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choppa rising: a history of jamaican trap dancehall

October 22, 2019
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The era of the Bro god is upon us and the harbingers of its grimy culture come from an unexpected place on Jamaica’s musical map: Montego Bay. The fraternal order of Jamaican musical genres, forever dictated from Kingston, has had to purposely turn a blind eye to allow the young firebrands to self govern. The new generation has come armed with trap music, their own ideals and their own lifestyle to now create a sound that honestly represents a true island culture, with an intimacy not seen in Jamaica in recent years. Where reggae in Jamaica continues to have the edge in performance, branding and experience, the young trap dancehall patriots come with a personal truth, community representation, and a message that does not portray Jamaica in the best light. This is not the music of “darling, I will swim the deepest sea and climb the highest mountain,” but depictions of the scamming underbelly of rural townships, and of the tenets and effects of Choppa culture. Operating on the fringes of tradition, both musically and geographically, trap dancehall is the sound of now, carving its own place in history.

Though, of course, there are musical, historical and cultural antecedents of how the Jamaican trap dancehall sound and this chop lifestyle came about. It’s in the cyclical way that the island’s great music industry and criminal elements deal with American culture — taking what they need and remaking for self — and in the alternative economies, literal and cultural, that have always flourished in JA. Though maybe not where they are flourishing now.    

Back in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, the illegal trade of choice in the Jamaican underworld was drug smuggling. It was a very lucrative business, with marijuana and cocaine the choice products, and multiple jobs needing to be filled, allowing those with access to, as Jamaicans put it, “eat a food.” Financiers of the operations made the most money, but rural farmers and packers of the product, warehousers, drivers, shippers, ‘mules’, and a whole host of bribed officials in organisation’s supply chain also profited. In its heyday, Jamaican reggae music engaged with the smuggling culture, highlighting this ‘hustling’ in both the lyrics of songs and sometimes even the demeanour of the artists. Marijuana, already synonymous with Jamaica since the earliest days of Rastafarians in music, was represented more broadly, eclipsing the prominence of cocaine smuggling, whose use was — and still is — publicly frowned upon in Jamaica. Reggae music legends such as Eek-A-Mouse, John Holt and Sugar Minott all had ganja smuggling anthems. Notably, the narrative of these songs seldom, if ever, represented the position of the financier, almost always focusing on a protagonist in abject poverty forced to traffic marijuana. The hustler represented a ‘noble profession,’ the lyrics often depicting his transporting and delivering the ganja to lawyers, doctors and police officers, playing the role of a hero of sorts. It would be extremely naive to say none of the musicians at the time were not personally involved in this business in some capacity or that the lyrics were just the work of clever imagination.

Prior to such current-event narratives and outlets for the microcosms of Jamaican culture, the island’s music had an intimate relationship with American soul and rhythm and blues. In the mid-1960’s, American music began to gain traction in Jamaica, eclipsing music from England, which Jamaica had recently gained independence from. In 1965, Britain restricted immigration from its former Black colonies, while America opened its doors. A close geographic and new immigration relationship allowed for a faster, easier exchange of music than with the U.K. Jamaicans were also present at the source of this music in Philadelphia, represented by Thom Bell, an instrumental figure in the Philadelphia Soul powerhouse of Gamble and Huff, who was born in Kingston. Inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Bell produced music for The Delfonics, The Spinners, Elton John, and a plethora of other artists and bands who were familiar voices on Jamaican sound systems and radio waves. 

With soul and R&B invading the keen ears of talented Jamaican musicians, R&B engaged reggae at the forefront of the island’s pop music. Beres Hammond’s 1976 album “Soul, Reggae and More”, helped to showcase soul, R&B and reggae in Jamaica at the time in an audible mirror of styles. However, the amalgamation of the three genres became its own subculture. Jamaican producers and record collectors adopted the fetish of making and collecting rare reggae covers of popular RnB songs. This was serious business in the sound system arena and those who are serious collectors will still pay top dollar if they heard a cover of The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was done by The Heptones and limited to 10 vinyl copies. This new culture ran concurrently and even mixed with the reggae of culture/protest/current events.

