Sharp Darts: Space Dancehall | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: Space Dancehall 

MC Zulu works on Planet Lazer Bass, but he lives right here.

MC Zulu talks the way you want a dancehall rapper to talk. Whether he's toasting over cut-up dubstep beats or answering your dumbest questions in a booth at the Rainbo, his deep growl has such a distinctively Caribbean lilt that you keep expecting him to slip into patois—he reminds me of modern reggae lions like Bounty Killer and Shabba Ranks. But Zulu, real name Dominique Rowland, just has the accent, not the vocabulary—he spent his early childhood in Panama and moved to Chicago when he was nine.

He started making beats in the early 90s, first producing house tracks for local DJs, then branching out into hip-hop. He's been rapping just as long, but after a few open mikes he decided he'd rather sharpen his skills as a dancehall deejay—the preferred term in much of the Caribbean for what's called an MC in American hip-hop—out of the public eye. He didn't emerge again till the end of the decade, and since then—though still stuck in the untropical midwest and barely recognized in Chicago—he's become a respected figure in a small but significant dance-music scene with global reach. He's philosophical about this odd career path: "There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he says. "There's just pieces of gold along the path. You pick them up and at the end you have a pot."

The scene Zulu calls home is the one that gave birth to what New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones has christened "lazer bass"—a sort of club music for futurists that literalizes the one-world dreams of Internet utopians by combining geographically distinct subgenres from several continents. It blends dancehall with American hip-hop, UK grime, reggae-influenced electronic styles like dubstep and jungle, and maybe a dozen or so other idioms, from electro to fidget house to South African kwaito. With so many component parts, it might seem that lazer bass could sound like almost anything, but the genre has a few unifying elements: insanely, hilariously deep bass lines and goofy, colorful synth voices that are sometimes more like sound effects than actual musical tones.

Like a lot of people, I discovered Zulu through lazer-bass progenitor Ghislain Poirier, the Montreal producer and DJ whose single "Go Ballistic" features his high-energy rapping. Unlike Baltimore club or Detroit ghettotech, lazer bass doesn't have roots in a place, but a few of its best practitioners—most notably Poirier and the duo Megasoid—come from Montreal. Before I knew who Zulu was, I figured he was probably from Montreal too, or maybe Jamaica—I knew that Jamaican deejays had embraced online collaboration and were working with dancehall-minded producers from all over. When I heard Zulu was from Chicago, I had to look him up myself before I believed it—our town isn't exactly known for its love of dancehall. Since the mid-90s the city's dancehall scene has basically consisted of the Deadly Dragon Sound System or whatever those guys have been doing since it split up—and even Rik Shaw's Jamaican night at Sonotheque has been defunct for years.

Zulu says he actually prefers working here, as opposed to a city with a large Jamaican population like New York or Toronto. Because there's little competition and no pressure to conform to an existing scene, he can do whatever he wants. The only real drawback is that old-model media and label types would never think to look here for somebody like him. "I would describe Chicago as a field of wildflowers," he says. "As opposed to being a cultured garden where you have this kind of flower in this section and that kind of flower in that section. That's what the music industry needs—they need a quote-unquote culture in an area for them to recognize something's going on."

When Zulu started putting out records in 1999—"self-released, sell-on-the-streets type of things," he says—his rapping style and backing tracks were more or less in line with the dancehall fashions of the time. A lot of factors have played a part in the transformation his music has undergone since then, but none has been more important than the evolution of the Internet. The biggest influence on his style and career, he says, has been MySpace.

"I have to give it up to Tom from MySpace," Zulu says. "He's done more for music than anybody. Before MySpace, social networking was about getting laid. I wasn't part of that. I didn't have no BlackPlanet page or none of that. I'm trying to push my music." Zulu's MySpace hustle is behind pretty much every collaboration he's done since he signed up. He found Poirier through MySpace, as well as local roots-reggae band the Drastics, whose live shows and records he's been a regular part of for years. It's also how he hooked up with genre-smashing local producer DJ C, aka Jake Trussell, the man he gives credit for "changing everything," guiding him from relatively straightforward dancehall into something weirder and better.

In mainstream Jamaican dancehall, a popular riddim will get passed from studio to studio during the few weeks or months it's in fashion, for any interested deejay to sing over. Zulu says he's almost never had access to any of that material, and when he met DJ C online about three years ago, he'd already started getting ideas that might never have occurred to him if he'd been in the loop all along. He was especially inspired by British rapper Roots Manuva, whose seminal albums in the late 90s and early aughts injected dancehall and hip-hop with electronic sounds from club music's avant-garde fringe, laying the foundation for styles like grime and dubstep. DJ C helped Zulu turn this nascent vision into an aesthetic that sometimes seems like it can absorb anything—well, almost anything. "I'm not going to sing reggae over polka," Zulu says. "Maybe as a joke."

The slew of material Zulu and DJ C have released covers an impressive range, from digital dancehall to jungle-tinged electro, but their latest collaboration, the Gods&Robots mix tape, is their most ambitious. They sent a cappella tracks from Zulu to a dozen producers around the world—producers he met through MySpace, naturally—and then DJ C worked their finished cuts, along with a few songs he and Zulu did themselves, into a seamless hour-long mix. It takes hairpin turns through electro-laced reggae, old-school jungle, and chattering beats that manage to combine the herky-jerky wildness of grime and the straight-up banging of Baltimore club. But Zulu holds it together—his punchy, hard-ass vocals, heavy but still nimble, make all the different styles sound like part of the same aesthetic.

This kind of adaptability has become a basic tenet of his personal philosophy. "You need to take the shape of whatever vessel you have in front of you," he says. "You gotta be pliable. At birth we are pliable. At death we are rigid and dried up. If you're a rigid and dried-up person you are flirting with death."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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