Diving Into the Ragga Rabbit Hole

Genres of music are being broken down into very specific, micro classifications due to the tags that taste makers, music bloggers, and critics fabricate to identify a certain styling that has yet to be labeled. At times, it can be difficult to keep up with but, at the same time, they are very fun to explore. Each week, I will explore a different sub-genre and try to explain the stains left on my shirt after climbing out of each tedious rabbit hole of musical stylings.

Shabba Ranks, one of Ragga’s biggest toasters

“Mercy”“Crown”, “Blocka”, “Send It Up”, “I’m In It”,“Feds Watching” – besides all being songs that revolve around the nucleus known as Kanye West, they all contain an element of dancehall reggae, specifically Ragga music. While it may seem like a new phenomenon to a younger generation, this infusion of Ragga into Hip-Hop is nothing new. KRS-One, Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah, and other East Coast acts of the early ’90s were using the vocal flows of Ragga deejays to formulate boom-bap. Now, Ragga samples are being pumped into trap music and Kanye’s acid house/industrial grind nightmares in a way that seems to clash with the syrupy, pounding production that utilizes it. The closest Ragga comes to a full reincarnation in the current landscape is through artists like Waka Flocka Flame, A$AP Ferg, and Trinidad Jame$ whose high energy, rapid fire delivery, and call and response choruses punctuate their most famous songs. But, what is Ragga and does its stylings have any long time staying power? 

Ragga is a form of dancehall music that emerged in the late-’80s and early ’90s that relied heavily on digital production unlike dancehall. Dancehall was a style of reggae that combined elements (musically and philosophically) of roots reggae with uptempo riddims that were fit for hot, sweaty parties rather than bull sessions on finding Jah. The records played by dancehall deejays (known as toasters) were also filled with the reverberation found on dub tracks produced by innovators like King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Sly & Robbie. It’s a far cry from the synthesizers and electronic hardware that turned a natural, organic sound into a cyborg bent on making on making champion sound. If you compare Super Beagle’s “Dust a Sound Boy”, a somewhat manufactured but more traditional dancehall song, to the sound his Ragga contemporaries were using at the time, it feels human. There’s no Casio keyboard notes chiming their way to make up for the lack of horns or samples of horns. It’s full of heart instead of mind.

The artists who started to rely on the more robotic riddims from producers such as King Jammy, Steely and Cleevie, Bobby Digital, and Patrick Roberts tried adding their own human element within the metallic claps and drum kicks. Some yelped and hollered while others on the low end of vocal rang growled as if they had gravel in their esophagus. The result of the was the less human and mystifying style of Ragga which captured the collective attention of Jamaica as well as the United States. Artists that were blowing up in Kingston were starting to get signed state side as Hip-Hop broke through the paper thin barrier set up in Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” music video. Acts like Super Cat, Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, and Bounty Killer were all starting to gain notoriety as New York’s scene became rougher and increasingly aggressive.

While Ragga possesses riddims that can easily be conceived as dance records, the lyrics represent a more sinister side of life in Jamaica. Just look at the names of some of the tracks: “Gun Unnu Man”, “Hand Grenade”, “Kill for Fun”, “Kill Mi Dead”, “Typewriter”, “Coke Don”. Many critics of Ragga found the attempt to dovetail the glamorization of shottas, don dadas, and rude boys against the pacifist philosophy in Rastafarianism as problematic. This was intensified by the fact that many of the lyrics promoted gross misogyny and an overtly homophobic attitude that translated to the dancehall scene. The reconciliation of the two world views often clashed especially when artists who claimed their message as not promoting but more of a “true-to-life” account were finding themselves in trouble with the authorities such was the case with Bounty Killer. This was not unlike what was happening in America with the contradictory messages from artists of both East Coast’s boom-bap and West Coast’s gangsta rap. While America’s East Coast-West Coast feud ended the prevailing mood of hard-edged lyrics in Hip-Hop, Ragga’s lyricism started to ease up as some of its artists made social commentary on their records as violence in Jamaica persisted.

While Ragga music is being created today with many of the violent undertones still present, some of its sonic elements have been incorporated into other, softer forms of dancehall with acts such as Sean Paul, Lumidee, Wayne Wonder, and the re-emergence of Beenie Man, striking it big in the United States. Today, the legacy of Ragga is heard by way of echoing samples that flutter around the fringes of the core of a production much in the same way that dancehall was a influence to the core of what Hip-Hop became. It’s use of the sub-genre in Hip-Hop has persisted as the genre has gotten increasingly strange. Rappers are starting to experiment with their pitch in order to achieve a different flair to their presentation. As mentioned earlier, Waka, A$AP Ferg, as well as Chance the Rapper are reincarnating the styles of Ragga through changes in vocal delivery and wild, Yu Darvish-like pitch changes. It’s not just Hip-Hop that is starting to draw and appropriate some characteristics from the sub-genre. EDM has ventured into new territory with Major Lazer, a fictional character from the imagination of Diplo that blends his style of buzzes, zips, and zaps with some of today’s most in-demand toasters.

It’s very likely that Ragga could fade into the background once again; waiting another re-awakening and more new found interest in the sub-genre. How long it takes before that happens remains to be seen. Until then, enjoy the sounds of some of Ragga’s best:

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