Long thought to be so entrenched that it was impervious to the rise of MP3 and CD-R culture, critic Dave Stelfox writes in the Guardian that the seven-inch vinyl single is now “completely extinct” in Jamaica, a topic he also touched on last year in his “Month In Dancehall” column for Pitchfork. But what’s more interesting than another variation on the story of digital files crushing sales of physical music formats, a now all-too-familiar tale around the world, is how the MP3 has also resulted in the collateral loss of one of Jamaica’s most sui generis creations.
A better gauge of the health of reggae, however, is the demise of another phenomenon specific to Jamaican music. After recording a new backing track, reggae producers have traditionally asked several different singers to record their own vocal interpretations of the tune – so each could be released, and the producer would be able to make as much money as possible out of each studio session. That process, known as “voicing”, was then followed by each version being released as a separate single. The more popular the instrumental proved, the more songs were cut. With each new production averaging around 20 different versions, labels such as London’s Greensleeves and New York’s VP Records began to collect these songs on individual “riddim albums”, a signature format that became pivotal to reggae’s international infrastructure – until now.
Dan Kuster, Greensleeves’ head of A&R, says things are changing fast. “We’ve scaled back our release of dancehall riddim albums because they don’t sell any more…Now, as soon as a song is in someone’s hands it can be copied and sold in Jamaica in days and, thanks to peer-to-peer platforms and certain pirate websites I’d rather not name, all over the rest of the world in a matter of hours. By the time we get to put a riddim album out, everyone has it already, so it’s not worthwhile. Also, while the older people who listen to roots reggae may still want to own music, dancehall is pop music with a young audience that, typically, just wants to be able to hear it and is not concerned with being able to hold the actual record.”
Considered odd in a country where even a new Soulja Boy song manages to come up with a different set of fingersnaps, it was a surprise for reggae fans when riddim versioning briefly (and perhaps inadvertently) bubbled up in America in the early part of this decade, best remembered among U.S. pop fans by the 2003 moment when Billboard was clapping along to versions of the “Diwali” rhythm, like Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”:
Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”:
And Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh-Oh)”:
That trick was repeated 12 months later, when versions of the “Coolie Dance” riddim recorded by Nina Sky, Elephant Man, and others made the summer of ’04 a little more tolerable–a brief quirk of the charts that’s yet to be repeated. And since few producers (“Diwali” auteur Stephen “Lenky” Marsden and South Rakkas Crew are notable exceptions) tweak the hooks or twist the beat enough to keep you from zoning out over 60-plus minutes that will run you the cost of a regular CD, riddim albums were, Stelfox notes, always a fans-only zone, making their longevity surprising if anything. (Most of mine are dollar-bin finds, possibly an early sign the market was peaking a few years ago.) Which makes the loss of these one-of-a-kind mixtapes, trance-inducing when the beat is hot enough, a curious little footnote to the ongoing changes wreaked by digital media.
“Vinyl Has Been Eliminated” [Guardian]