“Him Chuck Me First.”
On Boxing Day—December 26, 2003—just as the sun was rising over the town of Portmore, Jamaica, the dancehall deejay known as Vybz Kartel (a.k.a. Adidja Palmer) took the stage at Jamaica’s legendary Sting music festival. The annual concert, widely promoted as “The Greatest One-Night Reggae Show on Earth,” usually includes the most visible artists in dancehall music, and has developed a reputation for hosting infamous onstage clashes between feuding deejays (a term in reggae which refers not to “disc jockeys” but to MCs).
His entourage surrounding him, Kartel dropped maniacal taunts about “wartime” and how “lyrics win war.” Halfway into his set, he launched into the hits: “Gun Clown” and “Buss Mi Gun Like Nutten,” hype tracks that spout the same brutal lyrics popularized by gangsta rap. But Kartel’s songs weren’t just vague anthems to violence; they were weapons aimed directly at Kartel’s rival, Ninjaman (a.k.a. Desmond Ballentine), a senior deejay known for his criminal record and a history of onstage clashes. Kartel called Ninjaman a crackhead, dug into him about some sexual-abuse allegations (“Him say him a bad man and a beat up woman and baby. Then if you beat up lady, that mean to say you a lady bad man and if you beat up baby that means you a baby bad man”), and then accused him of sodomy.
Ninjaman took the stage wearing a graduation cap and gown (a visual jab about being in a higher “class” of deejay than Kartel). But Kartel was a local favorite, and after his strategic set of hits mixed with cheer-induced disses, he’d pulled the twenty thousand fans to his side. Ninjaman gave it his best shot, but after a minute of booing and bottle-flinging, Kartel returned to the stage.
Then something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen: Ninjaman gave Kartel a hard shove on the shoulder—though differing accounts dispute who shoved whom first. (Ninjaman claimed, “Him chuck mi first, mi chuck him back.”) Within a few seconds a fistfight was under way. Kartel and his crew threw Ninjaman to the ground and stomped on his ribs until a few security guards intervened. It was the first incident of onstage physical violence in the Sting festival’s twenty-year history.
Bounty Killer, a then-ally of Kartel’s who was scheduled to perform later that day, canceled his appearance in protest. The crowd didn’t like this. Mobbing fans overtook the bar, attacked each another with rocks, and fired their guns into the air (a common dancehall show ritual). The Jamaica Gleaner reported: “Patrons in the VIP section of the crowd hid under the stage, sheltered behind buses and water tanks, and tore down chain-link fences as bottles fell like Old Testament hail from the sky.” Twenty-three people were injured. Both Kartel and Ninjaman were incarcerated for assault and disorderly conduct, though Ninjaman was quickly released on a fifteen-thousand-dollar station bail. Afterward, the festival’s promoters tried to extinguish the residual flames with an emergency peacekeeping meeting, but it didn’t go so well: Ninjaman showed up with bandages strapped across his face and refused to shake Kartel’s hand.
It might seem ironic, or merely aberrant, for such violence to occur in the country best known for producing Bob Marley, the great Gandhi of reggae. Jamaica’s reality, however, is one in which the gullies (ghettos) of its largest city, Kingston, post the highest murder rates in the world—more than 723 people were murdered there in 2007. It’s a reality in which priests are shot in the head and left for dead in the street, a reality in which the musical hero of the streets was never really Marley but the rude boy (a Jamaican criminal). A not-so-distant past of colonialism and slavery produced a strain of Jamaicans who bow to no one and who equate any form of submission with regression. Bob Marley is the country’s peace-loving rasta fantasy export, but consider Jimmy Cliff’s cinematic masterpiece, The Harder They Come, to witness the true Jamaican icon: a criminal, crazy-eyed killer, and musician all rolled into one.
