Friday, April 3, 2009

Creativity - A+: A Review of Riddim Driven: Beauty & The Beast by Various Artists

I will probably forever maintain in my lifetime that the single greatest thing to ever happen to the Dancehall on the production side is the birth of one Dave Kelly nearly forty years ago in Kingston, Jamaica (SHOCKED when I learned he hadn’t even reached forty yet). Dave Kelly introduced a rather revolutionary style of production apart from many of the strong producers who were around at the time, most notably King Jammy and Donovan Germain of Penthouse (under whom Kelly, as an engineer, honed his craft). This style was far less ‘structured’ than the ‘Dancehall one-drop’ (as I like to call it) which dominated the scene of the most of the early digital era of Dancehall, going full on until the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. To my ears, Kelly also inspired an immediate group of slightly younger producers, with the primary two being his brother Tony, of course, and a next product of Penthouse, Stephen ‘Lenky’ Marsden, both of whom have shown the same jovial and youthful approach to riddim production as Dave Kelly himself. Now, while Kelly remains a very prominent and BRILLIANT producer in the game as have Tony Kelly and Marsden) running his Madhouse label as well as steering the career of Dancehall superstar Baby Cham who he discovered and developed under his own wing, the TOP of the producing game is a lot more crowded these days than when Kelly rose, ESPECIALLY on the Dancehall side of the business. I could go ahead and d name the usual suspects and cast of characters, but you probably know them already and they are already (Di Genius, Don Corleone, Daseca etc.) and while Dancehall specifically has been receiving so much criticisms as of late, one would have to objectively admit that the Dancehall right now may just be near a next height of creativity. We’ve seen some of the most ambitious productions within the last few years in the Dancehall and most of them (regardless of how much I myself may or may not like them) have found success with the masses. Of course, the greatest example in terms of pure creativity and experimenting would be the aforementioned Lenky’s Diwali riddim from a few years back. To this day a good case could be made the Diwali is the single most popular Dancehall riddim EVER (if it isn’t the one then that distinction probably belongs to the Sleng Tend) as it dominated the Dancehall and the international world when Lenky decided to make a Soca-ish base track and throw some hand clapping behind it to score MASSIVE results. Don Corleone’s entire catalogue is also a WONDERFUL example of Kelly-like creativity with BOUNCING riddims like the Mad Guitar, the Good 2 Go, the Mad Antz and the French Vanilla (VERY underrated riddim). Scatta with the Coolie Dance (in all its variations), Di Genius’ various pieces, probably most notably in this situation, the Workout and just a whole heap a others (including Kelly himself with the Eighty-Five) just make the point that even though you may not like it, the Dancehall has slowly been building some CRAZY creative vibes in the last few years under some of the new TOP producers.

