Is Detroit ready for "the frogback" and "gangsta rock" and "dutty wine"? Can the Motor City catch up to reggae capitals like Toronto and Kingston? Can dancehall queen Candie and Haitian Rudebwoy help show us the way?
In Jamaica, the dances change weekly popular dancers such as Shelly Belly, Mad Michelle and countless others are known for regularly setting the dancefloor trends. Some old-school shimmies like the "butterfly," "row-the-boat," and "heel-toe" have emerged like this: A dancer introduces a new move, the dancehall crowds copy it, and reggae stars feature it in their videos until the move goes global. Usually by then, scores of new moves have already come out and the international reggae community is frequently playing catch-up.
Dancehall crowds in Detroit aren't generally up on the latest dance moves. Reggae heads here are more interested in celebrating the music and smoking a bit of reefer than in keeping up with the latest island rumba. There's no harm in that. But to introduce a little spice to the scene, the detroitreggae.com folks are throwing a dancehall extravaganza called Dance or Die, featuring genre gurus laying bare the slinkiest steps from Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Leslie Heron, a key promoter and owner of detroitreggae.com, hopes this dancehall show will introduce audiences to such reggae staples as "dancehall queen" competitions.
"Even though we're going to have some wicked DJs and sound systems performing, we wanted the emphasis to really be on dance," Heron says. "And so this is going to be like a Caribbean dance class. It's so many new dances that come out every month; we want to bring in artists that can show Detroiters all the new moves."
Jamaican-born Candie is one dancer on the bill. She's the current reigning Dancehall Queen of Chicago. Having won the competition in 2004 and 2005, the 24-year-old is keen to introduce the newest steps emerging in the scene, while showing Detroiters what it means to be a "dancehall queen."
For the uninitiated, dancehall queen competitions are battles between women who often perform risqué, eye-popping moves set to reggae music. There is a sexed-up, seductive element involved; the women don skimpy getups that leave little to the imagination. These queens usually set the fashion standard in dancehall scenes; a heady combo of sex and artfulness determines the winner.
"Sometimes the dances are real nasty and the girls don't really cover their bodies they just shake everything," Candie says. "A lot of times, girls have to have something hanging out to win, like their ass or their breasts. People up there [in Detroit] might not be used to it yet, but they'll see it."
Candie, who moved to Chicago when she was 10, has a sweet and melodic patois that makes it hard to imagine her cutting half-naked, salt-shaker gyrations on the dance floor. And she's quick to point out the negative connotations associated with dancehall queen competitions.
"Just 'cause some girls let their titties pop out when they dance doesn't mean every girl has to do it," Candie says. "That type of stuff leads people to look at dancehall queens and lump us all into one category. I show my body, but I don't go to extremes to win."
Candie's looking forward to breaking out a few new and popular Jamaican moves in Detroit. One such is "the frogback," where, she says, "you crouch down and bend your back in the position of a frog about to hop and then move your back in and out to the music. It sounds difficult, but it's easy to do."
Candie thinks other dances like the "gangsta rock" and "dutty wine" should soon catch on here. Again, the popularity of such is based on which reggae singers feature certain moves in their videos the "dutty wine" is a Sean Paul staple.
"I think when Elephant Man came out with his 'Signal De Plane' video, it put reggae dances back on the map," Heron says. "People recognize these dances all over the world now and that makes the moves more fun to try."
Chicago-based dancer Haitian Rudebwoy grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and migrated to Jamaica as a refugee in his teenage years. He's a transnational dancer with plenty of moves that represent the Caribbean. He loves dancehall culture, but not so much its competitiveness.
"A lot of dancers dance because they try to perfect certain moves," Rudebwoy says. "I don't care about that. I show up to entertain. I'm gonna be the first and last thing on your mind. When I come to a party, I throw down."
Doing a show in an industrial burg like Detroit, most of the dancers say they're expecting a mixed audience of Caribbean nationals and ghetto Detroiters looking to let loose some joy.
"This is our ghetto music," Rudebwoy says. "You don't have to be into reggae to feel this. If you like to dance, and sweat, and shake ya ass ..."
Dance or Die will also feature a miniature sound clash between Africa's No. 1 sound system, Shashamane International and Milwaukee-based stalwarts Killaface Sound. Both systems have won numerous battles in recent few years; each is a heavyweight when it comes to brawling on the turntables.
Longstanding "sound clashes" are essentially head-to-head DJ battles, with each "selector" getting 15 minutes to play the toughest dubs in their collection, and then whittling it down to a one-on-one, dub-for-dub showcase; the crowd picks a winner. The rule with sound clashes is that no sound system can play the same dub twice, so it's just as much about having hand skills as it is good dub plate (exclusive mix) selection. (It's further evidence too that hip-hop's truest roots are from Jamaica.)
"People are gonna get an understanding of what dub plates really are at this Detroit show," says Lionface, top selector for the Killaface Sound. "We go to the entertainers themselves and ask them to take their popular songs, and put our name into it.
"Like, instead of 'Welcome to Jamrock,' I can play 'Welcome to Detroit home where Killaface clash at' and still have Damien Marley singing it. We make those tunes to signify that we're the best. They're like defense against sound clash attacks."
Shashamane's DJ Dyamq sees dub plates similarly.
"Dub plates are like toys, man," he says. "You can show how deep your catalog is and how many big-name reggae artists respect you. The amount of dubs I have I could play a sound clash for five days in a row."
Shashamane's story is one of particular interest. Started 24 years ago in Nairobi, Kenya, Shashamane is easily regarded as the wickedest sound system in Africa. Shashamane doesn't play clubs in Kenya, it plays stadiums. Reggae in Nairobi is huge, and across the Horn of Africa, Shashamane is king.
"I don't think there's any sound in Africa that could step to Shashamane," Dynamq says. "We get the hardest dubs and the hardest riddims even till today."
Of the 12-person crew that represents Shashamane in Nairobi, New York and Berlin, Dynamq is the only selector in the crew not born in Kenya. He's Sudanese and a refugee of the Darfur conflict. He's been in Shashamane for 11 years after fleeing Sudan. Dude enjoys bigging-up African reggae every chance he gets.
"Sometimes people never seen an African sound system in a clash before," Dynamq says. "It's not just Americans, even Jamaicans don't know it. Every time we play, there is someone realizing for the first time that there are tough sound systems playing reggae music in Africa, and that's always a good feeling."
Candie, Haitian Rudebwoy, George Strait, Hotta Flex Crew, the Mad Twins, Selebrity, King Harmony, Soca Warrior, Killaface Sound and Shashamane International perform Saturday, March 25, at the WIAA Hall, 2015 E. Seven Mile, Detroit; 313-942-5952. For more info, go to detroitreggae.com.Jonathan Cunningham is freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]