Hot Alien Ammunition 

Local selectas confront dancehall's gray-market economy.

For DJ Smoke One, collecting dubplate "specials" is a passion. Over the last six years, he's meticulously built up his collection of unique versions of dancehall reggae hits personally voiced by top artists like Junior Reid, Cutty Ranks, Sizzla, Louie Culture, Ninjaman, Luciano, Yami Bolo, and Yellowman. He's traveled to New York, Miami, and Jamaica to track down people with connections, usually studio engineers or acquaintances (called "runners"), in addition to obtaining specials from Jamaican musicians passing through the Bay Area.

Personalized dubplates are important to Smoke One (or any dancehall selecta, for that matter) because of the highly competitive nature of the genre and its sound systems. A dubplate, he says, is "ammunition" that helps him "maintain dominance in the dance," exciting audiences while discouraging rivals. The tradition of specialized dubplates dates back to the earliest days of dancehall, when acetate 45s would be pressed up in preparation for a dance. They come in especially handy for soundclash battles — a wicked dubplate can be the difference between victory and defeat.

However, Smoke One notes that the game has changed tremendously. With the advent of the Internet, MP3s, and DJ-friendly software like Serato Scratch, the practice has gotten more technologically savvy. Acetates are no longer strictly necessary; nowadays a dubplate vendor can order a special from a runner in Jamaica, wire the payment (anywhere from $500 to $1,000, according to Smoke One) via Western Union, and receive an MP3 via e-mail within 24 hours.

Yet when you're dealing with a developing nation like Jamaica, where dire economic need can breed scam artists and hustlers, shortcuts are sometimes taken. "If you cut the artist out, a runner or engineer can make a whole lot more money," Smoke One says.

The selecta found this out the hard way when he recently contracted with one of his Jamaican connections for a special from Tanya Stephens, one of dancehall's most popular female artists. He received three MP3s and debuted one of them at "Lion Rock," the Wednesday club night at Oakland's Oasis he spins at along with the Jah Warrior Shelter crew.

At first, Smoke One couldn't discern anything amiss — the first two specials certainly sounded like Stephens. But he became suspicious after listening to the third one; it seemed a little off. So he played his MP3s to some other sound guys and, lo and behold, "it became pretty obvious these were fake or spliced dubs." As Peter Tosh might say, bumbaclaat!

Smoke One's Jamaican connection had made the mistake of not actually being in the studio with the artist, and the engineer apparently tried to pull a fast one. "What you had was an impostor trying to sound like Tanya Stephens," Smoke One explains, conceding she did a good job.

When the deception was discovered, the Jamaican connection maintained innocence and promised to deliver the real Tanya as promised; meanwhile, the fraudulent party received his comeuppance: "The engineer ended up in the hospital after a bloody fight," Smoke One relates. However, he says he'll never play the hinky MP3 again.

Dubplates are evidently serious business: The selecta's credibility is at stake, along with those of the runners and the artists. If it turned out that Stephens had anything to do with the scandal, her image could be tarnished. A recent soundclash winner who used fake Sean Paul dubplates has since lost face with the reggae community, Smoke One notes. However, he's not the only local selecta to be scammed. Other members of Jah Warrior Shelter also received inauthentic Stephens MP3s, and the problem appears to be much more widespread. According to Jah Warrior Shelter's Jah Yzer, fake dubplates "are a big thing that's happening right now ... sounds get called out on it all the time." Another problem is spliced dubs, where the same version is used for numerous specials, the only difference being the name of the sound system.

Since the field is something of a gray market economically, with no effective way to measure or ensure quality control without being physically present in the studio, the only thing an honest selecta can do is "have a solid connection with the artist," Yzer says. Yet Smoke One is considering flipping the script entirely. "To stay on top of the game, you have to keep the creativity alive," he says. The solution, as he sees it, is to tap into the local hip-hop scene, and he's been in contact with local artists (including Mistah F.A.B., Deuce Eclipse, Zion, the Pack, Tajai, T-K.A.S.H., and Trinidad) about voicing original dubplates for his 1 Blood Sound.

The end result could be a win-win situation. Selectas no longer have to worry about fraudulent MP3s, while local rap artists broaden their audience, increase their stylistic range, network with popular DJs, and make a little cash on the side. Thus the Great Dubplate Caper could turn out to be a good thing after all.

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