In contemporary Kingston, metropolitan adults are encouraged to own stocks in the Jamaican and world markets, are pounced upon by banks to adopt credit cards, and drive Porsches and Ferraris, albeit at short distances on the few good strips of roads. Jagged shards of the first world haphazardly pierce the surface, while the criminal underworld has also updated itself. In an era where self-styled entrepreneurs become one-minute public speakers via instagram, it has turned to so-called lottery scamming, as it’s “grab ‘n’ go” parallel. The practice has hit its peak and is flourishing, with mostly U.S. senior citizens bank accounts and young Jamaican lives, on the losing end. Lottery scamming — scamming for short — is quite simple in theory: call a contact, dupe them into thinking they’ve won large sums of money or valuable prizes through a lottery they think they’ve entered years ago, and have them pay clearance fees to receive the cash/gift. 

First made popular locally in Montego Bay and surrounding western Jamaica parishes often spoken of only as farming locations, scamming has forced itself into the criminal spotlight. It gained national notoriety around 2011-12, by which time an Anti Lottery Scam Task Force had already been formed by the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and the U.S. government opened an F.B.I. office in Jamaica to help tackle a scourge that was causing American citizens to lose their retirement funds. Scamming does not require producing/acquiring a physical product beforehand and the gatekeeping and hierarchy can be levelled by cash, so to the uninitiated the barrier to entry is almost an open gate. It can be done fairly independently, essentially with just a mobile phone, lead-sheets (contact/client background information) and phone credit.

The open arms of Jamaican music initially received a taste of scammer culture around 2012, via an honourable mention on “Reparation,” by then-recently incarcerated dancehall MVP, Vybz Kartel with Gaza Slim on hook duties. Thus, what was once considered a rural, illicit lifestyle, got its first national co-sign with a basic explanation of stakeholders, rationale, and caveats that give it a semblance of a moral code. Noticed and acclaimed by a minority, this milestone was silently placed on the back burner, because, at the time, Jamaicans en masse were consuming top of the pop artists like Drake and Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Major Lazer. Almost every new Jamiacan hip-hop mix circa 2012 contained a pop song like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” followed by a Jamaican interpretation (Elephant Man’s “Badman Style”).  Every quick-thinking producer in Jamaica was copying this style of EDM, while young adults and teenagers throughout the island were into anything touched by Lex Luger, Mike Will, Zaytoven, Clams Casino; Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Juicy J, A$AP Mob and Joey Badass. 

Jamaica has always consumed hip-hop/rap culture, a borderline-uncomfortable influence as evidenced by early-2000s artists in a tropical climate donning white tees and basketball jerseys. Around 2015 those consumers started to become notable creators, at the same time that Major Lazer & DJ Snake’s “Lean On” put the pop spotlight on the music of the Global South, a favorable opportunity for Jamaica that local producers jumped on. Repeating the 1970’s, Jamaicans were again present at the studio controls, represented this time by Supa Dups and Stephen McGregor who produced and co-wrote Drake’s “Controlla” and Drake/Rihanna’s “Too Good,” songs that charted in the U.S. Top 20 in 2016. There was also no shortage of Jamaican vocal remixes of dancehall-infused smashes like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” or Rihanna’s “Work.” Young Jamaican producers who’d been ardently listening to trap music for the past four years were put back on the path to create an amalgamation of styles native to the island with EDM characteristics for hip-hop audiences.

The music scene in Kingston had become increasingly divided for younger producers, with separate spaces for traditional reggae, neo-reggae, dancehall and soca, and an emphasis on neo-reggae/dub events. Innovation happened when younger producers put the trap elements and aesthetic into a blender with dancehall and reggae and shared their creations within their own circles — or on Soundcloud. Two of the earliest proponents of this trap dancehall in Kingston were promoters Stamma and Laty Kim. In mid-2015, they began an event called ”The Listening Party,” geared towards new projects by young producers and artists where each would present their riddims, edits, remixes and songs. This offered community for producers who needed support for their untested creative output. Recommendations for producers started coming at Stamma and Laty from attendees impressed with the first staging. 

