Words by Saxon Baird
One of the most interesting recent turns for Jamaican music has been the re-emergence of an ’80s and ’90s aesthetic both in music and fashion in the last year. Aidonia, Konshens, Iba MaHr and Mr. Vegas are just some of the Jamaican artists reaching deep into their closets and dusting off their mesh marinas, diamond sox, kangols and gold chains for their latest videos. Just yesterday, we featured yet another example of the on-going revival with Assassin aka Agent Sasco’s video for “Sekkle an Cease.” Featuring all of the key ingredients of a classic sound-system dance (jerk chicken vendors, Guinness, whining gyals), the video, down to it’s grainy VHS-quality, perfectly matches Sasco’s old-school voicing patterns over the throwback vibes of Jah Snowcone’s Nuh Fraid riddim.
The track, true to the old-school flavor it offers, samples a monologue from indomitable Stone Love selector Rory for its intro. Rory’s heavily reverbed monologue sounds like it could be straight out of a Kingston bashment from 25 years ago. As it turns out, the sample is exactly that old but it wasn’t recorded in Jamaica. Rather, it comes from a dance that happened about 1,500 miles north, at the now-defunct Biltmore Ballroom in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
This isn’t entirely surprising: New York City has long been a must-stop for dancehall artists outside of Jamaica. From Flatbush to the Bronx, NYC’s outer boroughs have long been home to a thriving Jamaican population and with it, an often lively dancehall scene.
This was arguably never so evident than in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when New York City sounds like King Addies, Sons Junior, Gargon, General Hi-Power and King Champion ruled Brooklyn and clashed with Jamaican sound systems on a near-monthly basis. At the same time, labels and producers like Jah Life, Witty and Philip Smart’s Tan-Yah recorded and dropped some of reggae and dancehall’s biggest hits (Barrington Levy’s “Murderer,” et. al) in New York City. It was also then that the likes of Shaggy, Red Fox, Screechy Dan and other deejays cut their teeth performing for crowds in spacious outer borough ballrooms and in damp, tightly-packed, unmarked clubs (ask Screechy about the “The Sweat Box” sometime). And the one place you were guaranteed to hear the latest and greatest was the Biltmore Ballroom.
While Jamaica was marred in political and drug violence and crack ran rampant through NYC’s outer boroughs, these events were often times the only reprieve for many Jamaicans living in New York. In dire need of a taste of home and a haven from the rough environment that lurked just outside the entrance doors, places like the Biltmore Ballroom (along with Tilden Ballroom, Starlite and and Flamingo Ballroom) were go-to spaces to hear and dance to the newest hits out of Jamaica (as well as New York) or to see the island’s hottest new deejays perform late into the night with the best local acts.
Take these videos as proof. Headlining is none other than Ninjaman accompanied by a young Shabba Ranks, Little Twitch, Major Mackerel and Sluggy Ranks. (The latter being one of the most talented and often overlooked Brooklyn-based dancehall stars from this golden era.) Not bad for a Saturday night in 1989. While the videos might not be as slick and smooth as the recent videos channeling this era, it’s the genuine article and a testament to the power of this integral part of dancehall’s history.
So while it might seem surprising at first that the sample on “Sekkle an Cease” comes from Brooklyn, it’s actually quite fitting. Despite being often overlooked, New York City’s dancehall scene has long been an important part of the genre’s history, style, and sound.
It also makes the lyrical nods from Assassin who big ups “the whole of Brooklyn ’90s, Flatbush to Bronx” on the track all that much more fitting.