Meet the Producers Who Brought Dancehall Back to the Charts In 2016

Dancehall, a sound largely absent from the charts in recent years, re-emerged in new ways in 2016, with big names like Justin Bieber (“Sorry”; “Cold Water” with Major Lazer), Rihanna (“Work”) and Drake (“Controlla,” “One Dance,” “Too Good”) riding island rhythms to multi-format ubiquity. Here’s a look at the producers who got American listeners back on the Caribbean wave.

Sevn Thomas
Age:
25
Hometown: Toronto
Breakthrough Track: Drake, “10 Bands” (2015)
2016 Hit: Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”

Rupert “Sevn” Thomas grew up immersed in Jamaican sound system culture. His Jamaican-born parents were DJs, and his uncle was dancehall artist Rappa Robert; he was a child reggae singer before taking up hip-hop beats as he got older. When tropical house hit in 2015, Thomas says he and frequent collaborator Boi-1da saw an opportunity that would lead to them coming together to produce “Work.” “We were hearing tropical sounds and we wanted to authenticate it, and put our spin to it.”

“Work” has opened doors for Thomas, who also produced Drake’s “Pop Style” this year, but he doesn’t intend to exploit the trend by flooding the market with more dancehall-inspired pop. “It’s almost like the industry has become saturated by people chasing ‘Work’ and trying to reproduce the same results,” Thomas says. “That song is one of a kind for a reason. Rihanna is actually West Indian, Drake understands the culture, PartyNextDoor is half Jamaican, I’m Jamaican, Boi-1da is Jamaican. It wasn’t forced.”

Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor
Age: 26
Hometown: Kingston, Jamaica
Breakthrough Track: Mavado, "Weh Dem Ah Do" (2006)
2016 Hit: Drake, “Controlla”

The son of reggae great Freddie McGregor, Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor has been producing professionally since he was 12. At 15, he ushered in a new era of dancehall with tracks like Mavado’s “Weh Dem Ah Do” (No. 27, Hip-Hop/R&B, Dec. 2006), bringing forth a darker-hued, orchestral approach to the genre. Now based in Miami, McGregor has added Ne-Yo, Estelle, Nelly Furtado, Lianne La Havas and Shakira to his client list, while remaining one of dancehall’s most sought-after rhythm makers. “Controlla,” his highest-charting credit, grew from a group session at Miami’s Circle House Studio with Supa Dups and OVO producers including Boi-1da. “Me and Boi-1da got into a room together, and made a ton of tracks — maybe five, six beats,” he recalls. “When we made the beat for 'Controlla,' I remember he put it aside and said, ‘I think Drake is gonna like this one…'"

Jr Blender
Age: 37
Hometown: Hamburg, Germany
Breakthrough Track: Major Lazer feat. MØ and DJ Snake, “Lean On” (2015)
2016 Hit: Major Lazer feat. Justin Bieber and MØ, “Cold Water”

Germany’s Jr Blender (Philip Meckseper) was best known for bootleg reggae remixes of Rihanna and Bruno Mars songs when he was recruited by Diplo to work on original tracks for Major Lazer three years ago. Since then, Blender has co-produced “Lean On” (2015) and “Cold Water,” the dancehall-inspired EDM outfit’s biggest hits to date. Each peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, and both blend dembow -- the Jamaican-originated drum pattern that’s also the heartbeat of reggaeton -- with soothing, Eastern-inspired melodies. “I spent maybe the last 20 years studying Jamaican music and trying to sound as authentically Jamaican as possible for a white guy from Germany,” says Blender, who also produced within the duo So Shifty. “It was relieving and fun for me to make something else but apply the things I learned making reggae on other music.” Now residing in L.A., he’s part of the core production team, along with Diplo and King Henry, working on Major Lazer’s upcoming fourth album, Music Is the Weapon.

Boi-1da
Age: 30
Hometown: Toronto
Breakthrough Track: Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (2009)
2016 Hits: Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”; Drake, “Controlla”

Matthew “Boi-1da” Samuels is among the most accomplished hip-hop producers of his generation, with credits for Jay ZKanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and his day-one client, Drake. The “Best I Ever Had” beatmaker, who moved to Toronto from Jamaica at age three, added another feather to his OVO cap this year as Rihanna’s “Work,” co-produced with Sevn Thomas, Allen Ritter, Kuk Harrell and Noah “40” Shebib, spent nine weeks atop the Hot 100, the singer’s longest-reigning No. 1. Musically rooted in Jamaican producer Richie Stephens’ "Sail Away" rhythm from 1998, “Work” preceded a ‘90s dancehall nostalgia wave (See also: Tory Lanez’s “LUV,” Fifth Harmony’s “All In My Head”) while warming radio up for the dancehall-lite singles from Drake’s Views, including Samuels’ own contribution, “Controlla.”

