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December 20, 2017

Words by LargeUp Crew
Art by Robin Clare

If one thing is true about dancehall, it’s that it is fluid, and the rules and boundaries are always shifting. The original rub-a-dub recordings voiced by pioneer deejays like Early B and Yellowman share only a passing resemblance to the melodic tracks we typically hear these days from Popcaan or Alkaline.

In the days before Major Lazer, Afro Bashment and “Shape of You,” defining a “dancehall single” was much more simple. Songs had to be from Jamaica or authentically originate within the culture in some fashion, and feature the dance-inducing rhythmic patterns we know and recognize as dancehall. However, as pop has incorporated aspects of dancehall in recent years, and dancehall has absorbed influences from all directions, the lines continue to blur. Does a Major Lazer or Gorillaz track that features Vybz Kartel or Popcaan but only a limited musical relationship to textbook dancehall* constitute a dancehall track? What about a tune with a dancehall-inspired rhythm from Drake or Ed Sheeran? How does whether or not dancehall selectors embraced these latter types of tracks by playing them at street dances factor into this determination?

Part of our role in compiling a list such as this one is to be arbiters of this increasingly nebulous environment, and decide what belongs, and what doesn’t, so that the music that truly embodies the culture can get its due.** However, any determination by us is simply our determination, strictly for the purposes of entertaining you with this list, and in no way meant to be interpreted as an official ruling on what is, and isn’t, dancehall. Seen?

So, how do we go about choosing the selections and order of this list, you might ask? We start by asking our trusted contributors — selectors, freelance  journalists, dancers — to send their list of top picks. Votes are tallied, and additional “points” are added by our editorial team for sheer originality and quality, rewarding songs that stand to have a lasting impact on the genre beyond mere street popularity or chart success. Tracks released the year prior are generally omitted; However, in the case of tracks whose impact was felt primarily in the current year (and thus were not included on last year’s list), exceptions are sometimes made.

The end result is not perfect, or structured through any exact science, but after eight years of this, we can say, with confidence: These were the most essential dancehall singles of 2017. Soca, reggae, best albums lists soon come!


*While this definition varies from person to person and by generation, let’s use late ‘90s riddims like Showtime and Bookshelf as our standard here, shall we?

**This is essential. Even as pop continues to flirt with dancehall rhythms and sensibilities, mainstream airplay and pop-chart success eludes Jamaican dancehall’s top artists — a contrast to earlier moments when dancehall sounds crossed over, bringing core tracks by artists like Mad Cobra, Beenie Man and Elephant Man widespread exposure.