The resurgence of Dancehall culture might have been all the rage in 2016, but thanks to the legendary DJ and singer and rap extraordinaire Sister Nancy, my favorite music era is still going strong.
I got to relive a childhood dream last week (Feb. 2) during Boiler Room’s “The Nice Up” showcase. The event, composed of artists and DJ’s paying homage to the evolution of Reggae and Dancehall compositions, was held at New York’s well-known venue, The DL. The neon lights and swanky decor is a far cry from where I first discovered Nancy’s music—on a summer day at Brooklyn’s "Street Flava Records" in the late 90’s. The sweltering heat did little to shake my enthusiasm when I heard “Bam bam, ey, what a bam bam, Bam bam dilla, bam bam,” the chorus to her most known (and sampled) 1982 track, “Bam Bam.”
Curious about the song’s meaning, I scurried across the street to a wise Jamaican fellow who told me who was behind the song. What I didn’t realize until recently that “Bam Bam” was actually a response to Yellowman's track, another Dancehall great. Nancy would share the information 27 years after the song’s release in 2009.
As one of the first female dancehall DJ’s, Nancy says she wanted her debut One Two to really stand out. With tracks like “Ain’t No Stopping Nancy,” “Bam Bam” and “Only Woman DJ With Degree,” it wasn’t a tough challenge. From childhood, I always told myself that if I got a chance to see Nancy perform, I’d jump at the chance. The opportunity just so happened to be a train ride away.
If you've never attended a Boiler Room event allow me to give you a quick rundown: Boiler Room, founded in London, hosts live music events in cities all across the world. Fans are allowed to attend the event. However, it is not just a place you walk into. You must be hand selected to RSVP. Yes, my friends, you have to be chosen. While I wasn’t chosen per say, I finagled my way into the venue in a move that would make Joanne The Scammer proud.
While walking upstairs to the upper level, I was met with too cool for school types and bombastic riddims that took me back to summers in East Flatbush. It was packed so tight I could hardly make much movement but, I found a spot towards the back where I was able to vibe out to the tunes. The DJ's went through numerous reggae sets, yet, none of them had the place going crazy. The mood finally shifted as the music faded and an announcement about Nancy’s arrival spoke to me from the speakers. Here I was, years later from riding my scooter down the blocks of Brooklyn, only hearing the songs of Sister Nancy to finally being able to see her perform live. As I saw her take over the stage, Nancy shared the same sentiments I had about the music.
"Them say too much of one thing is good for nothing. I've been here like 3 hours and it's just the same type of music I've been listening to over and over,” she said. “I just come for ten minutes because that's all they told me I could get. That's what they gave me, ten minutes! So I'm just gwan spice it up for ten minutes them give me and give you something different, something original, something cultural... something nice. RUN THAT!" Standing side by side with the DJ, Nancy proceeded to freestyle over Taxi and Stalag riddims. The latter, being what made “Bam Bam” so memorable, has been sampled by over 60 artists including Chris Brown, Too $hort, Kat DeLuna and famously Kanye West, making it the most sampled reggae song of all time.
During her set, Nancy even gave us sporadic scat singing with her yardie slang, mainly using her voice as an instrument. It reminded me of how a skilled pianist switches between octaves while performing a complicated composition. “Ah me name Sister Nancy, ah me name Sister Nancy” is what she sang to the crowd before requesting the DJ to give her the Stalag riddim.
As she began to sing her "golden tune," the crowd, including myself, went wild. I jumped around and around in the not so spacious venue and sang with Nancy word for word. I began to feel like a kid again, back in East Flatbush. This moment will be remembered forever. Nancy showed why her musical legacy will live on forever and why she will always be considered one of the top Dancehall MC's. At 55 years-young, she showed us all how to really move a crowd.
Sister Nancy’s Boiler Room performance was actual proof that although art may be time dependent, true masterpieces never die. Since the artist now reportedly works at a bank and only performs a handful of times a year, I’m glad we both got to step back in time, even if it was for ten minutes.