BY: Jodee Brown
Good artists are able to sing hit songs. The great ones, or potential greats know how to perform those hit songs.
Singing and performing are two completely different facets; the former showcases talent and ability, but the latter is able to mesh those abilities with raw emotion, energy and ability to relate to music lovers, all very important factors that convinces people that said are worth investing their time and money into. Throughout Reggae and Dancehall, there are several artists who have managed to separate themselves from the pack by showing sharp performance skills which add credibility to their acts.
Considering attributes such as crowd interaction, the ability to bring energy and emotion into a performance and versatility, and not including past stars or incarcerated ones such as Buju Banton and Vybz Kartel, here are the top performers in Dancehall/Reggae music today.
Chronixx – Perhaps one of the best live experiences in Reggae music right now is to go to a show headlined by Chronixx and his Zinc Fence Redemption band; you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth every time.
Though he’s only 21, Chronixx has long grasped the attributes of what it takes to be a true performer: Raw emotion, vocal clarity and the ability to set an ambiance that make his listeners feel comfortable in his surroundings. An even better attribute of his, is his ability to mix in with any type of crowd, whether it be the hardcore setting of STING like he did in 2012 or smoother settings like Sumfest, or a more unpredictable crowd in Europe, he knows how to adjust to his surroundings and thrive.
Only lack of seniority prevents the Dread and Terrible man from entering this list.
Romain Virgo – The same can be said of another Reggae crooner, Romain Virgo, who certainly lets it all out anytime he performs.
Virgo never ceases to amaze with his sharp vocals and ability to pour his heart and soul into every note he belts out on stage. That much is evident given he once cried on stage during a set.
His ability to excite and interact with the crowd is top notch and he’s never lacked energy. Like Chronixx, seniority (Virgo’s aged 24) just keeps him out the top 10.
Ninja Man – Still going strong at 48, the ‘Don Gorgon,’ always has been the consummate professional on stage. Despite the exuberant, gimmick-laden clothing he would wear on stage, Ninja Man has always been a reliable performer dating back to the early 90s, whether it was a regular show or a clash.
The legendary deejay has always found a way to get the crowd hyped and delivers his lyrics strongly without trying too hard to impress. The gimmickry, while adding style and flair to his performance, took away the attention from these attributes somewhat, thus keeping him off the list. But there’s little doubt he is one of the best performers among deejays of all time
On to the list…
10. Elephant Man – He didn’t get the name, ‘Energy God’ by accident. Elephant Man has earned that nickname over the years by getting fans hyped with his adrenalin-laden performances which never leave the fans bored.
What makes him even more special is he’s able to bring that same energy, through deejaying and dancing, wherever he goes and never seems out of place while doing it. Whether he’s on BET, at a festival in some faraway country or back home, fans love seeing the eccentric artist do his thing and are able to get into his performances because of his ability to get them involved in many different ways.
Like Ninja Man, the gimmicks sometimes take away from his performances, but always leaves you with moments to remember, like his Sumfest set in 2010 when he encouraged Chris Brown and Usher to participate in a dance off. The fans loved it, soaking up the vibrancy of the set. That’s what you’ll never fail to see from Ele, plenty of vibes.
9. Capleton – When an artist constantly sings about ‘more fire,’ you can tell said artist has a burning passion for what he or she sings about. That can definitely be said about Capleton.
Despite constant protests from the LGBT community regarding his performances due to lyrics deemed violent against them, Capleton has remained defiant in his sets. He is an artist whose energy, clarity and ability to draw high level emotion from the crowd is unbelievable, and that’s why performers as good as him are able to host their own shows like he does with St. Mary Mi Come From.
The Fireman has less frequented major Jamaican stage shows in recent years, but remains a big fixture in places such as Europe and Africa, still performing at a high level in his 40s. There’s little doubt he has enough fuel in the tank to continue blazing up the industry for years to come.
8. I-Octane – Few know how to get fans’ emotions high like I-Octane. Every performance of his, some torch or lighter is going off as they listen to the stories this Reggae/Dancehall star tells during his sets.