I attended the second “Listening Party” in September 2015, with Gavsborg and Shanique Marie who were asked to play a part in the show. My main takeaway was that all the young producers were making trap music, but with local flavors. They made edits with Beenie Man and Bob Marley cushioned by instruments familiar to jazz, with soft sounds, teasing playful synths on top of hard snares, punchy drums and 808s that they understood to be the sound of trap in recent years. Producers who stood out — Tessellated, JLL and KRS — have all now made their own mark, using those elements and aesthetics to develop the “ChillTrap-JazzHall” sound favoured by Kranium (produced by JLL) and by Apple for their AirPod ads (in the case of Tessellated). Others like KINGBNJMN shared in this aesthetic, sometimes including more trap elements like triplet hi-hats, which eventually landed him production credits on Future’s HNDRXX. And while all of these producers were eventually endorsed by Soulection in some way, almost none of this music made a drastic tear in the fabric of what’s known to Jamaicans as dancehall.

Around the same time, scamming, also called dialing, was in a hyperactive phase in Montego Bay and rural western communities, attracting all the collateral damage that comes with criminal territory. Murders of alleged major players, popular Jamaican DJs and producers being implicated and American Feds trying to extradite suspects by the tens. The soundtrack to this chaos was provided by Young Thug, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Juicy J, etc; but also by local artists, such as Ryme Minista, Shane E and TeeJay. Alongside StarzPlus Music, they did a lot of the musical groundwork to put Montego Bay in the spotlight, administering a litmus test for independent music in parishes outside Kingston. Support was abundant in Montego Bay, as rural areas in Jamaica provide more tight-knit, intimate communities, which also draw on the encouragement of surrounding parishes. What Montego Bay lacked was outlets for exposure to enable artists to grow and sustain careers: national radio stations, well-known events and dances, or access to other popular artists and producers, who are almost exclusively concentrated in Kingston, the hub of the nation’s music industry. 

But with the rise of the scammer, a creative career could be helped within a single parish by 17- and 18-year old kids with millions of dollars in disposable income. In keeping up with their favorite music, one song in particular appeared to connect with the entire region, Lil Wayne and Drake’s “Grindin.” This was the riddim on which in 2015 TeeJay recorded the grim “Buss Head,” which shot him to notoriety beyond Montego Bay and western Jamaica. (“Buss Head” was the term then that you would address someone by when you saw them on the street.) Shortly after TeeJay’s release, another popped up out of the woodwork, with even more cultural impact. “Big Money Poppin’,” by Xklusive from St. Ann, another rural parish, had the telling chorus ‘Scamma dem deh yah!’ The controversial song instigated so much discourse, Xklusive was given a profile and interview on Entertainment Report, one of the prime shows on the national Television Jamaica network. In all interviews Xklusive cleverly and vehemently denied the song was in support of lottery scammers. Despite his denial, “Big Money Poppin’” was the first true scammer anthem.

I grew up in Savanna-La-Mar, Westmoreland, one of the rural western parishes. Around 2008 I started to witness firsthand the embodiment of a phrase popular among some of the less progressive, under-exposed Jamaicans. “Ghetto yute fi have tings,” literally means, “youths from the ghetto should have things.” In the towns of these rural parishes, you could find young men, clad in colourful Polo Ralph Lauren gear (not dissimilar to the Lo Lifes) popping in and out of a Western Union or MoneyGram offices. They drove squeaky clean, modified Toyota 110’s, most times with custom car sound systems, BMWs, and other high-end vehicles. They always showed overabundant patronage to locals, purchase multiple tickets to events, buying up all the top-shelf liquor at bars, or beers by the crate, and turning grandiose money pull-ups into an attraction. It’s not unlikely that you could turn up to an event an hour after it had begun, and the bar would have been a victim of their braff. This fast, boastful lifestyle has historically been marred by setbacks of the same scale. In a once-quiet region of Jamaica, guns were now in the hands of the young and the reckless, and murder was commonplace. The inner machinations, faculties and vernacular of this new Jamaican underworld could be best explained by a scammer — the methods of the practice mutating as quickly as investigators can keep up. 

