It's All About The Music: Dancehall Reggae From Centron Music
As the music industry goes through throes and upheavals, the result of mega-takeovers by corporations with the morals of the declining Roman Empire and the goals of Ghengis Khan, misters and sisters are doin' it for themselves. Musicians, either ignored or gored, have come to realize that they're better off running their own show; that they can get over if they come with a clever and fluid business plan and an unstoppable crew of artists and come strong.
Thanks to the web, independent labels are surviving and thriving. With major labels only pushing surefire acts that will bring big sales in the next accounting period, it's up to the independents to give new talent a real chance, to give artists abandoned by the industry another chance, and to allow musical subcultures that don't fit into the Defdisneyinterscopejam cookie cutter forms loved by advertisers and music marketeers.
Centron Music is a combination artist management and publishing company and an independent record label. It started as a touring sound system, a truck with DJ turntables and booming system where DJs spun new records and instrumental backing tracks for live performers from 1985 to 1989. The talent they worked with included Ninja Man and Shabba Ranks, amongst other giants of dancehall.
They launched hit dancehall artists like Johnny P., who shocked the world in 1993 by topping the U.S. rap and reggae charts. This lead to a production deal with Relativity Records. They started doing artist management during this time, culminating in Centron's CEO Dennis Allen partnering with and managing superstar Spragga Benz in the late nineties.
With the release of their new records, Centron is poised to come up as a company as they present old and new talent. The artists on the label's two new releases, Buss Loose and It's All About the Music, are a virtual who's who of the underground dancehall scene.
Spragga Benz is one of the roughest of the crew. Known to the world via his 2001 collaboration with Foxy Brown on the hit "Oh Yeah," and with a role in the Jamaica film Shootas, he's one of the label's largest artists. The cut "Mad Love" comes with a style that is unique. Over a driving rock and roll style back beat he sings/chants/raps with a voice that is a surreal, extreme baritone that is so stylized that it's beyond the pale. Think Barrington Levy and Eek a Mouse grafted genetically to Sizzla and infused with steroids and you'll get the idea.
His "Star-Refix" is more traditional dancehall - chatty and fun, with a sing-a-long chorus that shows how modern hip hop was influenced by Jamaica as much as the other way around. Red Square Crew come with the vocal dominated "Gi Wi Dem," a posse cut with rhythmic, percussive style backing vocals reminiscent of rap pioneers Thugs, Bones, 'n' Harmony.
Sharp Shoota has a baritone voice similar to Spragga, but his flow on this cut is smooth and regular as he rides the beat. This has got to be a favorite party jam with its X-rated lyrics ". . . when I slide up in ya, make you feel good when I ride up in ya . . . don't stop the sex take off the g's and the LBLX . . . P-u-s-s-y that's what I like/ T-i-g-h-t that spells tight . . . N-i-c-e girl that spells nice . . . S-i-z-e girl that's spells size, you know what I mean/ okay, alright."
Johnny P. spits hard dancehall on the cut "Pum Pum Cream" and sings with a smooth, soulful croon on "Money & No Love." On Buss Loose we find the artists in studio record version of an old-fashioned dance party and toasting contest. Each artist DJs (the Jamaican term for rapping and MC- ing) over variations of the same dancehall groove - ratatat synthesizer, piano loop, and loping drum machine beat. The artists Egg Nog Lexxus, Frisco Kid, Bobby Crystal, Powerman, Determine, Anthony B. and Emanuel Stain do their thing with style and flair.
But the disks stand outs are Sizzla, the veteran, who delivers a funny story about his girl with his classic, bugged out style, and the girl of crew, Lisa Dainjah. She rocks a style that nods to the Sister Nancy and Sister Carroll style of elegant chatting mixed with singing, a classic old school dub technique. Her voice is deep and in control, with a ragged edge that radiates pure ghetto grit. If only females in American hip hop not named Bahamadia could come this correct and real.