Arguably, one of the most ambitious riddim PROJECTS I’ve seen recently was from production group Daseca in 2005-06 I believe with the AWESOME monster which was the Anger Management Riddim. Announcing not only its own arrival, that same riddim went on to help establish Daseca (and, by extension, Serani) and two very significant Dancehall artists, both Mavado and Busy Signal who dropped the WICKED combination Full Clip on the riddim (and Mavado also had Real McKoy which was, arguably, his first signature tune). What you may not know about that riddim, however, is that it also had a slightly more amped version, the Angrier Management (Full Clip was on the Angrier while Real McKoy was on the Anger) as the production team had simply used the same foundation riddim to make two different riddims. Well, if you, like me, were hoping to someday perhaps get a taste of the Angriest Management Riddim, then perhaps that day has come (not really, but maybe something to take your mind off of waiting) as Daseca again returns to drop one of the most creative riddim projects that you could have imagined, The Beauty and The Beast. This time the up and coming TJ Records takes the credit for the actual production. That label, headed by one Teetimus is also responsible for one of the (if not THE) most popular Dancehall tracks in the world right now, Mavado’s I’m So Special on his equally popular Unfinished Business riddim (which Dave Kelly is suing him for, I digress). The Beauty & The Beast construct has had people whose opinions on Dancehall I respect openly wondering if it may be the long awaited ‘sequel’ to the Diwali in terms of success (that riddim’s literal sequel was, of course, the Masterpiece) and although I wouldn’t go that far to ponder that question openly, it is definitely about as DIFFERENT a riddim as I have ever heard. Now VP Records, having dropped the ball on the Diwali and missing out on what become probably the most popular riddim album of ALL TIME with the riddim (to its then rival Greensleeves Records) and also missing out on the Anger Management album which Daseca released on their own, are fully up to the cast and tap The Beauty & The Beast as one the two in latest releases in their always solid and welcome Riddim Driven series (it is being released simultaneously with The Rock Steady riddim from super Roots producer Kemar ‘Flava’ McGregor) which, although appears less and less these days, seems to have streamlined itself in a good way as opposed to its formerly OBESE days. Now, what actually occurs with this riddim which is even more creative than the Anger/Angrier Managements is that a base riddim is present, however neither the Beauty nor the Beast follows it exactly (meaning neither are, in themselves, the actual base), however they display different takes on it. The Beauty takes it into a more dancing and bouncing and vibesy direction, whereas the Beast, as the title would suggest, is a war zone of a riddim. The results? Mixed, as expected, but the riddims themselves, the real stars here, shines BRIGHT on Riddim Driven: The Beauty & The Beast, the series’ most high profile piece in a very long time.

After you get past that absolutely BRILLIANT cover art for the album, you’ll turn it over and you’ll then notice the artist selection, which isn’t exactly the best, but does offer quite a few surprises. The way the album is set up is that the first ten tracks are dedicated to the Beauty and the final seven to the Beast. To the Beauty. Getting things going on the Beauty side of the album and the entire album itself, TJ Records’ Riddim Driven: Beauty & The Beast is a WONDERFUL clean version of the riddim. These are always welcome and (if they are present) they’re usually at the end of the album, but here, VP decides to put it up front which is a nice touch. The clean version of the Beauty is absolutely KNOCKING and is, in and of itself, one of the best tunes on this album and the same riddim itself. The first vocalist taking a shot at the Beauty is the most welcome surprise for me personally, veteran STAR Dancehall singer Wayne Wonder, who delivers another of the riddim’s finest efforts, the banging lover’s piece, Stay Close. Wonder is such a CLASSY and SKILLED artist that he can do several tricks to accompany almost any backing and I would suggest that if you listen to almost anyone else on the Beauty, it sounds a lot faster than he makes it sound! He actually ‘stuns’ the riddim just a bit and melds to it nearly perfectly. Big tune. Next up is the up and coming Ishawna with Ladies Night which is a song which I’m not feeling very much at all, but in all honesty, my niece does, and she is FAR more the target tune for such a song and I’ll just mention that some modicum of international stardom may actually await Ishawna at some point in the not too distant future, in which case, you may want to get used to hearing Ladies Night. Four artist choices for the Beauty actually concern me in different ways. In the case of Voicemail, Wayne Marshall and Chino, those three acts are EASILY amongst my LEAST favourite artists going these days and neither Voicemail nor Marshall ‘disappoint’ in that respect as their efforts, Pull It Up and Dance, respectively, are much of anything to write home about (even though Marshall is afforded one of the most addictive mixes of the riddim). Chino, on the other hand, does do quite well on his tune, Style It, some very nice straight djaying on that tune, to give credit where it’s well due. The other rather curious choice is Bramma, easily one of my favourite artists going now, who chimes in on the well exhausted Daggeration. I’m just tired of daggering tunes and even Bramma can’t save this one, but he shouldn’t have had to. He should have been on the BEAST! Continuing to raid Big Ship (after Bramma and Chino), TJ does strike gold with young Laden whose tune, Anytime is EXCELLENT. The undeniable peak of The Beauty, however, is CLEARLY the ridiculousness which is the X-rated Wine For Me from Elephant Man. I won’t ruin that at all for you but when madness runs in Dancehall, sometime down the road, it eventually runs into Ele and as CORNY as Wine For Me is, trust me, it will grow on you, all over you (he also gets a nice mix as does Laden)!

