Reggae and dancehall are Jamaican musical genres that postdate other forms of music from the island like mento, ska and rocksteady. If you asked some dancehall or reggae artists, they will tell you that there is actually no difference between the two genres.
Both Super Cat and Josey Wales agree that reggae is the genre and dancehall is a place you go to listen to reggae music. In fact, that is the way it started, before there was a genre called dancehall, dancehall existed as a place in Jamaica. A dancehall was equivalent to what they would call a club in the United States.
Dancehall emerged about 15 years after reggae when mic toasters would chant lyrics over the instrumental portion of a record. Two of the first mic toasters were U-Roy and King Stith; they are also considered the original founders of dancehall. The toasting was being done on reggae instrumentals which gives credence to the fact that dancehall is reggae.
Still, while it can be argued that reggae and dancehall are the same, many people still see them as different genres; so we will look at what are the main reasons why they are considered to be different.
In essence the dissimilarity can be found first in their general sound and secondly in the prevalent themes. The history of both genres puts these differences into perspective.
Reggae music postdates other forms of Jamaican music such as Ska and Rocksteady. It emerged in the 1960s coinciding with the Rastafarian movement. For the most part reggae artistes were heavily influenced by this movement which gave the genre its spiritual core. It bellowed the struggle of a people centered around issues of poverty, politics and oppression in Babylon.In the same breath it promotes positive vibrations, peace and righteous living.
Roots reggae, as it is also known, is characterized by ‘one-drop’ riddims which typically features Afrocentric influences or acoustics. Lover’s rock is the more romantic side of the genre, mostly apolitical as love and passion takes the forefront of the lyrical content. Popular reggae song includes Stir It Up by Bob Marley and Here I Come by Dennis Brown.
Often referred to as reggae’s rebellious cousin, Dancehall music emerged as an under-ground genre almost two decades later. Sound systems began stringing up on street corners attracting large crowds of locals, resembling a dance hall, hence its name. Artistes would toast (similar to rap) over digital riddims (rhythms) as opposed to the usual playing of prerecorded music. The fast paced tempo laid the foundation for a genre with dancing, sexuality and “gangster life” at the heart of it. The dancehall market was initially concentrated in Jamaica especially for the members of the inner-city communities. It was often seen as very coarse and raunchy with no apologies. Some prime example of this includes “Love Punnany Bad” by Shabba Ranks and “Boom Bye Bye” by Buju Banton.
Artistes like Capleton and Sizzla later introduced a more conscious side to the dancehall through the influence of the Rastafarian movement. Buju Banton and Anthony B were also strong contributors in this category with songs like Untold Stories and Damage respectively.
Essentially the two create completely different vibes. Reggae has a reserved personality as opposed to dancehall’s exuberant demeanor. Hardcore excitement pulsating through your stereo is typical of dancehall music. It is raw and uncut as it delivers the common reality of the everyday Jamaican. Dancehall is also more dynamic than Reggae as it is known to introduce new ideas from slangs to fashion fads to dance moves. On the flip side Reggae is feel good music, a subtle chimer. Head bops and steady rocks as you drift to a meditative state, that’s the power of Reggae. Bob Marley’s words best sums up the genre when he noted, “…when it hits you, you feel no pain.”