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Riddim is the Jamaican Patois pronunciation of the English word "rhythm". In reggae, dancehall, calypso, soca, grime, and reggaeton parlance it refers to the instrumental accompaniment to a song. These genres consist of the riddim plus the "voicing" (vocal part) sung by the deejay. The resulting song structure is distinctive in many ways. A given riddim, if popular, may be used in dozens—or even hundreds—of songs, not only in recordings but also in live performances.
Since the 1970s, riddims have accompanied reggae music and through the 1980s, more widely known as dancehall. As seen in dancehall music, there is a voicing part – sung by the DJ – over some riddim that has probably been widely used in many other songs. There is a unique establishment in the combination of riddims and voicing. This redistribution of riddims creates a complexity of diasporic transference through the constant re-versions which could be comparable to hip-hop’s use of sampling. The situation is certainly different from U.S. hip-hop as the redistribution of riddims is relative to the Jamaican culture that relied heavily on sound systems and studio production. With redistribution, there has been a tricky history with copyright laws in Jamaica. Since the culture heavily relied on sound systems and vinyl records since the early beginning, there was not a heavy implementation of copyright protections. Throughout the 70s and 80s, there still remained no formal copyright system, as the work of producers on various records remained often anonymous.
By 1993, Jamaica finally established a copyright act, but producers still face difficulty in establishing profit. Through proper registration, many artists now work on negotiating their royalties and taking it more seriously. The unique nature of dancehall and riddims have been highly influential on the numerous remixes that now circulate R&B and hip-hop music.
Some classic riddims, such as "Nanny Goat" and "Real Rock" both produced by Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, are essentially the accompaniment tracks of 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 Steven "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 (i.e., 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 riding di riddim.
The bass culture of Jamaican sonic sensibilities is characterized with less emphasis on melody and large emphasis on the drum beats and low frequency bass vibrations to draw attention to the social grounding to the culture. These aspects of Jamaican music are expressed visually through the Dancehall choreography and its African inspired folk traditions, which emphasize earthly connection through flat-footed stamping and “bumper-grinding sexually explicit choreography, where the bass note is struck by the body itself—displaying its fecundity and celebrating its fertility” This bass culture is also embodied sonically by the music’s heartbeat, the bass lines often described as riddims, produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These riddims offer a sonic foundation on top of which different other sounds are incorporated to form innumerable versions.
Riddims are the instrumental backgrounds of reggae, lovers rock, dub, ragga, dancehall, soca, bouyon, and also reggaeton, which itself is largely based on the Dem Bow and Poco riddims by Steely & Clevie from the early 1990s, feature a riddim, such as Ivy Queen and Sasha's "Dat Sexy Body", which uses the Bookshelf riddim produced by Tony Kelly of the K-Licious reggae label.
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). Riddims began forming popular in the early 1960s with the evolving role of the DJ. The work of DJs became less of shouting throughout points during a song, but more focused on an aesthetic with the voicings over these instrumental riddims. A specific DJ, DJ U-Roy, revolutionized the practice with studio recordings of these DJ voicings as his recordings skyrocketed on the charts in Jamaica in the 70s, thus leading to the beginning stages of dancehall. Riddims, therefore, became the standard practice for dancehall as it has progressed. Today, the same practices combining riddim and voicing still takes precedence in dancehall. Other live performances like at clubs or along the streets feature the use of sound systems in which there are usually medleys of different songs that all use the instrumental accompaniment.
Some urban contemporary songs may become riddims as well. The instrumental of Ne-Yo's "Miss Independent" became a popular riddim; many dancehall artists have recorded songs using the track. Other songs have inspired riddims as well, such as George Michael’s song “Faith", which became a riddim of the same name, The Cure's song "Close to Me", which became the Cure riddim, and R. Kelly’s "Snake", which became the Baghdad riddim. JoJo's "Baby It's You" inspired a hip hop fusion riddim in the mid-2000s.
African in origin (see clave (rhythm) and bell pattern), 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, Punaany Riddim & Duck Riddim produced by King Jammy.
So-called digital riddims refer to riddims created around the time that Jamaican producers incorporated drum machines and synthesizers into reggae-music production (e.g. Big Stage Riddim - produced by Penthouse Records). Nowadays, however, most dancehall and soca riddims are created by electronic instruments, so, in essence, almost all are digital.
A number of riddims take their name and influence from African-Jamaican religious drumming such as the Kumina riddim, created in 2002 by Sly and Robbie, and Burru. In creating riddims, there are many popular digital techniques that producers will use. For example, the Korg Triton keyboard and the Akai MPC are used often to create drum patterns, as well as other popular software and digital programs that Jamaican engineers are utilizing. Not only is digital software used, but acoustic instruments still are very important. In creating the instrumentals, usually riddims are created first and then the voicing part will take place afterward. There's fluidity in the fact that a riddim could have so many different voicings attached and on the flip side, a certain voicing could have so many different riddims which again reflects the diasporic transference.
Different producers often develop their own versions of the same riddim, such as the Punaany riddim, which has distinct versions crafted by Steely & Clevie and by Ward 21, the Buzz Riddim, which was produced by Troyton Rami & Roger Mackenzie and officially launched dancehall rapper Sean Paul into superstardom ("Gimme the Light" from the Buzz Riddim won them their first Grammy for Best Reggae Album). Different artists often perform on top of the same riddims with different lyrics and different vocal styles, ranging from singing to toasting. As an example, Beenie Man's song "My Wish", Mr. Vegas' song "Go Up", and T.O.K.'s "Man a Bad Man" are all based on the Juice riddim. Many riddims are named after the song that was recorded on that instrumental track for the first time (or, in some cases, the song that becomes the most popular on a given riddim). For example, the Satta Massagana riddim is named after the Abyssinians' original song "Satta Massagana".
Notable reggae producers include:
Since 2000, Greensleeves Records has released a series of compilation albums, based on new and occasionally classic riddims, known as Greensleeves Rhythm Album series. In 2001, VP Records followed suit, releasing the Riddim Driven series. Also following suit was the Jet Star label, with its Riddim Rider series.
- Goodman, Steve (2009). Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, p.161. ISBN 0-262-01347-9; and Manuel, Peter, and Wayne Marshall (2006). "The Riddim Method: Aesthetics, Practice, and Ownership in Jamaican Dancehall," in Popular Music 25(3), pp. 447-70.
- Stolzoff, Norman C. (2000). Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica, p.126. ISBN 0-8223-2514-4.
- Henriques, Julian (July 2008). "Sonic diaspora, vibrations, and rhythm: thinking through the sounding of the Jamaican dancehall session" (PDF). African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal. 1 (2): 215–236. doi:10.1080/17528630802224163. S2CID 14966354.
- Martin, Billy and Thress, Dan (2006). Riddim: Claves of African Origin, p.4. ISBN 0-9673098-4-0.
- Ryman, Cheryl (2014). "Kumina". In Horn, David (ed.). Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 9: Genres: Caribbean and Latin America. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781441132253.