It’s been a sterling year for conscious Dancehall. It’s also been a sterling year for smaller, independent record labels. Combine those two thoughts and you have the perfect eulogy for an end of 2020 riddim.
X Ova Riddim, released via Three Lake Music and Anotha One Productions, sees the outfits combine their skills across four tracks. The backstory to the riddim is fascinating: it was originally conceived as a Reggae composition by Milan Ivkovic of Anotha One. Then, the featured artists recorded their interpretations. But once it was complete, he decided he wanted to fuse its style with Dancehall. So, he contacted Alex ThreeLake and the two combined their talents to create the fusion sound that is the X Ova Riddim. And ‘fusion’ it certainly is.
The basic riddim itself is a stark, unnerving and unsettling affair – drawing cleverly on elements of various genres, which in itself demonstrates the back story well. Ivkovic’s original Reggae vibes are clear. A heavily dampened electric organ runs a bubble rhythm intermittently throughout the track. The brooding feel of this has been enhanced by varying levels of decay and compression being applied. Meanwhile, the bass clearly started life as a Reggae one, too. It works across a drop beat rhythm with melodic syncopation, skipping the fourth of each bar entirely. But it’s here where Three Lake Music Dancehall sensibilities enter.
X Ova Riddim’s bass is at times rhythmically and melodically at home in Reggae. But at other points, it either drops out entirely or ends up hitting the fourth beat – creating a driving feel. Its engineering is far more in line with Dancehall, as well. The sound is extremely low passed and open – booming and deep in nature; a stark contrast to the more picked and resonant sound found in Reggae. Then. Three Lake Music brings in other elements to cement X Ova’s Dancehall-hybrid status.
There’s a heavy use of strings across the track. High-passed, bowed and choppy, their composition flits between the treble and bass clefs, creating yet more unsettling vibes. Melodically they’ve been fairly intricately arranged, too – which creates a decent level of interest. Some tinny and high-passed horns have been dropped in across a main melody; also punching semiquavers at points. But this eery, Dancehall vibe is offset by the almost Dub use of reverb and decay across them, as they bounce off into the ether. Some well-placed synths also nod to this, as does a fleeting piano, tinkering high up the treble clef.
But it’s X Ova’s drums which are key to the Dancehall sound. When I say “Dancehall”, it is its modern incarnation – that AfroDancehall sound. The traditional clave is avoided, instead the focus is on the complex rhythmic patterns associated with the modern genre. The kick, when present, hits every beat, on the beat. A snare focuses on the three and then the offbeats before and after, and hi-hats run rhythms which fill the spaces in between. Additional use of bongos is well-considered, tapping around in the background at certain points. And claps feature too, to finish off the sound. Overall X Ova Riddim is a smart piece of hybrid composition – giving a strong platform for the artists to bounce off.
Kicking off proceedings is Jah Wyz with Higher Heights. He has a furious and urgent voice, working across a higher tenor in terms of both his straighter vocal and singjay. It totally fits with the Dancehall vibe, albeit somewhat more traditional than the modern AfroDancehall sound. His performance is rapid, barely stopping for breath at points. Making good use of intricate rhythmic pattern on the verses’ singjay – he cleverly uses pointed breaks to accentuate his words, juxtaposing these with semiquaver-led patterns. It’s a lyrically strong piece, too – about how personal strength and faith is paramount in navigating Babylon’s noxious system.
Next, Benks Ez Boy give us Day One – and bring the X Ova Riddim straight into Vybz Kartel/Popcaan/Govana territory. The track is a pleasing mix of both vocal and singjay. His work on the latter is bang-up-to-date, focussing more on the melodic side of the style, working around intricate runs up and down the diatonic scale while still maintaining fairly detailed rhythmic patterns. And his melodic jumps up around an octave are impressive. Then, his main vocal across the chorus is also very strong. Benks Ez Boy has a good range, working in a mid-to-upper tenor with an infectious melody. The arrangement and engineering of his vocals is, again, full-on 2020: vocoder is added, his background responses have been tinkered with to sound a scratchier, more rasping in timbre than the main line and the female backing vocals also fit it perfectly. A solid piece of work, which wouldn’t feel out of place on Of Dons And Divas or Fixtape. Nice.
I Anbassa gives us Inna Next Bag – again really modern in terms of his performance, but this time more aimed at being a club track, as opposed to Benks Ez Boy which is more of a listening experience. I Anbassa’s performance is compelling and confident, showing a good command of his voice while maintaining the fairly pacey rhythmic patterns well. But it’s his arrangement which is the best part. I Anbassa has clearly designed this as a party cuts: the main chorus is ultra-catchy; his use of dotted rhythms across the track create a real wind against the riddim’s on-the-beat focus; there’s a great bridge where he firstly goes into more spoken word, and then takes the timbre of his voice into a more nasal area, and finally the additional “heys” and “ohs” are there, just waiting to be shouted by the audience. Party-perfect and on-point.
X Ova Riddim finishes with Jayryme serving up Everybody Happy – and again, his performance is different to what’s come before it. Drawing more on modern Hip Hop in terms of pulling back on the vocal elements and focussing more on a rappy-singjay, he restricts the melodic elements to small movement around a few tones. Jayryme delivers a cheeky and amusing performance – much like I Anbassa, being focused on the club not the lounge. Of note is his enunciation – clipping certain notes extremely precisely to ensure the lyrics are crystal clear and making sure every word can be heard. He’s also done some high-quality work on the backing vocal lines, too – ensuring they marry perfectly with his main vocal (not always an easy thing to pull off). Overall, Everybody Happy is a head-bouncing closing to the riddim – and showcases Jayryme’s entertaining talent well.
X Ova Riddim is a quality piece of work from Three Lake Music and Anotha One. It’s a very smart bridging of the gaps between Reggae and modern Dancehall. The minor key works well; the composition is curiously interesting and the production and engineering skilled. But moreover, the selection of artists is inspired, too – as it veers from Jah Wyz’s more traditional sound to full-on young, fresh AfroDancehall with Jayryme via the more subtle places in between. It’s also good to see a selection of Dancehall tracks without slackness or references to violence; often important but not always necessary. A great cut which speaks volumes about both these label’s, and the artists’, capabilities.
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X Ova Riddim review by Mr Topple (9th December 2020).