Words by Jesse Serwer
Illustration by Spliffington
Remember Brooklyn in the ’90s? This selection of classic tracks from the heyday of New York’s dancehall scene will bring you back to a time when NYC was still rough and rugged, and Jamaican sounds were blending with hip-hop in New York’s outer boroughs.
The title of our latest playlist for Apple Music is a reference to both the era itself and The 90s, an area of East Flatbush, Brooklyn known for its Caribbean massive. Brooklyn then was the epicenter of the Caribbean diaspora, site of the first wave of American-made dancehall. Shaggy, Screechy Dan and Red Fox made their name in the borough, while artists like Super Cat and Nardo Ranks found a second home. These were days when men like Philip Smart, Sting International, Bobby Konders and Mr. Doo ran tings in the studio, crews like King Addies and Afrique clashed for sound system supremacy, promotion meant Biltmore Ballroom dances, Irie Myrie flyers, and Don One dubplates, and Ballys and Travel Fox were the footwear of choice.
On Brooklyn in the ’90s, you’ll hear the beginnings of Shaggy’s rise to stardom, early strokes of brilliance from super-producer Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, The Fugees) and the tracks that set the standard for the fusion of reggae and hip-hop.
Bobby Konders feat. Mikey Jarrett – Mack Daddy (Red Alert Special) (1992)
If you want to talk about dancehall in New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, there’s few people more fitting to start with than iconic radio jock and Massive B sound system founder Bobby Konders and the “Mack Daddy,” Mikey Jarrett. This track, which appeared on the 1992 compilation album Bobby Konders & Massive Sounds, was co-produced by a young Salaam Remi; unlike other tracks from the time that blended dancehall-style vocals with hip-hop beats, it was not a remix. The original single was massively popular on NY/East Coast radio for years, explaining the existence of this dubplate version from Kool DJ Red Alert’s Propmaster Dancehall Show, a 1994 compilation from the titular New York radio legend and hip-hop pioneer.
Conroy Smith – N.Y. Girl (199?)
Not much intel on this tune from singer Conroy Smith, released in the early years of Bobby Konders’ Massive B label, but its lyrics and rhythm are like a time capsule of the ’90s, as Smith sings of “living life with Clinton and his wife” after being seduced by a girl from New York City.
Cocoa Tea feat. Nardo Ranks – Me No Like Rikers Island (1991)
As Jamaicans arrived in New York in the 1980s in record numbers, many found their dreams of American prosperity dashed by limited opportunities. A trip to Rikers Island, NYC’s infamous prison, was a harsh reality for more than a few arrivals, an experience addressed by Cocoa Tea and Nardo Ranks on this 1991 single produced by Brooklyn-based Cargill Lawrence, aka Mr. Doo.
Super Cat – Don Dada (1990)
Super Cat relocated from from Jamaica to New York City at the top of the ’90s, signing to Columbia Records and becoming one of the pivotal figures in dancehall’s first crossover into the mainstream. Possibly the definitive anthem of his career, “Don Dada” addressed simmering tensions on the island he’d left behind, but was recorded at engineer, producer and Tan Yah label owner Philip Smart’s HC&F Studio in Freeport, Long Island, just outside of NYC, site of many classic recording sessions during this period.
Shaggy and Rayvon – Big Up (1992)
Dynamic Brooklyn dancehall duo Shaggy and Rayvon connected for the first of many times on a revival of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Could This Be Love” rhythm produced by Brooklyn’s Sting International. This one still gets huge forwards wherever it’s played, but it will always be an anthem for the Crown Heights/Flatbush massive.
Red Fox – Down in Jamaica (1992)
This track, featuring vocals from singer Naturalee, is one of the first of many dancehall songs to borrow melody and lyrics from Stephen Bishop‘s “On and On,” a 1970s soft-rock hit that never died in Jamrock, thanks to the lyric: “Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women/They’ll steal your money, then they’ll break your heart.” Bishop used the line to say make some sort of statement on the pursuit of love; for Red Fox, transplanted from JA to BK, it was an excuse to big up his departed homeland.
Dirtsman – Hot This Year (1992)
Patrick Thompson, better known as Dirtsman, was killed in Jamaica in 1993; “Hot This Year,” his first and last big hit, was recorded a year earlier in New York at Philip Smart’s HC&F Studio. The instrumental was later used by numerous NY artists, including Shaggy, making it one of the defining riddims in this era of New York City dancehall.
