Every Saturday night 760 Rooftop, a venue in midtown Manhattan, is filled with a crowd of 20-somethings and 30-somethings dressed in suits and stilettos. Clubgoers pay $20 each—or as much as $500 for a table—before climbing four flights of stairs to see and be seen in the hip lounge and dance floor area.
Among those making the climb are fashionable young Jamaicans, eager for an evening of dancehall, the reggae-rooted music that emerged from Jamaica in the 1970s. But increasingly, the Jamaicans find themselves sharing the dance floor with crowds who’ve never visited the Caribbean Island- but who can perfectly mimic the moves and Jamaican patois of dancehall.
“I’ve been here since 2000,” when the crowd was still heavily Caribbean, said Tracy Young, of the party promotion team Conscious NYC, which organizes reggae, hip hop and dancehall events. “The African Americans and the Caucasians were not present. I would say even the Japanese were more present” 15 years ago, said Young.
“In the last three or four years it has changed,” said Young. “A lot more African Americans and Caucasians are getting into that culture now.”
Dancehall originally referred to a place where DJs would throw parties and play reggae. Gradually, a new sound began to emerge at these parties, using reggae patterns and electronic instruments. Eventually dancehall become a unique Jamaican musical genre, akin to hip hop with its upbeat “riddims” and lyrical content.
Jamaican artists brought the genre to New York. “Shabba Ranks and Supercat made an impact in the 90s by integrating dancehall into hip hop,” said DJ Gravy, a New York City DJ prominent in the dancehall scene. “New York definitely embraced those kinds of artists.”
Today, Mr.Vegas, Lady Saw, and Spice are among the contemporary Jamaican artists who perform in New York City.
Dancehall is very much an underground thing,” said Jesse Serwer, editor of the Caribbean music platform LargeUp.com. “DJs were generally Jamaican, but now they are a broader group of people.”
So are the most popular and biggest-selling dancehall and reggae artists, who no longer are exclusively Jamaican. “Many outsiders don’t have success in Jamaica, but with a wider audience,” said Serwer. Hip hop artists like Busta Rhymes and Beyonce have integrated dancehall into their music.
Dancehall parties were once a “working class event,” taking place mainly in Jamaican communities in New York’s outer boroughs, according to Young, the Conscious NYC promoter. Now, they’ve moved into the city’s mainstream music scene- like the popular dancehall party “Rice and Peas” hosted for the past seven years by DJ Gravy.
The “Rice and Peas” party is held annually in a Manhattan venue that didn’t initially play dancehall, but that does draw a broader audience—like the chic crowd at 760 Rooftop. The parties had a “strong West Indian presence, of course, but it definitely attracted all kinds of people,” said DJ Gravy.
At 760 Rooftop, the diverse crowd sings along to the music, perfectly reciting the Jamaican patois and doing all the right dance moves. In dancehall, many of the songs have an accompanying dance move. When Tony Matterhorn’s “Dutty Wine” plays, for instance, necks are rolled and hair is thrown in unison.
Despite the mainstreaming of dancehall, “the culture itself is still alive in the boroughs,” said Young. According to some Jamaican residents, the best dancehall parties can be found in the clubs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, where there is a larger Jamaican presence.