We wrap musical genres around us as personal identifiers, like the plastic bracelets folded around newborns’ wrists. Their grooves become as familiar to us as our own heartbeat. So, to some steeped in the revolutionary associations of Jamaican music, hearing the one drop riddim blast out of regular old pop radio on a song like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” meant betrayal; dancehall had been hijacked and given a bizarre transplant in order to sound like some new entity called “tropical house.”
Hence the shock of seeing the bespectacled singer-songwriter beaming amidst the inner circle of today’s Caribbean musicians—Damian and Stephen Marley, Wyclef Jean, Chronixx, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sizzla, and more—on the cover of the 2017 anthology Tropical House Cruises to Jamaica. A conceptual compilation, it set out to remind listeners of the original identity of tropical house by pulling together the style’s forebears alongside those they had influenced, like Sheeran.
Whether despite or because of the pop star’s contributions, the disc became surprisingly successful, especially considering it was the first release on a new indie label, Contractor/Amada Records. The buzz led to its founder, a Jamaican marketer, producer, and entrepreneur named Sean “Contractor” Edwards, releasing a thematic companion piece, Hip Hop Cruises to Jamaica. Try hearing the two compilations together with another recent anthology, Step Forward Youth, on the venerable reggae label VP, which unites tracks that inspired the scrappy mid-1970s alliance between British punks and Rastas. These three collections clinch the significance of one Caribbean island in altering the evolution of pop. They also function as a focus for debate: Who gets to reap the rewards when creativity spreads and mutates? Do cultural leaps forward come down to individual Great Originators, or can they “belong” to the communities they have built, as well as to their place of origin? And, above all, who should—and does—get paid when an underground sound rages around the world?
“We had a lot of negative feedback from hardcore reggae fans in regard to having Ed Sheeran on a reggae album,” label head Contractor tells me when we discuss some of these questions. “Most of the charts are dominated by American reggae bands; some Jamaicans worry about us losing reggae.”
But was seeing Sheeran in a Caribbean context really that big of a detour? The Jamaican national motto is “Out of Many, One People,” and though dominated by the African-derived drum—or its digital version—since Rasta’s 1970s rise, island music has always had a global strain. Since the late 15th century genocide of their indigenous people, the island’s inhabitants basically came there to work, whether forced or voluntarily. End result: Though essentially the product of African descendants, the house of reggae was also built by islanders of European, Lebanese, or Chinese extraction, and by the Indians who may well have worn the isle’s first locks—the traditional presentation of their ascetic holy men. The tribes that expat Jamaicans went on to create are even more outernational, all linked by the old Jamaican phrase that the Wailers once sang: “who feels it, knows it.” That group even cut a 1965 single, “Rude Boy,” with a soaring hook that named and reclaimed the 18th century European quadrille line dance, which was evidently still held in some affection despite dating from hellish plantation days.
But the problem arises when creators don’t reap the benefits financially, as has all too often been the case. Sixty-nine-year-old Jamaican DJ Big Youth, who appears with singer Dennis Brown on Step Forward Youth, forcefully exclaims, “Historically, Jamaican artists have been defrauded and disrespected from every angle and in every way. Since I began in the 1970s, people have claimed they own the rights to my music, when they never wrote a line, and I never signed anything with them.” In that knowledge, reclamation is foundational for the Cruises albums—a spirit that also motivated contributor Damian Marley, the founder of the real-life cruises that inspired Contractor’s theme.
Now in its sixth year, Damian’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise has flipped the script on the narrative of Jamaican tourism. Traditionally, musicians would perform in an onboard band for foreign promoters, or make a few shekels by playing at the foot of a cruise ship gangplank to welcome tourists being funneled into a consumer experience. But Damian’s floating reggae nations allow artists banned from the U.S. to access American audiences and get a chance to progress—a motivation the reggae scion shares with Contractor.
To fulfill his ambition of making a global hit with a homegrown Jamaican project steered by a local executive producer, Contractor used the alternative currency of relationships. His years in music marketing and promotion laid the foundation for the projects. “If I were to attempt to do this with money, it would have cost me a fortune,” he says. “I networked with my clients and friends.”
Contractor’s list included Ed Sheeran’s musician cousin, Jethro, who tells me, “It was refreshing to feature Ed and myself, who grew up in reggae, alongside artists of this caliber.” UK youth like Ed and Jethro, who are part of a large family with Irish roots, had their worlds remixed by the sort of Jamaican music chronicled on Step Forward Youth. Growing up, Ed would hang out with Jethro in Bristol’s underground dub clubs like the legendary Dugout, the crucible of bands like Tricky and Massive Attack. “I grew up with all these people; they were my peers,” says Jethro.
The Sheerans benefitted from Jamaica’s reverse cultural colonization of its former controllers. Step Forward Youth spotlights Jamaican inspirations alongside bands that were not only British, but black. (Britain became far more diverse after Afro-Caribbean postwar migration from the former colonies.) Punk was the first time that black, white, and mixed bands had performed together in the UK. Iconic tracks on Step Forward Youth include Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash,” Lee Perry’s “Roast Fish and Cornbread,” and Dillinger’s “Cokane in My Brain.” Unusually, they appear alongside tracks by British combos like Reggae Regular, Capital Letters, and Aswad, with their anti-police song “Three Babylon,” one of UK reggae’s first 12-inch singles. Giving a real flavor of economically challenged ’70s Britain, the underrated Keith Hudson voices the West Indian immigrant’s plaint with “Turn the Heater On.” These tunes helped bands like the Clash forge their identity.
