Rub A Dub Style – Chapter 10


The media, along with those within “proper society” who felt they had the right to dictate what were acceptable social standards, didn’t take long to start attacking the new ‘dancehall’ style music. In a barrage of invective that lasted the entire decade, the press, the police, the government and all the upper echelons of society proclaimed that the music and lyrics were pandering to the lowest common denominator and compromising Jamaica’s image abroad. The venues were patronized by gangsters, they complained, and that the lyrics encouraged public lewdness, drug consumption, violence and crime.

It is interesting to note that not a single one of these complaints was new to reggae music or exclusive to dancehall. Rastafarians had been totally open about promoting ganja use for years (as had Bob Marley) through their music. Mento music was rife with sexual references and innuendo. Rock Steady and Reggae often celebrated Rude Boys and their lifestyle.

Just as ‘the establishment’, from the press to the police, had fought Rastafarianism, it now honed its sites on dancehall. And as with these earlier instances, the typical response was to resist change and blame music for society’s shortcomings. And dancehall, with its strong ties to ghetto culture, seemed every bit as threatening to middle-class morals as Rastafarianism had a generation ago.

By the ‘80s, Bob Marley had done much to promote the image of Rastafarians in both Jamaica and abroad. Having been cleansed of his revolutionary image, Bob was elevated to the level of Jamaican National Hero, and wearing dreadlocks had become more a fashion statement than a political, social or religious statement. Now that Rastas were no longer seen as crazed murderers or members of a revolutionary army, the government and media began to view them as something benign enough to start including their images in tourist campaigns. Whereas, in the ‘70s, grandmothers used to tell their grandchildren to stay away from the ‘Blackheart man’, she was now more likely to threaten kids with a good hiding for repeating slack lyrics.

When Bob Marley passed away, people in society even grew nostalgic for the dreadlocks era, and were ready to forgive Rastamen all the sins previously imputed to them. Anything to keep the new threat of dancehall at bay. Articles in the Jamaican Gleaner warned of the calamity to befall Jamaica because of this new form of music anarchism:

“Dancehall as a way of life emphasizes the unproductive elements in society. It does not contribute to the development of human capital and, like the posses, is a challenge to our social order since it threatens to grow beyond the narrow confines of entertainment and become an alternative to what we know as our criteria for progress. If not channeled, dancehall will create a class of people which is incapable of doing-anything productive.”*

* Is dancehall a creative force? The Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, November 29, 1988

Mutabaruka, Rastafarian dub poet, ranted, “Don’t you know that in America is mostly white people buy reggae music? Yes, and whenever white people hear about ‘punani’ business them get turn off …”* Ironically, it turned out not to be the cultural music, but the ‘gansta’ identification and lewd rapping that eventually brought Jamaican music to the North American pop market in the ‘90s.

* Punani- Female genitalia, quote from Sports ‘N’ Arts, September11-25, 1987 p.16

Now that Bob Marley had made reggae music a major tourist draw, people feared that dancehall would spoil Jamaica’s newly acquired status as a ‘cool’ country to visit. And the aspect of dancehall that worried them the most was ‘slackness’, the new vogue of using bawdy lyrics and sexually explicit themes.

What the critics failed to understand was that the changeover to slackness was a move away from revolution and represented a new-found feeling of comfort and luxury. At last people were able to let their guard down and go to parties, drink and dance and relax. As Floyd George points out, “Two or three years ago we were dealing with such moral issues as the imprisonment of masses of people under the rules of a questionable State of Emergency. The newspapers and the electronic media, the bar-room gossip and verandah talk were about the slimy sequences of the ‘Spy’ Robinson story; the great Gunpowder Plot that never was; the clandestine importation of ‘boolets’; the Gold Street Massacre; The Green Bay Slaughter, The Orange Street and Eventide Fires; the Migration of ex-Ministers; the confusion of the Church and so on and so forth. Those were the days and the issues that seem so easily forgotten now.”* The fact that those issues were forgotten meant that people wanted to forget them and move on with their lives. And that included going to dances, finding a partner, having a warm Guinness and maybe looking for a little romance.

