Girls, Guns, and Ghettos

The sound, the people, and the underground vibrations of Cleveland’s dancehall culture.

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Valerio's Ristorante Café & Bar 11919 Mayfield Road 216-421-8049. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to late night.
July 2003, any Saturday, 1:45 a.m.
You hear the long bass riffs from the music well before you pull up outside Big Family Lounge on Harvard Avenue. Men in white T-shirts and women in tight denim or street-legal couture wait their turn in line. There are no Black Americans among them -- they are mostly second- and third-generation Jamaican immigrants. The women are nurses and secretaries during the day, but here they are dressed to impress, built for speed and shaking their bottoms with bad intentions. Some of the men are just working-class Moes: your house painters, your mailroom clerks, your cashiers. Others are authentic Jamaican rudeboys -- mean hombres. But this is Big Family, and all beefs get left at the door. After paying a fee, you squeeze your way in.

Eyes dart your way and give you the patented Jamaican Up-Down: eyes to eyes, down to toes, back to eyes, and away. Before you can order a drink, everyone in the place knows your whole story. Have a Stripe and relax. Make yourself at home. You are not Jamaican, and everyone knows it. The true dancehall community -- young Black and West Indian -- knows everyone by name or reputation, and you have neither here. No worries, bloodclot . . . you get a pass . . . for the night.

People are dancing any way they can, and you can't hear yourself think, the music is so loud. Somehow the bartendress gets your order, and you lean back and look into the club, where women outnumber men four to one, and use their behinds to bump and grind the men against the wall. Sure, it's too crowded and hot to pose effectively, but when a young lady you have never met begins grinding her hindquarters into your crotch, it seems impolite to complain.

KC Soundstation is moving from record to record, "riddim" to "riddim," seamlessly. The crowd hoots and shouts, singing along with songs your American ears have never heard and are unlikely to hear again. On your way through the crowd, you step on someone's foot, and find a pair of mean brown eyes looking into yours, for a moment -- until they smile widely and dismiss you. You want to step a little more careful though.

Just to be safe.


Dancehall music and the culture surrounding it were brought to this country by Jamaican immigrants, many of whom began coming to America as day workers or factory laborers in the late '50s. And even though their traditions have been Americanized and mass-marketed to some degree, the real roots of the culture remain strong and intact.

The tradition goes back to mid-'50s-era Jamaica, when people who couldn't afford to hire a band would throw cheap parties. Someone with a phonograph would hook up with someone with speakers and they'd set up in a basement, a rented hall, or a field to play records. Dancehall culture began with the soundsystem -- the name for a group or individual that became well known for playing good music. Soundsystems consisted of a DJ selector and a toaster, who acted as the master of ceremonies and -- in a time when few people could afford a television or a radio -- as the town crier, acknowledging births and deaths, and giving briefs of local and national news.

Today, the music known as dancehall has very specific qualities. It's bass-heavy and snare-driven, with a toaster or other vocalist moving words over a drum track, or riddim. A riddim is the hot beat of the moment, appropriated by a variety of artists, who each bring their own style to it. While the toaster isn't a rapper in the classic sense, traditional dancehall is the precursor of modern rap music. Dancehall reggae usually differs from other reggae music in its fast pace and earthy subject matter. While some dancehall artists celebrate love and spirituality, toasters are known for "slackness," or the X-rated content of their lyrics. And when "sounds" play at places that cater to Black Americans, it is the slack dancehall that is requested the most.

Lovers rock

Early December, 1971
Snow whirls down East 111th Street near Buckeye as you come upon the Dailey home, walk up the driveway, and knock on the side door. Albert and his wife, both recent immigrants from Jamaica, offer the warmth of their basement to the burgeoning West Indian community, which comes here to smoke, drink, live, love, and tell lies a few nights a week. Many Jamaican women escape the stifling poverty of their homeland by coming to Cleveland as domestics. Husbands follow, with children in tow, trying to find work in factories or as migrant farmers. It is not an easy life, but tonight, we leave all worries at the door.

