90s Hip-Hop's Love Affair With Dancehall

90s Hip-Hop's Love Affair With Dancehall

The influence of reggae and dancehall is indelible to Hip-Hop both as music and culture.

The very beginnings of Hip-Hop in the South Bronx are directly tied to the tradition of reggae DJing and toasting, and pioneers like DJ Kool Herc were born in Jamaica. 

As rap music became a commercial industry in the 1980s, funk and disco sounds informed most of what was on early rap records. But in the mid-1980s, South Bronx emcee KRS-One re-emphasized Hip-Hop's reggae and dancehall lineage with his patios-influenced rhyme style and pronounced Jamaican inflections, influenced by his upbringing under a Jamaican stepfather. KRS, through both his landmark rap group Boogie Down Productions and his later solo work, ushered in a high-profile period of cross-pollination between dancehall and Hip-Hop artists that came into full bloom in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Dancehall artists like Sister Nancy and Capleton became regular musical references in rap songs, either via sample or interpolation. And artists collaborated directly with rappers; Run-D.M.C. teamed with Yellowman for 1985s lukewarm "Roots, Rap, Reggae," and Yellowman's "Zungguzungguguzungguzeng" was interpolated for numerous classic rap tracks, from "The P Is Still Free" by Boogie Down Productions to Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s hit "Player's Anthem."

By the early 1990s, Hip-Hop artists adding a little island flair to their music was commonplace.

West Coast gangsta rap stars N.W.A. featured Admiral Dancehall on their hit single "Alwayz Into Somethin'" and Brooklyn's raggamuffin rhymers Das EFX broke through to major success with 1992s "They Want EFX" while also contributing a patios-influenced hook to ex-N.W.A. member Ice Cube's 1993 hit "Check Yo Self."

As cable TV exploded into American homes in the late 1980s and the Black Entertainment Network gained major popularity, dancehall videos became a regular fixture in the channel's rotation. Former Miss Jamaica Rachel Stuart hosted a popular dancehall video show for BET called Carribbean Rhythms that regularly featured acts like Chaka Demus & Pliers and Shabba Ranks. R&B-heavy crossover dancehall singles became constants on Black radio; as tunes like "Mr. Loverman" by Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra's "Flex" became mainstream hits. 

One of the Notorious B.I.G.'s first appearances (and his first video appearance) was on the remix single for Super Cat's "Dolly My Baby." And Super Cat provided the hook for Kris Kross 1993 single "Alright."

At the height of his popularity, Ranks became an ambassador for dancehall. He'd landed dancehall's first gold record and consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album. He wound up connecting with American artists who were amongst his biggest fans, like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

"When we were in London they invite us backstage," he told an interviewer in 1994. "Me love Snoop, caw Snoop Doggy Dogg him real. Dem some real nigs. They had just did a wonderful show. It was a memory moment."

KRS-One affiliate Mad Lion also saw his highest American visibility during this period of dancehall-Hip-Hop collaboration. He would take home Reggae Artist of the Year at the first annual Source Awards in 1994, a moment that further emphasized the significance of reggae and dancehall on Hip-Hop in the mid-1990s.  

In 1994, Patra and Yo-Yo teamed up for the hit single "Romantic Call," which also featured a notable cameo from 2Pac in the music video. With her sultry image and string of hit videos, Patra became the Queen of Dancehall, a major force for American audiences who became a major influence on Black music throughout the 1990s and later. In 2012, she talked about setting a standard for sexy, assertive Jamaican womanhood. 

"A woman shouldn't have to do anything extra because we are naturally extra," she told Couch Sessions. "There is no way that the men can compete with our sexuality. They'll need the whole thing (LOL). If a woman isn't involved, then it is not going to work. I've never felt I had to do "more". I've received so much respect from the guys in the industry because I stood my ground. When I go in there, I'm not trying to look for lovers or anything. I go in there to make music and respect people. My job is to make women feel good and proud of themselves and present themselves in a nice way.  Not too vulgar or anything like that but be confident. There is something on the album for everyone, but I won't deter from being sensual. It is who I am as a Jamaican woman."

Artists like Lady Saw, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer became household names as dancehall sat comfortably alongside rap and R&B in mainstream Black music.

And Brooklyn rap star Busta Rhymes, whose flow incorporated a uniquely Jamaican rhythm and often featured island slang, became a superstar. Busta, like KRS, blended Caribbean patois into his rhymes and flow in a way that made the cultural connections all so clear. 

"My mother, my father, we’re a West Indian house," Busta told Drink Champs in 2020. "West Indian culture is a proud people... the proudness of the West Indian people is as a result of the great suffering and sacrifice that we have been able to rise from... at the end of the day, that’s how I was raised. So, respect is important."

Artists like Busta, KRS, Das-EFX and others kept Hip-Hop's reggae connections obvious through their flows and slang, but the collaborations between rappers and dancehall artists made the lineage most pronounced. Those collaborations yielded some era-defining hits and popular videos that received major airplay. Hits like the too-adult-for-his-age "Freaks" by Vicious, which famously featured Doug E. Fresh. 

"Hip hop was given birth to by Caribbean culture,” Busta Rhymes said in 2020.

That statement serves as a reminder that the broadness of Hip-Hop culture can't be celebrated without recognizing the Caribbean heritage that lies within and throughout it. It may have been most visible in the 1990s, but it remains a link thru to contemporary music. Even if sometimes, we all need a reminder. 

“Jamaica gave birth to hip hop," Busta continued. "Hip-Hop, he's a yardman. So, with that being said, we do have to understand that there’s a lost history that is being significantly neglected by everyone in hip hop, as far as research is concerned. Nobody thinks to go to the West Indian culture to acknowledge how the birth of this culture was even conceived." 

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