Reggae fans, do yourselves a favor and add this crucial documentary to your watch list: Bad Like Brooklyn Dancehall. The film chronicles the growth of dancehall from its roots amongst Kingston sound systems to its crosspollination via the Jamaican diaspora of New York City, the borough of Brooklyn in particular. Through engaging interviews with dancehall luminaries interspersed with verité moments and previously unseen archival footage, Bad Like Brooklyn Dancehall explores how this gritty and provocative immigrant music flourished to international prominence through the work of high-profile artists such as Shaggy and Sean Paul, eventually branching out to propagate and influence multiple genres of mainstream music, including hip-hop.
In fact, Shaggy, who had himself immigrated from Jamaica to Brooklyn as a teenager, served as executive producer and brought aboard highly sought Jamaican director, Jay Will, as a producer. The two helped open the door for the Brooklyn-based filmmakers, including director, producer, cinematographer and editor, Ben DiGiacomo, co-director Dutty Vannier and writer/producer Amy DiGiacomo, to gain valuable insights from an aging generation of dancehall legends who helped build a cultural bridge between Jamaica and New York and played a significant role in the evolution of the genre.
According to Amy DiGiacomo, a close friend of the project who served as an associate producer introduced the filmmakers to Shaggy’s team so they could pitch the venture. “We spent a weekend polishing our pitch-deck and gathering a few samples from the footage we had already captured, and sent over the package,” she told me. “We heard back a few days later that Shaggy wanted to meet with us in New York, and so we got an in-person meeting to discuss the plans for the project. That’s when he told us he wanted to bring Jay Will, his creative director, on board too, and we of course jumped at the opportunity. Not long after that, we were setting up Jamaica production dates to meet with some legendary subjects that Shaggy insisted need to be in the story that we very likely otherwise would not have been able to speak to.”
As the film’s Director’s Statement/press release stated, “Many, like Shaggy, have been longing to see a film made that speaks to what dancehall has meant and still means for a New York Jamaican immigrant community and beyond.”
About Shaggy, Ben DiGiacomo said, “He was great support and inspiration, but also his constant positiveness and excitement toward the project put a fire under us. Sitting with Shaggy and Jay Will, watching the footage we had put together, we all knew at that moment we were doing something of great importance.”
The original idea for the film came from Dutty Vannier, who, after coming over from France to continue his film studies in New York, had been documenting the city’s modern-day dancehall scene with still photography. “I thought doing six months here could be a good experience before starting my professional life. I ended up falling in love with New York energy and I stayed,” he told me. “When I moved to New York, I wanted to continue going to dancehall parties like I was going to in France. One night, for some reason, I had a single-use camera in my back pocket and went out and started shooting. When I saw the result, I was like, ‘This is what I want to shoot.’ It was a way to combine my two passions. Then, I moved to Brooklyn, where there is a strong Caribbean community and the dancehall culture was more intense and interesting, and I kept going multiple times a week to parties, taking pictures, and having fun.”
Again quoting Ben DiGiacomo through the Director’s Statement/press release, “When we began our research, we found there was an opportunity and responsibility to bring attention to the layered stories we uncovered. There was an entire history and legacy that had been built and cared for by a group of Jamaican immigrants, and it had a visible, lasting impact on pop culture as we know it today…My ambition with this film has been to carefully mediate an untold story that illuminates a misunderstood Jamaican music genre, rising in popularity with younger people, so that all future generations will fully understand New York’s role in dancehall evolution.”
The director told me, “We hear at our screenings all the time that people were surprised they knew so many of the songs in the film when they thought they didn’t really know what ‘dancehall’ even was. That speaks to how the genre of dancehall has been treated over the years. There’s a line in the film where Sean Paul shares that his albums were sold in the hip-hop section at record stores because there wasn’t anywhere else to put them. Decades have passed, and despite having a huge influence on music globally, there’s not even a dancehall category at the Grammy’s. It’s this somehow overlooked genre, and we wanted this film to be a part of righting that wrong, and making people think a little more about the sound origins of the music they love so much, and just the idea of giving credit where credit is due.”
Continuing, he said, “We also felt that a lot of people unfamiliar with dancehall didn’t really know what to make of the female style of dance, and that was a main motivation for including the sequence with our dancers because it’s such a powerful artform and we felt it wasn’t always being viewed objectively or without judgment.”
Dutty Vannier added, “This genre influenced so much of the music we listen to now, yet most people don’t know about it. It’s a whole universe, and like Shaggy said in the film, that needs to be documented and given its due respect.”
Of course, undertaking an independent project with grand aspirations such as these requires a passion not just for storytelling but for the subject matter as well, and all of the filmmakers already had an appreciation for Jamaican music. Dutty Vannier and Ben DiGiacomo’s began back in their homeland. Said Vannier, “Where I’m from, in France, people are usually into electronic music like techno and house…but I was more into hip-hop at the time, and a friend of mine in high school told me that I should listen to dancehall ‘cause I might like it. Then he gave me a tape copy of Stone Love Champion Sound 98, directly jumping to sound system culture. I didn’t know anything about that, but I got hooked.”
As for Ben DiGiacomo, he said that his father was a big fan of Bob Marley, so reggae music was always playing around him growing up. “I enjoyed it then but there was something about dancehall in the late 90s that resonated with me, an unstoppable power that very few artists can match,” he said. “But back then, I had no idea that reggae and dancehall were so different culturally, since it was always packaged together. It’s really only after moving to New York that I discovered the multilayers of dancehall culture.”