Over the years, it has become its own culture, with its own vocabulary, dresscode, vehicle choices and lifestyle. While the Grammy eyeing music industry in Jamaica was busy trying to create the next “Lean On” or “Work,” the highly impressionable youth of western Jamaica were listening to absolutely anything from Vybz Kartel or Alkaline, and hip-hop that reflected and reinforced the lifestyles around them, artists like O.T. Genasis, Bobby Shmurda and Young Thug delivering illusions of grandeur and danger, on a trap platter. This wasn’t a new phenomenon, but now those influenced by it had the means to easily act on the inspiration. While other Jamaican artists were steadily releasing songs on trap riddims with no intent to embody trap, youngsters in the western parishes were about to make it the hallmark of their sound. Tanto Blacks, and later Aidonia was evidence that, like with the jerseys in the early 2000s, this trap culture was being adopted.

With Xklusive having created a viral hit on the topic of scamming, TeeJay now a name hot on the Kingston circuit, and Vybz Kartel’s never-forgotten co-sign, artists in Montego Bay and western Jamaica were energised. Backed by unwavering support and the ability to operate locally, they gave themselves creative license to represent a culture almost exclusive to them. Since it was unfeasible to keep using instrumentals from hip-hop/trap favorites, producers staffing the Mo-Bay machine tried to reflect the American trap, and eventually even the same artwork style was adopted. Montego Bay continued to do its own thing and less than two years after Xklusive’s song went viral, Rygin King and Squash rose to prominence to defy parish boundaries. Their music was a window into their lives and the lives of members of their communities, dialers, representing their aspirations, the lavishness of their carefree lifestyle, and its bloody collateral damage. The trap-packaged songs were gaining traction in western Jamaica and one song, Rygin King’s “Learn” became familiar island-wide. It’s a tale of struggle, canonical to the Jamaican ghetto experience, broken into an ode of betrayal by friends and a dismissal of anyone standing in King’s way. Squash’s “Life Story” used the same riddim, serving as an autobiography, chronicling how the youth in volatile communities, void of opportunity, adopt scamming and the deadly consequences. By the time these singles were hitting eager listeners, Squash had already released multiple singles that were apparently loved in Trinidad.

Things started to make sense in 2017 when the fast-rising Montego Bay proponents of trap organized, defined their allegiances, and titled their movements and crews. They now represented more than themselves. In January 2017, Justin Blake Productions and A Wah Suhh TV premiered an independent ‘documentary’/profile on Squash made in his community of Salt Spring, Montego Bay, otherwise known as G City. In standard Jamaican fashion, Squash gave next-to no concrete information to the interviewer, but where his transparency failed, the documentary revealed his community, the crucial local support of family and friends, and established the identity of the now infamous 6ix. This was his proof of address and last three payslips. 

Squash now represented The Six (6ix), while Rygin King claimed the Dunce Thugs, leading two different mind-states united by music and community, later revealing their personalities and lifestyles in their songs. Squash’s single of later that year, “Shooting Mood,” reflected his more dangerous persona, and was again a big deal on Trinidad’s dancehall scene; but in Jamaica the song making waves wasLavish.” It was again recognised by the dialers, who had now upgraded from the humble Toyota 110s, with Squash opening the song by acknowledging the line of new Toyotas (Axio, Voxy, Crown, and Mark X), the literal fleet of cars now branded as work-horses of the dialers. Maturity is evident in the heavily trap-influenced riddim, a homemade hybrid of previous heaters. Shane E, now also a major Jamaican artist in Trinidad, went on to reinforce the push to use this trap packaging withR.A.G.E,” refining the trap riddim production.

