We wrap musical genres around us as personal identifiers, like the plastic bracelets folded around newborns’ wrists. Their grooves become as familiar to us as our own heartbeat. So, to some steeped in the revolutionary associations of Jamaican music, hearing the one drop riddim blast out of regular old pop radio on a song like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” meant betrayal; dancehall had been hijacked and given a bizarre transplant in order to sound like some new entity called “tropical house.”
Hence the shock of seeing the bespectacled singer-songwriter beaming amidst the inner circle of today’s Caribbean musicians—Damian and Stephen Marley, Wyclef Jean, Chronixx, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sizzla, and more—on the cover of the 2017 anthology Tropical House Cruises to Jamaica. A conceptual compilation, it set out to remind listeners of the original identity of tropical house by pulling together the style’s forebears alongside those they had influenced, like Sheeran.
Whether despite or because of the pop star’s contributions, the disc became surprisingly successful, especially considering it was the first release on a new indie label, Contractor/Amada Records. The buzz led to its founder, a Jamaican marketer, producer, and entrepreneur named Sean “Contractor” Edwards, releasing a thematic companion piece, Hip Hop Cruises to Jamaica. Try hearing the two compilations together with another recent anthology, Step Forward Youth, on the venerable reggae label VP, which unites tracks that inspired the scrappy mid-1970s alliance between British punks and Rastas. These three collections clinch the significance of one Caribbean island in altering the evolution of pop. They also function as a focus for debate: Who gets to reap the rewards when creativity spreads and mutates? Do cultural leaps forward come down to individual Great Originators, or can they “belong” to the communities they have built, as well as to their place of origin? And, above all, who should—and does—get paid when an underground sound rages around the world?