* August 12, 1982, Songs of the Times, Jamaica Gleaner

An album, released in 1984 on Arrival, summed up the division in Jamaican popular music at the time. Slackness V. Culture featured Yellowman, on the ‘slackness’ side, clashing with Charlie Chaplin, standing strong for ‘culture’. The dancehall audience was similarly divided – some people frequented the sounds that carried the slack deejays while others went to the few roots and culture sounds. In the early ‘80s, slackness was clearly in the lead. Despite the perceptions of those warning about this ‘new’ form of music, the practice of singing lewd songs didn’t start with dancehall. According to Frankie Campbell, leader of the Fab Five, “Slackness as a style was nothing new to Jamaica. There is no music slacker than Mento which was already, at the time, over 100 years old as a music form.” Popular songs containing suggestive lyrics were nothing new in Jamaica, or in the folk music of most countries.

Calypso, Mento and other earlier forms of West Indian music contained steady diet of innuendo. So did Ska and Rock Steady – songs like Jackie Opal’s ‘Push Wood’, The Starlight’s ‘Soldering’, Lord Creator’s ‘Big Bamboo’, Phyllis Dillon’s ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato’, Prince Buster’s ‘Wreck a Pum Pum’ (and the answer, The Soul Sister’s ‘Wreck a Buddy’), or Dawn Love’s ‘Watering’.

By the 1980s, Mento and its cousin calypso were seen as innocuous and archaic folk musics, something harmless to play for tourists. But in 1956 there was a Parliamentary inquiry looking into banning ‘calypsos’ with offensive lyrics, songs like ‘Rough Rider’, ‘Big Boy And Teacher’, ‘Red Tomato’, and the infamous ‘Night Food’*.

* From One of Mento’s Great Voices Silenced, by Daniel Neely, Sunday, March 18, 2007, Chin’s Calypso Sextet, Alerth Bedasse, Everard Williams and Ivan Chin’s label,

The term ‘sexually explicit’, of course, is relative. “[Slackness] was always around but people used to use it like more poetic, more suggestive,” Observes deejay Lord Sassafrass. “Like [calypsonian] Sparrow for instance. He would be singing about ‘Salt fish, nothing no nice like salt fish’. So, more or less, everybody presume what he is talking about. So, it was always around, but it was never so explicit. Now, it became explicit. People actually saying out the words. Instead of making suggestions about the thing, they actually call the name.”

With more churches per capita than any other country in the world, Jamaica remained a very conservative, Christian society. It didn’t take much to get a song banned for lewdness. Deejay Dennis Alcapone comments, “I remember one of the songs banned on the radio station was a Heptones song called ‘Fattie Fattie’. All they was singing was, ‘I need a fat girl tonight,’ and that was taboo, that was outlawed. Compared to what these [modern] guys was doing!”

Critics in the ‘80s failed to recognize that slackness actually represented a return to a more politically and socially conservative set of values. Slackness was not about changing government structures or advancing human rights. Slackness, as enunciated in the dancehalls, adhered to a very traditional interpretation of sexuality. Sex was something that happened between men and women in very standardized ways. The purpose, and outcome, of sex was still seen as procreation, and the lyrics reflected that.

Put it n dry, the gal start cry
Take it out wet the gal start fret
Next thing she know, a pickney she a get
– Ringo

Rice and peas and Ackee
Papa Echo skin him cockie
And he push in a young gal gravy
And out come a bal’head baby
– General Echo

Overall, slackness actually supported the main values of the society and really did not offer any concrete challenges. Despite the inherent conservatism of the trend, those in positions of influence in society continued not only to condemn the practice but to go about doing so in an often arrogant and condescending manner. Andre Fanon, writing in The Gleaner, articulated the popular view that, “[W]hen one attends a session…products of uninhibited imaginations, are poured through the speaker boxes. Of course, ‘slackness’ appeals to our baser instincts which are aroused by our consumption of Red Stripe beer, Stout, and Heineken.”*

* Is dancehall a creative force? The Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, November 29, 1988. By Andre Fanon

Part of the rawness of many professional and middle class Jamaicans’ revulsion to slackness, and dancehall in general, was because, deep inside, Jamaica remained a society with a strong undercurrent of both racism and classism. To those in the middle, with their gaze pointed upwards, slackness was embarrassing and threatened, somehow, to make their goal of ascension harder to achieve. The coarse lyrics and loose behavior reminded them that not everyone shared their values. Slackness exposed an underbelly of society that many preferred to deny. That these people in the sessions were expressing their needs in such a frank and direct way, made social and class aspirants very uncomfortable. (And, although slackness didn’t have an overt political agenda, this result wasn’t really that far from the aims of the Rastafarians). As David Kingston explains, “Good social commentary should make certain segments of society squirm.” But nobody in the dancehall really cared. The party was just getting underway.

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