Octane is often very meticulous when it comes to his performances; demanding top quality from those in surrounding and from his bands when on stage. He always keeps patrons interested with his constant stage movements, requests to join him in song and looks convincing given how sharply he dresses for every set; being image-conscious matters just as much if you’re going to get fans to believe in you. Promoters seem to believe in him that much, especially Sumfest promoters, who asked Octane to close the last two dancehall nights at the ‘Greatest Reggae show on Earth.’
He sometimes can be a bit repetitive on stage, perhaps due to his catalogue, as great it is, consisting mainly of songs talking about sufferation. Still though, the effort he puts into performing these songs and other make you realize that he’s not just putting on a show. He means what he says.
7. Tessanne Chin – Undoubtedly, Tessanne Chin is one of, if not the best pure singers in Jamaican music today. Her performances on the American talent show, The Voice opened the world’s eyes to what we knew for a very long time; she had the talent, versatility and confidence necessary to become a star in the music industry.
Though she’s always been able to elicit very emotional responses from the crowd with her strong vocals, Chin’s not necessarily multi-dimensional. As most pure singers, she mostly stands with the microphone in her hand and belts out her songs with the most fluency and melody possible, but doesn’t really cover the stage, thus crowd interaction can sometimes be unpredictable. Take her performance at this year’s Shaggy and Friends charity concert. She was warmly received in her first post-Voice set in Jamaica, but considering her catalogue choice and the aforementioned attributes she possesses, or doesn’t possess enough of, the crowd was lukewarm for half of the set.
Yes, Jamaican crowds are definitely one of the hardest to please, and the demographic of the audience at the show (which took place at King’s House) should be taken into consideration, but because her performance strategy is more traditional, that puts more pressure on her vocals to standout, so much so, that people get invested and stay so throughout the show. Patrons are more attracted to movement and constantly high levels of energy than anything else and while she might introduce these attributes in her performances from time to time, Chin is less about both and more about the sound.
That said, she’s definitely one of the crown jewels of Jamaican music and is a must-see act when going to a show she’s billed for.
6. Bounty Killer – The ‘War Lord’ has been one of the bar-setters for stage performance since arriving on the scene in the 1990s. His approach to performing has always been fueled by raw energy and motivation, always looking like he was on a mission when he took the stage.
Bounty’s cross, angry, miserable isn’t just a saying, it’s his MO as that demeanour forces everyone watching to take him seriously. He often uses his stage to speak out against such as crime and homosexuality; using it as a platform to not only show his musical ability, but his social consciousness, though it can be drawn out at times. Thus, why he has been asked to close numerous major shows, especially Dancehall Night at Reggae Sumfest, which he’s done twice.
In recent years, Bounty has shown a much softer side on stage, using his alter ego and real name, Rodney Price when performing at more Reggae-oriented events such as Western Consciousness and Rebel Salute. Frankly, it’s a side of him we should see more of as we see more of his singing abilities and measures to involve the crowd. His adaptability certain makes him one of the most reliable stage workers in the business.
5. Sizzla – When it comes to this next entrant on the list, expect three things when he touches a stage: Straight shooting lyrics, lots of energy and unadulterated passion for his craft.
Sizzla has built his reputation as a performer on being able to mesh Dancehall and Reggae in his set without really having to change his approach when delving into either genre. The entertainer, known for his militant stances on various issues, puts his foot down with note and lyric, ensuring his performances allow for people to not only appreciate his music, but learn something new or learn more about a topic they already knew about. He can also enter into the clash arena if need, as he showed twice alongside Ninja Man, showing how good a lyrical confrontation can be without all the exaggerated emotion, a throwback to the old school way of thinking.
It’s highly unfortunate that STING promoter, Isaiah Laing has banned Sizzla from performing at the show again after last year’s fiery set in which he repeatedly spoke out against homosexuality; especially when you consider his performances at 2011 and 2013 were two of the show’s better performances in recent memory. Considering how at least one or two major stars are either absent or pull out from the show each year, Laing might soon reconsider that stance.
4. Shabba Ranks – Regarded as Dancehall’s emperor, Shabba Ranks, who has long been one of the music’s most influential performers. Since the 90s, Shabba has been known for all-out energy, occasional gyration to get the ladies excited and being able to keep a crowd alert and interaction while delving out his greatest hits.
