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Aptly named after the venues in which the Jamaican music was played, dancehall music owes its origin to reggae, and dancehall artists are often considered reggae or hip hop artists as well. The development of this genre of music began in 1970s Jamaica as a somewhat sparser version of traditional reggae. Many of the best dancehall artists rose to fame during this time, but the movement and genre weren't done growing. Today, dancehall is no longer a genre you haven't heard of and is most significantly characterized by a combination of reggae influences, Jamaican Patois or Jamaican creole, and synthetic influences. So, from those origins as a localized offshoot of reggae, to the commercial success of hit dancehall artists today, here are some of the best of the genre.
Vybz Kartel's latest release is quite literally entitled "King of the Dancehall." And while anyone could name their album such, it's probably fair of the 42-year-old to do so at this point in his highly successful career. Born in Jamaica, Vybz Kartel—or Adidja Azim Palmer—began this career at a very early age, releasing his first track at the age of 12. His group, Vibes Cartel, carried him to moderate fame as a young man, but it was under his adapted name as a solo artist that real fame found him. Now, you'll be unlikely to find any modern list of dancehall artists that doesn't include this influential name. The career and music of Kartel inspired many of today's top dancehall artists.
Signed by Dre Skull's prolific label Mixpak Records, Popcaan is in the company of some major names, including Vybz Kartel and Snoop Dogg. Though relatively recent to the scene, Popcaan's success within his 4 year album career is noteworthy. As an opener for American hip hop and pop artists like Drake, and a collaborator with other big names, Popcaan seems headed for commercial success. But his music is in no way cheap or pandering, and his rhythmic and lyrical style perfectly suit the messages and emotional appeals of his heavier songs. As artists shy away less and less from social and personal expression in their artistry, this kind of work is more and more appreciated.
Reanno Gordon adopted his stage name, Busy Signal, after being nicknamed by friends who knew him by his intensity and constant hustle. Busy Signal is regarded as one of the best dancehall artists not only for the intensity of his music and public persona, but for his dedication to entertainment and visual artistry in live performance. His three albums thus far released have reached generally positive reviews across the board, though his debut studio album Step Out is still largely considered his best, and holds a place amongst the greatest contemporary dancehall albums. His acts and music are also largely associated with another significant name on this list, dancehall group and producers Major Lazer.
Dancehall music owes its roots to the Jamaican-born reggae genre, and is still overwhelmingly dominated by Jamaica and Jamaican-born artists. That said, Ghanaian musician Shatta Wale is undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in the genre. Hit tracks like Taking Over and Dancehall King have won him numerous awards in Ghana, and the artist has also had an influential role in the music industry as founder and CEO of the Shatta Movement Records. Individual artistry and popularity aside, Shatta Wale is a demonstration of the widening reach of localized music genres, and an interesting study in the transportation of genre features across geographic lines.
Major Lazer is something of a unique name on this list, if only in that it denotes a trio of music creators and producers, rather than a single artist. The trio consists of famous record producer Diplo, whose solo career is as successful, if not more so, than Major Lazer, along with Jillionaire and Walshy Fire. The success of the trio is owed in part to their spanning of multiple genres, often listed as reggae, electronic, trap, house, soca, EDM... etc, etc. And if their role as artists weren't evidence enough of their role as some of the best dancehall artists, the group is also responsible for the production of major affiliated artists, including Snoop Dogg's Reincarnated.
Sizzla Kalonji's thoughtful lyrics and songwriting made him not only one of the best dancehall artists, but one of the most important. Insofar as music has the power to exact change, inspire action and emotion, and uplift its listeners, Sizzla's impact has been significant. He is also perhaps the most prolific dancehall artist in the world, with 56 albums released between his 1990 debut Burning Up and the current year. Sizzla is often spoken of with regards to his Rastafarian roots, as one of the earliest dancehall artists to return in both style and subject matter to the dancehall music's original traits, much of which revolves around Jamaican politics and social justice.
Yellowman is widely considered one of the early pioneers of the dancehall genre, and is still esteemed as one of the best dancehall artists of all time. Rising in the scene when it first emerged as a sparser development of the Jamaican reggae style, Yellowman kept many of the traditional and beloved aspects of contemporary reggae, while introducing new twists to captivate audiences. While he was initially criticized for the sexual explicitness of many of his early songs, Yellowman, or Winston Foster, joined a myriad of other popular dancehall artists to write songs not only to entertain, but to inspire and relate. His success on this front was surely fueled by his own difficult life, raised in an orphanage and subjected to ridicule from his peers as a result of his albinism. But none of this stopped him from becoming one of the most significant figures and best dancehall artists in music history.
Even those who have never heard of dancehall music may know Sean Paul, if only from his hit "Give it Up to Me," which was featured in the 2006 dance movie Step Up. But this was far from the artist's only hit, with seven successful albums released over the last 18 years. His second studio album, Dutty Rock, won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2004, while several other albums and tracks have been nominated over the years, for the Grammys and other awards. Paul's commercial success may also be due in part to his ability to span multiple genres, while always appealing to his dancehall core. With pop hits, reggae standouts, and even soundtrack releases, it's no wonder that most people know his name.
Marion Hall, or Lady Saw, has another apt name among music fans: Queen of Dancehall. As one of, comparatively few, commercially successful female dancehall artists, Lady Saw is nevertheless considered one of the best dancehall artists of all time. In fact, she was the first female deejay to win a Grammy award for her collaborative his, "Underneath It All" (recorded with No Doubt). Besides being one of the most successful and famous names in the dancehall genre, Lady Saw had an important role as one of its earlier pioneers, beginning her career in the 80s and continuing to meet widespread prosperity with dancehall music until 2015. Presently, she no longer produces or creates within this genre, but rather focuses her attention on recording and performing gospel music.
Bounty Killer, aptly named for his often violent and raw lyrics, is considered one of the darker and more intense dancehall artists. In addition to his professional and artistic affiliation with artists Vybz Kartel and Mavado, who together form the dancehall collective The Alliance, Bounty Killer is often associated with the hard rap style of 90s hip hop, bridging a gap between the reggae-inspired dancehall genre, and the hip-hop genre which developed at the same time in African American communities of the United States. As a result, some have compared him to the Tupac Shakur of Jamaica, for his raw portrayal of street life in conjunction with honest reflections on social and personal issues.