The success of “Sleng Teng” had dramatic and far-reaching effects on Jamaican popular music during the mid-1980s. Previously, singers initiated most reggae songs by bringing lyrics and a melody to a producer, whose session players would construct a musical arrangement. After King Jammy and Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” most music was constructed by technically proficient keyboard players, or non-musical technicians clever enough to build a basic computer rhythm, to which lyrics were subsequently added; such material was often created without the input of actual musicians, resulting in a rugged form geared towards sound system devotees.
Although the new sound may have baffled overseas listeners, particularly those enamored with roots reggae, in Jamaica “Sleng Teng” and its successors made perfect sense. The brash sound of computer drums reflected the harsh reality of modern urban life, providing exciting fuel for the dancehall audience, and the predominant sound had long been heading in this direction through increased use of synthesizers and electronic drumbeats.
In conjunction with the rise of computer rhythms came a shift in form, as the new style was perfectly suited to deejays [Jamaican term for a dancehall musician who sings and “toasts” to an instrumental riddim, similar to an MC in hip-hop]. Thus, by the end of the decade, traditional singers were on the wane and the new Jamaican superstars were rapping champions of the microphone; ironically, many of the singers that maintained popularity did so by adapting old American ballads to the new digital beats. Rastafari imagery was also on the wane, as many rising stars were Christian.
Although the whole of Jamaica was rapidly turning digital, producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James kept the upper hand by working keenly with Steelie and Clevie, who soon emerged as Jamaica’s premier digital rhythm builders. Jammy remained the undisputed king of the music to the end of the decade, partly because he harnessed Steelie and Clevie early, and also because he used the astute engineer Bobby Dixon, a neighborhood sound system operator and electronics technician known as “Bobby Digital” due to his proficiency with the form.
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