Words by Jesse Serwer
Photo by Martei Korley
A Wah Dis? is a new reoccurring feature which will explore and define music styles in the Caribbean, both new and old. First up is bashment soca, the new sound of young Barbados, and the subject of the latest installment in our monthly mix series: Bashment Soca by Jon Doe.
In a widely-circulated Instagram clip from last year’s Crop Over, a bejeweled and feathered-up Rihanna can be seen mouthing the words to “Squat,” a song by the Bajan soca artist Stiffy, as she wines up her waist on Kadooment Day. The reigning pop queen’s hectic schedule (or, more accurately, Drake) caused her to skip the carnival festivities in Barbados this year, but this clip from the road, with “Gyal Drop” by Scrilla as its soundtrack, nevertheless made it to her Snapchat.
In her own way, Rihanna was broadcasting one of Barbados’ best kept secrets to her millions of followers and fans. Different from the jump-and-wave style of soca typically associated with Carnival road marches, the sweet soca sounds of Barbados’ Edwin Yearwood and Krosfyah, or the smooth, EDM-influenced groovy soca that’s come out of Trinidad in recent years, songs like “Squat,” “Gyal Drop” and this year’s runaway Crop Over hit “Bang Bim” by Marz Ville exemplify a uniquely Bajan style known as bashment soca.
Bashment soca, in the simplest terms, is a fusion of soca and dancehall. While its roots go back over two decades, it is just now coming into its own, gaining acceptance as a distinctive sub-genre emblematic of youth culture in Barbados.
Among the various strains of soca that have taken hold on different islands across the Caribbean, from chutney soca in Trinidad to jab jab in Grenada, it is possibly the most aggressive. In this sense, it upends the stereotype of Bajans as the most polite among Caribbean people.
“It’s very different from what you would get from, lets say, a sweet soca song from most other islands,” says Jon Doe, an influential club DJ and radio host in Barbados. “It’s highly energetic, very edgy, and youth-driven by design.”
While artists from other islands, most notably Trinidad’s Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin, have combined dancehall with soca (and Jamaican dancehall acts like Beenie Man and Busy Signal have dabbled in soca for years), bashment soca is particular in its adherence to the rhythmic palette of early ’90s dancehall. Think of rhythms like Fever Pitch, sped way up.
Lyrically, it is somewhat singular in scope, but here lies its appeal: Largely instructional lyrics that encourage female listeners to take control by wining, wukking up and pelting waist.
“It has elements that makes the girls go wild,” says Leadpipe, of the duo Leadpipe and Saddis – a/k/a Porgie & Murda. “Dibbiness, as we say.” Islandmix.com message board user BajanFuhLife perhaps describes it best: “Bashment soca is soca music that does mek ya wuk up stink stink with ya face push up and one leg in the air.”
Like Miami Bass, or the instructional dancehall of RDX and Charly Blacks, bashment soca shifts the power dynamic in any room to women. Some of the best bashment soca encourages a playful competition between the sexes. Take Lil Rick‘s “Break Down De Fence,” on Bass Ink Productions’ Zika Riddim, in which Rick encourages female listeners to shake dat bumper and break down de fence — here, “fence” refers to the firmness of a man’s groin— before asserting, “You can’t break me down!”
Bashment soca has its roots in what Bajans call dub (or, more recently, “old dub”). Not the dub of 1970s Jamaica, when engineers and producers like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry remixed and deconstructed vocal singles into stripped-down, ethereal instrumentals. In Barbados, and other Eastern Caribbean islands, dub refers to dancehall, specifically songs by local artists that appropriated popular dancehall riddims from Jamaica. The sound is closely associated with the ZR vans that serve as a major mode of transportation on the island, and the River Van Stand in Bridgetown, a transit hub that has long doubled as a flea market where vendors sell food, mixtapes and other goods. In Bajan dub’s 80s and 90s heyday, the vans’ sound systems provided a coveted forum for promotion, with many artists cutting exclusive dubplates and mixtapes for van drivers to play and sell.
In the 1990s, several artists from this circuit in Barbados began to move into soca, bringing the rough edge of dancehall to what has traditionally been celebratory Carnival music.
Lil Rick [R.] with Zika Riddim producer Dwain Antrobus, aka Dwaingerous, at Kennel Studio in Crane, Barbados.
Dub’s evolution into bashment soca can be attributed, primarily, to two people: producer Peter Coppin of Monstapiece Entertainment, and Lil Rick. More specifically, its origins can be traced back to their first collaboration, 1996’s “Hard Wine.” Blogger Stefan Walcott points out that the song was notable for Rick’s prominent use of Bajan dialect, and its overall lack of harmony — features that would have been unusual at the time among soca releases in Barbados, if not entirely unique, but which drew from Rick’s background in dancehall, or dub. (Red Plastic Bag’s “Ragga Ragga,” a playful calypso of parody of dancehall which gained widespread international recognition in the mid ’90s, also foreshadowed the coming fusion in a way).
“I got my start in St. George, as a youngster coming up, loving reggae music,” Lil Rick says, seated at the console at Kennel Studio, a recording facility inside his home, in Barbados’ parish of Saint Philip. “I used to write my own rhymes and go out to fairs, begging for the mic, and singing my Bajan style of reggae, on the Jamaican riddims.”