Screechy Dan and Red Fox – Pose Off (1993)
This tribute to girls who look so good every time they pass in their pum-pum shorts is one of the most recognizable dancehall productions ever out of NYC. With a melody inspired, or more accurately borrowed, from the theme to the movie Lambada, “Pose Off” was written by Screechy Dan and Red Fox amidst the West Indian Day Parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and recorded on the Hot This Year riddim by Philip Smart and Sting International.
Super Cat – Dolly My Baby (1992)
Today, the best known version of Super Cat‘s “Dolly My Baby” is the hip-hop remix that featured a young Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy and Mary J. Blige, each in very early days of their come-up. The version that played in the streets back then was the circa ’91/92 original featuring Trevor Sparks, Brooklyn’s answer to Sanchez.
Burro Banton – Boomwadis (1993)
A deejay with a voice bigger than life itself, Burro Banton had already been in the business for over a decade when he came to New York and connected with Bobby Konders for a variety of big tunes. The best remembered of these is probably this hip-hop remix of ’93’s “Boomwadis.”
Louie Rankin – Typewriter (1992)
“The toughest rassclaat Jamaican in the United States,” (and star of DJ Khaled’s new “Nas Album Done” video) Louie Rankin is indistinguishable in many people’s eyes from Ox and Teddy Bruckshot, his characters in the gangster films Belly and Shottas. Before he was an actor, Rankin was causing havoc on New York’s dancehall scene with badman business like “Typewriter.” Cut as a dancehall track in 1991, it was remixed into a ragga hip-hop masterpiece by New York production team, Trackmasters.
Jr. Demus – Me a Bad Boy (1992)
Dancehall in the ’90s was full of gruff voices reminiscent of Smurfs villain Gargamel, but few possessed a timbre more coarse than Jr. Demus, younger brother to dancehall icon Nicodemus. A fixture of Biltmore Ballroom-era Brooklyn, Demus took slackness to the extreme, even signing to Luke Records, the Miami label owned by 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell. This version of “Me a Bad Boy,” produced by Bobby Konders and Salaam Remi, appeared on Massive B’s New York Rude Boys album in 1992, a classic document of the dancehall x hip-hop culture clash happening in NYC, and especially Brooklyn, at the time.
Louie Rankin – No Move (1992)
Another Massive B production given a hip-hop remix and included on the New York Rude Boys compilation (later re-issued as NYC Badmen), this one showcases Louie Rankin’s knack for savage adlibs.
Rayvon – Pretty (1994)
Whether playing singing sideman to Shaggy, or rapping and deejaying on his own dancehall and hip-hop tracks, Rayvon is one diverse artist. This remix of Rayvon’s “P in Pretty,” released on Funkmaster Flex’s Dope on Plastic label in 1994, features Rayvon quoting from hip-hop classics like Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” over a beat sampling Melissa Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise,” among other NY radio staples.
Rayvon – No Guns No Murder (1994)
Following in the same vein as “Pretty,” this hip-hop x dancehall hybrid came with a timely message of anti-violence. Using a sample from Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Mood” (familiar to hip-hop heads via Biz Markie and Mary J. Blige) as its base, this party pleaser sees Rayvon paying homage to Slick Rick’s “La-Di-Da-Di” and Eric B. and Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President.”
Mad Lion – Take it Easy (1994)
We’re sliding down, or should we say up, to the Boogie Down Bronx for this one. BDP’s KRS-One produced this signature hit for Mad Lion, featuring a wicked sample of “When A Man’s In Love” by a young Yami Bolo.
Masters at Work featuring Screechy Dan – Give it to Me (1993)
In the mid 1990s, Screechy Dan connected with NYC hip-hop/house kingpin Kenny Dope for a string of singles, including “Booming In Your Jeep” (sadly unavailable on Apple Music/iTunes) and this one from Dope’s long-running Masters at Work project with Little Louie Vega.
Super Cat feat. Heavy D – Dem No Worry We (Hip Hop Ragga Remix) (1992)
One of two collaborations between Super Cat and Mount Vernon, NY-raised, Jamaican-born hip-hop legend Heavy D, “Dem No Worry We” was released as a maxi-single with a hip-hop remix from Heavy D’s DJ and producer, Eddie F.