West Indian music feuds began back in the early ’60s, before hip-hop was a glimmer in America’s eye and before reggae emerged from the roots of ska. In the beginning, violence wasn’t part of the feuding protocol. Like battles between hip-hop MCs, Jamaican feuds were and, for the most part, still are competitions of microphone prowess. Two deejays verbally assault everything about each other—flow, fashion, family, masculinity, etc.—all to the sound of riddims, a Jamaican term for the production and beats behind the vocals. They generally work on the same I’ll-have-sex-with-your-wife-and-kill-you mentality that Tupac once aimed at Biggie, with some additional sprinklings of racism, chauvinism, bigotry, and mother insults. Looking back, early feuds seem benign enough, but it’s important to remember that obscene language is illegal in Jamaica, contributing an authentic outlaw vibe to what, in America, is little more than a “sticks and stones” offense. Deejays are often arrested for letting a few curses slip out onstage. Homosexual acts are also illegal in Jamaica (and not widely accepted, culturally), thus hate lyrics about homosexuals are all the more titillating to the fans. It’s clearly a testosterone-fueled art form, with terms like bloodclat (tampon) and faggot qualifying as some of the harshest insults a deejay can fling at an opponent. (A handful of dancehall artists have been banned from international venues for homophobia.)
In practice, feuds go on for months, years, or even decades, and involve not only onstage “clashes” but also interminable exchanges of radio singles called “diss tracks.” Reggae music’s use of riddims adds another layer to the conversation: producers build music tracks and allow multiple deejays (usually the biggest names of the moment) to overlay their own lyrics, melodies, and songs. During feuds, deejays will respond to each other’s disses through riddims. This allows selectors (radio disc jockeys) to play half-hour-long mixes of, say, “The Self-Defense Riddim” or “The Beast Riddim” while interchanging each deejay’s song, creating the effect of a seamless back-and-forth bickering opera.
Children and Machetes
One of the earliest feuds dates back to 1962 (also the year of Jamaica’s independence). The feud began when the ska producer Prince Buster took the upcoming artist Derrick Morgan under his wing. (In turn, Morgan would later mentor the great ska artist Desmond Dekker.) But when Morgan switched to a higher-paying half-Chinese, half-black producer named Leslie Kong, Buster took offense and released a racist diss track called “Black Head Chinaman,” taunting Morgan for stealing his musical ideas—specifically, a sax solo—and passing them to Kong. Morgan responded with “Blazing Fire,” an attempted lyrical quelling—“Live and let others live and your days will be much longer / You said it / Now it’s the Blazing Fire”—which led to Buster’s “Watch It Blackhead,” then Morgan’s “No Raise No Praise,” and so on.
As a general rule of competition, feuds go on until someone wins, either through superior lyricism, sales, crowd applause, or by forcing an opponent to back down. But with these feuds, “winning” isn’t really the point. Everyone knows that clashes are just hyped-up WWF-style showmanship. The real goal is publicity. Pretty much all of the big-name deejays use rivalries to climb their way into the public eye.
In the case of Kartel, his career took a massive step forward after he won the feud against Ninjaman, not just because he was the dominant, more aggressive fighter, but because he’d vanquished an elder deejay (Ninjaman was thirty-seven, Kartel twenty-seven) more notorious than himself. Since then, he’s been involved with a handful of increasingly violent feuds involving drive-bys and an incident where he threatened children with a machete—all of which have increased his popularity.
The dancehall economy, too, depends on seething conflict to keep fans attentive. Radio singles contain any number of retorts or inside puns about ongoing feuds, and fans follow the blow-by-blow like the arc of a soap opera. And it gets juicier: Most of the feuds stem from a vast network of Mafioso-style connections between deejays. Allegiances constantly change, and issues of betrayal, money, sex, and violence churn together at Shakespearian levels of drama and intensity. Two artists who are mentor and protégé—or daddy and son—for the first half of their careers might be feuding for the second half. Other feuds are passed down from daddy to son, from Corleone to Corleone, until it seems that these alliances between artists have almost nothing to do with artistic collaboration and everything to do with Grangerford-Shepherdson gang-style affiliation. The contemporary music scene in Jamaica is a big insular conversation, and even if a fan can pick up all the little cultural references and twisted slang of Jamaican patois, certain lyrics will make no sense unless you know who’s feuding with whom. The whole thing creates intrigue for those who want a deeper dramatic story behind their music and attempts to give an explanation to violence that otherwise appears to have no inherent meaning.