During the 90s, STING and Sumfest could rely on him to give great shows, as well as the United States, where he attained so much crossover success, including two Grammy awards. Despite being 48, Shabba still has the spring in his step from when he first burst onto the scene, which was quite evident at the 2012 edition of Sumfest, when he made his long-awaited return to Jamaica following an 11-year hiatus. He not only performed for two hours without ever really looking tired, but he also had time to work the stage with Reggae/Dancehall singer, Cherine Anderson and show that he still had the moves.
Shabba would undoubtedly be higher had we seen more of these performances in Jamaica; but he has been delivering sets like this continuously in the U.S. and Europe throughout the latter stages of his career, and keeps on entertaining crowds who yearn for nostalgia when hearing him deejay.
3. Lady Saw – As risqué as it gets, Lady Saw’s performances leave no turn stone unturned. The sexy gyrating, hardcore lyrics, occasional male props on stage; it all makes for lots of ooohs and ahhhs from the crowd and vivid imaginations for her male fans.
Unrelenting with her approach, Lady Saw went the extra mile to get noticed for her top class talent as a deejay, sometimes catching heat from promoters across the island, including Reggae Sumfest promoters, who banned her for several years for her lewd conduct during performances. But it was those raunchy performances that connected her with fans as she showed a consistently good combination of sex appeal, fan interaction and a stealthy catalogue that made her standout, thus being official crowned as the Queen of Dancehall at that same Sumfest stage in 2012.
Pulling out the occasional Reggae and gospel tunes out her repertoire, Mumma Saw has been the mother of hardcore for several years – just check last year’s performance at STING for evidence of that – and her style won’t change. Despite suggesting she wanted to quit Dancehall altogether and focus more on her spirituality, the fans’ desire to see her continue on and her own personal struggle to move past the genre has led her to continue performing and doing so at the highest level.
2. Beenie Man – Many readers will be surprised this man isn’t at the top of the list. Love him or hate him, most can agree that Beenie Man is Dancehall’s best all-round performer and has been throughout his illustrious career.
What gives Beenie the edge over his contemporaries is his charisma. He knows how to analyze a crowd, know how to best approach said crowd and their imaginations and build a good relationship with them throughout his performance. Thus, he is able to create an understanding with any audience he is in front of, thus getting the crowd to try and match the high energy he brings while belting out each song.
He is the type of performers that good shows great, and even knows how to save fledgling events from falling apart, such as STING 2003 following the Ninja Man-Vybz Kartel fiasco. Despite the tension between promoters and crowd, Beenie just calmly walked on stage with his white suit and performed at his usual high standard to at least make the crowd forget what just preceded maybe a half-an-hour earlier.
His BET performance last year the only real hiccup, Beenie’s performances are typically flawless and make him a world class performer that promoters worldwide can book and feel no qualms about having him on their lineup. But, there is one other dreadlocked star who does all this and then some to put him at the top of this list.
1. Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley – It’s only fitting that the closest thing to Reggae legend, Bob Marley performance-wise since his tragic death in 1981, is his son, Damian Marley.
Like the Tuff Gong did throughout his heyday with The Wailers, Jr. Gong embodied what the complete performer looks and sounds like. Marley oozes the spirit, passion and clarity in his sets that often reminds music lovers of his late father and makes it impossible for people not to draw the comparison.
He works the stage better than anyone with his high level of energy, thus enabling him to take over a show without much effort. Look at the 2012 Grammy Awards tribute to Bob Marley as a perfect example; once he stepped on the stage, the crowd quickly latched on and raised their voices one he went on. Or, look at the 2012 edition of Reggae Sumfest, cited in the earlier words about Shabba Ranks. Though Shabba’s return and subsequent performance made for arguably the greatest moment in Sumfest history, Marley’s was regarded by many music lovers and media personnel as the best of the festival. Heck, all his Sumfest performances left people thinking ‘best of the night,’ at the end of them all, dating back to his debut at the show in 2002.
But what makes Marley standout most out of his contemporaries is his simplicity. He never needs props, exaggerated antics or a big entrance to make his performances be remembered. He just goes out, works every corner of the stage and makes you feel real emotion, whether he’s singing, Welcome To Jamrock, Book of Life or Affairs of the Heart among his top level catalogue. No one quite electrifies a stage like ‘Jr. Gong’ does and as long as he stays on top of his game, it will quite hard for anyone to top him.