a tropical snow storm is upon us

By now we have all seen the video by Evan Puschak @TheeNerdWriter where he takes Rolling Stone to task for calling Rihanna’s “Work” “tropical house.”  Puschak opts to describe “Work” as having a “light, summery, island vibe” then goes on to clarify the errors in classifying Miss Fenty’s single.  If you have not seen the The Nerd Writer’s handy video work, I took the liberty of pasting it below. 

I really do appreciate Puschak’s educational offering. (Of course I pause when he speaks of Rihanna being the best “ambassador” for Jamaican music. See my previous post on “Work.” But, in the context of the options he presents, yes, she is.) The video is particularly useful in pointing out the differences between tropical house and Jamaican dancehall as well as the influences of dancehall on tropical house beats. Puschak points out, rather well, how Jamaican dancehall rhythms have given non-Jamaicans like Skrillex, Diplo, and Major Lazer, more broadly, a lot to be inspired by.

The Nerd Writer posted his video earlier this year and long before Drake’s Views from the 6 album dropped. The Nerd Writer also published his video long before Alicia Keys’ song “In Common” was released and was described by Billboard writer Lars Brandle as having “a tropical vibe and a subtle, Latin beat.”  Now, don’t get me wrong, Alicia Keys’ new song is great, but, — because there has to be a but– it is interesting to hear her song in light of this picture posted to her IG account last year.Sintra and Alicia

Clad in the wet, red t-shirt Alicia Keys’ picture recreated the famous and iconic 1972 Jamaica tourism poster, which featured Trinidadian model Sintra Arunte-Bronte.  (So many layers of appropriation, eh?)  What was Alicia Keys doing then and what is Alicia Keys doing now? It certainly looks and now sounds like she wants to have a lot “in common” with the tropics.

In more ways than one, the COP21 meetings in Paris last year were right. Curiously, it’s not only the temperatures and the sea-levels that are shifting and rising. There are noticeable changes in popular music’s cultural climate and some are having a hard time getting the names right (read Billboard and Rolling Stone) while others are boldly calling it appropriation or theft.  I, on the other hand, am going to be careful.  I am not the music writer that my brilliant friend Erin MacLeod is (Google her work: like this or this).  What I am is a Caribbean music and pop culture enthusiast. As such, I dub this familiar shift in music with a name befitting its roots. So, in honor of Snow, the most successful Canadian dancehall artist (what?!) of all time, this shift is evidence of what should only be called a tropical snow storm. Surely you are familiar with the great North’s impact on the dancehall music scene of Jamaica? Or was it Jamaica’s influence on the North?  North to south? South to north? The routes are well-trodden so the impact is complicated nowadays. I jest, but let me refresh your memory regarding the last tropical “Snow” storm which occurred nearly 25 years ago.

Despite his mastery of attempts at Jamaican patwa, white Irish-Canadian Darrin Kenneth “Snow” O’Brien was born and bred in the Toronto neighborhood of Allenbury.  In an interview with Noisey last year Snow said “this culture thing, it breaks barriers, it’s easy, and it’s simple.” And he went on to credit Allenbury for instilling in him a sense of multiculturalism that fostered his musical appreciation for all sounds Jamaican. As Snow put it, “I wasn’t raised white, but with music and love.”  Yes, with love Snow created “Informer,” a now 26 year old classic dancehall tune.  Check it out:

