Playing Telephone with History

Jordan Chung (Equiknoxx) on the Jamaican diaspora, co-opting slang, and the importance of respecting music’s cultural roots.

Having spent a number of years writing songs in Jamaica and, more recently, America and the UK (Jamaican diaspora), I’ve gotten used to the word “vibes.” It’s a term that’s used to put into words the inexplicable source of energy and inspiration for a song or a riddim. Whether formulaic or random in its inception, most songs in a dancehall or reggae space are made based on vibes and the immediate culture. This means, removing the context in which the entirety of a song is based and then dissecting it based on its lyrics and one’s own knowledge of slang terms would be undermining both the song and the respective culture. What is on display in this case is the contemporary cultural consumer using the slang of an art form as a passport to enter a culture, and with a misinformed understanding, erasing its cultural relevance.

“What an islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old and young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An turn history upside dung!”

This excerpt from Miss Lou’s “Colonization In Reverse” is bountiful with the soul of the Jamaican, their journey and story. Each stanza, written in Jamaican patois, is a testament to its authenticity in both language and narrative. The rest of the poem is familiar to every voluntary expat; leaving their native land to work, “fe immigrate and populate.”

The colors of the Jamaican flag are symbolized in this phrase: “The sun shineth, the land is green and the people are strong and creative.”  The embodiment of this mantra, coupled with the fact that Jamaica is the largest English speaking country in the Caribbean, has granted the small island nation unprecedented global influence — its most significant point of access has probably been pop culture, in all art forms. With language as the primary vehicle, the cultural visa has many stamps in many ports.

For Jamaicans, hearing “Wah Gwaan?,” “Yea man!,” “Bomboclaat,” in a foreign country is a comforting familiarity. (The American versions are “Wat A Gwan?,” “Yea Mon!,” “Bomba Clot;” the British versions, “Wah Gwarn?,” “Yea Man!,” “Bombaclart”.) Variations in spelling and cadence are of little consequence, but once the genuine utterance is made, it’s as good as a hello from a friend. Alternatively, for a foreigner in Jamaica, when stepping outside of “Wah Gwaan” into a cultural context (be it food, music or politics), it makes all the difference to be self-aware or deal with the verbal reprimand.

As a Jamaican living in Jamaica would tell you, a Junglist is a resident of the community of Arnett Gardens. Arnett Gardens was a garrison built in the 1970s by the People’s National Party to counter the already established Jamaica Labour Party garrison “Tivoli Gardens/TG,” now home of the “Shower Man.” The creation of a counter housing project by one political party in response to another gave way to an era of never before seen political violence in the 1970s and 1980s. The Shower Man belonged to the Shower Posse which got its name from the downpour of bullets it rained on opponents. The gunman culture strongly attributed to the localities were still being explicitly stated in the ‘90s in popular songs of Bounty Killer, Terror Fabulous, and other well known dancehall acts. Shower Man (allegedly aligned to the Jamaica Labour Party) is now a term being used quite casually to toast the “man dem” in the dance in the UK.

So to witness an average Jamaican (who has never been to England) going to a modern rave in the UK or in parts of Europe would be quite the experience. Their shock wouldn’t come from hearing garage nor jungle, both of which are unfamiliar to the average Jamaican, but from hearing an MC shout out the “Junglist Massive.” Ensuing confusion would come from hearing the MC shouting out all the “Shower Man” in the same breath, at the same dance.

The terms Junglist and Shower Man, locally still holding weight from their grim birthplaces, have followed the immigrants’ course and found a new home sequestered by the cultural consumer. The heavy Jamaican influences of Jungle in the ‘90s, evident in vocals, were digested into the British rave vernacular. All the words were then recontextualized into the never-ending mosaic of multiculturalism. Rebel MC, aka Congo Natty, a crucial component in the then-budding scene, popularized the term Junglist through his use of sampling and reusing the phrase from its original context in Jamaican dances. Over the years, there was no constant reminder of the origin of the term by the musical pioneers and with the word Junglist subsequently seeping through every bit of the music it became its namesake.

Franklin Knight, writing on Jamaican migration history realized that, when the odds were against Jamaican immigrants, the circumstances allowed them to cultivate a sense of nationalism, even if it was somewhat unfocused. This is applicable to many immigrant groups in foreign countries, and to most persecuted people. Now void of its original political history and context, and being canon in sampling in the newly defined genre, the people participating in the genre called themselves Junglists to establish their own community in relation to the larger rave scene. This essentially erased the previous cultural and political significance and at the same time created a new identity for the engaged consumer.

