Jamaican Reggae’s Rude Boys Go to War

As the line between reality and performance blurs, kill increasingly means kill

Reggae Rude Boys

image by Kyle T. Webster / www.kyletwebster.com

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“Him chuck mi first.”

On Boxing Day—December 26, 2003—just as the sun was rising over Portmore, Jamaica, dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel took the stage at Jamaica’s legendary Sting music festival. The annual concert, widely promoted as “The Greatest One-Night Reggae Show on Earth,” includes the most visible artists in dancehall music and has a reputation for hosting onstage clashes between feuding deejays (a term in reggae that refers not to disc jockeys but to MCs).

His entourage surrounding him, Kartel dropped maniacal taunts about “wartime” and how “lyrics win war.” Halfway into his set, he launched into the hits: “Gun Clown” and “Bus Mi Gun Like Nuttn,” hype tracks that spout the same brutal lyrics as gangsta rap. But Kartel’s songs weren’t just vague anthems to violence; they were weapons aimed at his rival, Ninjaman, a 37-year-old “senior” deejay known for his criminal record and a history of onstage clashes. The 27-year-old Kartel called Ninjaman a crackhead, dug into him about sexual abuse allegations, and then accused him of sodomy.

Ninjaman took the stage wearing a graduation cap and gown (a visual jab about being in a higher “class” of deejay). But Kartel was a local favorite, and after a strategic set of hits mixed with cheer-induced disses, he had pulled the 20,000 fans to his side. Ninjaman gave it his best shot, but after a minute of booing and bottle flinging, Kartel returned to the stage.

Then something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen: Ninjaman gave Kartel a hard shove—though who shoved whom first is disputed. (Ninjaman claims, “Him chuck mi first, mi chuck him back.”) Within a few seconds a fistfight was under way. Kartel and his crew threw Ninjaman to the ground and security guards intervened. It was the first incident of onstage violence in the festival’s 20-year history.

Bounty Killer, a then-ally of Kartel’s who was scheduled to perform that day, canceled his appearance in protest. Mobbing fans, upset by the decision, overtook the bar, threw bottles, and fired guns into the air. Afterward, the festival’s promoters tried to extinguish residual flames with an emergency peace­keeping meeting, but it didn’t go so well: Ninjaman showed up with bandages strapped across his face and refused to shake Kartel’s hand.

It might seem ironic for such violence to occur in a country best known for producing Bob Marley, the great Gandhi of reggae. Jamaica’s reality, however, is one in which the ghettos of Kingston post the highest murder rates in the world, where the hero of the streets is the rude boy.

A not-so-distant past of colonialism and slavery produced a strain of Jamaicans who bow to no one and who equate any form of submission with regression. Marley is the country’s peace-loving rasta fantasy export, but consider Jimmy Cliff’s cinematic masterpiece, The Harder They Come, to witness the true Jamaican icon: a criminal, crazy-eyed killer and musician all rolled into one.

 

In the beginning, violence wasn’t part of feuding protocol. Like battles between hip-hop MCs, feuds were, and for the most part still are, competitions of microphone prowess: verbal assaults delivered to the sound of riddims, a Jamaican term for the production and beats behind the vocals. They generally work on the same I’ll-have-sex-with-your-wife-and-kill-you mentality that Tupac once aimed at Biggie, with some additional sprinklings of racism, chauvinism, bigotry, and mother insults. Looking back, early feuds seem benign enough, but it’s important to remember that obscene language is illegal in Jamaica, contributing an outlaw vibe to what, in America, is a sticks-and-stones offense. Homosexuality also is illegal (and not widely accepted, culturally), and thus hate lyrics are all the more titillating to fans.

In practice, feuds go on for months, years, even decades, and involve not only onstage clashes but also radio singles called “diss tracks.” Reggae’s use of riddims adds another layer to the conversation:  Producers build music tracks and allow multiple deejays to overlay lyrics, melodies, and songs. During feuds, deejays respond to each other’s disses through riddims. This allows radio disc jockeys to play half-hour-long mixes of, say, “The Self-Defense Riddim,” while interchanging each MC’s song, creating a seamless back-and-forth bickering opera.

Feuds go on until someone wins, through superior lyricism, sales, crowd applause, or by forcing an opponent to back down. Winning isn’t really the point, though. Everyone knows that these clashes are just hyped-up, WWF-style showmanship. The real goal is publicity. Pretty much all of the big-name deejays use rivalries to climb their way into the public eye.

The dancehall economy, too, depends on seething conflict to keep fans attentive. Radio singles contain any number of retorts and inside puns about ongoing feuds, and fans follow the blow-by-blow like the arc of a soap opera. And it gets juicier: Most of the feuds stem from a vast network of mafioso-style connections between deejays. Two artists who are mentor and protégé—or daddy and son—for the first half of their careers might be feuding for the second half. Other feuds are passed down from daddy to son, from Corleone to Corleone.

       

The Ninjaman  vs. Kartel clash was born of a 15-year feud between two dancehall camps, spearheaded by deejays Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Beenie and Bounty both emerged a little after the dancehall sound was born in 1985, as part of a new generation of artists who generated gangsta lyrics about their lives in the shantytowns of Kingston. Bounty called his sound “hardcore social commentary” and wore the words cross, angry, and warlord on his jacket.

Beenie vs. Bounty began in ’93 when the two sparred verbally at the Stone Love anniversary dance, and escalated with
a clash at the Sting music festival. After a decade of conflict, Bounty Killer brought the feud to the pseudo-corporate level when he assembled a sort of deejay gang called the Alliance. The Alliance began monopolizing riddims, producers, selectors, and venues. Ninjaman, Bounty’s former mentor, was an outspoken critic. He challenged Alliance members to battles, threatening to “kill” them. Bounty’s protégé Kartel accepted, and the whole thing came to a head, son vs. granddaddy, at the Boxing Day fight.

This fight was more than just a turning point in the history of feuds: The threats and name-calling, once laughed off as talk, became windows into real-life violence. Cultural problems moved from the dark corners of shantytowns onto the public stage. Jamaica’s most notable export—music—was exposing the country’s nasty underbelly. The industry began to respond. Sting pledged to weed out homophobic lyrics; selectors started refusing to play vicious music; and the island of St. Vincent banned a new übergangsta deejay as a “potentially damaging influence on the island’s youth.”

Not that any of this makes a difference: The warring attracts as many people as it repels, and so the feuding musicians continue to outdo themselves. Months ago, a knife fight between two deejays broke out onstage in Florida. A gang of rival fans recently attacked Kartel in Jamaica. The line between stage and street has faded away. In the earliest feuds, deejays fought in front of audiences, then turned around and clinked Red Stripes. Now, when a deejay sings “diss me and we take away ya life,” he’s not trying to entertain. He’s issuing a warning.

 

Excerpted from The Believer  (July-Aug. 2009), a literary and musically minded magazine of essays, interviews, and schemata, published by McSweeney’s in San Francisco.  www.believermag.com