What We Can Learn From 2023's Biggest Dancehall Song

As someone who lives in the “international space” I’m here to tell you everything the Jamaican media and industry figures tell you about a hit Dancehall record isn’t true. Some of it is, but a lot of it is based on very little evidence that is essentially extrapolating small samples to make grand, definitive points. I can’t talk about what makes a hit in Jamaica better than someone living in Jamaica, the same way a Jamaican can’t know more than someone living outside. Basically, if you don’t live in the “international space,” you don’t know how to collect the intangible data, you probably shouldn’t speak on it and put down the music. 

Just a little brief bit of information about who I am. I am a London-born son of a Jamaican family and lifelong dancehall student who wrote the critically acclaimed book Run The Riddim: The Untold Story of ’90s Dancehall to the World. World famous DJ and reggae encyclopaedia David Rodigan MBE OD called the book “fascinating” and said it has “lots of insight into the history of Jamaican dancehall music,” while revered British newspaper, the Guardian, listed it in their Top 5 Music Books of 2021 (the only dancehall book to be included in an end of year list and the only self-published title that year). Music-wise, I put Masicka on the lead single of a movie soundtrack, The Intent 2, in 2018, and worked on Chronixx’s Grammy-nominated album Chronology. (My interview with Vybz Kartel also inspired him to make The Lyricist after Aidonia questioned his ability to deejay.) To name a few things. 

In 2014, I wrote a blog post called “Don’t go chasing Cheerleader” where I detailed why Jamaican musicians would benefit from seeing that while OMI’s song eventually hit number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, it had already benefited from topping charts in other territories before and America was the last to know. I also wrote about what impact I thought Afrobeats would have on dancehall back in 2012. (Just to say I know talent, I wrote about Ed Sheeran in 2010 when he was a nobody.) I see this as a combination of both but in 2023 and what better way to discuss it than the biggest dancehall song of the year, Byron Messia‘s Talibans

Let’s start with what made the song a success. I can’t tell you everything because I don’t have knowledge behind the scenes, so I can only speak from the consumer side. Forget about social media trends and tricks or anything else that gets attached to a song’s promotion for a second, all hit songs begin with the song and that’s what I’m going to focus on. For me personally, the first time I heard it, I wanted to hear it again and found myself humming along to parts before catching the words. Know why? Hooks run the world. I count a few hooks before the chorus. Yes, before the chorus. 

Now because of the misunderstanding caused by the hip-hop world, people don’t utilise them enough because they think it’s just the chorus, but a hook is any memorable part of the song – melody, lyric, instrument riff, etc. So count with me: it’s instantly recognisable when the song starts due to the vocal sample and chords (one), the “daa-da, daa-da” (two), first line (“Say you bad from which part?”) is a sing along (three), “A so we shoot out brain fi go Canada, G / Make your marrow experience nuh gravity” (potentially a fourth). Then, the chorus kicks in. Huge hooks in there!

They say modern “artists aren’t getting international hits because of the dark subject matter”. That isn’t as true as it may seem on the surface. Crocodile Teeth by Skillibeng was recently certified silver in the UK for surpassing 200,000 “sales” with lyrics containing pure badness and violent threats on the record. Unlike Talibans, it doesn’t have much melody but he found the right groove to complement the beat rather than competing or clashing with it. Competing with the beat is what rappers in hip-hop do, however, they get away with it because people’s ears are more in tune to the American accent and culture than any other. 

Again, as someone who lives in an international market, international audiences don’t understand lyrics, so they don’t care as much. People love how artists sit on the riddim and the melodies, if they can’t sing along to the words, they will nod their head and dance to the way the words land on the beat. The best use of vocals in dancehall is when they are percussive and melodic, acting as another instrument for the riddim to the unseasoned ear. 

A lot of people still don’t know what Sean Paul’s saying in his big classic hits, but his voice, melody and timing were perfect for the danceable riddims. Koffee‘s Toast is another example of template breaking to a different degree. Yes, numerous black British radio stations were reluctant to add it to playlists as it was considered too smart for typical urban music listeners, also, people say female artists have to be a woman men want to be with and women aspire to be like. But she showed a woman can make a conscious dancehall song go global. 

And even in British and American English language club music from the U.K. or US, a lot of people don’t know what’s said in the verses beyond the melody and the sing-along parts. There’s no harm in being lyrical, but understand that we love that in the core market. Trying to prove how well you can rap so Americans embrace you is a lose-lose. Trust me, even though they use the UK drill sound, the vast majority of Americans don’t even care about UK rappers and say they don’t understand the accent, so a Jamaican has even less of a chance.  

And then there’s the: “Is it dancehall or is it afrobeats?” debate regarding Talibans. It’s neither and both at the same time. The tag on the original type beat instrumental on YouTube is labelled “afroswing”. To the uninformed, afroswing is a London created sub-genre mixing afrobeats and dancehall with R&B, hip hop, and usually contains UK rap background, and is used to define music by the likes of Kojo Funds, NSG, Yxng Bane, J Hus and Lotto Boyz to name a few. It. Before forming into a sound of its own, it involved artists jumping on dancehall riddims like Mavado‘s Messiah (Ratlin’s “Messiah”), Vybz Kartel’s Touch a Button (Sneakbo “Touch a Button”), Dark Skies Riddim (J Hus “Vacation”) and I-Octane‘s Happy Time (Naira Marley “Marry Juana”) until it took shape post-Drake “Controlla”. But on topic, Talibans is the result of the fusion, much like Burna Boy’s City Boys and Last Last. Songs like Shenseea’s Good Comfort and Squash’s Oh Lala La (based on Stefflon Don’s Hurtin’ Me) take inspiration from the sound too. 