Cashmere Cat
Age: 29
Hometown: Halden, Norway
Breakthrough Track: Ariana Grande, “Be My Baby” (2014)
2016 Hits: Tory Lanez, “LUV”; Kanye West, “Wolves”

Though the producer already has serious pop bona fides — most recently, via four songs on The Weeknd’s Starboy — he’s always had an ear for dancehall, citing Alkaline and Tommy Lee Sparta as some of his contemporary favorites. "I'd been playing this kind of music for a really long time, because all our DJ sets are just every kind of dance music,” he says. “But [“LUV”] was the first time I actually produced a song that really felt great like that.” The ­beatmaker, born Magnus Høiberg, cites fellow Norwegians Stargate (Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen) as the people who inspired him to experiment with Caribbean music. "They made authentic-sounding songs, and they're literally from the place I grew up,” he says. "They paved the way not just for me trying to do dancehall, but for Norwegian producers in general." 

Hoiberg says the Top 40 trend is "something that happens in waves, because [dancehall]'s incredibly catchy and global.” He adds, "I feel like right before this happened, every producer was like 'When is fucking dancehall coming back?’” Sean Paul hopped on the “LUV” remix, which thrilled Høiberg. “My very first dancehall record turned into a Sean Paul song, which is really out of control.”

Nineteen85
Age: 31
Hometown: Scarborough, Ontario
Breakthrough Track: Drake, “Hold On We’re Going Home” (2013)
2016 Hits: Drake, “One Dance,” “Too Good” feat. Rihanna; PartyNextDoor’s “Not Nice”

Paul Jefferies, known as Nineteen85, has worked with Drake since 2013’s Nothing Was The Same, but on Views he made himself indispensable. In addition to a solo production credit for “Hotline Bling,” he brought Drake his first Hot 100 No. 1 with “One Dance” (co-produced by Noah “40” Shebib and featured artist Wizkid) blending dancehall, Afrobeats and U.K. funky house for one of 2016’s truly global hits. Caribbean sounds were also central to Views single “Too Good” (featuring Rihanna, and co-produced with Supa Dups and Maneesh Bidaye) and PartyNextDoor’s “Not Nice” (also with Supa Dups), which sample dancehall stars Popcaan and Vybz Kartel, respectively. Jefferies, whose mother is Jamaican, says there was no master plan on his part. “I think a lot of it is timing — music always goes in cycles,” he says. “We had the Sean Paul/Elephant Man/Shaggy/Beenie Man takeover in the early 2000s, so it was gonna happen again sooner or later. Toronto has so much influence on music right now, and Toronto's urban music scene has always been heavily influenced by reggae.”

Supa Dups
Age:
“Age is nothing but a number”*
Hometown: Miami by way of Kingston, Jamaica
Breakthrough Track: Nina Sky, “Turnin’ Me On” (2004)
2016 Hits: Drake, “Controlla” and “Too Good” feat. Rihanna; PartyNextDoor, “Not Nice”

The founder of Miami sound system (or DJ crew) Black Chiney, Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin-Quee transitioned into production a decade ago after a series of game-changing mixtapes featuring his hip-hop remixes of dancehall hits. (Diplo has called Black Chiney an inspiration for Major Lazer, whose Walshy Fire got his start with the collective). The Kingston native has produced tracks spanning reggae, R&B and hip-hop for Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Sean Paul, Eminem, John Legend and Juicy J over the last decade but 2016 brought things full circle as his production for Drake (“Controlla,” “Too Good”) and PartyNextDoor (“Not Nice”) helped solidify the dancehall trend in hip-hop and R&B. Supa Dups cites growing camaraderie and increased cooperation between producers of West Indian descent as one reason for the revival. “We were friends for a long time, and this whole reggae sound started to come around,” he says of long-running relationships with people like “Controlla” collaborator Boi-1da and Nineteen85, his co-producer on “Too Good” and “Not Nice.” “Drake is always intrigued by the Caribbean sound so were all like 'why not all get together and make it happen.'”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.

Billboard Year in Music 2016