What is a “Riddim” or Where Do I Get That Song?

I want to address some basic issues that, as a DJ, people have asked me in regards to urban music in general, and specifically to what is generally called “dancehall” music. I’m not going to go into what really defines something as dancheall at this point, because it can get a little messy, depending on whose definition you are using. I’ll leave that for a future entry.

In promoting and playing dancehall and other music, besides the usual “what song did you play?” questions, one of the biggest questions I hear is “where do I get that”?  Though Shazam does work for a lot of music, there is a lot it doesn’t seem to work for and to be able to navigate the world of dancehall music, it helps to understand some basic principles.

The Jamaican record industry works on principles that are a little different from the US.  Here in the US most artists release songs or “singles” that come out by themselves or as a preview of a number of songs that form an “album”.  Most of the time the instrumental or backing track of a song is unique, meaning it is separate and copyrighted and different from other artists songs.  Artists frequently do “cover songs” where an artist redoes another artist’s song in their own special way, but usually the lyrics and melody are very similar to the original, even if the artist gives it their own flavor.

Here is the original version of the Nine Inch Nails Song “Hurt” and a cover version by Johnny Cash. The similarities should be obvious. Johnny Cash did not take the backing music and write new lyrics, he put his own spin on them.

However one prevalent aspect of the Jamaican record industry is that a producer will either make or acquire an instrumental backing track and record several different artists who write DIFFERENT lyrics using the same instrumental backing track. The instrumental backing track is called a “riddim”.

Here is one of THE most massively successful riddims ever produced, the Diwali riddim produced by Steven “Lenky” Marsden (follow him on twitter @LenkyMarsden) This is the instrumental version of it with no one singing or speaking over it.

And here is Sean Paul’s “voicing” or lyrics added to that Diwali instrumental backing track to make his hit single “Get Busy”.

Don’t get fooled by the introduction. Producers will sometimes alter the introduction or certain other elements of the riddim for a particular artist. We don’t have time to get into the whole issue in this blog post but a number or riddims are “refixes” or reinterpretations of previous riddims. Some are inspired by older riddims or songs and some actually sample elements, melodies etc. from previous ones. Here is Wayne Wonder’s song, “No Letting Go” that has a different intro from the Sean Paul voicing, but then goes right into the Diwali instrumental at (0:38).

And here is Lumidee’s voicing called “Uh Oh” with the basic riddim stripped down and slightly altered:

And here is the artist Bounty Killer’s voicing on the Diwali riddim called “Sufferer”

So as you can hopefully see, the original instrumental riddim is “voiced” over by a number of artists. There are a number of other artists who voiced on this riddim as well, as you can see by the “cover” of the riddim including Tanya Stephens, Beenie Man and T.O.K. All of these artists wrote their own lyrics to the same riddim and recorded them as separate songs with the same instrumental backing track.

Understanding what a riddim is and how they work is key to understanding “Where Do I Get That?” Riddims are usually released with all the voicings a producer has recorded together under the name of the riddim. And riddims are named after pretty near anything you could think of. Most of the time the “album” title of a riddim recording album is just the name of the riddim. So for example the album name of the riddim we just heard is the “Diwali Riddim”. If you type “Diwali Riddim” into the search field on Apple Music the album, released by Greensleeves, will come up. (Interestingly if you do the same thing in Spotify you will get a bunch of playlists that feature songs from the Diwali Riddim but the actual Greensleeves release isn’t on there.)

This is one reason why a song can be hard to find. Also a DJ or selecta may juggle (mix together) several voicings on the same riddim and it may sound like one big song. If they are doing a good job mixing, it may sound seamless. Here’s an example of a produced mix of the Diwali voicings by DJ Easy Mixmaster.

It’s important to note that not all songs are released in dancehall on riddims. Singles with their own unique backing tracks are also very popular, and a number of artists also release regular albums. A song could be a song on an artist’s album or be a unique stand-alone single or a release from a riddim album. If you are at a dance or hear on the radio different voicings on the same backing track, odds are good that it is a song from a riddim album. To locate it you’re going to need the name of the riddim so you can look it up on Apple Music or Spotify if Shazam doesn’t work. A real selecta (DJ who selects the songs to play) will chat constantly throughout the music and at times give out names of riddims, but if they don’t you can always ask. Just please wait til your DJ finishes a mix so you don’t interrupt them!

We’ll talk more about riddims in future entries.

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