Beenie v. Bounty
The Ninjaman v. Kartel clash was inspired by a legendary fifteen-year feud between two camps of dancehall artists, spearheaded by deejays Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Beenie and Bounty, easily two of biggest names in dancehall history, both emerged a little after the dancehall sound was born—which is generally considered to be 1985, with the release of “Under Me Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith—as part of a new generation of artists who generated gangsta lyrics about their lives in the appallingly poor shantytowns of Kingston. (The sound is also sometimes called bashment or ragga, because of its cultural connection to ragamuffin thugs.) These artists embraced the trend of toasting (i.e., Jamaican rapping), collaborated with American gangsta rappers such as Noreaga and Mobb Deep, and dropped hard-core violent lyrics. Bounty called his sound “gangsta music” and “hard-core social commentary,” and wore the words cross, angry, warlord on his jacket.
Beenie vs. Bounty began in ’93 when the two sparred verbally at the Stone Love anniversary dance, and escalated further with their legendary clash at the Sting music festival. Like the fight between Buster and Morgan, the feud started as theater, with the young, eager deejays dancing to cute rhythms in bright yellow baggy shorts. Beenie grinned at the sun, and Bounty, in character, took himself too seriously, but there was no doubt that the clash was all part of the show.
After a decade of ongoing conflict between the two artists, Bounty Killer brought the feud to the organizational pseudo-corporate level when he assembled a sort of deejay gang called the Alliance. The Alliance began monopolizing riddims, producers, selectors, and venues, excluding anyone who wasn’t a part of its group. People outside the Alliance criticized it for dividing the industry and fan base—not unlike the East Coast v. West Coast rivalry in ’90s rap. Ninjaman, Bounty’s former daddy, was one of the primary critics of the Alliance. He challenged all the Alliance members to battles, threatening to “kill” them. Bounty’s son Vybz Kartel accepted the challenge (i.e., son v. granddaddy), and the whole thing came to a head weeks later at the notorious Boxing Day fight.
This fight was more than just a turning point in the history of feuds. The threats and name-calling, which once could be laughed off as empty talk, became voyeuristic windows into real-life violence. The cultural problems moved from the dark corners of shantytowns to the public stage, and Jamaicans couldn’t ignore the fact that their most notable export (music) was exposing their island’s nasty underbelly: the world’s image of Jamaica as eternal Bob Marley Day was being replaced with gang warfare. Fans started questioning the necessity of feuds, feeling self-aware and perverse for listening to songs that portended the death of their favorite artists. The industry began to respond. This year’s Sting will include a ban on violent and homophobic lyrics; local selectors such as Colin Hinds have started refusing to play the sort of “kill-people music” that is “an open exhibition to shoot someone in [the] head”; and the island of St. Vincent has banned the new, angry, über-gangsta deejay named Mavado because he’s a “potentially damaging influence on the island’s youth.”
Not that any of this makes much of a difference. The ongoing war attracts as many people as it repels, and so the musicians continue to outdo themselves, each one trying to reach the imaginary top of the violence food chain. Months ago, a knife fight between two young deejays broke out on a stage in Florida. And a gang of rival fans recently attacked Vybz Kartel with rocks in a gully, underscoring the fact that the line between the stage and street has faded away. In the earliest feuds, deejays fought in front of their audiences, then turned around and clinked Red Stripes, playing the whole scenario like the farce it was. Now, when Mavado sings “Diss me and we take away ya life,” he’s not trying to entertain a crowd or play up his image. He’s issuing a warning.