Super Cat, Nicodemus + Junior Demus – Cabin Stabbin (Remix) (1994)
Super Cat and his younger brother, Wayne Maragh aka Junior Cat, connected with another pair of New York-based dancehall siblings Nicodemus and Junior Demus for the 1994 album The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Crazy. The LP included this version of “Cabin Stabbin,” originally released in 1990 on Cat’s Wild Apache label, remixed by Masters at Work’s Kenny Dope and Louie Vega.
Shaggy and Rayvon – Nice and Lovely (1993)
Another classic combination track from Shaggy and Rayvon, this Sting International-produced follow-up to Shaggy’s breakthrough single “Oh Carolina” took a similar throwback path, this time through jazz instead of ska.
Sluggy Ranks – Badness Nah Go Work (1994)
The late Sluggy Ranks, a product of Kingston’s Raetown community, came to New York in the late ’80s, working with local labels including Park Heights and Witty’s. His “95% Black, 5% White,” featuring his observations on the U.S. prison system, is a certified NY dancehall classic. He later re-cut the track as “Badness Nah Go Work” in the ’90s, and it’s this version, not the original, which appears on the 2011 compilation album entitled 95% Black, 5% White —Hence its inclusion here. (The original is unavailable).
Bajja Jedd – Bedwork Sensation (1993)
Another member of the infamous Ruff Entry Crew — the loose collective of Brooklyn-based dancehall deejays including Shaggy, Rayvon, Screechy Dan, Red Fox, Mr. Easy and Nikey Fungus — Bajja Jedd dropped this single on the riddim from Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina,” itself a remake of the Folkes Brothers’ Prince Buster-produced original.
Scion Success – #1 Title (199?)
Scion Success, also known as Scion Sashay Success, has been a staple in New York’s Jamaican music scene from the early ’80s. Check out this sound bwoy killer on the African Beat riddim for a taste of his signature vocal style.
Burro Banton – Sensi Luv Dat Cheeba (1995)
This remix of Burro Banton’s NYC-themed smoker’s jacked the Whole Darn Family “Seven Minutes of Funk” sample made famous by EPMD’s “It’s My Thing” Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No N**ga.”
Vicious feat. Doug E. Fresh – Freaks (1994)
Doug E. Fresh, the Barbados-born, Harlem legend, discovered a young Lil Vicious at a Brooklyn talent show in 1993, and from that union this unique fusion of dancehall and beatboxing was born. A truly eternal track, “Freaks” has inspired several revivals and remakes recently, including French Montana and Nicki Minaj’s “Freaks” and Krept & Konan and Jeremih’s “Freak of the Week.”
Doug E. Fresh feat. Beenie Man – Hands In The Air (1995)
The Human Beatbox Doug E. Fresh reached back into his Caribbean roots on 1995’s Play album, which featured cameos from Singing Melody, Vicious, and in, one of his earliest international collaborations, the future dancehall king Beenie Man.
Bounty Killer – Suicide or Murder (1995)
Bounty Killer linked East New York’s Jeru tha Damaja for a hip-hop remix of this dancehall classic originally produced by Massive B. This version, later featured on the Warlord’s My Xperience album, features Bounty dropping war lyrics over Blahzay Blahzay’s “Danger” and Raekwon and Method Man’s “Ice Cream.” People…are…dead.
Mega Banton – Sound Boy Killing (Salaam Remi Remix) (1994)
The slinky groove of Barry White’s “Playing Your Game” seemed like it was coming out of every car window in Brooklyn in the summer of 1994. If it wasn’t Black Moon’s “I Gotcha Opin (Remix),” it was this version of Mega Banton‘s “Sound Boy Killing” from Salaam Remi.
Shinehead – Jamaican in New York (1992)
“See me walking down Church Avenue… with my hat leaned to one side.” With his rude flip of Sting’s 1988 smooth-jazz foray “Englishman in New York,” NYC dancehall pioneer Shinehead captured the essence of the culture clash that was being a “Jamaican in New York,” circa 1992.
El General – Tu Pum Pum (1989)
Call this one a bonus cut. Panama’s El General recorded “Tu Pum Pum” in 1989, but, in an interesting twist, this and numerous other key tracks (by artists including Gringo and Nando Boom) that birthed the Spanish reggae phenomenon later re-dubbed reggaeton in the early ’90s, were made at New York’s HC&F Studio by Philip Smart, filtering first through Brooklyn and the boroughs before making their way to Latin America.