At this time, Rygin King was putting out a steady stream of singles, when he pulled a fast one, returning to his conscious roots as Magnum Kings and Queens contestant Jah B (circa 2013), releasing “How Me Grow.” By shedding the trap packaging, Rygin King grabbed the attention of the nation, verbalising his harsh upbringing. His hybrid of being both on- and off-key, as well as his earnest crooning and audible passion, were important elements in conveying this modern trope of Jamaican struggle. “How Me Grow” was Rygin King’s stage on which he presented himself and where the unforgiving gaze of Jamaica now focused. Yet he simultaneously postulated a more violent version of his upbringing with the release of ‘Paranoid’ which took listeners down his personal rabbit-hole, in trap style. It’s worth mentioning that the timing of releases by truly independent Jamaican artistes at the early stages are mostly haphazard and producer driven majority of the times. 

By 2018, trap dancehall was energized and invested. Its ambassadorial roles were filled by the “One King” and the “6ix Boss” — the former as his own storyteller and chronicler of modern-day experiences in western Jamaica’s volatile communities, the latter and his movement echoing the inner machinations and exploits of the Montego Bay underworld at-large. In a move that verified The 6ix as trend-informed, Squash releasedOhh La La,” on Stefflon Don and French Montana’s “Hurting Me” riddim, and aligning his movement with music popular in the Jamaican diaspora. A few months later, Rygin King adopted the year’s lifestyle and party themes, releasing the critically acclaimed “Tuff,” the biggest song to date from the entire scene. 

While the music was beginning to enjoy real success, the environment was becoming increasingly volatile — a State of Emergency was imposed in Montego Bay as a crime-reducing measure, and Squash was arrested. At the start of his incarceration ”Money Fever” was released to full “Free Six Boss” levels of support, with the 6ix movement and trap dancehall now maturing with its own professional image. Shab Don, One Time Music, Attomatic Music and Hemton Music now came to the forefront as producers championing this sound. They would command this new space in the dancehall universe independent of Kingston’s structure/policies. With no identifiable gatekeepers, the inspired rushed from other parishes as well. The young guns of Montego Bay had broken away from all safe narratives, representing Jamaica on the community-level, less generalized and macro than their neo-reggae and chill trap counterparts. Their songs blazed a trail around the island as YouTube premiers and Whats-App group-shares, distribution methods which now seemed equal to any other standard the Jamaican music business had systemised.

Other artists entered trap dancehall’s breach. Newly commissioned to The 6ix after Squash’s incarceration, Chronic Law hailed from the rural parish of St. Thomas with a lyrical profile that embodied a balance between Rygin King and Squash’s messages. Chronic Law was already familiar to the dancehall scene, and his alignment with the 6ix and subsequent release of ”Hilltop Badness” heralded his entry into the space. Yet with a mixtape and notable single under his belt, the Law Boss followed in the footsteps of Rygin King and Tessellated, abandoning the trap aesthetic and gun-toting narratives to make “Hillside,” a reflection on the need for solace. Interestingly, with this switch, artists creating “conscious music” and promoting positive ideals and idyllic peace, also instantly revert to gunman lyrics. Their duality is a Jungian thing. Chronic Law represented a life as he could afford to, which helped him gain grassroots support. He tells tales of Braffing with his Honda and Toyotas in a way even a taxi driver could identify with. Daddy1 also used this riddim to join the ranks of The 6ix, with the hit “Out Here” giving an energetic chemistry lesson on bleaching products and hyping his eclectic street fashion and lavish lifestyle. Jahvillani was also steadily on the rise, parallel to The 6ix and though having collaborated with Squash and known 6ix artists in the past, he represented his own “Wileside” crew. Jahvillani gained national notoriety with his now-infamous street anthem “Wileside Government,” but preceding that was his trap informed “Nuh Reason,” which still evokes frenzied reactions from listeners. 

