Rihanna's "Work" And The Everlasting Life of Dancehall in Toronto
"Work" could be the shot in the arm the genre needs to return to pop culture prominence.
Dancehall has never been dead, per se; but Rihanna’s “Work” makes a great case for its return to prominence in mainstream pop culture at large. By now, you’ve likely seen the video—or videos, rather—for Rihanna’s “Work”, alongside homegrown favourite Drake, that dropped on Monday. The surprise two-for-one gave us the Director X-helmed clip followed by another version directed by Tim Eres; a more demure take on the record that puts Rih and Drake in softly lit close quarters.
After a few repeat views and a quick scan on my Twitter timeline, it was obvious that the first version of the video resonated with Toronto in a very specific way. After the song premiered and images of the shoot started the surface a few weeks ago, it felt like the beginnings of a dancehall renaissance to the mainstream. “Please let this be good,” you could practically hear the timeline wishing collectively. The video opens with a familiar scene for many of us: people rushing from the cold into a venue with much warmer temperatures, good vibes, much less clothing and the pulsing “riddims” of sounds we heard through our parents’ stereo (or, our friends’ parents). Rihanna, donning a bikini and mesh coverup in the red, gold and green colours we associate with Rastafarianism and the Caribbean in general, drops into a dip to let you know just what you're getting into. Sweat dripped and hips moved in directions that seemed to defy the laws of physics, and a flash of Rihanna’s Bajan flag garter belt let you know this was an all-island affair.
Almost immediately, visual comparisons were made between the first Work clip and iconic dancehall videos from the early 2000s; with most heading straight for Sean Paul’s “Gimme The Light” and “Get Busy,” with some more in-the-know Toronto heads also finding aesthetic parallels in Kardinal Offishall’s “Ol’ Time Killin.” These comparisons make perfect sense when you consider that Toronto-born Director X was behind all of them, his own Trinidadian parentage connecting him to the very scene that informed much of his work. Besides, this isn’t Rihanna’s first tango with Toronto, or with X; the video for her debut single “Pon De Replay” was shot here with similar intentions in 2005. X put dancers and choreographers like Tanisha Scott and Ponytailz and crews like Dainty Crime squarely in the midst of the dancehall resurgence of the early 2000s. Going on to craft more than his fair share of videos around them from that era and pairing colourful minimalist sets with dynamic street and studio performers that sometimes upstaged the artists themselves. They also showed outsiders the sorts of late night basement “bashments” and sweaty dancehall jams we knew left inhibitions at the door and denim stains on the walls.
Caribbean culture is as much a part of Toronto culture as hockey is a part of larger Canadian culture, and its hypervisibility has made it readily accessible for both Island descendants and anyone who knows how to catch the beat. “Work” feels so familiar because it’s the most recent in a long line of videos that have perfectly captured the vibrant dancehall culture that’s existed in the city for decades. From the earliest waves of immigrants from the West Indies to Toronto in the early 1900s, to the influx of the 1960s primarily from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, our sound (and sound systems) were never too far behind.
Amidst the praise and picking out of familiar faces online, there was also plenty of nostalgia and waxing poetic about what the party scene in Toronto was once like. While dancehall parties are not hard to find by any stretch of the imagination in the city, events with the genre as the main attraction have been relegated to niche status; mostly appealing to those who go to those parties exclusively. Well-versed DJs around the city are always able to fit it into the mix no matter where they go, but it’s a far cry from the golden age of the late 90s and early 2000s.
The sounds of dancehall, alongside reggae and soca, were staples in venues all across the city depending on the night of the week; with spots like the now defunct Guvernment, Phoenix and Epiphany being guaranteed go-to’s for the types of parties that felt more like a life-changing experience than just a night out. From Spragga Benz, Elephant Man and Tanya Stephens to Buju Banton, Baby Cham, TOK and so many more, the booming basslines of Jamaica and the Caribbean were much easier to find. DJs like Ill Kidz, Baby Yu, Starting From Scratch and outfits like Baby Blue Soundcrew were some of the main sound architects in the city at the time, in addition to U.S. and Jamaica-based DJs and crews like Tony Matterhorn, Black Chiney & Stone Love; who visited the city on what seemed like a monthly basis.
Some point to a change in the music itself—lacking in the memorable artists and production of earlier times. Others cite Canada's tendency to follow the lead and trends of its American cousin, soon adopting the trap/hip-hop sounds that are now mainstays in urban music. Even the marketing of dancehall events has changed. Street teams full of gorgeous women passing out handbills right after one event to let you know about the next have now been replaced by social media posts that are much less direct than before. The last riddim—or production available for multiple dancehall artists to record on and have any real staying power in the city was the "Summertime riddim" of 2010. It spawned songs from staples like Vybz Kartel (Summertime) and Popcaan (Ravin), that are still mainstays in sets and mixes six years later without feeling the least bit dated. Still, like any other genre, consumers are constantly looking for something new at a break-neck pace and genres like dancehall thrive on recognition and crowd reaction to create its ebb and flow. Both producers and artists in dancehall create in bulk to begin with, so having to now keep up with short attention spans has pushed quantity ahead of quality.
Toronto’s current position as a newly christened center of cool comes in the middle of a cultural shift, where the sounds that shape urban club culture are moving further away from its reggae and dancehall roots. As a city in transition and finding its footing next to meccas like New York and Atlanta, a younger set of second-generation immigrants are much more responsive to the heavy 808s of the American South than the familiar pulses of reggae sound systems.
With as many people as I saw itching for a dancehall revival of sorts in the city and beyond, it’s quite possible we might come full circle on this one. Dancehall was never dead, but maybe "Work" could be the shot in the arm we needed to give it second life.