Soca then, as it still is now, was a more potentially lucrative genre for an artist working in Barbados than reggae. “Coppin said, ‘You’re so popular in this reggae ting, why don’t you try that style on one of my soca riddims,’” Rick recalls. “We got together, and we did ‘Hard Wine’ and another called ‘Bumpa Inspector’ that same year that got so huge in Barbados.”
These songs were met by a mixture of backlash, from older, more conservative listeners, and approval, from younger audiences.
“It was heavily criticized at first,” Rick says. “But it captured a lot of interest from younger people that [weren’t] interested in soca, at that time. Youngsters said, ‘I like this style, I might not be a top-class singer, but I can still handle this vibe, I can do a little chant style and put a little melody on it.’”
Fridaze, a weekly party at Bridgetown’s Blackwoods Screw Dock, held during the Crop Over season.
While the roots of bashment soca were sown in the ’90s as Rick and Peter Ram, another former dub man who has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a soca act, it wasn’t until this decade that bashment soca began to evolve into a genre in its own right, and infiltrate Crop Over.
This starts in 2010 with the release of Peter Coppin’s Condem Riddim, an instrumental with an infectious piano line based on dancehall’s Duck Dance riddim that spawned several soca hits, most notably Lil Rick’s “Guh Down.”
Beginning with Lil Rick’s opening pronouncement, “Woiiii, bashment in town!” “Guh Down” is the archetypal bashment soca track, and probably the most widely heard. It became — and remains — a staple in sets by soca and dancehall DJs across the Caribbean and the Diaspora, and was remixed by Machel Montano for Trinidad Carnival in 2011. Barbados’ soca queen Alison Hinds, who has dabbled in bashment for years, also got in the act with “Baddest Wine,” while Beenie Man and St. Vincent’s Skinny Fabulous also released tracks on the riddim.
In 2013, Leadpipe and Saddis effectively launched their artist career with “Condense,” a humorous bashment soca tune released in their guise as Porgie & Murda. The track, produced by Peter Coppin, piggybacked on the popularity of the duo’s popular, homemade webisode series, becoming one of the biggest songs of that year’s Crop Over season — and certainly the most unorthodox. Though their work as Leadpipe and Saddis typically takes a more melodic approach, the pair (as Porgie & Murda) have returned to bashment waters for tracks like last year’s “Ben Up.”
As bashment’s place in Crop Over playlists has grown firmer, a number of artists have come to specialize in the sound, including Gorg, Skrilla, Coopa Dan and Stiffy. As bashment soca has coalesced over the last three years, Stiffy has emerged as its stylistic leader with a humorous and playful lyrical style that recalls dancehall’s ’90s heyday.
“Everything I do has to have a comedy component,” says Stiffy, aka Shane Atkinson, whose hits include 2015’s “Maintenance Man.” “My first songs, I went into Bacchanal Tent, a calypso tent oriented around comedy. You have to capture people, and have things that speak to people and resonate.”
In 2014, “Ride It,” a song he’d written for Barbados’ Reggae on the Hill festival (a showcase for international reggae and dancehall artists and local dub acts held in April) took on a second life at Crop Over. This, Stiffy says, was the turning point for both his career, and bashment soca. “You wouldn’t expect a dub sound to last through Crop Over,” he says. “When Crop Over comes, all that bashment and dub is done. But now you would go into a fete and hear my songs throughout the year. [Bashment soca] was there before, but it wasn’t fully recognized yet. The longevity of the songs linked me and bashment soca together.”
Lil Rick, with DJ Frog, Supa Hype (Lil Rick’s son) and Stiffy, at Trojan Fridays, a party at D’Hangar Helipad Complex in Bridgetown.
This year, a Bashment Soca Monarch competition was added to Barbados’ official Crop Over calendar, cementing its place in the island’s music space. “Bashment soca has got quite a fight over the years from soca purists who don’t see it as much more than a passing fad,” Jon Doe says. “That in itself legitimized the art form for many.”
Stiffy took home the Bashment Soca Monarch title with “Tek Off Something,” a track on the One O’Clock riddim by New York-based Bajan producer DJ Spider. However, another tune on the same instrumental, “Bang Bim” by Marz Ville, has turned out to have even more legs. Aided by an exuberant video that perfectly captures the youthful energy of the parties and fêtes where bashment soca is played, the song has graduated from Crop Over to international carnivals like Notting Hill and Labor Day in New York. Few tracks, if any, are more capable of whipping a soca crowd into a frenzy right now. Alison Hinds, who always has her ear to the fetes, has endorsed “Bang Bim” with an official remix.
The ascendance of “Bang Bim” couldn’t come at a better time for bashment soca, and Barbados’ music in general. Next month, the island will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence. Meanwhile, Rihanna’s status and influence has reached new levels in 2016, while “Work,” her most thorough embrace of Caribbean sounds in years, has become the biggest hit of her career.
Ms. Fenty now has a fellow Bajan joining her on the pop charts in Toronto rapper/singer Tory Lanez, whose father hails from the island, and who has taken his music in a very Caribbean-influenced direction recently. A “Bang Bim” remix featuring Rihanna or Lanez, or an original bashment soca release from one or the other, might not be so far-fetched.