With the records in full release by the time you read this, Centron is sure make power moves is the under served musical world of dancehall reggae. We caught up with Dennis Allen, who is always on the move, earlier this month.
How did a label based in D.C. - home of genteel jazz and indie punk like Fugazi - come to specialize in hardcore dancehall?
[Dennis Allen] Centron Sound is a fusion of my life experiences of music expressed through my musical creations. I have two cultures, Black American and Jamaican. I appreciate them both and thank God for my blessing. Most of Centron productions consist of Jamaican vocals and alternative music, that's our niche. We have a philosophy of "out of many, one music."
The label seems to have made major strides from the late '80s until about 2001, and then lost a bit of momentum. What has happened in the intervening years?
[Dennis Allen] The music industry went down with the Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The music industry is still trying to find the right business formula. As for music itself, things is booming, talent wise. The era you mentioned, the mid- '80s to 2001, was the CD era. In those days we (Jamaicans), as music creators, depended on the major labels. In other words, when you blow up a song or track in the underground and sell a few thousand copies and/or get a radio ad, your label, producer, and/or artist was sure to get deal to pay some bills.
With the take over of digital and internet music services such as I-Tunes, Real Rhapsody, MSN, and more, the power is now back in the creators' hand. A short answer to your question: Centron Sound went through reorganization of our label in order to survive current and future changes. Centron Sound Records was one of the world first virtual record labels established in 1998.
What set backs did you have to overcome between then and now?
[Dennis Allen] Mostly financial.
You're a combination of record label/management company. Also, you're partnering with various record labels. Why this approach, which is unique to independent labels but prevalent with the majors?
[Dennis Allen] We as independents have to form partnerships, and bring our strengths together, such as finance, fan base, and other networking factors.
What are the current trends in Jamaican music? Do you reflect and keep up with them as far as the artists you sign or do you look for strong artists regardless?
[Dennis Allen] The current trend in Jamaican Music is music being more cultural and with meaningful lyrics; with real music by musicians playing instruments, and better overall songs.
How did you discover or get to put on Spragga Benz, Red Square Crew, Sharp Shoota, Johnny P, Banky Savanti, Don't Play and the other artists you work with?
[Dennis Allen] All the artist I represent is my family personal and business wise, I take care of them and they take care of me, we are all partners, with no bosses! I will tell you each individually in another piece. Each one is a long story.
What are you looking for in the artists you sign?
[Dennis Allen] Talent, brains, and discipline!
Hardcore dancehall has receded from the spotlight in popular music, having had a boom period in the nineties, showing up on hip hop artists' records such as Foxy Brown's last album and Ice Cube's Wicked, through to the recent hits by Beenie Man and Sean Paul. What is the future of dancehall?
[Dennis Allen] No one can predict! Dancehall has always been revolutionary, up until it became a liable business! Dancehall music has not gained any ground since the explosion in the early '90s.
Back then the industry was controlled by the independent labels and producers who paved the way for Dancehall to be known to audiences world-wide. The Jamaican government and large Jamaican corporations saw something of value that they wanted, but did not control. They took control by passing laws that affected the growth and prosperity of the art negatively.
In the past artists made their buzz via local sound systems, live outdoor gigs, and doing songs for local labels. The government passed a law that all promoters need a permit to keep an event, which is too expensive for the small promoters afford, so that avenue has been closed, therefore there's no outlet for upcoming artists. In other words, dancehall is not about the music anymore, it's all about business (money).
Remember Jamaica is only 145x50 miles wide, and every 1/4 mile there is an artist trying breakout, the competition is steep, so there's a lot of nepotism involved. Also, if a Reggae or dancehall artist is making progress and is not signed by the #1 so-called reggae/dancehall label/distributor, no one in the radio, press, or biz notices or even recognizes him or her, because it's all about "me and the record," not "music and people." It's a very complex issue.
What are the future goals of your label?
[Dennis Allen] The future goal of Centron Sound is to stay alert, current, and up-to-date with future changes and technology in the music industry, so I can keep doing what I love to do make music and share it with the world.