Riddim

king jammy

Riddim is the Jamaican Patois pronunciation of the English word ‘rhythm,’ but in dancehall/reggae parlance it refers to the instrumental accompaniment to a song. Thus, a dancehall song consists of the riddim plus the ‘voicing’ (vocal part) sung by the deejay (not to be confused with disc jockeys who select and play music, and are called selectors in Jamaica). The resulting song structure may be taken for granted by dancehall fans, but is in many ways unique. A given riddim, if popular, may be used in dozens—or even hundreds—of songs, not only in recordings, but also in live performances. Some ‘classic’ riddims, such as ‘Nanny Goat’ and ‘Real Rock’ are essentially the accompaniment tracks to the original 1960s reggae songs with those names. 

Since the 1980s, however, riddims started to be originally composed by producers/beatmakers, who give the riddims original names and, typically, contract artists to ‘voice’ over them. Thus, for example, ‘Diwali’ is the name not of a song, but of a riddim created by Lenky Marsden, subsequently used as the basis for several songs, such as Sean Paul’s ‘Get Busy’ and Bounty Killer’s ‘Sufferer.’ Riddims are the primary musical building blocks of Jamaican popular songs. At any given time, ten to fifteen riddims are widely used in dancehall recordings, but only two or three of these are the now ‘ting’ (the latest riddims that everyone must record over if they want to get them played in the dance or on radio). In dancehall performing, those whose timing is right on top of the rhythm are said to be ‘ridding di riddim.’

In other musical contexts, a riddim would be called a groove or beat. In most cases the term riddim is used in reference to the entire background track or rhythm section, but in older roots riddims, riddim is used to reference a certain bass line and drum pattern. Often a melody is associated with the riddim, and occasionally an artist will produce two different songs with the same riddim (e.g. Elephant Man’s ‘Ele Melody’ and ‘Father Elephant’ were both produced using the Kopa riddim, produced by Supa Dups). Some urban contemporary songs may become riddims as well. The instrumental of Ne-Yo’s ‘Miss Independent’ has become a popular riddim; many dancehall artists have recorded songs using the track. Other songs have inspired riddims too, such as George Michael’s song ‘Faith,’ which became a riddim of the same name, and R. Kelly’s ‘Snake,’ which became the Baghdad riddim.

African in origin, riddims can generally be categorized into three types. One of the oldest types of riddim is the ‘classical riddim’ providing roots reggae, dub and lovers rock with instrumentals, such as Bam Bam, produced by Sly & Robbie. The second type is the ‘ragga riddim’ backing raggamuffin and dancehall songs, such as the Juice riddim, produced by Richard ‘Shams’ Browne. The third type is the ‘digital riddim,’ such as Sleng Teng, produced by King Jammy, were created around the time that Jamaican producers incorporated drum machines and synthesizers into reggae-music production. Presently, however, most dancehall and soca riddims are created by electronic instruments, so, in essence, almost all are digital. Different producers often develop their own versions of the same riddim, such as the Punani riddim, which has distinct versions crafted by Steely & Clevie and by Ward 21, and different artists often perform on top of the same riddims with different lyrics and different vocal styles, ranging from singing to toasting (the act of talking or chanting, usually in a monotone melody).

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