Genre Guide: Dancehall’s Most Essential Riddims

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As Drake and Rihanna bring dancehall back to the pop consciousness, we count down the most influential rhythms, from King Tubby to Vybz Kartel.

Compiling a guide to all of dancehall and picking only a few songs is a hard a task for mortal men, so I decided instead to focus on dancehall rhythms. A rhythm—or “riddim”—is an instrumental track created by a producer or label that’s given to vocalists to create their own versions. In the early days of dancehall, each version was released as a separate single, but since the early 2000s a batch of versions will usually be released as a digital album. The beauty of this format is that it allows for a method of genre development based on iteration; the pressure is not only to innovate, but to improve. You can have multiple great songs with the same rhythm, ensuring that no vocal idea remains undeveloped. It’s quite common for rhythms to be recycled and brought back in to the collective consciousness years after their debut, often with an updated instrumental incorporating the latest production techniques, drum machines, synthesizers or computer software.

The guide compiled here came after long discussions with both Dan Dabber, with whom I started a dancehall club night/mix series/production outfit called Top Dollar, and my DJ colleague Pete Butta. These are the rhythms that we collectively feel shaped dancehall and got us to fall in love with the music.

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