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The Boston Phoenix Dancehall Dealers

Buju Banton and Beenie Man

By Michael Endelman

AUGUST 14, 2000:  After the death of Bob Marley, in 1981, reggae fans looked to Kingston for the next natural mystic. What they found instead was impenetrable patois, shit-talking braggadocio, and vicious gunplay -- plus grooves that turned roots reggae's heartbeat skank into Casio-tone digital clatter. That was the sound of mid-'80s Jamaican dancehall. Mainstream hits -- Shaggy's "Boombastic," Ini Kamoze's "The Hotstepper" -- were few and far between. Indeed, to date, the greasy, synth-driven bob and weave of dancehall has made its biggest impact in the U.S. indirectly, through the hiccuping hip-hop tracks of Timbaland and his imitators. And two of dancehall's biggest stars, Beenie Man and Buju Banton, seem to be counting on that to help them ride their riddims straight into the heart of Babylon.

Betting heavily on the dancehall/R&B/hip-hop combination is Beenie Man, whose pop-wise versatility has led him to try anything -- including country and gospel -- in search of a hit. On his new Art and Life (Virgin), he covers all his bases -- enlisting the interstellar jiggy-funk of the Neptunes (the duo behind Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money"), the pan-cultural antics of megalomaniac Fugee Wyclef, Rugrats grad Mya, and, to supplicate the homefront, the talents of Jamaica's top beatmakers.

It's the presence of this last group -- producers like King Jammy and Dave Kelly -- that redeems Art and Life. Dancehall is a groove-jacking, chorus-heisting, economy-conscious beast. Entire albums are built on the recycling of tried-and-true riddims. So the Kingston knob twisters lay down proven tracks (the "Bug" riddim, the "Bellyas" riddim), leaving Beenie Man free to ride the mechanical clatter with a casual smirk. "9 to 5" merges a hook from Wyclef's "Gone to November" with some salacious Beenie Man crooning: "Have you ever had love and protection/Have you ever lost an erection." He plays call-and-response with himself on "Analyze This," as multi-tracked voices affirm his ability to bag "so many girls I can't keep score." Even on "Haters and Fools," where Beenie Man tones down his brogue and laces his lyrics with Jay-Z couplets ("Fake ass niggas they can never be my friend/Backstabbing fool I think it's time you comprehend"), the ragga-goth groove and hyperkinetic flow feel more like Kingston than Brooklyn.

As for the American productions, well, it just depends how heavy you like your shtick. "Love Me Now" features Wyclef doing his best Jon Bon Jovi over the beat from Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." while a chorus harmonizes "We Shall Overcome." It's actually worse than it sounds. Other attempts at ragga-salsa-soca fusion ("Tumble") and fluffy teen bounce ("Girls Dem Sugar") seem more like calculated product than the "Art" or the "Life" promised in the disc's title. "Jamaica Way," which features R&B screamer Kelis, is the only track that bodes well for Beenie's crossover ambitions; here he flows fluidly through a reggae history lesson, Kelis coos about fruit and sunshine, and the Neptunes lay major wreckage with some of that gritty Nintendo bling-bling.

Gruff-voiced Buju Banton also wants his U.S. market share, but instead of courting the flossy side of the hip-hop nation, he's become the most visible face of the "conscious" dancehall movement. His 1995 masterpiece 'til Shiloh (Universal), which alternated ruff 'n' tuff rockers, anti-violence boom shots, and "Redemption Song"-style ballads, is a hallmark of the style. Buju's new Unchained Spirit (Anti/Epitaph; due August 22) doesn't quite match 'til Shiloh for consistency or quality, but it's not a bad album. First, though, you have to make it through the opening four tracks -- ethereal Hebrew chanting (the disc's intro), dentist-office crooning ("23rd Psalm"), Adult Alternative folk rock ("Voice of Jah"), and poofy dancehall-lite ("Sudan") -- without ejecting the disc.

Since switching to the Anti Inc. label (a subsidiary of the SoCal punk imprint Epitaph), Buju has integrated some neo-punk signifiers like "Better Must Come" and "Mighty Dread," two horn-driven ska barn burners, into his repertoire of rudeboy tough talk ("Guns and Bombs") and existential dread ("Life Is a Journey"). He also snags Rancid's Tim Armstrong -- playing out his Clash fantasies to the fullest -- to lay down slashing guitar and sloppy Chuck Berry riffs in the anthemic "Misty Days" (Banton guested on Rancid's 1998 Life Won't Wait). Although he's less of a ladies' man and all-around entertainer than Beenie Man, Buju's crossover attempts are more focused and convincing. He nails some sentimental soft spots -- the plight of African nations ("Sudan"), Rasta spirituality ("Voice of Jah") -- that will surely attract world-music lefties and roots-reggae acolytes. And unlike Beenie Man, Buju never lets weighty samples and unwieldy major-label meddling get in the way of his supreme talent -- rocking the mike.

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