Under Mi Sleng Teng: The Birth Of Digital Dancehall

A tribute to Wayne Smith...

In the history of popular music, very few tracks have turned the past on its head, have tried to take what has gone before and turned it inside out.

Those early Charlie Parker recordings, perhaps. Elvis at Sun Studios. Frankie Knuckles developing the bassline for ‘Your Love’ or the Belleville Three sculpting science fiction soundscapes.

Recorded in a tiny Jamaican studio in 1985, Wayne Smith’s ‘(Under Mi) Sleng Teng’ is undoubtedly on a par with these recordings, both in terms of sheer musicality and impact.

As the 80s opened, the dying embers of roots, the fag end of the dub explosion and the more commercial end of the British born Lover’s Rock sound dominated the Jamaican music scene.

Into this mix, though, stepped Wayne Smith and King Jammy. Using the most basic of technology – a mis-firing and soon to be iconic Casio keyboard, for one – the pair cut ‘(Under Mi) Sleng Teng’, a track whose popularity is matched by its simplicity. Little more than stabbing chords and a wobbly bassline, it immediately took off and fired up crowds across Jamaica.

Not the first digital track in JA history – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry began those experiments in the early 70s – the astonishing success of ‘(Under Mi) Sleng Teng’ marked a line in the sand. The usual coteries of studio musicians were out, and digital technology was in.

It’s perhaps overstepping the mark to suggest that without the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim digital dancehall wouldn’t exist. The movement was already in its primordial stage, and simply needed a spark, an ignition point – Wayne Smith supplied it, and in doing so lit a trail which extends beyond ragga, beyond jungle and into grime and dubstep.

The Heatwave mainstay Gabriel picks five vital versions of the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim in honour of Wayne Smith, who passed away yesterday (February 17th).

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Wayne Smith - Under Me Sleng Teng
The one that started it all off for Wayne Smith and King Jammy. Read Wayne Smith's own account of how it was built and the impact it caused when first played HERE.

Anthony Red Rose - Under Me Fat Thing
The first counteraction, produced by King Jammy's former mentor King Tubby. The sparseness of the re-versioned riddim is brilliant.

Ninjaman - Murder Dem
Another brilliant reimagining of the classic 'Sleng Teng' bassline; this time with a much busier drum pattern and the addition of one the greatest MCs ever to touch a microphone.

Durrty Goodz - Pardon
Why is Sleng Teng consistently chosen as one of the all time great dancehall riddims? Because MCs LOVE to spit on it, whether they're more comfortable with dancehall, hip hop, jungle or grime.

SL2 - Way In My Brain
A great reminder of the importance of dancehall in rave culture (SL2 also sampled UK dancehall hit 'Walk & Skank' for their huge smash 'On A Ragga Tip').

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