“Top ranking” is a phrase so common in the lexicon of dancehall reggae, it could almost be punctuation. That’s not to mention related terms like “highly rated,” “strictly the best,” and “tougher than tough.” It is doubtful, in fact, whether there has ever been another musical genre or subculture so uniquely focused on rankings, ratings, and constantly updated scorekeeping of who is king, queen, or even “don of all dons.”
Competition may accelerate innovation in dancehall; it’s what makes the culture such a bottomless wellspring of new rhythms, choreography, fashion, and slang. But in celebrating the best of the best, separating the tangled ingredients that make dancehall so consistently brilliant—a fearless approach to sexuality, an experimental approach to sound technology, a military approach to lyrical wordplay, a joyful approach to resistance—is like cutting open the drum to see what makes it go bang.
Dancehall became a subgenre distinct from other styles of reggae around 1977, a time in Jamaica when deejays (equivalent to stateside MCs) were becoming as prominent as singers. In turn, the singers began adopting the call-and-response hooks and improvised couplets of deejays, creating a whole new hybrid style of singing they called “sing-jay.” Those vocals became a defining feature of dancehall, along with harder, sparer rhythm sections and an emphasis on “slackness” (raunch or decadence).