The Historical Circularity of Jamaican and African+/American Cultural Practice

Re-framing the Jamaican Influence on Hip-Hop in New York

Impressions from James’ research stay reflecting the ongoing influence of Jamaican and Caribbean culture in New York City, in Brooklyn especially

Dissertation Thesis (James Barber)

Hybridity debates regarding hip-hop’s origins, have hitherto occupied a difficult position in the field of hip-hop studies, in part owing to some “strange claims” of hip-hop’s “ownership” by hybridity theorists. Moving beyond the stasis of framing these influences in terms of originalism, I address the case of the Jamaican influence on hip-hop in New York, where I advance calls for new ways of seeing and “hearing” reggae and hip-hop’s relationship.

I highlight the existing paradox concerning the Jamaican and Caribbean influence on hip-hop in the United States, which has principally been (under)acknowledged in the context of hip-hop’s origins, while overlooking the role of these influences on hip-hop’s subsequent evolution in its birthplace, where Jamaican cultural practice in particular increasingly permeated hip-hop’s practices and aesthetics during the genre’s golden age from the mid-1980s to mid-‘90s. I illustrate the significant demographic, and in-turn growing cultural presence of Jamaicans in New York after 1965, while also highlighting the height of reggae and hip-hop fusion in New York with the emergence of the raggamuffin hip-hop subgenre (1987-1995). I draw on primary interviews conducted in New York from 2019 until present, which highlight the oral histories of many of the artists, producers, DJs and promoters who were instrumental in facilitating reggae and hip-hop’s aesthetic merging during its heyday. Both reggae and hip-hop’s shared historical dialogue, and the subsequent emergence of raggamuffin hip-hop in New York, are generally underrepresented in the existing literature. Nonetheless, as a handful of commentators have rightfully noted, the emergence of raggamuffin hip-hop signified the establishment of a bridge of translocal and transnational musical dialogue between reggae and hip-hop in New York. It’s emerging resonance was both informed by, and likewise further proliferated, connections, collaborations and innovations with other centres of musical and cultural production globally. In particular, the by now well-established Jamaican and Caribbean communities and cultural hubs in London, whose sounds, styles and innovations were already emanating far and wide.

The thesis is also illustrated with reference to musical examples from raggamuffin hip-hop’s underacknowledged discography, a great deal of which is informed by my research participants. These, and other musical phenomena, emerging both before and after the principle period of focus in New York, are drawn upon in order to highlight the reciprocal historical dialogue between reggae and hip-hop, and more generally Jamaican and African+/American cultural practice, beginning with the birth of Jamaican popular music, or reggae, during the Second World War.

Building on the notion of the circularity of Jamaican and African+/American cultural practice, I orient my exploration of the influence of Jamaican culture on hip-hop in New York from the point of view of the global “roots” and “routes” of Jamaican culture. Here, I highlight arguably the central catalyst and global conduit of Jamaican popular music culture, the Jamaican dancehall and sound system ‘nexus’. This configuration has historically indigenized and creolized hybrid cultural and musical influences since reggae’s beginnings, in its development as a technological, musical, social – and eventually global – sphere.

Keywords: New York, Hip-Hop, Raggamuffin Hip-Hop, Reggae, Jamaica, Transculturality, East Coast