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Now for what you came here for...
When Riddims Were King
23rd May 2020 will be remembered in history for one of the most epic events in one of our universe's darkest times. We will never forget the night dancehall kings and former extremely heated rivals, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, battled on the Verzuz platform built by hall-of-fame producers, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz.
An unfiltered, 360-degree view on Jamaican dancehall events was showcased; DJ’s and dancing (Beenie Man’s daughter Desha Ravers) to deejay’s clashing on the same riddims. The latter elements provided the jewels in the night’s highlight reel, and undoubtedly the best thing to happen on the Verzuz series.
Word spread like guava jelly within the dancehall community and Jamaican diaspora upon announcement. Not only was it a clash between the longest and fiercest rivalry we know, but finally, the world gets to see where the Verzuz concept really started. Also, competing is Jamaica’s national sport; they go together like rice and peas or bulla and pear (avocado). Clashing has been relevant in dancehall’s long before the nation’s music now associated with it. Jamaican people have an innate desire to be the best, the biggest and/or the baddest - and every Jamaican is a star.
Amidst all the memes, reaction and gif’s, the two most popular videos were the deejay’s going tune-for-tune on the omnipresent Showtime Riddim and spontaneously on the Ghanian Pallbearer EDM beat.
Artists flexing their powers on the same riddim is what I live for! Debating “Who took the riddim?” is a staple conversation amongst friends and fans alike; rock and hip hop fans celebrate classic albums, dancehall fans celebrate classic riddims! That’s what I’m going to do; celebrate the three most requested riddims from 1990 to now. At dancehall shows, “Gimme di…” is more likely to be followed by Punanny, Showtime or Anger Management than Light. Those are the trinity of dancehall riddims. I'm fortunate enough to have spoken to two of the producers and the first artist to record on the Showtime. I'm gonna share what I learnt.
While it was a joy witnessing two columns of dancehall go head-to-head on riddims, a part of me felt sad knowing that the riddim riding generation is fading away. But do you miss when riddims were king?
And what a monumental occasion it was!
Previous battles saw an elite cast of the biggest black hitmakers play songs back-and-forth on Instagram, attracting viewers in their hundreds of thousands. Barbershop and school canteen debates were brought to life; producers RZA vs DJ Premier, top-liners The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett, neo-soul queens, Erykah Badu vs Jill Scott, and down-south Millenium hit-makers Nelly vs. Ludacris. But they were all the finest appetiser for the real belly full meal.
It exceeded every possible dreamt up scenario a lifelong dancehall fan like myself could have conceived. The start was familiar to anyone that has ever been to Jamaican events; early warmers set by DJ’s Richie D and Kury Riley, running half-an-hour behind schedule and starting with the Jamaican national anthem. Things began looking up when, for the first time, both artists were in the same room instead of relying on patchy WiFi connections causing delays on IG’s live split screen arena (see Babyface vs. Teddy Riley).
For just over half an hour, the duo traded song-for-song: Beenie gave a brief history of his career and their famous rivalry back to 1993 Sting clash; Bounty Killer played counteractions (Bounty Killer “Suspense” vs Beenie Man “Memories” on the Hot Wax Riddim) and hip-hop collaborations.
Even a policeman turned up, asking for the permit. But dem caan lock off di dance!
Following G8-level negotiations from Beenie Man with the Babylon bwoy (“Do you really wanna be that guy?”) and pacifying the near cross, angry and miserable Bounty Killer, the war got juicy when the selector dropped the e-needle on Dave Kelly’s infamous Showtime riddim. I can’t begin to explain the significance! The idea of seeing these two fierce rivals share microphone time on the iconic riddim would’ve been nothing but a dream to me upon the riddim’s release in 1997.
Witnessing Beenie Man and Bounty Killer go toe-to-toe, swinging nothing but haymakers, drew fire emojis from the virtual ringside seats (verified accounts) to the bleachers (rest of us). Showtime Riddim feels like watching matadors taming a beast at an ancient amphitheatre to me. Inspired by the atmospheric vocal samples, the riddim was christened Showtime after [Baby] Cham’s remarkable ring announcer-styled introduction on “Gallong Yah Gal”. “The reason for me saying ‘Showtime’ was the sounds that Dave used,” explains the riddim’s first recording artist, Cham. “He had a crowd [sample] going ‘Hey, hey, hey’ and then he had a stadium crowd [sampled] in the background that he was using for the hi-hat going ‘ahhhh.’”
