Dancehall is undoubtedly the most danceable subgenre reggae ever produced. It initially emerged in the late ‘70s as a leaner, bouncier version of the roots reggae sound that was popular at the time. But dancehall really came into its own in the early ‘80s when it went digital. It’s dancehall’s digital format that has given it more longevity than other forms of reggae, with a heyday that lasted from the late ‘70s through the mid ‘90s. Even today, dancehall endures with acts like Sean Paul and Elephant Man currently carrying the torch. Here now are six party rocking anthems from dancehall’s golden era, which no DJ should be without.
1. “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus and Pliers
“Murder She Wrote” is a song about a girl named Maxine whose “beauty was like a bunch of rose,” although in actual fact, she has “a pretty face and bad character.” The song is constructed around a bouncing, driving digital dancehall rhythm that serves as the perfect vehicle for the hooky vocal exchanges of roughneck MC Chaka Demus and velvety smooth vocalist Pliers. The song was a hit in the UK and Jamaica when it was first released in 1994 and thanks in part to the artists performing it with Alicia Keys at a 2007 awards show, it’s stood the test of time well. “Murder She Wrote’s” heavily digitized beat allows it to be easily mixed in with anything from old school hip-hop to UK garage.
2. “Under Mi Sensi” by Barrington Levy
In 1984 Barrington Levy’s smooth-voiced dancehall ode to smoking ganja sounds surprisingly laidback for a song that clocks in at 151 BPMs. Perhaps its Levy’s cool and casual vocal style as he toasts and croons over a sparse guitar riff and a simple C minor reggae groove. “Under Mi Sensi” was a hit in the clubs as well as on the reggae charts in the UK and Jamaica when it was first released. The song’s infectious rhythm and Levy’s velvety vocal delivery as he sings about telling a cop who accuses him of having a “stick a sensi under (his) tam,” that “Mi only smoke cigarette an strictly shag,” have made “Under Mi Sensi” an enduring classic that still gets ‘em on the dance floor.
3. “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna
Althea Forest and Donna Reid may not have enjoyed longevity as a reggae vocal duo but the two did manage to record one stone cold dancehall classic in 1978 with “Uptown Top Ranking.” The song is more of a proper reggae track than many of the digital dancehall anthems that would follow. A full complement of players including bass, guitar, drums, organ and horns ride the riddim as Althea and Donna harmonize in a distinctly cool, almost affected manner about getting so done up to hit the town that to “Sey mi gi’ you heart attack.” With lyrics written in a heavy Jamaican patois, “Uptown Top Ranking” is positively loaded with vocal hooks punctuated by a punchy horn riff that makes the song all the more a potent when it comes to getting the dance floor moving.
4. “Bam, Bam” by Sister Nancy
“Bam, Bam” is a female voiced dancehall killer that, in what could be regarded as an understatement, was once described by the BBC as a “well-known reggae anthem.” Sister Nancy, widely regarded as the first female dancehall DJ, released the track back in 1982 when it was a massive hit. Unlike “Murder She Wrote,” which is a dancehall track from the ground up, musically “Bam, Bam” actually has more in common with dub than with dancehall. It relies on a sparse arrangement consisting of drums and bass augmented by occasional stabs of organ, guitar and reverb-drenched horns. But all that space leaves plenty of room for Sister Nancy and it’s her equally reverb-drenched, proto-yardy style vocals that make “Bam, Bam” such a heavyweight dancehall classic.
5. “Ring the Alarm” by Tenor Saw
Clive Bright aka Tenor Saw had a career that was cut all too short when he died at the age of 22. Before he was struck and killed by a speeding car in Houston back in 1988, however, Bright enjoyed a string of hits, the biggest and most enduring of which is this classic from 1985. Not to be confused with the Beyonce song of the same name, Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” is a dancehall track built around a funky dub groove over which Saw loosely rides the riddem, letting lyrics drop and milking the song’s catchy “Ring the Alarm/Not a sound is dying” vocal hook for all it’s worth. A little slower on the BPMs then some of the other tracks on this list, “Ring the Alarm” is perfect for laying back mid-set and giving the crowd something to catch their breath to.
6. “(You Don’t Love Me) No, No, No” by Dawn Penn
Released in 1994, this track is a true colossus of dancehall. The amazing thing about “(You Don’t Love Me) No, No, No” is how it manages to be slow and sultry while still clocking in at 169 BPMs. Much of it is down to the vocals of Penn, who got her start as a professional singer in the ‘60s and took 20 years off before recording “No, No, No.” The song tends to resonate strongly with female club goers who identify with Penn as she detachedly imparts a bitter tale of unrequited love. Male club goers on the other hand, are undoubtedly equally enticed by Penn as she sexily coos, “I’ll do anything you say boy,” over a rhythm that’s one part trip-hop, one part original ska and one part proto-UK garage. Whatever strange alchemy “No, No, No” may possess, one thing for sure is that this instantly recognizable classic has a powerful allure towards the dance floor whenever it’s dropped into a set.