There were now also artists who fully represented Jamaican scammer culture. Keeping in line with the constantly morphing, confutative and simultaneously revealing scamming culture, by the end of 2018, the term “Buss Head” had been long relegated, “Bro god” became the addressing name, scamming was now affectionately known as Chopping, and the Polo and Clark’s image had additionally revealed the phenomenon of wearing rings — commonly fraudulent, Free-Masonic merchandise — given to them by obeah men and said to guard the lives of scammers. Artists like Takeova would make thematic trap dancehall representing the ‘chopper’ attire complete with the proclaimed guard rings. Ace Gawd found a viral hit by detailing his sexual exploits in the Mark X and Axios. With no validation forthcoming from Kingston, young rural Jamaican artists are successfully operating on the fringes of contemporary dancehall, representing their experiences via trap music, with Instagram and WhatsApp as proven mediums of choice. By October 2019, Montego Bay, and the rural parishes of Westmoreland, Hanover, Trelawny, St. Ann and St. Elizabeth are the United States of Chop.

Everything has come full circle. Current “mainstream” dancehall and the trap sound of the youngsters, have now combined. This sonic signatures of this hybrid can be easily broken down: Spiccato synths (strings or percussive), saw pads, scattered vocal samples, snares that have been in every “Lex Luger Sample Kit’ since 2009, and 808s with the obvious triplet hi-hat patterns. This has birthed well-received songs like Jahvillani’s ”Clarks Pon Foot” (supported by Clarks) and Vybz Kartel’s ”Any Weather”. There are currently multiple streams of dancehall in Jamaica all borrowing from each other, with trap elements being almost omni-present. The Kingston trap scene is still going strong with Stamma and Laty Kim still hosting “The Listening Party,” which is the only place I’ve been in Jamaica in 2019 and experienced producers performing with drum machines, and artistes like Iotosh making music live on stage. Tessellated juiced up another fruity blend, sticking to his rendition of Island Pop with Jada Kingdom taking vocal lead. Squash was released from lock-up earlier this year and in a powerful move, released two collaborations with Vybz Kartel. The rest is history in the making.

There is an uncomfortable truth about trap dancehall in Jamaica — besides its flirtation with the monoculture. With its originators and current viral acts acting as proponents of the lifestyles surrounding scamming, the music moves one step forward and one step back. This new genre is anchored by the shortcomings of the same forces that supported its rise and exposure. The “Cash Only” sign at each stage of production and distribution throws out the need to develop interpersonal relationships or even talent. Each new self-described “artist” procures virtually unlimited exposure but most do not continue to develop their craft or make a serious effort to record music that is more meaningful than the common topics of the scene. As Choppa lifestyle is termed “The Fast Life,” so is the career of anyone who tries to represent it, while daily chasing 15 minutes of fame. The artists champion a style of independence that does not require cooperation and where everyone is disposable. There is no physical scene, and no interdependence to bring artists, producers and audiences together. The performances by the fast rising artistes are nothing to phone home about which is where the lack of apprenticeship is seen in action. A movement like The 6ix is able to stay above the pendulum swing of the fast life by recruiting multiple dedicated artistes and producers engaging with each other in a way that helps to develop the craft. 

Meanwhile, the music, though often hardly impressive, represents what’s currently happening on the ground in Jamaica — in the same way that Vybz Kartel used to be its mirror image. Whatever the future holds for trap in dancehall — if there is indeed any future — it will be remembered as a music of its time, a quality which is always needed. There is only a few degrees of separation from how Jamaican artists used to incorporate Amerian soul and chronicle weed smuggling in the 70’s, complete with a representation of its own localized culture. It is a music that serves to keep Jamaicans in touch with the unnerving world outside of the safety of their homes and inside of the underbelly of how others stay alive on their own terms. 

Words and photos (Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica) by Jordan “Time Cow” Chung.

Illustration by Gustavo Dao.