But the Punky Reggae Party, as Bob Marley called the scene, is just one of Jamaica’s multiple contributions to global pop. The roll call includes ska, which has inspired waves from punks to surfers, through to the vast tribe of children of Jamaican dub music—the first sound to use the recording studio as an instrument—that helped spawn electronic dance music. Like Adam’s rib, one phrase sampled from Jamaican dancehall artist Shabba Ranks’ “Dem Bow” birthed the world-conquering genre of reggaetón.
Thus it should be no surprise that when juxtaposing the Tropical House Cruises and Hip Hop Cruises collections, we hear two cultures clash. The former really does sound like a nice mellow vacay compared to the hip-hop collection, which suggests the listener had better be on guard all the time.
On the Tropical House Cruises to Jamaica CD, with Jethro performing as Alonestar, the Sheeran cousins work reggae’s inspirational heritage with “Raise ’Em Up.” Humor radiates from Mojo Morgan and the Marleys’ “Million $ Check.” Even Capleton’s confrontational “Pain” sways with melody. Songs directly referring to money or the lack of it, like “Good Life” by Rollie Fresh and Chronixx, invoke charity and unity as part of material improvement.
Tropical House Cruises indicates that the genre is indeed basically a fancy name for Jamaican dancehall lite; the sweeter sister of the ruff, tuff groove that arose after the 1981 death of Bob Marley. Yet the way Tropical House was marketed, snubbing its roots by never mentioning Jamaica, enraged many, prompting charges of cultural erasure. As Maxine “Isis” Stowe, manager of reggae legend Bunny Wailer, explains, “It’s very wrong echoing the legacy of slave labor, which is where these tendencies of unprotection and non-valued creations emanate from.”
The pragmatic Contractor has his own take on the topic. “To me, tropical house sounds different from dancehall, because it is merged with Latin and Afrobeat,” he insists. “Mainstream America wanted to come up with a more trendy, catchy term. They didn’t want to call it dancehall, because of negative associations. A lot of the artists were getting into trouble.”
Seeing the softer, more accessible Tropical House Cruises compilation sail into mainstream-media waters prompted Tiffany Gaines, CEO of the label SS Global/Ingrooves (an affiliate of Universal Records), to approach Contractor about making a rap hybrid anthology: Hip Hop Cruises to Jamaica. The idea had deep roots.
Proposes Jethro Sheeran, “The album should be called Hip Hop Cruises BACK to Jamaica!” Indeed, not only was hip-hop originator DJ Kool Herc a Jamaican immigrant, but several hip-hop icons were first generation Americans of Jamaican parentage, including Busta Rhymes, Slick Rick, and Biggie Smalls. Whether they know it or not, all rappers build on the achievements of pioneering Jamaican dancehall DJs; the sort of “toasters” showcased on Step Forward Youth, folks like the late Tappa Zukie, Prince Far I and Big Youth, who announces, “We are the originators! Hip-hop would not exist without us.”
The Hip Hop Cruises disc offers charming, unexpected moments like Lauryn Hill with Jamaica’s Kali Ranks on “A Perfect Match,” where Hill swoons, high on her love for Jamaica. But not every rapper on the album has a direct connection to the island. Contributor Lil Nate Dogg is the son of the late rapper and singer Nate Dogg and related to Snoop Dogg. Of Snoop’s brief but well-documented flirtation with Rasta, he says, “I see the vibe he had going—smooth, cool, laidback.” But though he is no expert, he earnestly explains, “I really wanted to do music with Jamaicans, I like their vibe and their sounds.”
Although the tracks on Hip Hop Cruises are not necessarily new, their assembly reflects the current moment—a society in danger of tumbling into the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. They are a reminder of how the survival hustle tries, without necessarily succeeding, to sweep away the old reggae idealism. Most Hip Hop Cruises contributors boast of financial motivation; from its “No Consignment” opener of Jamaicans Trinity Chris and Bounty Killer intoning “only cash alone!” to the transactional, strip club nature of Boneface’s emotional landscape on “Spend It.” Though so cheery on the Tropical House album, it’s no joke when Jethro Sheeran jousts with Eminem associate Royce Da 5'9'' on Hip Hop Cruises’ thunderously paranoid “Crossroads.” In this callous milieu, it is a given that, as G-Dinero and C-Murder rap on “Blame on Me,” “They wanna see me line up in jail.”
“That is the street sound and feeling that we wanted to convey; it is not about the bling,” Contractor explains. “The struggle is part of our lives. The struggle to get there, to be able to be comfortable and provide for yourself and your family. American rappers and Jamaican artists tend to express the struggle through music, and if they have not made it, they feel the struggle even more.”
The anthology does feature some emotional, tender tracks, like “Get Home” by Bonez featuring Layzie Bone, and Lil Nate Dogg’s “The Last Word.” Still, Lil Nate Dogg is pragmatic. “If you don’t have money, you can’t survive,” he tells me. “It doesn’t matter which hood you’re from, so long as when you get money in and better yourself, you spread the wealth.”
Spreading the wealth of music seems to be the direction of culture now, as downloading and now streaming have helped formerly niche genres boom and overthrow rock’s old commercial monolith. “The way they merge sounds today, genres are not going to exist 10 years from now,” says Hip Hop Cruises contributor Mojo Morgan. “No one wants to be boxed into one genre. Creatives today want their voices to be heard, freedom of expression, and I believe we are creating a new more eclectic type of music and music consumer.”
Are we solely our inherited DNA, or are we more than the sum of our plasma? Can we use culture as a tool to build a more constructive future? The combined energy and significance of these three compilation releases suggests that we can.
Vivien Goldman’s forthcoming book, Revenge of the She-Punks, is out May 7 via University of Texas Press.