British Dancehall DJ Gabriel Heatwave on the Politics of Jamaican Music

British reggae and dancehall sound system The Heatwave founder GabrielOver the past decade, London-based sound system The Heatwave have built a solid reputation among 18 to 30-year-old dancehall fans as Britain’s premier party hosts.

We’d planned to sit down and chat with DJ and founder Gabriel on several occasions, but when we eventually did, ironically, the interview took place not in the UK, but in the home of reggae and dancehall, Kingston, Jamaica.

In this rare interview, Gabriel talks about the politics of Jamaican music, his favourite DJs and sound systems, and the development of Britain’s dancehall scene.

What are you doing in Jamaica?

Going to dances and studios; meeting people that we’ve met briefly in New York, Europe or online; and getting to see Jamaica first-hand.

Previously, I didn’t have the money to come here and then recently I haven’t had the time.

I kind of wish I’d have come earlier, but also wanted to come when I knew people who would show me around. I didn’t want to be one of those guys hanging around [laughs].

What’s your earliest memory of reggae?

I remember my mum driving down Pentonville Road [in Islington, north London], Bob Marley coming on the radio and her saying: ‘There are two types of music I don’t like: reggae and hip hop.’

My brother ended up producing hip hop and I ended up being a reggae and dancehall DJ. Maybe that’s where everything came from. I was like: ‘Mum, if you hate it; that’s what I’m gonna do’ [laughs].

Sean PaulWhat inspired you to start The Heatwave?

Obviously, in the 1990s, dancehall was big in England, but around 2001 and 2002, there was nothing going on outside of the [Jamaican] dancehall world.

I’d been out of London for a few years studying at Bristol University and living in Spain. During that time, I started playing and fell in love with reggae and dancehall. I graduated and moved back to London in 2003, which was the year Sean Paul (above) blew up.

It was funny because it felt like I’d discovered this thing that no one knew about – especially as I had been away – and as I came back it was blowing up.

Although a few hip hop DJs would play a couple of dancehall tunes, it seemed that no one was doing 100 per cent dancehall sets or parties.

So me and a few friends decided to do a night comprising solely dancehall, not just a couple of records in a hip hop set.

And that’s still the thing really up to today. We do touch on other genres, but our strongest element is dancehall.

One of the things that’s key about what we’ve done is bring it to a new and wider audience. Not mainstream, but English underground; to people who care about music and love raving, but didn’t feel like they could get involved in dancehall.

That audience wasn’t there for [British sound system] Saxon or dancehall artists like General Levy, Sweetie Irie or Top Cat. But it was there for jungle MCs and is there now for Stylo G and Gappy Ranks, and possibly other people too.

What did you study at university?

Philosophy and politics.

Do you think your degree has any bearing on your work in reggae and dancehall?

Yeah, I think so; partly in the way I approach everything. The reason I started The Heatwave was about questioning and not accepting mainstream views and conventional wisdom.

A lot of the politics I studied was not about how government works, but about more subtle forms of power; and that runs all through reggae music.

For example, dancehall is one of the most explicitly political genres of music. It deals with political issues that rock ‘n’ roll or indie music maybe did at one time, but doesn’t really now. Dance music is political in terms of rave culture, but it doesn’t tackle politics head on.

I always think of The Bombing by Elephant Man (above), which is almost a light-hearted look at one of the biggest events of the past 50 years. Who else made tunes about 911? That’s just one example, but there are so many of them in reggae and dancehall; it just tackles any issue.

The history of reggae is all about power; from independence to the post-colonial system and how that all worked out. Where did reggae come from?

African culture, mixing with European culture; and that cannot be separated from how the power is played out. For example, with the whole Rasta movement and the struggle between Jamaican reggae musicians and their government.

As an outsider, one of the things I always find crazy is that you assume everyone in Jamaica loves reggae and weed. But then you find out weed is illegal and the reggae scene is a small part of Jamaica; the underclass, although less now in some ways.

We were talking to Movado last night and he told us the commissioner of police said he basically hates all the entertainers. We expect that Jamaica would embrace reggae culture, but that isn’t the case; it’s still fought against.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that I have heard some dancehall, but not much reggae since I’ve been here. A lot of the places I’ve been to play hip hop and r&b.

Even listening to the radio in the taxi just now; the music is like something we’d hear on Magic FM back home. I knew that in a way, but it’s still shocking.

Sizzla KolanjiName your three favourite artists…

Sizzla (above), Beenie Man and Vybz Kartel.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen lots of sounds systems and DJs come and go – what’s been the key to your success?

Perseverance. When I started, there were quite a few other people I played with and we would play at each other’s nights, but now they’re all doing other things.

I guess maybe it was always a hobby thing for them; they had other careers. From the age of 14, I was like: ‘I’m going to be a musician.’

