Decked out in a purple corduroy suit, a leather beret perched on his close-shaven head, Field Marshal is headed out. It’s a balmy, rainy Saturday night in February, and Marshal, who deejays WHPK radio’s weekend dancehall program, sees cruising the growing local dancehall scene as part of his job.
His first stop is Skokie, where clusters of Evanston and Rogers Park-based Jamaicans frequent La Renaissance, a Caribbean restaurant that’s hosting a “sound clash.” Marshal and his girlfriend Linda swish past the door and the $8 cover. It’s early for dancehall, about 1 AM, and the place is half full. Johnny Mega, owner of the Evanston-based Mega Sounds, greets Marshal by hitting the DJ’s fist with his. The five-member crew are donning earphones and flipping switches.
“The key concept of dancehall is the sound system,” says Marshal. “In the late 50s, early 60s, Jamaican music wasn’t played on the radio. Guys would get together and play in fenced-in areas or halls. For years, the only place you could hear reggae in Jamaica was through the sound systems. They’re heavily competitive, which brought on the concept of the sound clash. Two sound systems will take turns playing and competing at one dance hall.”
Technically the sound system is the equipment the music is played on, but when dancehall fans use the term they’re referring to the people who run it–a deejay, or “selector,” who makes the musical decisions; an emcee, who introduces the songs; and a few other sound men and hangers-on.
“Sound systems cost on the average about $12,000 to put together,” says Johnny Mega. Mega Sounds, like most systems, advertises for the parties with fliers, mostly at West Indian restaurants and bakeries. Sporting a black-and-gold-sequined shirt and a thick gold rope, the clean-cut Johnny looks pensive as he watches his emcee, Phantom, take the mike.
Jesse Colors, owner of Colors Sound System, leans against the wall in a corner and observes the competition–with whom he alternates about every half hour. He and his five-person crew have been doing this for five years. “We started playing in basement house parties,” he says in a lilting Kingston accent.
Women start to section themselves off along the wall, forming loose circles. Men are on the other side of the room, congregating in corners. It’s a dressy crowd with no jeans in sight–instead custom-made outfits of velvet, corduroy, and silk are the norm. Several men sport bandannas knotted on the side of the head, the requisite gold ropes dangling around their necks. One woman begins to dance the butterfly, which involves squatting and opening and closing your legs and is often accompanied by ecstatic facial expressions. Other than this brief display nobody really dances; they sway and rock against the wall, pulled by the heavy bass rhythms.
“At a dancehall, 1,000 people can be there, having a good time, and never get on the dance floor,” says Marshal. “They don’t go to dance or meet people. They go to hear the music or hook up with friends. No matter how big the place is, people fill the wall. Then they form a double wall,” he says, chuckling. “They do everything to avoid the dance floor. It’s a different vibe.”
Marshal, aka Nhaka Sevanhu, has hosted “Radio Babylon,” which runs from noon to 4 Friday and Saturday on WHPK, for eleven years. He’s also been deejaying and emceeing with various sound systems for about seven years. “My listeners are hard-core,” he says. “I play a lot of Buju Banton, Garnett Silk, Jigsy King. I highlight the songs with meaning. Reggae is more than dancing and having a good time. It has a political message.
“Reggae is one of those powder kegs that’s been bubbling for years. We’re going to see a lot more explosions, locally and internationally. Look at all the dancehall artists being signed to major labels–Patra, Barrington Levy, Buju Banton.”
Marshal’s second stop of the night is the United Steelworkers of America union hall at 93rd Street and South Chicago Avenue, the center of Chicago’s dancehall scene. The building vibrates with pounding, thick bass lines. At the door, a group of people sitting on a long table grasp Marshal’s hand. He trades greetings, and the $15 cover is waived.
It’s barely light enough in the smoky room to discern faces. But propped in front of the stage is a mass of equipment–turntables, headphones, records, and five-foot-high speakers–currently occupied by the Gemini Sound System, straight from Jamaica. Two men in loose red linen suits accented with leather and mesh cutouts glide behind the equipment in red leather loafers.
As “Request the Long Ting” goes on the turntable, lighters flick in approval and women grouped in a corner do the butterfly. A competition starts between two buxom dancers. One wears a black velvet bell-bottomed, halter-topped cat suit, cut low in front and back and accented with gold-sequined inserts. She stoops and rocks, rubbing her butt and shifting her straining breasts. Her sequined-jacketed challenger rests her hands on her generous thighs, partly covered by black batty riders (lycra shorts), and swings her legs wide.
The selector switches to “roots”–or more political– dancehall by putting on Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” which sends the crowd screaming, whistle blowing, and lighter flicking. Halfway through he interrupts it with “One Love.” “Let’s get together and feel all right!” the onlookers sing in unison. “Tell it true boy,” yells a red-suited crew member to the deejay.
“I came up last night, I leave tomorrow. Next week we do New York,” says Glamour Wayne, Gemini’s muscular selector. “We travel from Jamaica three times a month,” he says, pushing up his black-mesh tank top. The 28-year-old Kingston native has been deejaying for eight years, and his system pulls down $2,000 to $4,000 a night on top of hotel and airfare.
Wayne is unimpressed with the turnout. “It could be better,” he says, swigging a Heineken. “I’ve played places in America where there are thousands; this looks like 250, 300. In Jamaica I play six, sometimes seven nights a week, and the fans are more hard-core.”
As he watches the competing system, the Chicago-based Sagittarius, Wayne philosophizes on his profession. “The deejay is very important in creating the music. I select according to the people. I look at their features, their faces, the way they move. Ninety percent is reggae, 5 percent soul, 2 percent calypso, and 2 percent disco.” He scans the crowd. “We don’t use CDs or tapes. Playing music is part of the fingertips. The knowledge of the fingers is very important,” he says, rubbing his together.
A tall woman in a sequined top and shorts violently slams a bottle on a table in appreciation at the sound of a hot “dub plate,” a ten-inch, custom-made version of a popular song in which the artist records lyrics that mock a competing sound system over the song’s original music. “If we were in Jamaica, those would be gunshots,” says Marshal of the bottle pounding.
The party is a throbbing circle, with every inch of the wall crammed with standing, rocking, or swaying bodies. The only time the group intersects with the dance floor is when somebody rushes to the center to show appreciation for a selection, sometimes by igniting the aerosol stream from a hair-spray or deodorant can, projecting flames as far as six feet. Because new songs come on so often–songs are never played in their entirety–there are plenty of displays of enthusiasm.
It’s 3 AM and the room is getting steamy. Two men in furry Kangol hats and gold chains perform a crazy-legged dance that includes back bends. A woman drifts by in a white chiffon top and pants, a silver tube top barely covering her size 40D chest. “These outfits are conservative,” says Marshal, eyeing a white linen Nehru-collared, gold-studded suit. “They can get outlandish, with thong bikinis.”
Suddenly the crowd grows quiet. The buzz of Jamaican patois floats over an a cappella track. Then sound crew and onlookers alike break out in a flurry of bottle slamming, stomping, and yelling. Glamour Wayne beams behind the turntable. He is playing a brand-new, previously unheard dub plate by Beres Hammond, the most popular singer in Jamaica according to Marshal. This a cappella version of “Queen of the Minstrel” is a huge coup.
At 4:40 AM the crowd starts thinning out and the Sagittarius selector plays a dub version of Toni Braxton’s “Breathe Again.” A sextet of waving women sing and sway along. When he puts on “Understanding” by Xscape, a few couples begin to slow dance–on the sides, of course.
“That’s dancehall,” says Marshal. “You go to be entertained, to see the sound system and the fashion show.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Steven D. Arazmus.