There was a huge network of dancehall and reggae soundsystems and dances in the ’70s and ’80s, and it had real political and social significance for the Caribbean community, who were experiencing the racism of Thatcher’s Britain at the time. Since the early ’90s and the evolution from acid house into hardcore, jungle, garage, dubstep and funky, there has been less of a thriving UK dancehall scene. Certainly nothing as distinctive and unique as the stuff coming from Mafia & Fluxy, Fashion Records, Saxon or Coxsone Sound for example. The English MCs from the ’80s – like Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie and Papa Levi – used to cause a real stir in Jamaica, and were known for bringing their own unique style to dancehall.
Nowadays a lot of that creative energy has gone into grime or UK rap – and that means there’s less UK dancehall being produced which is a shame. But on the flip side it does mean we have this huge explosion of music being made which is articulating a very specific inner city UK experience, heavily influenced by dancehall and hip hop, but something that is uniquely ours.
In terms of mainstream interest – the internet has changed things massively, and there is less of a coherent centre to the scene were people may have been more specifically into one genre in the past, it seems like everyone is into everything now. Specifically with dancehall – the endlessly rising popularity of American music has taken a lot of the heat away from Jamaican music. And it’s not that dancehall has stopped being influential – elements from the culture are still regularly used as inspiration or as an addition to add ‘authenticity’ or rawness to a major label hip hop or R’n’B release – but the actual music itself gets much less attention or support from the music industry.
Major labels used to get behind the big singles from Jamaica, but they stopped doing that because the industry changed so much and they don’t seem to see it as a wise investment – which is stupid, because tunes like Hold Yuh, Clarks and No Games would have charted and been as successful as the batch of crossover hits that came before (No Letting Go, Who Am I, Gimme The Light etc) if they had that backing.
And the audience for dancehall in the UK is probably bigger than ever: we’ve seen a massive growth in that over the 12 years we’ve been running The Heatwave. Thanks to social networks and YouTube, it’s easier than ever for people over here to listen to the latest tunes from Jamaica, connect directly with dancehall artists, learn all the new dance moves. When we were playing UK festivals back in the day, we’d always have to mix up dancehall with other genres to draw people in, but now we can roll up and play an hour of straight hardcore bashment and the crowd are fully turned onto it.