The title word “informer” is the Jamaicanism used to describe a narc, a rat, a police informant and the song speaks to that topic with Snow doing his best to chat Jamaican. He sings of an “informer” accusing “Daddy Snow” of stabbing someone “down di lane” and Snow threatens to “lick” down the “boom booms” of any such accusing informants. And according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Snow’s 1992 chart-topping single, “Informer”, was/is the best selling reggae single in U.S. history.   Savor that bit of information.  I remember when this song hit the radio in NYC and I remember when it bubbled in Jamaica, as well.  snow and sisIn fact, Snow was so cool (pun intended) that my super-cool sister deemed it necessary to have a 35mm picture taken with him backstage at Reggae Sunsplash 1993!  (Enjoy that piece of nostalgia.)  You may be able to recall a good fistful of dancehall and reggae artists from Jamaica who had radio and commercial success beyond the Caribbean’s shores. Your memory of actual internationally successful Jamaican artists (like Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks, and, obviously, Bob Marley) is leaving you with feelings of confusion as to how Snow could hold the title over them.  beiber sorryThen you fast forward to images of Bieber and his “Sorry” dancers.  Then you connect that Snow, Bieber, and Drake are all Canadian.

Tropical. Snow. Storm.

This new storm seems to have started with the — wait for it — Canadian band Magic!’s reggae infused hit “Rude” back in 2014 when they cooled U.S. and Jamaican radios so much that actual Jamaican dancehall artist Busy Signal sampled a line and borrowed the melody from “Rude” on his 2015 song “Text Message”? (I’ve cued it up: just click here to hear it.) Well played, Busy, I love the choice to rhyme “rude” with “nude.” If only more people outside of Jamaica heard that song and the hundreds and thousands of songs that Jamaican dancehall artists create annually.  If only Busy Signal, or some other such authentically Jamaican artist, held the Guinness Record for best selling reggae single in U.S. history. But, no, Snow holds that title.

But so what? Right? So what that Magic! loves reggae music? So what that Snow set the bar for the acceptance of Jamaican music in the U.S.? So what that Drake cannot stop trying to chat Jamaican?  So what that Alicia Keys is posing like an iconic poster representing Jamaica? So what that Skrillex is banging out dancehall inspired beats for Justin Beiber?

Well, here is the so what. On May 16, 2016 dancehall sing-jay Mr. Vegas posted a video to his Facebook page and twelve hours ago the same video was loosely summarized and posted to Vibe Magazine‘s website.  See below.

I viewed the video and I’ll say that Vegas is right about Drake: “Di man juss a kill you wit bare sample a di Jamaican artist dem.” Views is a collection of Beenie Man, Popcaan, and Serani’s previously recorded work. Vegas carefully notes that Kyla and Wizkid are listed in the liner notes, but Vegas takes issue with the lack of acknowledgment for Jamaican artists. And, again, I agree with Vegas’ assessment of Drake’s Views:  “No Jamaican artiste get credit on di album.”

Yes, Vegas might have hit the nail on the head when he suggested that Drake (and I’ll add the above mentioned artists as well) may be cooling out in this tropical snow storm. As he ascends the Spotify ranks, it seems that Drake is snowboarding his way up the charts.  While I am by no means an “informer,” with his un-credited Jamaican samples and very hefty Jamaican inspiration I will go ahead and point a disappointed finger at Drake. Taking from one culture for the financial benefit and/or social success of another is exploitation.   No part of this “cool” trend in music creation or consumption is doing Jamaica a favor– to borrow from Vegas. Jamaican artists are not seeing any  kickback off of this tropical snow storm.

“How dem [Wizkid and Kyla] get credit and we [Jamaicans] nuh get credit?”  Fair question, Vegas. My guess is that Drake will say something akin to what he said regarding the D.R.A.M. situation (see here) and make Snow-like claims (see above) about multiculturalism in Toronto and give further evidence that he took Kardinal Offishall way too literally on “Bakardi Slang.”

Alas, if you find yourself enjoying any of the contemporary Billboard songs being described as “tropical”, you may want to verify that categorization on social media or using an app/website like WhoSampled. In doing so, you may have the lucky fortune of being introduced to the very songs and artists that “inspired” the song that sent you searching in the first place.

2 Thoughts

  1. To quote the wild things from that lovely story by Maurice Sendak… “we love you so… we’ll eat you up!”
    They’re devouring our culture out of… love? Appreciation? Whatever it is, someone should explain the difference between intent and impact so we can have a more appreciation with less appropriation.


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