Then it’s the Beast. The Beast sounds like a war march type of riddim at first which eventually ascends into a mystical sounding backdrop for some of the Dancehall’s harsher lyricists (two in particular, of course). Just as the Beauty did, the Beast gets this side started and although it isn’t as all around BEAUTIFUL as the Beauty it still definitely stands up as one of the best offerings on this side. The first lyricist to actually go at the riddim is the same one who you thought it would be, Vybz Kartel, who takes a not too veiled shot at one Gully God with Kill Dem. Kill Dem is absolute MADNESS! One of the most scathing war tunes I’ve heard in awhile and it was definitely a point on Kartel’s side in their feud (although Mavado fired back on the WICKED Gangsta Nuh Play, curiously absent from this album). Kartel’s two protégés follow him, the first of which being Black Ryno on Shot A Buss. I don’t know if I’m just tiring of hearing his type of flow but Shot A Buss, a decent enough tune, just doesn’t win me over. The same, however, simply CANNOT be said for Aidonia who drops Badman A Step which is, to my opinion, the strongest tune on either riddim and on the entire album. Once a role played by Bounty Killer and Vybz Kartel (to a degree, although the little ‘hitch’ Kartel has in his style typically lends him to a more melodic style), of DOMINATING the highly digitalized HARDCORE Dancehall riddims like the Beast is now bestowed upon Aidonia. Badman A Step is some EVIL EVIL genius piece of tune! You can check that flow in any way shape or form, as messy as it sounds at times, it is COMPLETELY on point and Badman A Step is highly calibrated Dancehall. WINNER! The final three tracks on the Beast and thus the entire Riddim Driven: Beauty & The Beast album come from three very high profile artists as well. The first is Demarco whose tune No Fear just may be the second best overall on the riddim, his level of versatility makes him a candidate to ride both riddims on this one (only Ele did that, his completely insane Plan Fi March being absent from this album). Very impressive, as usual. Dancehall’s most miserable, Bugle steps up next with his very lyrically impressive Hypocrite Friend, another of the real standouts on the piece. As is his norm, Bugle’s rather unique (dark, deathly, dreary, whatever you want to call it) take on things leads to one of the very few tunes of actual substance on the album. Ending matters here altogether is upstart Konshens who brings his tune Don’t Leave It which doesn’t really register much with to be honest. It’s a very odd sounding tune (with Konshens YELLING at times) and really this artist excels on a different type of vibes, more smooth and a little laid back (which means they should’ve switched him out with Bramma). Leaving a rather unusual final stamp on a rather unusual project, to say the least.

Overall, the real star of VP’s Riddim Driven: Beauty & The Beast album is, of course, the riddim itself and it NEVER fails, not once, during the entire seventeen tracks on the album. In my criteria for judging riddim albums, somewhere very high on the list for a project EXCEEDING the standard album is one where the tunes receive a bit of individuality because the producer will take the extra step and offer various mixes for different artists on the riddim. Besides the built in mix on this one (I.e. having two different riddims) there are several inter-riddim mixes as well which, from a musical standpoint is just highly ADDICTIVE and IMPRESSIVE, regardless of the vocal acts’ quality or lack thereof. That, combined with a base which is just so BEAUTIFUL definitely pushes this one to the next level as a riddim. Riddim Driven: Beauty & The Beast is by far one of the most creative and well executed Dancehall PROJECTS I’ve seen in awhile. I definitely would like to see this one get some type of international push (with probably someone like Ishawna or maybe even Wayne Wonder being the most likely candidates (maybe even Ele actually or Serani, whose tune, We Grow, on the Beauty isn’t included here, crazy mix on that one also). This one is recommended to ANY fans of modern Dancehall and is guaranteed to look mighty fine (literally) in your collections and newer fans as well, who may need to get used to it sooner or later. Big riddim.

Rated 4/5 stars
VP Records

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