General Smiley and the Roots of Dancehall
2019 Austin Reggae Festival performer General Smiley (born Errol Bennett) began toasting and deejaying with his classmate Ranking Michigan (who later became Papa Michigan) while the two were still in school. When they recorded their first hit, “Rub A Dub Style,” in 1978 they would find themselves at a pivotal time in the history of Jamaican music: The rise of the “deejay” and the birth of Dancehall.
It’s difficult to summarize in only a couple of paragraphs the phenomenon of the Jamaican deejay (or, what is commonly referred to as an “MC” most everywhere else). As far back as the 1950s these proto- hype men were introducing, and talking over, records at sound system dances in Jamaica (their chatter partly inspired by jive-talking American radio DJs they’d hear on AM signals picked up late at night from Miami–but that’s a story for another post). That was the format: The “selector” played the records, the “deejay” held the mic and vibed-up the crowd.
In the 1950s and 60s, deejays such as Count Machuki, King Stitt and Sir Lord Comic were connected with specific sound systems. For example, Count Machuki was Coxsone Dodd’s deejay on his Downbeat Sound System before defecting to Prince Buster’s Voice of The People sound system (Coxsone would replace Machuki with his protege, King Stitt). The deejays were each known for their unique style and catch-phrases, and oftentimes even developed their own following.
Historically, these deejays were only ever heard at the dances, in a live setting. That is, until the late-1960s when someone had the idea to bring them into the studio and try to capture that same live energy on vinyl. Spoken-word vocals had already begun to appear on a few records (Prince Buster’s famous tale of “Judge Dread” comes to mind) but now producers were having deejays come in to record the same kind of intros and toasts that they were dropping at the dance (“Sit tight and listen keenly as I play for you a brand new musical biscuit!”) in their own unique voices.
Though King Stitt and Sir Lord Comic were both put on records prior, it was King Tubby’s deejay, U-Roy, who would have the first breakout hit as a deejay. Indeed, it was Tubby who really changed the game. Previously, deejays had to work their toasting in and around the vocals on a track. Tubby, however, went and cut special dub versions of a few big hits, mixing out some of the vocal in order to give U-Roy more room to move around the song (vocally speaking). The crowds went crazy.
Duke Reid, owner of Treasure Isle Records, quickly ushered U-Roy into the studio and in 1970, “Wake The Town” (with its’ now-legendary toast, “Wake the town and tell the people!”) went straight to number one in the charts, as did U-Roy’s two follow-ups that year, “Rule The Nation” and “Wear You to the Ball.” What set U-Roy apart was that he didn’t just throw in a few toasts or talk over the track, he respected the vocal and worked around it in a more musical way, making the track something new–and this would influence a generation of deejays for the decade that followed. Hit records soon followed for the likes of Big Youth, Scotty, I-Roy, U-Brown, Dillinger and others.
By the late 1970s, the popular musical style on the island was clearly evolving–yet again. Roots music, with its’ heavy riddims and conscious (often political and/or Rastafarian) lyrics, dominated for much of the decade and was now exploding around the world in the wake of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ success (it’s also worth noting that, lyrically, U-Roy and many of his early deejay peers had likewise embraced the “conscious” approach and heavy roots riddims). However, back on the streets of Jamaica, the mood was changing. People had grown weary of dwelling on just how oppressed and poor they were–when they went to the dance on Friday night, they wanted to have fun. The sound system operators and their younger-generation deejays had already figured this out, and they were duly indulging their audiences with familiar, feel-good tunes and a fresh approach to deejaying that was more inventive, more bawdy and, most of all, more fun.
It was this change in tone, both musically and lyrically, that would signal the transition from 70s roots to 80s dancehall. Established deejays like Dennis Alcapone and The Lone Ranger were two of the more unique and quirky voices on the scene leading up to this point (the next time you hear an “oink!” or “bim!” in a tune, you can thank them) and now the likes of Ranking Joe, Eek-a-Mouse, Prince Jazzbo, Toyan and dozens more were arriving in their wake.
Also influential during this period, particularly by virtue of being a duo, was Michigan & Smiley. Their quick tandem verses and playful call-and-response was not only exciting and engaging but a feature lacking from the solo deejay acts. In fact, it’s easy to make the case for their influence extending well beyond Jamaica, to later developments in hip-hop and rap (think Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys, etc), or a track like the English Beat’s “Pato & Roger A Go Talk,” which we wrote about last week and which was almost certainly inspired by Michigan & Smiley’s dual-pronged banter. Even Dancehall’s eventual icon and biggest star, Yellowman, would later make tandem albums with fellow deejays Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales.
For Michigan & Smiley’s first hit, “Rub a Dub Style” in 1978, Coxsone Dodd paired them up with the instrumental version of “I’m Just a Guy” by Alton Ellis, originally recorded with the Studio One house band the Soul Vendors in 1967. This was another feature of the pivot away from the roots sound: Deejays were recording over lots of old, familiar riddims and instrumentals from the late-60s rocksteady period (arguably the last “feel-good” era in Jamaica). Case in point, a few months later, Coxsone would pair them up with yet another vintage Soul Vendors classic (“Real Rock”) for what would become their signature hit, “Nice Up The Dance.”
The duo would go on to have at least two more defining hits in the early days of Dancehall, with “One Love Jamdown” and “Diseases” (the latter recorded with Henry “Junjo” Lawes, one of Dancehall’s most successful producers), firmly cementing their place in Jamaican Dancehall history. No doubt, fans will be able to look forward to hearing many of these tunes during General Smiley’s set at Austin Reggae Festival 2019 on Saturday, April 20.
In the meantime, you can hear a bunch of the tracks discussed here on the Austin Reggae Fest playlist.