The space is small and dark -- moist, even -- and the free-flowing rum adds a gingery spice to the humid atmosphere. The music is loud, the vibe is irie, and the thin haze of sweetleaf wafts overhead. There are no seats -- everyone came to dance. The crowd moves gently with the music in the full cellar. If someone knocks against you, who cares? When lovers rock, hands low on each other's hips, nothing matters as much as the embrace. Dancehall troubadour Dennis Brown moves the speakers. In an impulsive moment, Albert takes hold of his wife, and they rock to the rhythm closely, without shame.

Later, Albert ushers you into the morning sun, and you are temporarily blinded as it reflects off the glaze of an early snowfall. You sniffle, caught in a chilly gust, and while he waves you on, a hint of steam pushes the rest of his faithful clientele out into the world. The speakers are still humming, even as the neighbors poke their heads through their curtains, swearing and cursing at those goddamn Jamaicans, and Albert begins to think and wonder. Beyond his basement and the occasional fund-raiser or cabaret, his people have nowhere to gather. How long before his American neighbors call in the police? T'ings mus' change, he says to himself.

Second week in June 2003, 10:45 a.m.
It is a nondescript, freestanding storefront near East 116th and Buckeye, but the red, black, and green Winnebago parked directly across the street makes Dailey's Food Mart kind of conspicuous. On some nights, there's nowhere to park for blocks around, but during the day, there's plenty of parking. It's early in the morning, and a Giant Eagle cashier is bouncing out with a St. Ides Special Blend for breakfast, and you smile at her and give a nod to the young yardies that hang in front.

Walking inside, it's your typical New York-style bodega: They carry diapers, EZ Widers, and King Cobra Beer, and stock specialty items like Country Choice Jamaican Ackee, roots drinks (think Jamaican Red Bull), and three kinds of yams. Maggie -- thick, dark, and hot, like cocoa tea -- tends the menu of meat patties, oxtail, and goat curry. At night, you must enter The Club through a side door. During the day, if you just want a seat while you eat your food, Maggie points to a long doorway in the middle of the store.

"G'wan . . . t'wards de bock," she says.

Dailey's Blue Mountain Inn is more urban speakeasy than infamous dancehall nightclub -- everyone knows someone that's been there. In the early days, you had to know someone Jamaican to get in. No use looking for ads or fliers -- Mr. Dailey never cared to cater to curious Americans. "We 'ad our Jamaican community 'ere, and we kept a fairly decent crowd," he says, easy in his brown short-sleeved shirt and tan slacks. "We were 'ere for our West Indian community," he says. "Black Americans would 'ear about this, t'inkin' we're an after-hours place, 'cause we party till dahn." Back then, Mr. Dailey envisioned having his own store, with a dancehall in the back to serve his community, because "[Jamaicans] didn't 'ave any place to go."

Beats, beer, and Black Americans

Late June, 2003
"Kingston College" is what the ladies in Jamaica used to call him, recognizing his school uniform as he walked home, and the name stuck. Since he started his sound in 1994, selector KC Soundstation and his partner, Johnny C, have become known as one of the hardest-working, most-respected soundsystems in the city. "Well, when'a people call," he says, "you 'ave to answer."

He often plays nightclubs that cater to Black Americans, who aren't so familiar with the esoteric rhythms and the proper way to move to them. A few dances, such as the coital, cowgirl motion called the Butterfly, translate well into Black American nightclubs. But dances with names like Bogle, Pop de Collar, and 'Pon de River/'Pon de Bank produce more perspiration than American club-posers like. So often, KC plays Americanized reggae for a Black American crowd. "You come to play reggae, but sometime, the reggae crowd don't show up. So y' play to de crowd." Kind of like tonight.

Take a look around Cleveland's Bottom Line Nightclub on reggae/hip-hop night, featuring KC Soundstation and 107.9's Scratchmaster L, and you notice the crowd is a little conflicted. Early on, KC keeps the speakers moving at a steady bump, but beyond a few nodding heads sprinkled throughout the crowd, only one couple breaches the dance floor. The crowd is mostly Black American, with a few West Indian men, here guarding their white accessories, who lean into them, sipping drinks at the bar. They are all reserved and tepid: a typical Black American crowd on a typical "reggae night." Or so it appears.

