One photographer’s amazing firsthand look at the 1980s Jamaican dancehall scene

Youth Promotion sound system crew and singer Michael Prophet outside the S&M outlet in Kingston, Jamaica. © Beth Lesser

Ifyour only frame of reference for reggae and Jamaican culture is Bob Marley or Snoop Lion rolling papers, prepare to learn something.

The artist who brought us Redemption Song was only one stop in a long progression of musical genres and styles. Originating from ska and rocksteady in the 1960s, reggae gave birth to more progressive, populist genres like dub, dancehall, and ragga through the 1970s and 1980s.

Emerging parallel to hip hop in America and electronic dance music in Europe, Jamaican dancehall was made possible by the introduction of digital audio production technologies in the early 1980s. By the time King Jammy and Wayne Smith dropped the fully computerized Under Mi Sleng Teng in 1985, it was game over for instrumental roots reggae in Kingston. The era of samplers and Casio keyboards had arrived, along with the streetwise lyrical stylings of musicians like Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse.

Stur-Mars session with deejay U Brown. © Beth Lesser

Central to this transition were Kingston’s dance halls, where portable sound systems — teams of DJs, MCs, and engineers — had been delivering popular local music to the masses since the 1940s. If Marley’s roots reggae took an universalist view on things, dancehall was a return to the hyper-local themes most pressing to Kingston’s youth: sex and partying.

Canadian photographer Beth Lesser had her first run-in with reggae in late-1970s Toronto and, traveling to Jamaica a few years later, she fell in love with the sights and sounds of Kingston just in time to witness the scene’s transition from roots reggae to the harder, fresher dancehall.

Lesser articulates the shift: “I think the 80s are most important, in hindsight, as the time reggae and hip hop began taking off. Reggae began to be accepted by urban African Americans and Jamaicans began to hear something in hip hop that spoke to them. Then the digital thing happened and the conversation continued into what we hear today.”

Over the next decade, Lesser and her partner — the DJ David Kingston — made continual trips to Kingston and dancehall’s other mecca, New York City, to collect records and document the pioneers of the scene. They published Reggae Quarterly and were even married at a dancehall party hosted by Sugar Minott in 1986.

Her pictures exhaustively document the music and its practitioners. But they also relay what it felt like to be at the center of Kingston’s creative energy on the cusp of an artistic movement which would soon spread globally. It’s a rare moment for an outsider to be privy to — rarer still for her lens to find such tenderness and intimacy with subjects to whom she clearly had a real connection. More than music and fashion, Lesser’s work delivers the unheralded personalities we otherwise might have missed completely.

All photographs courtesy Beth Lesser. Her book, Dancehall: The Rise Of Jamaican Dancehall Culture, was published by Soul Jazz Records in 2008.


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