Can Dancehall Make a Comeback?

A new generation of young reggae and dancehall artists are already teaming up with hip-hop superstars to bring their music back to the mainstream. 

It may have been 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon, but the dance party was in full effect last weekend in New York City. Featured as part of the Red Bull Music Academy’s month-long festival, several of the biggest names in dancehall  took to the stage in Fort Greene Park for Yardcore: Brooklyn Bashment.

The celebration of the shared connection between Jamaica and New York as prominent dancehall centers sought to pay tribute to classic artists while also introducing contemporaries to the mainstream. Among the presence of DJs from popular reggae-influenced record labels, Mixpak and Federation Sound, a number of international artists also attended, including Lisa Hype, Assassin, Tifa, Kranium and Ricky Blaze. The concert also featured a special set from legendary dub mixer King Jammy, a producer of over thirty years known by fans as one of the first to introduce electronic sound to the genre.

“I’ve never seen this presentation of reggae or dancehall in New York,” said 32-year-old Jamaican born singer-DJ, Assassin. “I feel like I’m in Europe somewhere, you know it’s that kind of park vibe, chill atmosphere.”

Assassin (also known as Agent Sasco) has been well known around the dancehall community since the early 2000s, and reached major success in 2011 when his single, “Talk How Mi Feel,” charted at number one on the Jamaica Countdown Chart. Just a couple years later he achieved success on American soil providing vocals on “I’m In It,” track six on Kanye West’s 2013 album, “Yeezus.”

Last year when Kendrick Lamar’s producers were searching for a Jamaican vibe for his latest release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,”Assassin was once again contacted to lend his voice to another prominent hip-hop artist’s record. The result was a repeating eight-bar hook in Kendrick’s aggressive lyrical masterpiece, “The Blacker the Berry.”

With his contributions to tracks from two of rap’s biggest stars, Assassin has subtly inserted himself into the forefront of dancehall’s resurgence in the United States. “It’s fantastic man,” he stated coyly as he prepared to take the stage. “There’s always a great synergy between dancehall-reggae and hip-hop. It’s great to be a part of it and it’s great that these guys see it fit to mix the vibes.”

Perhaps riding on the success of Assassin’s smooth transition into the American mainstream, Kranium – another one of the performers at Yardcore, has begun to make his mark on not only dancehall, but the music industry as a whole.

The 22-year-old based out of Queens entertained his hometown as the only other artist present besides Ricky Blaze to call New York his home. Since immigrating to the states in 2005, Kranium has slowly built his network around the city at local clubs and parties by singing his reggae-fusion songs influenced by the likes of Sean Paul and Shaggy.

His hard work paid off as Kranium recently signed a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records. His signing marks a shift in gears for Atlantic and is a risky statement of intent from the record label. It’s common knowledge amongst music execs that reggae-influenced music rarely charts well in the States, but Atlantic remains confident knowing that his singles “Nobody Has To Know” and “Lifestyle” have sold well and garnered the attention of the international dancehall scene, and perhaps more importantly, American radio stations.

“It’s a good feeling because I grew up listening to Sean Paul, Kevin Little, Wayne Wonder – and they are part of that label in the past,” said Kranium, perched under a tent in the shade moments after he finished his set. “For them to come and say ‘Kranium, we want to sign you – we think you have talent, we can broaden the variety of it,’ I was like, ‘Alright, no problem man,’ because I was really, really interested in it.”

As the performances began to wind down and Fort Greene Park steadily emptied out, it suddenly became quite noticeable just how many people showed up for the concert. Could the emergence of mainstream artists such as Assassin and Kranium, along with backing from corporate sponsors like Red Bull lead to a dancehall revival in the U.S.? It’s been awhile since the likes of Sean Paul, Shaggy and teenage-Rhianna have sold-out shows. Yet still, those like Kranium remain confident.

“I love it man. I love it, love it, love it. You can notice that it’s a very diverse crowd. It’s good because it gives you new fans and broadens your fan base. And it’s Red Bull. What more can I say? It’s a very big deal.”

“I’m thankful for the opportunities to be on those tracks,” offered Assassin in closing. “But there’s still a lot to be had. I’m just working hard and staying focused and, you know, being grateful and moving forward in the best way I can. I just want to continue my work and my art form – it’s a good vibe.”

Photos by Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool