by Wayne Marshall
Although hip-hop’s dominant narrative typically begins with the introduction of Jamaican sound-system techniques and technologies into the South Bronx, the Caribbean presence in hip-hop tends to recede into absence after this originary moment.1 Despite an increasing infusion of reggae into hip-hop over the last three decades, a hybridization reflecting New York’s increasingly foreign-born black population, hip-hop histories routinely downplay such “outside” influence. Narrative strategies that seek to validate African American aesthetics against the denigration of mass media representations have thus obscured a more nuanced account of hip-hop’s social character, with far-reaching implications for our understanding of such notions as race, ethnicity, and nation. The failure to acknowledge Jamaica’s place in the hip-hop imagination overlooks the context-specific identification practices through which many performers have expressed the predicament of being both West Indian and black in New York. Such an oversight, in effect, maintains a discursive complicity with traditional, essentialized notions of race.2
This omission also fails to take note of important shifts in the politics and the very boundaries of blackness. If we listen more closely to the intersections between hip-hop and reggae—for instance, at moments when New York-based performers adopt or conceal a Jamaican accent—the contingent, dynamic character of race comes into stark relief. By paying attention to the shifting significations over time of Jamaicanness in New York, we can consider the ways in which historical context, social demographics, and cultural politics inflect conceptions of race and ethnicity. When Jamaican-born Kool Herc (aka Clive Campbell) loses his accent in the early 1970s, KRS-One employs one in the mid-1980s, and Mos Def goes “bilingual” in the late 1990s, music’s powerful ability to mediate concepts such as race and ethnicity comes to the fore, reflecting as well as challenging dominant and often stereotypical representations. This article surveys the Jamaican-accented history of hip-hop, focusing on moments where the performance of Jamaicanness belies more stable conceptions of race and ethnicity.
Far from the aura of quasi-exotic cool that it carries today, Jamaicanness in the Bronx in the 1970s carried such a stigma that some young immigrants found it better to conceal their West Indian heritage. Kool Herc recounts the dangers of such an outsider identity: “At that time [the early 1970s], being Jamaican wasn’t fashionable. Bob Marley didn’t come through yet to make it more fashionable, to even give a chance for people to listen to our music. . . . I remember one time a guy said, ‘Clive, man, don’t walk down that way cause they throwing Jamaicans in garbage cans.’”3 Even before moving to the United States as a teenager, Herc practiced an American accent by singing along to his father’s record collection, which included records by Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, and country singer Jim Reeves. He continued to mold his voice upon moving to the Bronx in 1967, tuning to white rock and soul disc jockeys such as Cousin Brucie and Wolfman Jack, and absorbing the cadences of Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and James Brown at house parties. Adjusting his accent so as to be intelligible to classmates, by the time he reached high school some of Herc’s Jamaican friends didn’t even know he was Jamaican.4 This chameleonic process extended to his performance practice, as he translated Jamaican soundsystem techniques for his funk-oriented Bronx peers. No fool when it came to playing to an audience, Herc selected “break” records—the hard funk of James Brown, Dennis Coffey, the Isley Brothers, Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band—rather than reggae tunes, to move the crowd. At that time in New York, Jamaican music was, as Orlando Patterson put it, still “jungle music” to the ears of most African Americans, many of whom, as first- or second-generation rural migrants from the South, still sought to distance themselves from a “country” past.5
Although the number of West Indian residents grew steadily in New York during the 1970s, due in part to British anti-immigration acts passed in the 1960s and the U.S. 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished national origins as the basis for immigration legislation, a critical mass had not yet crystallized so that borough culture could reflect such “foreign” infusions or so that normative blackness could include Anglo-Caribbean or even Latin Caribbean versions. Perhaps it was clear to recent immigrants like Herc that the best option for an individual seeking to navigate this new world smoothly was to, in a sense, become “black” (which is to say, African American) in walk, talk, and outward style. Of course, Clive Campbell had always been black. But to be Jamaican and black in New York in the 1970s signified something else, something different and somehow incompatible with American blackness.
Identity in this case was hard-won—at least among a prevailingly African American peer group. Although Campbell certainly reconciled such opposing identifications for himself when projecting a public persona, in particular through musical performance, he found that the Bronx’s social pressures called for a particular type of assimilation. Herc’s adopted and adapted accent illustrates the contours of racialized subjectivities at this time in New York. It is remarkable that Jamaicanness and blackness were at odds at this point only because they seem so easily reconciled today, but that shift would take place over the next three decades in a circular pattern of demographic change and mass media representation. Hip-hop, despite the way that its narrative restricts its Caribbean roots, would constitute one of the major media outlets for these changing perceptions of the difference and distance between African Americans and various black others.
As Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded (1987) demonstrates, blackness in the Bronx could be tied to Jamaicanness unproblematically by the late 1980s. KRS-One foregrounds his West Indian heritage on what would become, significantly, a seminal hip-hop album. BDP’s brash, dub-accented production, “ragamuffin” language, dancehall-cribbed tunes, and glorified violence made an enormous impression on the hip-hop scene and helped set the template for what would later be called gangsta rap. It is especially telling that in one of hip-hop’s most gloried turf wars—the contest between the South Bronx and Queensbridge over rap’s place of origin, or “of how it all got started way back when”—KRS-One could so effectively represent “authentic” hip-hop with a style so heavily-indebted to reggae and thus so marked by otherness. Of course, what this demonstrates is that Jamaicanness no longer carried the same stigmatized sense ofotherness. It had become re-accented, as when BDP takes a classic reggae bassline and re-imagines it as a stiff, breakbeat-saddled piano riff, or when KRS-One sings a Billy Joel melody in a manner that recalls Yellowman’s fondness for ironic quotation. That BDP’s expression could at once be so Bronx and hip-hop, and yet so Jamaican and reggae bears witness to the degree to which Jamaican music and culture had become part of the texture of New York life by the mid-1980s.
Indeed, one might even say that, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the Jamaican presence had become ubiquitous and, at times, dominant. This cultural shift is undoubtedly tied to the high rates of migration from Jamaica to New York during this period. According to sociologist Mary Waters, “In the 1980s alone, Jamaica sent 213,805 people to the United States—a full 9% of its total population of 2.5 million people.”6 45% of these immigrants stayed in New York. And “[b]y 1996, it was estimated that 35.1% of the city’s black households was headed by a foreign-born person—the vast majority from the Caribbean.”7 This demographic shift was accompanied by a powerful cultural visibility projected, on the one hand, through reggae soundsystem culture which filled streets, parks, and clubs with the sounds of Jamaica, and, on the other, by the rise of the infamous cocaine-running posses, which quickly came to dominate the drug-trade in New York. Legendary for their ruthlessness and firepower, the posses quickly took over corners across Brooklyn and the Bronx, and their powerful presence undoubtedly realigned many people’s sense of what Jamaicanness—and reggae—could signify. Far from the islanders that were ridiculed as too “country” a generation before, Jamaican New Yorkers in the 1980s epitomized a powerful kind of cool in the dog-eat-dog world of urban America.
It is thus not surprising that KRS-One embraces the signifiers of Jamaicanness on Criminal Minded, despite that his personal connection to the Caribbean is through a biological father from Trinidad who was out of the picture from an early age, having been deported. Growing up in the Bronx or Brooklyn at this time could forge personal connections to the Caribbean that go beyond family heritage. Underscoring the power of this symbolic association, KRS alternately refers to Boogie Down Productions as the “BDP posse,” an appropriation of the powerful gang signifier, which itself was, in a fine stroke of irony, a term borrowed from Hollywood Westerns, which have long been popular in Jamaica. Fittingly, mainstream media projections of Jamaicanness at this time—from the dreadlocked alien hunting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (1987) to the vicious, demonic Rastas in Steven Segal’s Marked for Death (1990)—served to reflect as they informed the stereotyped public perception of Jamaicans: a “cool and deadly” figuration which would later be reproduced in hip-hop films such as Hype Williams’s Belly (1998) and in dozens of hip-hop songs where “rude bwoy” becomes an accented shorthand for gangsta.
Two years before Criminal Minded, Run DMC hinted at the degree to which Jamaican sounds had already permeated New York by collaborating with dancehall star Yellowman on the track “Roots, Rock, Reggae” (1985), which takes its name from a Bob Marley song. Indeed, DMC (aka Daryl McDaniels) acknowledges that Yellowman’s music was already ubiquitous and influential in the hip-hop scene by that point: “We grew up worshipping Yellowman, loving him, loving all of his records; what he said, how he sounded, how he looked, he was just cool. The Roxy, Harlem World, Union Square, Latin Quarter—they were all playing hip-hop and they were all playing Yellowman.”8 But, revealingly, in comparison to KRS-One’s seamless incorporation of dancehall style, Run DMC sound awkward rolling their r’s and clumsily riding a chintzy, quasi-Caribbean beat. On the other hand, by the early 1990s, Brooklyn-based groups such as the Fu-Schnickens, Das EFX, Black Moon, and Smif’n’Wessun were performing in a style that spoke from a kind of creolized subject position, containing as much patois and ragga-style flow as more traditional hip-hop stylistic markers, although almost always over hip-hop beats. Meanwhile, artists such as the Notorious B.I.G., Jeru the Damaja, Gang Starr, and A Tribe Called Quest more subtly incorporated West Indian references and slang, and reggae lyrics and melodies into their borough-accented rap.
Such hybrid expressions demonstrate the degree to which Jamaicanness and blackness begin to overlap in New York by this point, no longer appearing as oppositional identifiers. The increasingly audible integration between what were previously ethnic enclaves refigures blackness in a more transnational sense, perhaps bringing hip-hop’s expression more in line with a pan-African articulation of “modern blackness,” as Deborah Thomas calls it, which Jamaicans in Jamaica had long been proposing through their own embrace and “selective appropriation” of African American styles.9 Ironically, once Jamaicanness, as embodied in reggae musical style, becomes such a common feature of New York-based hip-hop, it almost recedes in audibility. One begins to hear a Jamaican accent as a New York accent, or a black accent or a more general hip-hop accent.
A decade after Criminal Minded, Mos Def would channel the sounds of Jamaica via the Bronx to make a Brooklyn-based statement about hip-hop that many listeners would hear as pure hip-hop classicism—a testament to the deep degree to which, by the late 1900s, the hip-hop lexicon had absorbed a reggae accent. On Black Star’s “Definition” (1998), Mos Def brings a dancehall-indebted style to his flow, employing steady, staccato rhythms, a sing-song delivery, consistent end rhymes, and stuttered singing. He borrows the same melody that KRS-One borrowed from Yellowman, and throws in some Jamaican slang for good measure—e.g., “Lord have mercy,” “Follow me nuh.” Ironically, “Definition” takes hip-hop soul-searching as its subject as it centrally employs a sample of BDP’s “Remix For P Is Free” which happens to contain the same sample that BDP selectively appropriated from Jamaica’s heavily versioned “Mad Mad” riddim.10 Riddim, like beat in hip-hop parlance, is Jamaican shorthand for a singer’s or DJ’s musical accompaniment in a particular song, which may include a distinctive bassline, drum beat, and/or other recognizable musical figures. Such layered allusion, however, stops for many listeners at Criminal Minded precisely because BDP’s accented album has attained a canonical status, a fact which almost by default commits KRS-One’s voluminous borrowings from dancehall songs directly to hip-hop’s vocabulary since the majority of listeners at this point lack acquaintance with the Jamaican originals.
On Mos Def’s solo album, Black on Both Sides (1999), nearly every track reveals another way that Jamaican language, music, or culture texture life in Brooklyn. On a song called “Hip-hop” the rapper makes his linguistic strategies explicit, “Used to speak the King’s English,” he admits, “but caught a rash on my lips, so now I chat just like dis.” Tellingly, the alternative to the King’s English is not simply figured here as African American vernacular speech but as patois-inflected slang, evoked by the use of the Jamaican-associated term “chat” and the pronunciation of this as dis—which, of course, is a pronunciation shared by African American and Caribbean dialects, an overlap that would not be lost on a native Brooklynite. Mos Def’s polyglot style renders Brooklyn in what he calls a “native tongue,” which includes, in addition to some mellifluous Spanish, the idioms of thirty years of hip-hop and thirty years of reggae. With no shortage of subtlety, Mos Def portrays a place where hip-hop and reggae, and African Americans and West Indians, reside in intimacy. While his music’s form gives shape to the transnational black society in which he resides, its content calls for “all black people to be free.”11 Mos Def maps out an intensely local place in his music, but a local place that is always already familiar with the foreign, where things Jamaican are more mundane than exotic, and where race matters more than national origin. Mos Def’s fluid figuration of a hybrid Brooklyn, which is nonetheless “black on both sides,” articulates a sense of nation and belonging that surpasses earlier and narrower conceptions of community. He makes hip-hop’s Jamaican accent clear, at least long enough to call for a rewind, where repeat listenings reveal new worlds of meaning, creating community by revising race.
Hearing hip-hop’s Jamaican accent and noting its shifts and slurs over time demonstrate that music mediates social relations as it draws and re-draws the lines of community. We can see, and hear, how different conceptions of blackness articulate with, and disarticulate from, each other in different contexts at different times, as well as how hip-hop’s racial politics have been informed by “foreign” notions of blackness as much as by mainstream American racial ideologies. The audible transformation of New York’s soundscape reflects new social circumstances as it gives voice to new patterns of identification, negotiation, and assimilation. The musical record can thus enhance our understanding of the historical record, supplementing a dominant narrative that proceeds all too neatly and tends to obscure conflicts as well as connections.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
1 Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (St. Martin’s Press, 2005) proves the exception to this pattern and signals a growing awareness of the centrality of Caribbean music and migrants to the history of hip-hop.
2 See Rachel L. Swarns, “‘African-American’ Becomes a Term for Debate,”New York Times, 29 August 2004, for a discussion about the ambivalence and hostility about foreign-born blacks (or their U.S.-born children) claiming the title “African American.”
3 Quoted in Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, 72.
4 Ibid., 68, 72.
5 Orlando Patterson, personal communication, Fall 2003.
6 Mary C. Waters, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), 36.
7 Ibid., 37.
8 Liner notes, Yellowman, Look How Me Sexy: Reggae Anthology (VP Records, 2002).
9 Deborah Thomas, Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica (Duke University Press, 2004), 14.
10 For more about the “Mad Mad” riddim, see my paper “Mad Mad Migrations,” presented at the conference Caribbean Soundscapes, New Orleans (November 2004), available at <http://www.wayneandwax.com/academic/mad-mad-paper.html>.
11 “Umi Says,” Black on Both Sides (Rawkus, 1999).