"A lot of people think, 'Oh, I'm going to make dancehall rhythms,'" Dennis "Dow Jones" Shaw says from his Orlando home. "I get so many calls from people looking for advice and direction on how to do this thing. … It's not worth it from a financial standpoint."
Shaw is de facto head of Orlando's South Rakkas Crew, mostly because he does the interviews and runs the website and takes care of all the annoying things that take time away from making music. He and his partners, Alex G and Riprock, are quietly making the best dancehall beats of the last three years. Their slightly left-of-center rhythms have attracted not only true yard heroes such as Vybz Kartel and Capleton, but also international alt-stars like Beck and M.I.A., who've come begging for hip remixes.
Geographically and culturally, South Rakkas is at a distance. "The powers that be in the dancehall world are really trying to stay in control of what's going on," Shaw says. Instead of making serious money producing rap or R&B or pop in another lifetime, two-thirds of the Crew produced a pre-megastardom 'N Sync South Rakkas Crew makes dancehall out of love.
Which is not to say the trio hasn't found some success. Their first two beats "Clappas" and "Red Alert" spawned multiple hits for MCs such as Mr. Vegas, Ce'Cile, and T.O.K. (though no crossover records in the U.S.). They were like nothing else rocking Jamaica at the time. "Clappas" sounded like a New Orleans bounce producer (or a robot) trying to replicate the hambone. "Red Alert" dusted off a Roland 303 synthesizer and brought the wriggling, whining melodies of acid house into the dancehall.
The crew's most recent rhythm, "Bionic Ras," is its most extreme yet. Barreling along at club-music tempo, the beat throws off little sparks and snags and stabs and drums like tuned kitchen utensils and a bass line that throbs like a wincing temple. (Plus a whizzing chunk of Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You.") Like much of the best dancehall, it sounds like an amphetamine-addled ring tone or Third World video-game music. "Alex grew up listening to a lot of that rave music," Shaw says.
Shaw was born in Jamaica, but the Crew met while growing up in Toronto. Shaw's soundsystem "used to play slow jams, hip-hop, house, Top 40 and reggae," he says. "Growing up [in Canada], we didn't have a strong black culture, or a strong this culture or that culture; it really is a mix of different things." Eventually production work for artists such as 95 South (of "Whoot! There It Is" fame) led Alex G and Riprock down the coast to Florida, and Shaw followed suit. Dancehall eventually seemed like a more street-credible and challenging alternative to producing boy bands for the rest of their lives.
"I interned at Junior Reid's studio," Shaw says of his introduction to dancehall production. "I called my brother-in-law, who is Mr. Vegas, and I told him, 'I'm coming to Jamaica,' and I brought a rhythm down. He enabled me to meet up with some artists and told me which studios to hit. And that first riddim was 'Clappas.'"
If that sounds shockingly easy, it was. "The Mr. Vegas situation definitely helped," Shaw says. "When you're an outsider, when you don't understand how things move in Jamaica, things will cost you more. People assume, 'Oh, you're from foreign [country], and you can afford it,' or, 'You're from foreign [country], and you're ignorant of the way we do things.'"
But due to internal politics in the dancehall world, it's still been slow going. "We've put out just three [compilation albums] and we've been in the game four years," Shaw says. "You can go down to Jamaica for two weeks, have everything mixed and mastered. [But] it doesn't usually go that way."
It's a shame, because South Rakkas' one-rhythm CD compilations are highly listenable. (If the idea of listening to the same beat 20 times in a row sounds boring to you, you're not wrong.) It achieves this simply enough, shuffling the elements of the track around, adding or subtracting instruments.
Three examples from Red Alert are instructive. Predator's "Mad Sick" strips everything back to drums and a burping, acidic bass. Mr. Vegas and Irishman's "Never Leave U Lonely" sweetens the confectioners' sugar melodies considerably. And Sizzla's "Only Takes Love" pushes the synthetic elements down, foregrounding an acoustic guitar and Sizzla's infernal preacher-man croak. It's an indictment of the shameless recycling of most dancehall that such subtle tweaks stand out.
This month South Rakkas releases its fourth rhythm album, Chinkuzi. It's actually five rhythms in one, with subtitles such as "Roller Girl Special" and "No Virgin," pitching the sexy boom of Miami bass under skeletal drums. "Sometimes I get calls from people, 'Did you hear this new rhythm or did you hear this new song'?" Shaw says. "And honestly, I don't listen to a lot of dancehall … because I think it would affect our sound."
After 2005, the year when the Marleys ate dancehall and young Jamaicans rushed toward the roots reggae of their parents, one might think South Rakkas' synthetic, hard-core ragga is out of step. But the Crew was recently tapped by the Marley estate for an undisclosed remix. "I don't think it takes anything away from dancehall," Shaw says. "At the end of the day people go to dances to dance, and our kind of dancehall … it's dance music, and people want to move to it."email@example.com