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Dancehall Puts Hartford On The Map

Soundsystems, Deejays, Dance Teams And Hot-gyals Make The Scene

March 1, 2007
By ROBERT COOPER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

Greater Hartford has one of the largest populations of Jamaicans in America, somewhere behind New York, and Miami.

Taking a trip through the North End you can get a taste of the Caribbean island at the restaurants and bakeries on Albany and Blue Hills Avenue. You can also experience the culture of Jamaican dancehall in a number of venues and clubs in the city. Hartford has its own dancehall scene that is, in many ways, as exciting as those in Miami and New York.

Dancehall music borrows its name from the Jamaican dancehalls that used to play music that was deemed unsuitable for the radio. The music differed from “roots” or traditional reggae, because, instead of singing, a deejay (very similar to rappers in hip-hop) would chat over dub or instrumental riddims. In the 1980s, the music took on a more synthesized sound, and landed in America in areas heavily populated with Jamaicans. The 1990s saw it break into the American mainstream with the success of Shabba Ranks. Fast forward to the new millennium, dancehall is enjoying its greatest crossover appeal with Sean Paul, Shaggy, Beenie Man, and Elephant Man having hugely popular songs and albums.

Today, dancehall is more than just music; it’s a culture and a movement, complete with its own signature niche, like hip-hop, rave and rock. There are deejays and singers, and sound systems that play the tunes, dance groups that keep the place alive with the latest steps, and the hot gyals whose barely-there fashions keep all eyes glued to them. Every week these are all on display in Hartford, whether it’s at a dance held at the scene’s epicenter, the West Indian Social Club, or at one of several clubs that play dancehall music.

There is no shortage of sound systems in the Hartford area. Sounds systems, or sounds, are groups of deejays, singers and hype men that perform as a crew, sometimes competing with other sound systems. Typically at a dance, anywhere from three to five “sounds” can be found on a bill. Sounds such as Black Hustler, Money Machine, Sparkles Intl., Fresh Intl., and Mad Alliance keep bodies moving to the latest riddims straight from Jamaica. Playing records alone is not enough to buss di dance, each sound has a mic-man who keeps the crowd hyped and entertained by yelling over a tune for emphasis, and shouting instructions to get crowd participation.

While the sound systems are laying down the tracks, the dance floor is where the real action takes place. Hartford’s dance groups Crazy Vybez, Triple Threat, Star Time, Top Class, or Entourage can be found at every corner of the dance floor, doing the latest dance moves. Dances with names like Swing it Wey, Tek Wey Yuself, Bounty Walk (named after Jamaica’s most popular Deejay Bounty Killa), Raging Bull, and Stookie work the dance in an energetic frenzy. Dances exclusively for the hot gyals are the Dutty Whine, which involves swinging your neck violently in a circle, Hot Fuck, and the Beyonce Whine (named after the popular R&B singer Beyonce Knowles). All of the dances are imported from Jamaica, coming into America via the Internet and DVDs.

Author Binns, owner of Aquarius Records on Albany Avenue, sells the popular Jamaican dance videos Passa Passa , Exact Monday’s , and Dutty Fridays that have helped fuel the dance revolution currently taking place.

“The kids here want to emulate what goes on in Jamaica,” said Binns. “It used to take a year for a dance to get here from Jamaica, now it takes two weeks. As soon as it happens there, it’s here on DVD.”

Although Hartford has many different dance groups, there is no competition or animosity between them. Drew of Crazy Vybez said that all the groups are supportive of each other, and there are no beefs. Terror Blacks of Triple Threat said dancing “brings the youth in the community together.”

Some of today’s biggest dancehall artists have come from out of Hartford. Chuck Fender and Busy Signal got their start here in Hartford, and there are a slew of singers and deejays who hope to follow in their success. Artists from Hartford get to show off their talents by opening shows for acts that come from Jamaica.

Flyame, Hartford’s only female deejay, has only been performing since last June, when she opened up for one of Jamaica’s leading female deejays, Macka Diamond. Flyame’s sexy lyrics and confident delivery won the crowd over.

“My performance was good, and it motivated me to keep going on,” said the caramel complected beauty. “I’m planning on taking it to the next level, pushing it as far as I can go, until I am one of the best.”

Singer Andy Maxx has been on the local scene since 2002, and has opened for Buju Banton, and Beres Hammond. Currently he is working on a CD to be released in the early summer, which will include the single “I’ll Find A Way,” a song that got some airplay on Wesleyan’s radio station 88.1. Maxx, who records out of a studio in East Hartford with veteran performer and writer Reality, describes his sound as “R&B and dancehall.” Other acts in the Hartford area include Singer K, Gucci Flavor, Barber, and Capitol D.

Even with a strong music scene here in Hartford, it is not without its share of problems. One complaint being that the clubs here don’t stay open as late as in other major cities.

“People here need to come out earlier; they tend to come out too late,” said Sleepy of the sound system Sparkles Intl. “It’s not like New York, where they can go to 7 in the morning. By 3, Hartford is finished.”

Complaint number two involves the many promoters who put together dances and stage shows.

Beanie Hustler, of Hartford’s oldest sound Black Hustler, said, “Promoters need to be more together. Promoters and sounds have to be more of a unit, instead of trying to grab for themselves.”

Selector Natty, of Black Waxx sound system, believes that it is hard for unknown sounds to get a break.

“There is an impenetrable force that you can’t break. If you’re not in the circle, you’re not getting in,” said Natty. “The promoters want to use the same sounds at every show.”

Another complaint is the notoriously fickle and hard-to-please Hartford audience. Sounds and artist alike say that if you can please the Hartford audience, you can please anyone.

Others also mention that the rise of dancehall has pushed roots and culture to the side. Rootsman, who can be found selling roots drinks at each dance said, “When it comes to culture, nobody supports it. We need to have someone educate and inform people about consciousness.”

Despite those complaints, Hartford is getting a reputation as a dancehall hotspot.

“Hartford is real hot right now,” said Ricky D, who plays dancehall every Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and on Sunday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Hot 93.7. “Everybody wants to bring artists here, and we have college radio stations and Hot 93.7 playing the music.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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