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Under Mi Sleng Teng

  • Written by  The Guardian
Under Mi Sleng Teng

The late Wayne Smith's digital dancehall smash Under Mi Sleng Teng changed the face of Jamaican music, conquered the world and is a rough and rugged epitaph to its singer.
In the history of Jamaican popular music, Wayne Smith's Under Mi Sleng Teng is a true milestone. The song's release in 1985 kick-started a new genre and changed the island's culture almost overnight. And it was not only Jamaica that was shaken by Sleng Teng's groundbreaking digital bass line. Drawing reggae closer to the production values of US hip-hop, the track catalysed an exchange of ideas that would soon spread even further afield.
Artists from 50 Cent to the Prodigy have worked Sleng Teng into their oeuvres. To date, more than 200 versions (vocal interpretations) of the riddim (the instrumental backing track) have been released. Its original 1985 issue took the form of a seven-inch single on the Jamaican Jammys label by Smith, who died of a heart attack on 17 February, aged just 48.
As with much in reggae, the story of Sleng Teng is a complex one, with contradictory elements provided by different sources. However, the pieces of this puzzle came together in Waterhouse, a west Kingston ghetto community also nicknamed "Firehouse" for its potentially explosive instability. Bordered on three sides by sewerage gullies that feed the heavily polluted Hunt's Bay, this claustrophobic conglomeration of zinc fences, ramshackle houses and potholed streets has been riven by factionalism for decades.
Rival street gangs in the neighbourhood long sought to enforce voter allegiance to one of the island's two political parties (the left-leaning People's National party and the rightwing Jamaica Labour party). During the late 1970s when this violence was at its peak, Smith lost many friends to the bullets, and his brother was one of the men toting a gun. But music provided a way out. Smith's high tenor voice made him a favourite on the sound system circuit after he voiced a number of dubplates at the legendary engineer King Tubby's nearby studio. In 1981, when Smith was 14, his next-door neighbour, producer Lloyd "Prince Jammy" James, began to record him. The partnership yielded two albums' worth of material over the next few years, but none of it delivered a breakthrough.
Then, in late 1984, Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, a local youth who had managed to get hold of a simple Casiotone MT40 keyboard. Messing around with its "rock'n'roll" preset – a mutation of Eddie Cochran's Somethin' Else – the pair created a rudimentary rhythm track. Smith, adapting ideas explored in Barrington Levy's recent hit Under Mi Sensi, laid down a set of lyrics professing his love for skinny marijuana cigarettes and his disapproval of the harder drug cocaine. Smith and Davey quickly presented the idea to Jammy, who was at first unimpressed.
"The initial stage of this rhythm was like a buck-up," Jammy says. "They brought a small Casio keyboard to me and started to play around, but it sounded crazy. It was too fast, no rhythm section, just drum and bass going at 100 miles per hour. So I said: 'I like the sound, but it's not the right tempo for reggae music.' I slowed it down to dancing mode, then we overdubbed some piano and percussion, and that was the beginning of Sleng Teng. I knew it was going to be successful because of the sound of the rhythm, but I didn't know that it would be so much of a big hit."
A few days later Jammy unleashed the song at a clash against the rival Black Scorpio soundsystem. "We couldn't stop playing it," Jammy says. "People were loving it more and more, so I say: 'We've got to get some more artists on this riddim.' Then we started recording Johnny Osbourne, Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and the rest of the artists, and that changed the whole music scene in the 80s. That was the riddim that computerised the reggae business, and up until today, people are using computers to build reggae music."
Sleng Teng changed the way music was recorded in Jamaica. Before it, most reggae songs were initiated by a singer bringing lyrics and a melody to a producer, whose session players would work out a musical arrangement to fit the structure of the song. After it, for better or for worse, most riddims were built by technically proficient keyboard players, or those with enough technological know-how to construct a basic computerised tune. This material was often made without the input of singers or musicians, resulting in a tougher, more durable sound geared towards Jamaica's sound systems.
The new electronic style may have baffled overseas listeners at first – particularly fans of the more organic, analogue strains of roots reggae – but in Jamaica, Sleng Teng and its successors made perfect sense. In fact, this rough and rugged riddim is the foundation for the digital dancehall sound that continues to rule the roost today.

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