But either way, afrobeats or dancehall talk doesn’t matter. We didn’t debate whether Diwali Riddim was actually Bhangra or dancehall, did we? Dancehall doesn’t have to be a strict one-dimensional sound, and popular Jamaican music has always borrowed elements from other music from around the world whilst influencing the world, too.  And what Byron Messia put on there was undoubtedly dancehall, and that counts. The main takeaway should be that the riddim makes you wanna move. That’s what dancehall has always had at its core, whether it was the boof-boof-baff riddims commonly used in the ’90s, boom-boom-boom in the mid 2000s, the clack-clack-clack, clack-clack from around 2009, or even the boom ka-boop-ka that’s used in reggaeton from the Poco Man Jam/Fish Market riddim and so on, it excels when it makes you want to dance. 

Much has been discussed in recent years about why afrobeats is seeing more success, a relatively recent conversation to dancehall fans outside of London. Londoners are the ones that played a pivotal role in the international rise and success of afrobeats. Not only did we name the genre, D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist” went to the top ten of our national charts in 2012 and Drake connected with Wizkid through British-born Nigerian MC Skepta before they made the game-changing One Dance (which also samples a UK funky song). As someone who has heard a heavy dose of African music amongst Africans in London clubs since 2009, I think I have a better understanding than most in the Jamaican industry as to why it’s currently on a more successful run. I can confirm it is because they make music people can sing and dance to. 

But more than that, they make music that consumers feel is unique and authentic to them. We, the consumers, hear African music – be it from Nigeria or South Africa mainly – and know that’s what sounds true to the perception we have of their identity. Same thing we do with hip hop. There’s an element of Jamaican music that feels true to Jamaica, including the dark energy coming from a place known as a violent country, however the rapping style without the sing-alongs isn’t really cutting it for an enjoyable 30-40-minute set of new music. More variety is needed to keep ravers engaged. Back in the days, you had songs that made gal bruk out, man buss gun finger, intimate wining tunes, synchronised dancing, and ones you rock to. Can the same be said for nowadays?

Jamaican media and industry judge international impact solely by sales and charts in America, but historically the British charts have been more receptive to Jamaican hits than any other country, as proven once again by Talibans. The song peaked at No. 99 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts due to the boost in sales and streams associated with the Burna Boy remix, however, in Britain, the original version had already spent numerous weeks in the top 40. The African Giant’s addition served to push it to just outside the top ten and it spent a month in the top 20. Now while the U.K. market is smaller in population and overall influence than America, it is still very influential and highly respected in the world. Britain is also more diverse in both musical and cultural appreciation outside of their own native music as a result of the influence immigrants hold. 

There have been more reggae and dancehall-based entries in our national pop chart than anywhere else in the world. It’s probably the best place to aim for when starting your international journey. Look how many new dancehall acts have created viral content from sold-out shows at 2,000-capacity venues like Skillibeng’s debut at O2 Kentish Town Forum, and ones at the indigo in the O2 Arena (Skeng, Valiant, Masicka, and even Vanessa Bling). Recent years have seen Skillibeng, Shenseea, Popcaan and Dexta Daps at the Wireless Festival (the UK’s biggest urban music festival). 

Whether Byron Messia will be a one-hit wonder remains to be seen, but even if he is, he has one-hit bigger than most have or will ever achieve, so he deserves ratings for that. Sometimes that moment only happens once, and credit to him because he delivered a helluva catchy song that will likely be played outside and streamed for years to come. But for the rest, learn the lessons from the song if you want to have that moment for yourself. Listen to other forms of popular music away from hip hop which is declining in popularity and fast! They’ve only had one number one single and two number one albums in their 50th anniversary year. Hip-hop fans, DJs and the industry are complaining about the lack of quality and crossover, they aren’t who you want to use as an example, nor should they have ever been!

And if dancehall music makers want dancehall to be on the same or similar level of exposure as the greats before then or what’s currently happening with afrobeats and reggaeton and even UK drill to a lesser extent, make something that engages people who don’t understand what you’re saying whilst talking to your home fans. People buy into authenticity more than ever. Culture and narrative mean a lot in terms of building a fan base, so don’t wash it out, focus on conveying and translating the message across. Make music for the people, and watch the people share it on their social media and word of mouth and bring more people – that’s the original algorithm. What you say, what you wear and where you appear matters, and momentum is what makes the music look sexy. Good is subjective, hot is factual. So, a riddim that has melody, feeling and groove that makes you want to dance with a vocal with numerous parts that make people want to sing along are the major keys to hold. And lastly, as I’ve quoted in my book, “man dem make you cool, the gal dem make you hot!” 

Disclaimer: this is all easier said than done. There are also intangibles that you either have or don’t. That’s why very few people make it; some have a short stay, but most will be left complaining they would have if they had the chance. If you don’t have confidence that you or the people around you know a hit, I dunno what you can do apart from keep trying. The point of this is to give perspective from an actual member of the international audience that industry people in Jamaica speak on behalf of but obviously aren’t. And one with very good, tried, tested and proved ears. What you choose to do with this is up to you. 

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