Around midnight, Scratchmaster L, perhaps the best Cleveland hip-hop DJ in a generation, changes places with KC. He drops a pedestrian radio hip-hop banger, and the crowd comes to life. KC grabs a beer from the bar and watches the action from a far corner of the dance floor. L must be the main attraction, you surmise, and KC just warms up the crowd -- an obvious gimmick to draw some in and exploit the recent reggae craze. You came out to hear more dancehall than hip-hop, but you figure to go home disappointed. Until an hour later when KC, three beers on, takes a final swig. L dismounts and KC fills the DJ booth once again.

KC looks into the crowd, turns, and chooses a vinyl 45 record from the thousands he brought tonight. Like any credible dancehall selector, he spins vinyl almost exclusively. He fades 50 Cent's "What Up, Gangsta," into silence, and people clear the dance floor. Suddenly, the claps from an instrumental fill the club, and KC grabs the mic, recognizing birthdays, anniversaries, and even a Cleveland Cavalier who's out late. He multitasks, holding the mic with his left hand, previewing the mix in his headphones, cueing another record with his right. The claps morph into the familiar bass-and-bucket "diwalli" riddim, and without warning, the whole bar migrates south, to the dance floor, in a single motion. The record itself is a percussive, frenetic call and response driven by claps, shallow snare, and a flat, hollow bass drum. Most here tonight recognize it from Sean Paul's "Get Busy." All the Black Americans holding up the bar or just nodding along to the music are suddenly dancing, drenched in sweat, almost entranced.

And then it hits you.

Looking around the club, where there is instantly no room to move, watching Scratchmaster L himself on the floor, losing all composure, it becomes clear who was warming up the crowd for whom.

KC cues up Bounty Killer's "Sufferer" on another turntable as the VIP room empties onto the floor. He cracks a smile, watching the sweat burn its way through your new shirt. "Innadiwalliriddim," he roars into the mic. "Wemuvvawitt BOUNT-tee Kill-UH, riiiiiiiiiight!" Most of the crowd has no idea what he's saying, but they cheer with approval. KC turns and starts another Heineken.

He snickers to himself: Black Americans, mahn.

Get back on the boat

Black Americans aren't always responsive to genuine reggae music -- the kind that you won't hear on popular radio -- and even less so to real reggae people. There is no explicit grudge between Black Americans and Jamaicans, but each community harbors some passive prejudice toward the other.

Some in the black community see Jamaicans as immigrants who get off the boat, get 18 jobs, and grow rich. Some Jamaicans look at Blacks here and see a lazy people who have been given a lot of opportunities and haven't done a lot with them: a people who have never known abject poverty -- or the hard work it takes to rise above it. Like immigrant Africans, Jamaicans pack a healthy work ethic on their way to the States.

"My mother came 'ere workin' real 'ard, 'cause she knew what 'twas not to 'ave, y'nah?" KC says. "A lot of foreigners do daht, and when a foreigner come in and work 'ard, some Black Americans see daht and resent it. So I dahn't see [the problem between us] as about not likin'. I t'ink it is more about jealousy."

Both Black and White Americans have been bombarded with images of Jamaican drug posses, and it has created a mythology. Jamaican women are fabled to be wise and clairvoyant; Jamaican men are thought to be macho and dangerous, a quality that has made them desirable mates in some circles. If a shooting happens between two people with Jamaican accents, the media links it with a club, the music, and the whole dancehall community. Rumors of weed-toking, rifle-toting yardies, hunting in SUVs, are greatly exaggerated.

"I dahn't t'ink it's a culture or music t'ing," says Wayne Morgan, manager of Big Family Lounge. "I t'ink it's a t'ing where someone has a problem wit' someone else and sees dem out at a party, and daht happens in all kind of clubs." Big Family Lounge hasn't heard a gunshot in a long day. There are scuffles, but rarely does it come to shots -- not any more than in any other club. Maybe less, he says. But the stereotypes endure, and this is what keeps the White crowd downtown, for the most part. If a dancehall show goes east of Peabody's or the Rhythm Room, only the boldest White people will show their faces.

