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Thanks to rap, reggae artists have hit upon a funky new sound


Rap has always been influenced by reggae. Indeed, there are those who would argue that rap has its roots in reggae, given the ways in which rap pioneers like Lovebug Starski or the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc drew from the sound-system tradition of reggae's toasting DJs.

These days, the reggae influence in hip-hop is more evident than ever, thanks to the tongue-tripping raggamuffin cadences employed by rappers like Heavy D, Naughty By Nature and Das EFX. Given that even Kriss Kross includes a bit of the raggamuffin stylee in their hit, "Jump" (to prove that they're not "wickety-wickety-wack"), it would seem that even casual fans are familiar with the sound.

Somewhat less apparent -- at least to mainstream American rap fans -- is the influence rap has had on reggae. Although some reggae artists showed their appreciation of rap by working with artists like Heavy D, Run-D.M.C. or Boogie Down Production's KRS-One, others decided that imitation is a more sincere form of flattery and began applying rap-style production to reggae recordings.

What they wound up with was dancehall, which has quickly become one of the Caribbean's most popular cultural exports. ++ Like rap, dancehall producers use drum machines and samplers instead of a band build, which lends a hard, techno-intense edge to the music. Moreover, dancehall tracks move at a much brisker pace than the lugubrious lope found on most reggae recordings.

Even so, it would be hard to mistake even the most commercial dancehall recordings for rap, if only because of the thick patois and repetitious cadences favored by the dancehall stars. Just listen to the way Shabba Ranks opens his latest American album, "Rough and Ready, Vol. 1" (Epic 52443). Although the first song, "Mr. Loverman," starts off with a drumbeat and backing vocals that would seem at home on any rap album, Shabba's thick accent and sing-song delivery couldn't have come from anywhere but the dancehall scene.

It isn't just the way his deep, rough-edged voice booms in hypnotic repetition, either. Most of Shabba's effectiveness stems from his ability to fuse each rhyme into a near-perfect blend of sound and rhythm; drop the rhythm track, and his performances would still be as danceable and addictive.

That's not meant as a slight to music, by the way. From the slick, soulful groove of "Mr. Loverman" to the lean, high-tech thump of "Gal Yuh' Good," to the dub-style effects added to "Wicked in Bed," the production on the album is strictly state-of-the-art.

But as good as the music might be, it's the strength and character of Shabba's vocals that ultimately carry the album. Like the best rappers, there's an intense physicality to Shabba's sound, lending an irresistible rhythmic pull to his wordplay. Even when it's hard to tell what, exactly, he's saying -- and given the impenetrability of his patois, that's the case more often than not -- it's hard not to be convinced by the authority of his voice. (Of course, considering that at least half of the raps here are sex-centered, from "Wicked in Bed" to "Ca'an Dun," it's easy enough to guess at the general message of his lyrics).

Perhaps that's why Shabba is making his mark on the U.S. pop charts. Repackaged versions of his older Jamaican recordings are making their way into American record stores in hopes of cashing in his current success.

"Mr. Maximum" (Pow Wow 7423) is typical. Opening with a Maxi Priest collaboration called "Fever," which is not as good as last year's hit "Housecall" but tries to cash in on the association, it proceeds through a set of remixes and collaborations ranging from refreshingly raw tracks like "Deh Pon Mi Mind" to such hopelessly dated stuff as "Holding On." Definitely not for the pop crowd, but hardcore dancehall fans should enjoy it.

Shabba is hardly the only dancehall star trying to crack the U.S. market, by the way. Hot on his heels at the moment is Super Cat, whose "Don Dada" (Columbia 52435) may not be as soulfully suave as Shabba's "Rough and Ready," but makes up in muscle for what it lacks in sophistication.

For one thing, the sound on "Don Dada" has little of the bass-heavy punch that makes "Rough and Ready" seem so rap-friendly. Instead, Super Cat seems to prefer the tinny clank-and-thump of dub reggae, which makes his music seem far more Jamaican than Shabba's cosmopolitan pulse. In fact, these tracks are so immersed in the reggae aesthetic that most listeners won't even notice Heavy D's cameo on "Them No Worry on which the "Overweight Lover" sounds like just another Kingston rude boy.

That has its advantages, though. Not only is Super Cat able to move from the hip-hop beat of "Ghetto Red Hot" to the reggae-inflected "Them No Care" without seeming to shift gears, but it also leaves him plenty of room for the dub-style ultra-repetitive cadences he drops in "Don't Test."

Still, a little bit of that will likely go a long way for pop fans, and apart from an occasionally overt number like "Must Be Bright" -- a none-too-subtle rewrite of George Michael's "Faith" -- this album will only convince the converted.

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