Key tunes: All of the above.
The riddim has been an invaluable playmaker in dancehall ever since. “Easily the biggest dancehall riddim ever,” exclaims Cham. “When we were kids going to concerts, every deejay would say ‘Gimme the Punanny [Riddim]’. Even to this day, when anyone touches the microphone they say ‘Gimme the Showtime.’” And to this day, an artist lives or dies on their ability to ride the riddim hardcore dancehall fans.
First riddim is the Showtime Riddim, third is Punnany Riddim in the video below.
A re-lick of the Showtime, named Show Off, was the scene of a showdown between the two after Beenie Man married D’Angel, Bounty Killer’s one-time girlfriend, in 2006. (Featured Mavado's "Last Night" too.) Showtime Riddim is also the inspiration for Unfinished Business Riddim, known for the breakout success of Serani’s “No Games” (for which Dave Kelly is also credited).
What is a riddim?
“Riddim” derives from rhythm track; more commonly known today as an instrumental or, in hip hop circles, the “beat”. Riddims are one of the cornerstones of Jamaican music. No other genre in the world can claim to have multiple artists record individual songs on the same instrumental before the famous studios in downtown Kingston, Jamaica.
According to singer and producer Rupie Edwards^, the riddim was an act of survival for Jamaican music. In the early days of Jamaican popular music, producers would sell their pre-release records to vendors between twelve to seventeen shillings and sixpence based on demand in the dance. Although the riddim concept existed in the 1960s, it blew up shortly before the 1972 election when Robert Lightburn, the Minister of Trade and Industry, restricted the price to seven shillings and sixpence. It was said that wiping out the pre-release concept would make it easier to tax records at a standard retail price. Obstacles breeds innovation, so using the same rhythm track became a way to claw back the losses because they weren’t required to pay musicians’ fees to cut a new one.
While Jamaica‘s musical legacy punches pound-for-pound with the biggest countries in the world, it’s easy to forget it is born out of poverty.
Gimme Punanny, Want Punanny
As we moved to the 1980s dancehall, rhythm tracks were still more commonly known as a “version”; usually the reverse side of an already popular vocal-led song. Special request riddims such as Mad Mad, Answer, Shank I Sheck, Real Rock, Stalag were sound system favourites, with staples M-16 and the Kouchie dictating the type of lyrics artists performed; gun and ganja respectively.
Groundbreaking Sleng Teng Riddim didn’t begin life that way though. Not only did the King Jammy-produced riddim spark the digital riddim revolution, it’s also one of the earliest examples of numerous songs (known as cuts or pieces) on an original riddim running the industry. That became a standard and viable product for the industry itself going forward.
In wake of the Sleng Teng Riddim blowing up the world, digital riddim twins Steely & Clevie decided Jammy would be the producer to take their riddims to the next level. Duck, Mud Up and other Steely & Clevie built riddims followed, however, Admiral Bailey “Punanny” would provide the backbone for what 1990s dancehall became.
“The dancehall was where people were entertained, Punanny Riddim created what became synonymous with the beat for the genre now known as dancehall. That is where we first played the new rhythm pattern,” Clevie states. Punanny broke away from established drum patterns; the one-drop reggae style (bass drum and snare on third beat), the “straight four” (kick drum on the four beats aka 4x4) or “straight two” (kick drum on first beat, the snare on the second). “We shifted to the boof-boof-kaff.”
Another big tune on the riddim was Shabba Ranks - “Caan Dun”, with a relick producing Beenie Man “Romie” and the original version of “Girls Dem Sugar”.
A cut from a different Steely & Clevie riddim sparked yet another billion-dollar genre. “We introduced the Poco beat,” he says. “We played that first boof-ka-boof-ka in 1989 on Poco Man Jam [Riddim].” Shabba Ranks “Dem Bow”, infiltrated the Latin-American countries Panama and Puerto Rico through countless artists' versions of and sampling the song, before starting life as a name for its own rhythm sub-genre. “You still hear [that drum beat] today on reggaeton, and songs by Justin Bieber [“Sorry”] and Drake [“One Dance”].” ‘Dem Bow’ was released by Bobby Digital who passed away the day before the clash. Beenie Man paid tribute to him as the producer of his first hit song, "Matie", another cut from the Poco Man Jam Riddim released on the Digital B label.