A White kinda thing

Ras (short for "Rastafari") Carl, balding and browning under a bad cabana shirt, resembles a baked potato with a blond goatee. He's had a dancehall-reggae radio show on John Carroll University's station for six years now and travels to Cleveland from Canton every Thursday to do it. Reggae "really seems to have, like, a super-deep vibe," he says, sitting in a studio at the station, previewing music for his show. "Some of it is even from the Bible." Ras Carl plays dancehall music of a more spiritual vein, commonly called "roots." It espouses back-to-Africa ideals and is considered sacred by devout Rastafarians of any color.

Carl's first exposure to reggae was seeing Peter Tosh open up for the Rolling Stones. Near the end of his set, Tosh passed a foot-long spliff into the audience. But Carl really only embraced the music after hearing it at college parties.

Rich Lowe, who was turned on to Bob Marley when he was 16, has had his reggae radio show on Case Western Reserve's WRUW for close to 20 years. He looks a bit like Richie Cunningham, but Lowe is among the most respected dancehall-music authorities in Cleveland.

Lowe has never spoken in a fake "Yah, mon" patois or been caught wearing a knitted Rasta hat. Ras Carl, well . . . he's got that accent going, on the air. He carries the revered moniker of Ras, when he is not, in fact, a Rastafarian. His radio talk is peppered with faux Jamaicanisms when he has never been to Jamaica. He is, in his own words, "a white guy that just likes to play a certain kind of dancehall reggae." Many West Indians take offense when they hear non-Jamaicans of any color parrot a fake patois, but Carl doesn't see himself among the offenders.

"I may use a couple Jamaican words or phrases, but I don't try to talk in patois -- but I could, y'know, like Œyamuzzunduhstahndmeruffitwittahstyleeyahdbwoyittawkked, y'nah?'" His rapid-fire yard-shout is nearly flawless. "I just come up to the radio station, and I do what I do." Both Carl and Lowe are well received in the dancehall community, and Lowe, especially, has endeared himself to a community that doesn't like outsiders. Even so, some would argue that whites playing and studying the music somehow dilute the culture.

"I'll tell you what," says Lowe, "I agree with that completely. In a way, I kinda do dilute the culture, by my very presence in it. As a matter of fact, if I were a listener, I'd be pretty effin' critical of me. That's why I'm kinda kid-glove-ish about some aspects of Jamaican history, culture, social mores. I'm very careful about what I say."

"I wouldn't say I dilute it," says Ras Carl thoughtfully, "but it's possible that I do. There is probably a certain amount of dilution any time anyone comes onto a scene, you know? But it seems to me, as long as I have been going to shows and stuff, reggae in general has always been a more white [than Black American] kinda thing."

Jus' dancin'

Dailey's Blue Mountain Inn is a grocery store in front and a fully functioning dancehall in the back, with alcohol, sitting tables, and speakers -- a wall of sound so loud it could regulate your blood pressure. In a business that ebbs and flows, Dailey's has persevered for 28 years and managed to become the focal point of a community that spreads itself all over Cleveland. Dailey has seen the music and the people change, but not much else.

"In de '70s, we were rentin', and people dat didn't understand our culture would complain about de gatherin' and de music. We call it a dancehall party, because you don' sit down in a dancehall de way dey do in American culture, waitin' for someone to ask you f'a dance." In his basement, the music played, and everyone swayed slowly to the rhythm, maybe whispering sweetly to their partners. Not so much anymore.

"You seldom find de young generation dancin' to love music," he says. "Dey prefer de 'eavy dancehall riddims." He has fond memories of the old basement days.

"I was with my wife in de dance, and de sof' music was playin' . . . and like t'ree, four girl come 'round me, and I'm jus' dancin'."

The new generation comes to sit down with their wives, girlfriends, and baby-mothers, just to lean against the wall, nodding. They don't dance close together, in a formal way, as they used to do. These days, the music is about girls, guns, and ghettos. Beyond that, he says, "No'ting much about de dancehall has changed."

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