The Best Dancehall Songs of All Time
Originally released in 1998, on Tony Kelly’s “Bookshelf” riddim, Sasha’s “Dat Sexy Body” was not an immediate hit. Sean Paul’s “Deport Them,” also on the riddim, had all dancehall ears at the moment. By comparison, Sasha was still only somewhat known for one raunchy 1992 underground hit, “Kill the Bitch,” which featured her DJing and rapping rather than singing. But as the “Bookshelf” riddim continued to grow, and as Sean’s song became a bonafide hit, “Dat Sexy Body” took on a life of its own, crossing over into the mainstream mix show market. Lyrically lusting after an elusive lover, Sasha leaves her DJ days behind, finds her groove, and boasts her way to international recognition: “I will rock you to the rhythm of the rain/And ride you like a getaway train,” she sings. This success led to multiple re-releases of the song along with several remixes, most notably one featuring reggaeton artist Ivy Queen and another with the international party starter Fatman Scoop. In 2008, Sasha turned her focus to the gospel and stopped performing her past hits, but you can still hear her dancehall come-to-Jesus on any good floor. –Max Glazer
Tony “Mentally Ill” Matterhorn first gained his appetite for dancehall while playing the western Kingston-based Soundsystem Inner City, and went on to gain his footing with the Brooklyn crew King Addies. After being endorsed by the godfather of dancehall, Bounty Killer, he went solo. His flirtatious, dirty lyrics, coupled with his hardcore dancehall style, have made him one of the most entertaining and sought-after selectors around.
Upon its release in 2006, “Dutty Wine”’s accompanying head-rotating and hip-gyrating dance, became such a global phenomenon, it was banned in several countries for its potential neck and spinal damage. The British Virgin Islands took this one step further when they banned the song and Matterhorn from performing altogether. But the song has remained unstoppable: Nicki Minaj shouts it out in her “Monster” verse, and it continues to pop up on dance floors, the ultimate expression of women embracing their dancehall queendom. –Treasure Aaron
This song’s initial line, the Ini Kamoze sample of, “Out in the street, they call it murder,” always elicits a huge response from crowds. It’s followed by the intensity of Damian Marley’s “Welcome!”—a boom that sounds like a radio finding the right frequency. The “World Jam” riddim (so named for Kamoze’s “World a Reggae”) pairs deep bass with echoed chords and the dub flourishes of straight reggae—and at the height of its popularity, this song could run a dance singlehandedly.
In the song, Marley sings about “tourists on the beach with a few club sodas” who spend their time in the walled-off resorts of Jamaica’s north coast. (Sandals is called out by name.) To these folks, Marley offers an alternate description of the country as a place where “Poor people ah dead at random/Political violence, can’t do/Pure ghost and phantom/The youth dem get blind by stardom.” After its immense global popularity, “Welcome to Jamrock” has grown, ironically, into an entire reggae music cruise. –Erin MacLeod
Released in 1990, “Dem Bow” may be the most danceable tune from Shabba Rank’s term as king of the hill. Employing a stripped-down version of the “Poco Man” riddim—an insistent marching beat augmented by clattering Afro-Caribbean percussion—it was a natural source of inspiration for the burgeoning reggaespañol scene in the Latin Caribbean. Found in translation, so to speak, “Dem Bow” became the DNA of several whole new scenes, including Puerto Rican reggaeton and its counterpart in the Dominican Republic (where the entire genre is known simply as “dembow”).
The substance of the song is the wordplay of Shabba’s homophobia (the “bow” ing of the title) with the bowing implicit in racist colonialism. “Freedom fi black people, come now/Dat mean to say the oppressors dem: Just bow.” Love it or hate it, this is dance music with a lot on its mind. –Eddie “STATS” Houghton
Whether profane or sacred, Lady Saw is a woman who’s passionately beholden to extremes. Born Marion Hall in the Saint Mary Parish of Jamaica, Lady Saw adopted her now-infamous rugged moniker and brash sexual persona in hopes of keeping pace with the best and bawdiest male deejays. Then she ran laps lyrically around her competition, both male and female.
In 1994, Saw made her album debut on VP Records with Lover Girl, and dropped the definitive single, “Hardcore.” She opens the track boasting about the numerous positions and ways in which she can please—and intimidate—her lover. “Any way you want it baby/Gymnastic, acrobatic, slide back boogie…” To Saw, seeking pleasure was a calling that she sought brazenly and wholeheartedly. She’s made a successful career out of it for over 20 years, garnering a Grammy and numerous other awards in its lewd pursuit. These days, however, the pendulum has swung the other way for Saw: She’s given up her crown as the Queen of Dancehall, trading it in favor of the spiritual ecstasy of gospel music. –Deidre Dyer
“Mud Up” dropped in 1987, almost simultaneously with Admiral Bailey’s “Punanny”—so close that some UK radio shows famously featured “Punanny vs. Mud Up” pick-your-favorite contests on-air. Those songs can share the credit for rearranging the sound of Jamaican music for the following 10 years, at least. (And they share personnel credits, too: “Mud Up” was built by Steely & Clevie, who also ghost-built the “Punanny” riddim for King Jammy’s label.)
While “Punanny” has a surprising amount of space in its beat and four-note bassline, closely imitating the mixing board action of a live clash, “Mud Up” feels more like a missing link than a radical break. It employs lyrical Kumina guitars and a bouncing, constantly modulated digital bassline along the lines of “Sleng Teng,” but it’s punctuated by the same dotted crotchet drum pattern. Likewise, where Admiral Bailey’s chat is simple and staccato, Super Cat’s vocal on “Mud Up” is virtuoso, frenetic, unstoppable. It might be the best example of Cat’s unique, never-take-a-breath flow, which consists less of verses or couplets than constantly mutating hooks. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton
Wayne Wonder is one of dancehall’s most enduring singers. He began his musical journey in the mid-1980s, under the tutelage of the legendary King Tubby, and sharpened his skills by singing live on sound systems like Metro Media, making a name for himself throughout Jamaica. In the early 1990s, Wayne linked with Donovan Germain and recorded a string of hits for his Penthouse label—most notably “Saddest Day,” which helped define the sound of modern dancehall.
“Saddest Day” pairs Wayne’s pitch-perfect vocal and soaring bridge with a rugged riddim. His voice is full of pain as he belts out the heart-wrenching chorus: “The saddest day of my life, is when she left me with a broken heart/I was feeling the pain, the pain, the pain.” The result is a dancehall masterpiece that soothes the soul and remains a landmark moment for Wonder. –Max Glazer