Jamaica he was regarded as a Super Cat sound-a-like, but never dissed for being an uptown kid.

    However, Sean's credibility improved greatly (in JA and the UK) after Gimmie the Light, which featured the latest dancehall moves, appeared on MTV in the summer of 2002 (around the same time as cable TV had become widely available in Jamaica).

    2) While, it's true Sean was the genre's first artist to rack up '…top tens and number ones on charts across the globe with fresh-off-the-dancefloor dancehall riddims,' I believe this would have been a lot more difficult had he been attempting to break contemporary Jamaican music to international audiences from scratch.

    Sean benefited greatly from the fact his audience were already familiar with and fans of dancehall music thanks in large part to Shabba Ranks, Super Cat, Shaggy and Chaka Demus and Pliers who released successful singles and albums (less so with Cat) during the previous decade.

    3) I also disagree with the question and statement: 'And how many '90s riddims still get played today? Usually the same one'. I'm assuming the 'one' is the rhythm commonly known as the 'Bogle', but there are at least three different versions of this rhythm (in chronological order: Giggy, Hardware and Lumber, Big It Up and Bogle).

    Moreover, what about the Action, Bookshelf, Bug, Filthy and Joyride and Santa Barbara (aka Murder She Wrote) rhythms (there are too many more to mention them all, which are regularly played at any decent clubnight/party?

    I found the number of 90s and 00s riddims the audience responded positively to at our Bashment Vibes events in London throughout 2002 were roughly the same.

    In conclusion, I’ll answer the question: ‘Why hasn't dancehall produced another Sean Paul?’

    In short, because dancehall is yet to find another young, trendy, talented, light-skinned or mixed-race artist with a hot music video that major labels are willing to invest in.

    I doubt any of them would admit this in public, but during the 00s, executives from more than one major label told me that when it comes to Jamaican music, they were more likely to sign a light-skinned or mixed race artist because mainstream audiences 'respond better' to faces similar to their own.

    Subsequently, the artists that benefited from the VP/Atlantic partnership: Sean Paul, Cham and Assassin (to a lesser degree) tended to be of lighter hue when compared to their contemporaries.

    Perhaps this explains why Vybz Kartel, who has been the genre's most popular artist for the best part of a decade, attempted to make himself lighter lol

    Great post Marvin, keep up the good work.


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