One classic example of a positive exchange of cultures and language without removal or degradation of cultural meaning is the eternal musical sparring between David Rodigan and Barry G. Barry G, awarded the order of distinction in the rank of officer by Jamaica in 2010 for his contribution to broadcasting, is a 40-year radio veteran whose versatility spans from broadcasting to the sound clash arena; Rodigan, shares a similar career span, beginning in radio broadcasting in 1978 on the BBC. Both Rodigan and Gordon cemented their status in sound system culture by bringing their sound clashes to JBC radio in Jamaica in 1985. Their dub plate showdowns over the years on radio and in the dancehall put their understanding of the history and narrative of the music on full display.

A dub plate in the Jamaican sound system context is a custom cut of a song with the vocals from the original song re-recorded and reworded in favor of — or in argument against — a particular sound system or selector. This is one of the essential tools of the mighty sound clash. The next essential tool, equal in potency, is the knowledge of the selector or DJ.

Barry G declares the start of the “Dub Fi Dub” segment in the 2007 clash in Toronto against Rodigan and Rory from Stone Love sound. A few songs in and Rodigan plays a Shabba Ranks dubplate, Barry G plays a Shabba Ranks cut to counter, then Rory has his turn. Before playing his track Rory explains that he will not play any Shabba Ranks songs, but he will play the person who taught Shabba Ranks how to DeeJay, which is U-Roy. Rodigan then takes the mic and says “Ewart Beckford! The Daddy! But if ever U-Roy was the daddy, then here is the son,” before playing a supercat dubplate.

Before almost every song, the selector has to essentially tell the reason why he has selected the song he will play, explaining the history and context of the song and in most cases recontextualizing the song before playing it to fit the narrative of that point in time in the soundclash. Presented in this format, there is an understanding of the language (patois in this case), the narrative and history of the music, with mastery of placing a song with certain terms in the right context.

The role of the purveyor of a culture in music is often played by the DJ or Artiste, with the producer doubling as the DJ in some instances. These actors are the voices that the consumer leans to for information about the culture surrounding the music. David Rodigan, immersing himself in the culture, playing on sound systems in Jamaica, purchasing dubplates, having a camaraderie with Jamaican musicians of the same nature, and then taking part in the classic events surrounding the culture over many years, validates his understanding of the cultural terms even he himself uses at times while playing the music. Whether or not Rodigan saw this as essential, it is the responsibility of anyone taking on the role of a purveyor of a culture to learn and experience the culture fully through participation, or risk cancelling the migration of the history to a new time and place.

The cultural consumer in carrying out their duties experiencing and sharing, plays a game of telephone with history, and the result is often a removal of cultural origins, as seems to be the case with Jungle. A part of pop culture in its own right, this highlights the power of the consumer in the cultural marketplace and also the responsibility of the DJ/Artiste to constantly give accurate information in whatever format they present themselves and their or others’ cultures.

“Roots don’t stay in one place.
They change shape.
They change colour.
And they grow.”

British sociologist Dick Hebidge’s words above are true to me. The cultural consumer, historically, has been the arbiter interpreting a culture through the medium of a language, removed from its roots and transplanted in a larger garden. This has happened over the years with Jamaican culture in the UK and the genre of Jungle being a result, as well as Jamaican culture in New York influencing Panama and Latin America with the genre of Dem Bow. Both now having their own definitions by way of more cultures partaking in consumption. The cultural consumer waters the roots with the well of their own understanding and the resulting plant is pop culture.

(Photo Credit: Jordan Chung)

Jordan Chung grew up between Westmoreland and Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city and musical epicenter. This duality between country and city living gave him a unique perspective, which he would filter through the music that surrounded him. Since he was just seven years old, Chung was never caught without a walkman, and this early musical education gave him a massive head start. At high school, Chung formed a group, symbolic of a collision of musical minds called Kullijhan. Not long after, he set up a makeshift studio in the back of his childhood home and released his first piece of commercial music; he was only 16 years old.

While he was still in high school, Chung began communicating online with Gavin Blair, who was producing under the Equiknoxx moniker. And when he finished school and moved to Kingston full-time, Chung began working with Blair and local MC Kemikal, producing as Equiknoxx Music and assembling a discography of dancehall mutations. The fruits of the group’s labors led to the acclaimed compilation album Bird Sound Power, released in 2016, which took Equiknoxx Music across the world, scooping up accolades from international press on the way. This album was followed by Colón Man, the group’s first proper album and another acclaimed hit for the band. Alongside producing music, Chung also takes professional photographs and has developed his voice commenting and criticizing music from across the cultural map, from reggae and dancehall through to experimental techno.

(Photo Credit: Jik Reuben)