I tried all different things: making, playing, writing and writing about music, and running labels, but in the end, DJing is what caught me. I still do some of the other stuff, but I couldn’t get away from DJing; it’s what I’m best at.

I only gave up my part-time job a few years ago, which means that it was a length of time thing rather than anything else.

KonshensIs the Jamaican music scene in a good state?   

I think so. I’m always an optimist with that though and refuse to say it was better back in the day. Even though sometimes I feel like it was [laughs].

People say that every few years about different periods. I’ve been involved in dancehall during periods that people said were shit, but then five years later, everyone says that was a ‘golden age’, so I think that’s just bollocks.

Already now, people are saying the Kartel era was ‘great’, but at the time they were saying he was lowering the quality and tone of the music. Now, all people remember about Kartel are the 100 bangers rather than the 500 awful tracks, which is always the way.

I was listening to a tape of [north London underground radio station] Station FM from 2002, which was a sick time. It was interesting because Martial Arts, Renegade and some other great rhythms are on there, but then it’s also got some shit that was terrible that I’d completely forgotten about, and so has everyone else.

It’s an interesting time right now; post Kartel, as there is no number one artist. In a way, you could say Movado, but he hasn’t been that active, then it was Popcaan for a second, then Konshens (above) and now Aidonia looks good. I think it’s interesting because the title is up for grabs in some ways.

Is the UK’s reggae and dancehall scene in a good state?

Yes. It’s stronger with the level Gappy Ranks and Stylo G are at now and hasn’t been this strong since Glamma Kid. And in a way, it’s stronger than that because there are two of them.

The thing with Glamma Kid is; that was the end of the record industry. He got a major label deal, but I guess that album didn’t work out well for him.

Now, I think dancehall is better off without that bit of the industry. In a way, it’s fucked without it because you won’t get dancehall in the charts in the same way.

I don’t think the major labels will sign another Heads High (Mr Vegas), Dude and Zim Zimma aka Who Am I (Beenie Man) or Ghetto Story (Cham).

That didn’t happen with [Serani’s] No Games (above) or [Gyptian’s] Hold Yuh, and I don’t think it will for a long while, which is a shame.

But in a way; it’s better because it means the scene has to set up its own industry. The big issue in the UK is getting artists from Jamaica who are in the right frame of mind to work.

Perhaps the focus should be on developing our own artists; because there was a time when UK artists were rivalling the Jamaicans.

Hot 97 DJ Bobby Konders aka Massive BHave you found it difficult being a white guy in a predominately black industry?

We don’t just work in the reggae world; often we’re the dancehall act in a funky house, jungle or grime rave. So I don’t know if I would say the industry is predominately black, but I guess the music we deal with is.

I don’t find it difficult, but it is different. I remember when I started; loads of my white friends were like: ‘Is it weird being a dancehall DJ; don’t Jamaicans and black people think it’s weird?’

The answer to that is always ‘No’. I’ve never had a Jamaican or black British person have an issue; they’ll comment on it, but in a positive way.

In a way, people like Bobby Konders (above) and [David] Rodigan are big examples so it’s not anything new. People are used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not unusual, and if you’re not aware of that; you’re mad.

You can’t just be like: ‘It’s not a thing; it’s cool.’ It is something you have to be conscious of. It’s not my culture, but in a sense, I feel that in some ways it is because I’m from London and I’ve grown up around it and we deal with the music in a very London way.

I’m not Jamaican so can’t just presume to be able to speak for and represent what this thing is, but you do end up representing it in some ways, which has its own complications, and you can’t ignore that.

What’s been your proudest Heatwave moment so far?

The Showtime DVD (above). We worked really hard on it and it was overwhelming when it happened. It was like nothing I’ve seen before and the way people responded was amazing.

Name your top three favourite DJs and sound systems?

Stone Love for their juggling and selection. Chris Goldfinger for the vibe; I really love how he presents the music – it’s like a party thing and he’s very positive.

Third would have to be Rodigan for the way he engages the crowd. I’ve seen him play at hardcore dancehall events, English festivals and watched videos of clashes in New York and Jamaica; totally different crowds and he’s spot on every time, which is impressive.

What’s the one thing you’d most like to change about the music business?

I’d move England closer to Jamaica [laughs].

What does the future hold for Gabriel Heatwave?

I’m going to come back to Jamaica every year, definitely; we’re already planning the next trip. And more parties.

Will you start producing?

There’s a part of me that thinks: ‘You’re a DJ and always will be.’ That’s what I’m good at and in a way it’s such a unique skill, but at some point I’d like to make music. I’ve been saying that for the longest time, but one day it will happen.

For more info, find The Heatwave on Facebook and Twitter, and check out their website

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