Spragga Benz

Lucky Star, March 18

Spragga Benz, one of the top five DJs in Jamaica, is already a success by dance-hall standards. He recorded his first single in 1992, and every one of his 25-odd singles since has become a hit in his country. Capitol signed him last year, but most record companies don’t grasp that dance-hall success and American record success are two different things.

Dance-hall music is a Jamaican cultural institution. In the 50s and 60s Jamaican radio stations played only American music. Jamaican interpretations of these songs, then jazz- and R & B-influenced ska, then the bass-heavy rock steady were played at dance halls, frequently fenced-in outdoor clubs. DJs “toasted” or rapped between songs, entertaining audiences with their costumes and wild mannerisms as they traveled all over the island setting up dance halls using “sound systems,” mobile stereo equipment with huge speakers.

Technically, anything played at dance halls can be called dance-hall music, but it’s popularly defined as sampled beats from R & B, reggae, pop, and East Indian tunes over a bass-heavy reggae rhythm with DJs toasting in Jamaican patois. This patois, a blend of English, Spanish, and west African languages, can be hard to understand. A recent dance-hall song, “Maga Man,” contains the line “maga man ‘ave some big piece a wood.” If you’re familiar with the sexual references of many dance-hall songs “big piece a wood” isn’t hard to figure out. But how many Americans know that “maga” means skinny?

Being a dance-hall DJ is something many Jamaican youths aspire to because it’s one of the few professions open to them where they can make money and become famous. They can start as young as eight, working for various sound systems, developing a unique voice and an ear for “riddims.” Competition is tough as hundreds of young people try to get to a handful of dance-hall producers.

About 20 major Jamaican labels produce dance-hall tunes. Most don’t have the money to manage artists; they just produce the seven-inch records sound systems use. And it takes an average of three to five years to build your name–if you have a distinctive voice, extraordinary production skills, successive hit records, and luck. A good DJ can average $25,000 to $50,000 a year, a very good living in Jamaica. An extremely popular DJ like Buju Banton can pull in $150,000 a year. The money comes from reggae shows, where top artists can command $10,000 per show, and “specials,” customized versions of hit songs requested by a specific sound system that bring in $400 to $600 per recording.

Record sales and radio and TV appearances don’t figure into dance-hall success in Jamaica. The sound systems determine what’s popular. The “selectors,” who now play the sound-system records, decide what will be a hit, and dance-hall crowds usually agree. If a selector wants a “special” of a certain song, then it’s a hit. That record will get constant play, and dance-hall patrons throughout the island will hear it. This is a grass-roots phenomenon that doesn’t fit into commercial definitions of success.

Shabba Ranks, a top dance-hall star, kicked off the first U.S. dance-hall signing frenzy four years ago with his top-ten pop hit “Housecall,” recorded with reggae crooner Maxi Priest. Eyeing the crossover potential of dance hall, other U.S. labels rushed to find the next Shabba. Established DJs and rappers in Jamaica–Mad Cobra, Super Cat, Tony Rebel–were snapped up by major studios, and a new yardstick of success was created: record-industry success–album sales, radio and video play, music-industry awards.

Shabba had toasted in a raspy patois, usually with “slack” or lewd lyrics. His gruff and vulgar style was tempered on “Housecall” by Priest’s sweet singing, and the mellow pop melody was pure commercial appeal. Shabba later teamed up with R & B vocalist Johnny Gill for “Slow and Sexy” and with reggae singer J.C. Lodge for “Telephone Lover.” They too became hits. They too toned down the hard-driving dance-hall sound.

Two Grammy awards, two gold albums, and international video and radio play brought Shabba more commercial success than any dance-hall star before or since. He moved to the U.S. and didn’t perform in Jamaica for three years, which helped alienate him from his Jamaican fan base. Then he publicly defended Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye,” which details the shooting of gays, but when the media turned on him he backed down. Backing down is something the reputation of a “rude bwoy” cannot take.

This reversal illustrated just how far Shabba had drifted from Jamaican culture, which is extremely proud and close-knit. Dropping his defense of a fellow Jamaican, no matter what the controversy, was viewed as an act of betrayal and cowardice.

Shabba has lost his connection to Jamaican dance-hall fans, and he’s lost the soul of his music. His recent singles sound spiritless, and the release of his new album has already been pushed back twice. It’s a heavy price to pay for commercial success.

Spragga Benz didn’t seem to be changing to meet music-industry expectations at his recent concert at the Lucky Star, a Vietnamese restaurant rented out for the occasion. It was dance-hall culture in all its glory: women in outlandish and revealing clothes and hairstyles, men in “criss” linens and baggy jeans. The rhythms of dance-hall records inspired a few groups to “wine” or gyrate on the side of the dance floor.

When Benz’s four-piece band took the stage, a mob of women rushed the floor, clutching photos and yelling, “We want Spragga Benz.” In round sunglasses, black baseball cap, a white paisley suit coat, black pants, and Nikes, Benz hopped onstage rapping “Jump Up and Swear” in fast patois. Swinging his legs over the speakers, he did a nasty “wine” as women screamed and clutched at him. He flung off his cap, his handsome, boyish face shining with sweat as he worked the crowd.

“Body Good” was greeted with such enthusiasm that he just waved the mike back and forth as the audience sang the chorus: “Yuh body good, and it a show / Look how yuh skin just a glisten and a glow.” The “Arab riddim,” which incorporates East Indian music and throbbing drumbeats in the hook, drove the crowd to a grinding, sweating spectacle.

Benz’s galvanizing dance-hall performance is captured on his new album, Uncommonly Smooth, along with his trademark sexy “girls’ choice” songs like “Hard Core Lovin'” and “No Matey.” Two innovative remakes showcase Benz’s diversity. “We’ll Take You There,” a cover of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” bounces with his flowing rhythms; “Spanish Harlem” uses silky guest vocals by the original artist, Ben E. King, along with Benz’s swaggering rapping. The album exemplifies dance-hall: fierce riddims, smooth and distinctive toasting, and lyrics full of “yardie” or Jamaican life. It doesn’t try to appeal to a commercial audience with watered-down pop rhythms or with singers who translate the patois on every song.

Some people may not understand Benz’s booming and rolling words at all, but if they want authentic dance-hall music they won’t have to. Benz has managed to record a major-label album that’s true to dance-hall music and ought to appeal to a broader audience. One can only hope that’s enough to satisfy his label.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.