As we ventured into the golden 1990s, riddims swarmed the dancehall industry. Discussing big tunes and moments were mostly born out of riddims. A riddim provided a level playing field for us to judge over 20 artists (at times) who’d be (unofficially) competing to have the best song on the riddim. We, the consumer, would salute every big tune on the same riddim like it was a completely new song. Left outsiders confused but I, give a damn?
Artists felt borderline disrespected if their piece wasn’t played in the dance or on radio. This pushed artists’ creativity; be it melody, subject or even just voice and performance - something had to set you apart from the pack. Having been the first to record on many of long-time collaborator Dave Kelly’s classic riddims, I wondered if it’s easier to set pace than follow others’ lead. “Nah, that makes it a lot harder, “ Cham retorted. “Everyone is going to use your song as the measure; they're gonna want to top it. You have to go way up the ladder [to make it] harder for them to top what you’re doing, so your song doesn’t fall down the ladder.”
Breaking artist’s was also easier through riddims. Take, for example, the Anger Management Riddim and a then little-known artist called Mavado: producer Serani from Daseca thought his breakout anthem “Real McKoy” was amazing, but struggled to get airplay. “We were pushing Mavado, but nobody knew him,” he recalls. “We were unknown producers at the time, we were trying to get [the riddim] played but it was a big struggle.”
Released in the final quarter of 2004, Anger Management Riddim was a minimal, eerily-haunting, gun song-driven riddim at a time when more light-hearted, dancing-inspired songs ran the place. Stone Love selector Richie Feelings began championing it, and by summer 2005, Daseca realised the riddim was finally gaining significant traction. “Bounty Killer would always get a hit at that time - he was the biggest artist in Jamaica - so I wasn’t worried about his song [“Talk to Dem”] getting the break. When his song started getting a good response in the parties, I was telling the DJ’s ‘Play Mavado,’” Serani remembers, and the rest as they say is history.
Anger Management Riddim represented the Bounty Killer-led Alliance crew to the fullest; cuts by Bling Dawg, Mavado, Busy Signal, Vybz Kartel and Killer himself all fired like flares at garrison parties. Less than two years after release, Vybz Kartel had departed and the Mavado vs Kartel beef was in full flow. “Nobody was happy about beef but luckily nobody got hurt,” Serani remembers. In what was Sting’s last great clash, the Gully vs Gaza war concluded on the Anger Management Riddim. “These guys made themselves a lot bigger with the clash, and they used my beat in the clash? Yo! That’s a good thing!”
Sidenote: The second of three riddims during the clash was Showtime Riddim. Third is Anger Management Riddim
Ten years after the riddim buss, Tweeters joked about the amount of times the riddim was used at the final Sting in 2015. “That riddim never stopped playing. It’s a part of the compliment,” and I’ll add, a part of the legacy.
Can You Play Some More?
Yeah, they still exist but riddims lack the vice-like grip they had over the industry for various reasons; technology has significantly reduced the once exuberant costs for both production and pressing, royalty splits are harder to strike, but also divided camps now make collaboration that much harder and more. A move towards making their business mirror the mainstream business is also the flow. When's the last time a riddim existed with like six big tunes? Happy Hour Riddim in 2014?
Due to a lack of belief the sound of dancehall is dying too, many adopting a more “universal” trap-dancehall sound as opposed to an authentic Jamaican sound. Serani said “Some of [the beats] are still dancehall, some are not, but it’s just important that we keep the culture.
Clevie also emphasised the importance of observing people in the street as a crucial part of his creative process; the “way people walked” or “whether the women selling fruits from the basket on her head looked when they played music as they drove past”. All this was “to make the rhythm feel Jamaican”. “It’s very important to connect with people,” said Clevie. “You can’t be locked away in your own world all the time… People naturally react to the groove we make, because it’s a reflection of them.”
Dancehall lacks a unique identity. It’s trying to be like everyone else, when it’s better to be yourself. “Be innovative and a creator.” A riddim was also an authentic Jamaican experience. Discussing who has the most good songs feels empty to me; lacks culture, because I do that with other genres. I miss who took the riddim. Please bring back the riddim.
^Rupie Edwards is quoted from the Lloyd Bradley book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King. Excellent book.
All other interviews with Cham, Serani and Clevie were conducted by me, Marvin Sparks, on my podcast No Long Talk
p.s. if any of the lyrics contained in any of the above videos didn't agree with your soul, there are other parts of the videos that will have you bussing a gun finger and wheeling.
p.p.s. if you've never heard of me before, I am Marvin. Nice to meet you