How To Compose Dancehall Music - The Process

The dancehall music craze is sweeping the world. But what are the best ways to compose this awesome type of electronic music?

If you’re a producer looking for tips on composing dancehall, you’re in luck: here’s an article about how to compose dancehall music from scratch.

First, though, let’s go through a few different perspectives and some misconceptions about dancehall music.

Dancehall style is different from “traditional” dancehall music

person playing drums

Although most of us associate dancehall with Jamaican-style reggae, there are some great examples of both that are featured on this list, which will help you distinguish the roots of dancehall from the pop appeal.

Jamaican dancehall is essentially the sounds and the dance styles created by artists like Buju Banton and Shaggy during the 90’s and early 2000’s. You will see these influences in the songs from the current crop of popular artists, too.

You will also see some noticeable differences between dancehall and “traditional” Jamaican reggae. One of these is the use of electric guitars, which add some funky flair and switch-up the traditional reggae sound a little.

Additionally, most people consider dancehall to be a dance, but that’s not really the case, as many dancehall songs don’t even include a distinct dance style. In fact, some dancehall songs have been played on a reggae radio station only to be completely and utterly crushed by dancehall’s much more popular hit songs.

For this reason, some DJ’s and producers will simply dub an urban reggae remix or an urban hip hop remix (which could use some dancehall influences) and call it a day.

You might be surprised to know that reggae/dancehall music also became popular in America in the mid-90s (it was used to soundtrack classic Jamaican-style reggae films like To Pimp a Butterfly).

The music features lots of fast, uptempo beats, lots of drums, a bass, a singer, and a lot of singing.

Dancehall is not a “new” genre

The short answer is: yes. Yes it is. The long answer is: the word “dancehall” was originally used to describe the traditional style of Jamaican reggae, and its original purpose was to differentiate that style from ska, dub, and rock-steady.

Before this, though, there were similar rhythms and sounds being used all over the world in every music style, including punk rock and, yes, American country music. All those rhythms and sounds ultimately ended up being merged to create what we now know as “dancehall”.

As the definition of dancehall spread around the world, new variants and different styles arose, like sha ga in Japan and tamil ga in the UK. Eventually, the word “dancehall” would become a catch-all term to refer to just about any African music with drums, guitar, bass, and a singer.

Whether you think that’s a good or bad thing is up to you. Either way, dancehall music is alive and well. The most recent Billboard Hot 100 top ten dancehall song was Flume’s “Never Be Like You” in 2016.

How to compose dancehall music

Photo of a copper audio mixer

When it comes to writing dancehall music, there are a few different approaches:

“The Reggae Rhythm Approach”

The first approach is the “reggae rhythm approach”.

This approach is the simplest and easiest to understand. It consists of a bass, a horn, a high-pitched singer, a vocal percussionist, and a loose drum beat.

You’re basically just going for a super fun, basic sound. It might sound simple, but making the dancehall sound work on the radio is no small task.

The song must be arranged so that each part of the song perfectly sounds like one cohesive sound instead of pieces of a song.

The most common mistake of this approach is putting the vocal percussionist and horn player too close to the guitar player. If the vocal percussionist is right next to the guitar player, it will sound muddy, and the vocals won’t have a distinct space to work in.

Also, this is the exact type of “dancehall-er” song that is super hard to play on the radio.

On the flip side, if the vocal percussionist is on a different mic than the guitar player, it will sound a little more interesting. Then again, it will probably sound a little “old man-y”.

“The Latino Rhythmic Approach”

This is the opposite of the “reggae rhythm approach”. Instead of a group of instruments, the second approach focuses more on a single instrument, and relies on different instruments or styles to fill in the blanks.

Each instrument is placed in a “timing box” to its own instrument. There are different instruments in each box, which are so close together that the effect is almost like a single instrument is playing a melody all the time.

For example, the bass might be placed on one box, and the vocal percussionist would be in a different box, doing a completely different style of percussion.

If you put the guitar player in the same box as the vocal percussionist, it might sound a little too “pop-y” or showy for radio.

The drums would have to be placed in different boxes, or a different drum kit would be required to achieve the same effect.

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