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Friday, December 8, 2023

How ‘Sleng Teng’ Changed Reggae



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THE DEATH of Wayne Smith, one of the great originators of reggae music, has come as a blow to those of use whose raving was invigorised by the coming of the Sleng Teng rhythm, the musical innovation that took dancehall in particular and reggae in general by the scruff and shook it up in the mid-1980s.

GENIUS: Wayne Smith who invented the ‘Sleng Teng’ rhythm
GENIUS: Wayne Smith who invented the ‘Sleng Teng’ rhythm

Reggae had always been ahead of the musical curve. Since the early 1960s when the ragtag studios of Kingston could at best only boast a four-track mixer desk (whilst their counterparts in Europe were on 24-track) the producers of reggae had to be creative.

That creativity, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at its pinnacle, turned primitive recording equipments into hubs of experimentation emitting space sounds that were out of this world. That’s why the likes of The Beatles hit the road to Jamaica from their state of the art Abbey Road studios in London’s St John’s Wood, to get that reggae vibe that only studios like Trenchtown’s Channel One, Brentford Road’s Studio One and Perry’s Black Ark could create.

The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many others followed in The Beatles footsteps because musical innovation was the name of Jamaica’s game.

Sleng Teng then was the inheritor of that tradition. It was way ahead of everything else in the musical firmament, let alone in the reggae field.

When the tune dropped, probably on Rodigan’s Capital Radio programme, the rest of the music industry was still catching up on the syndrums that Sly Dunbar had introduced nearly a decade earlier. So picture the scene when Sleng Teng dropped.

We must have been listening to the radio when we first heard it. Like I said, it was probably David ‘Ram Jam’ Rodigan who dropped it.

Back then we didn’t miss a single edition of his programme and probably still wouldn’t if he hadn’t let himself get caught up in the ‘boof-boof-baff’ of bashment runnings. But back then it was still reggae. A few people had started calling it dancehall, but back then dancehall was still reggae.

I must have been with my little bro Fola like I often was when Rodigan was on air. There was too much to take in and too much to discuss to be sitting at home listening on your own.

What I do remember clearly is that when that Sleng Teng dropped through the speakers of our transistor radio (primitive Hi-Fi in today’s terms) the whole room erupted as we jumped about the place bouncing off the walls (and most probably the ceiling) in ecstatic approval, doing the ‘horseman skaddy’, the ‘water pumpee’, the ‘cool and deadly’ and any number of reggae moves in appreciation.

It was like this digital reggae was what we had been waiting for without even knowing. It was the answer to all our problems and the solution to a tiring dancehall scene.

Who cared what the song was about? Which one of us knew what sleng teng was? That didn’t matter, it was all about the tune and the way Wayne Smith rode that digital riddim like he and it were fused.

Reggae has always been the musical innovator for all other musical forms. What you hear in reggae/dancehall today you will hear in pop/rock tomorrow. You can bet your house on it. Nowhere was that more evident than with our introduction to Wayne Smith and Under Mi Sleng Teng.

For that we have to fire a 21-gun salute to the late great.

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