Dancehall has always been driven by the riddim. Riddims are basically beat tracks that make up the rhythmic sound portion of a song. Riddims and dancehall songs have a one to many relationship as it relates to artist recordings. That means one Riddim can have anywhere between five to fifteen artist recordings on the same beat. Typically, about 5% of the songs recorded on a riddim ultimately become super popular, but there are instances when the riddim itself takes on a life of its own and become even bigger than any particular song on the riddim. Riddims over the years have had fun names and even dances associated with them. Names such as the Pepperseed, Sleng Teng, Punany, and Diwali are some of the colorful names that have been given to riddims over the years.
Naming riddims is probably one of the most fun things a producer has to do when putting together a beat in preparation for public release. A lot of the dancehall songs that have been popular over the years have all come from a riddim, and that particular hit song superseded all the other songs on the riddim one reason or another. If you take Cobra’s flex for example, which was an international hit in the 90s, there were a number of songs on that riddim. The riddim itself was called Flex, similar to the song. Sometimes riddims are named for an anchor song that was recorded on it. The one to many relationship between riddims and artists probably comes from the idea of economies of scale. Allowing producers to potentially maximize their profits by recording multiple artists on the same track and then see which one becomes popular instead of simply having a single track.
There’s greater value in having multiple tracks. A producer can essentially create an album from a singular riddim with multiple recordings. Whereas if one song was produced per riddim, they simply just end up with one song. The big question of this specific approach is, does creating that one to many relationship between riddims and artists stifle creativity and music innovation as it relates to dancehall music. For dancehall artists, unless they are doing an album project on their own or they have been signed by a label they typically do not create albums, so the onus is on the producer to create albums for artists who are not contracted to them. Independent labels in the Reggae industry typically don’t sign artists. They engage them on an individual one time or one at a time basis to produce tracks. Like free agents. As such, what you end up with is a lot of various artist compilations based on a riddim that is essentially a singular sound.
If dancehall embraced a more traditional approach to music production, that would mean that they would have to create exponentially more beats to record artists and create compilations. That would also mean more work and more investment on their part. It would be interesting if producers created compilations of individual songs without reuse of a singular beat. Such compilations are usually put together by distributors and larger labels who cherry-pick songs from various riddims and create compilations. Producers could ultimately create more hit songs with more unique beats as it would require more creativity not only from the producer but from the individual artist themselves who are also at times writing the songs. Additionally, the producer would create a compilation album that is of more value because its sound is more dynamic and not monotone based on a singular beat.
It is hard to argue with the cost that independent producers must undertake to produce music. Needing to pay artists, to pay for engineering time, writers, and musicians if needed to ensure that a quality product is produced. The idea of maximizing your work through the process of recording multiple artists makes sense from a straight dollars and cents perspective, but from the perspective of music creativity does it have a negative impact. Are producers holding themselves back unnecessarily? Are they potentially holding artists and the music back by not producing more unique sounds or creating better compilation albums? Beyond the prospects of creating more unique compilations maybe one approach can be to add unique compilations as part of their release schedule over the course of a year.
Not getting rid of the riddim driven approach entirely, as it is a part of the uniqueness of dancehall creativity. However, embracing an approach that allows for the creation of traditional album style compilations a couple times a year as part of their release schedule would be great. Dancehall is a vibrant Reggae sub-genre and it has existed for decades in its current form through the riddim driven approach. It would be interesting to see another approach being embraced that could deliver more creativity to the music itself.