Rounding out the team, Amy said she grew up listening to Shaggy and Sean Paul “without an understanding of their music being specifically dancehall or reggae.” To her, it was simply the most popular music of the time. “I even remember there being a very frequently played remix song that aggressively sampled what I now know to be Ding Dong’s ‘Bad Man Forward Bad Man Pull Up,’ but I did not know of him as an artist at that time. When I started looking into the music and the history more for this project, I realized that there was a significant influence originating in Jamaica across all of pop culture, but not a lot of recognition for it on a mainstream level. It was a really compelling place to begin my research for the film.”
Speaking of research, Amy credits her early career experience as a field researcher in Kosovo, where she co-authored a published collection of local stories about the landmark U.N. Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, with establishing her love for investigating stories and a “savviness in achieving project goals.” She said that she had to interview dozens of important people and educate herself on “their work, responsibilities, and the broader implications it had in the context of a young, post-war country” that she was visiting for the first time. “It’s not unlike my introduction to dancehall history, where I dove into important books like Professor Donna P. Hope’s Inna Di Dancehall, and Beth Lesser’s Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall in order to hold a respectable conversation with potential subjects that we hoped to interview for the film.”
As one might expect, like Amy, Ben’s previous experience in media prepared him well for this endeavor, his feature-length documentary directorial debut. He had studied sound engineering at SAE Institute in Paris but upon arriving in New York, where he had always planned to live, he met people in film and instantly fell in love with the craft because it combined all of his passions — photography, music, and “obsessively learning about everything.”
In the late 2000’s, he started working in a production company in SoHo doing a little bit of everything, which, early on, enabled him to see how things worked at a high level. He came to love being on set as much as his time spent in the edit room, where, after a few years working his way up, he became sort of a post-production wizard, from editing to animation or color grading. “I could do it all and I was doing it for the biggest advertising agencies in New York,” Ben recounted. “That helped me tremendously solidify my skills set, but I missed being on set. I had this hunger to shoot, so I started making shorts.
Immediately, Ben felt drawn to this new path. “I knew I was built to do this,” he said. “Filmmaking came naturally to me. I had a passion for photography and music and I feel that every step in my career — studying audio engineering, graphic design, and photography — was a step towards filmmaking.”
With their original vision in place of documenting the current Brooklyn dancehall scene, the crew officially began capturing footage in April, 2018 at Mush1’s infamous When Dance Was Nice Party. They continued shooting until March 2020, right before travel restrictions from the pandemic went into effect. As typical in the documentary filmmaking process, an extensive period of editing followed because the filmmakers had nearly 150 hours of shot footage and over 200 hours of archival footage across dozens of VHS tapes and Betamax, some of which they had to have professionally converted in order to even view, to whittle down.
“This film was produced a bit differently than usual,” Ben explained. “We were not looking to push a certain story at the time of shooting because we really wanted each subject to tell their whole story. It was important to cover as much as we could in each interview, so most ended up being about two hours long. You want to hear those stories directly from the ones involved, so we ended up with over 30 long interviews.”
In addition to megastars Shaggy and Sean Paul, Bad Like Brooklyn Dancehall includes captivating interviews with an impressive list of performers, selectors, studio talent, industry personnel, radio personalities and other contributors to the scene, including DJ Kool Herc, Bobby Konders, Pat McKay, Miss Pat Chin, King Jammy, Ding Dong and Bobby Digital, as well as Brooklynites Screechy Dan, Red Fox, Lion Face (aka Baby Face) of King Addies, Max Glazer, Mush1, DJ Gravy, Ricky Blaze and Lee Major from Earth Ruler Sound.
Amy added that there were some people with whom they weren’t able to coordinate schedules in order to interview, and a few they never received a response from. “There are obviously a lot more people who were integral to this story that we weren’t able to get into the film, which is hard to deal with, but as the first dancehall documentary about the NYC scene we hope people will still think it’s a good introduction.”
About the extensive archival footage they had to sift through, Ben said, “The shooting style of the tapes was to record everything in real time with very few cuts, so we really had to sit down and watch it from beginning to end, but that was a lot of fun. There were times when someone’s Sharpie markings on the tape would indicate that Shaggy, Screechy Dan or Red Fox were on the tape somewhere, so sometimes it was just a game of trying to spot the 18-year-old version of them on one of the multiple 2-hour long tapes of an all-nighter party.”
The filmmakers greatest challenge proved to be the difficult decisions of leaving memorable moments out of the final cut. With so much superlative footage, for a while, they had considered making the project a series. “Emotionally, I get very attached to sound bites and stories, so it’s hard to let them go,” Ben mentioned. “For now, we’re carefully preserving all of our additional footage because we know it contains important pieces of music history.”
The Director’s Statement mentions the goal of creating a warm, relaxed story and the film achieves this as evidenced by the congenial tone of the conversations. This doesn’t always come easy for filmmakers as it can take a lot of time to gain the trust of the participants. “For this film, everybody met with us with their guard down already, and it’s all due to Amy’s incredible work discussing with our subjects on exactly what we were doing,” Ben said. “It’s all about trust and trust is built on transparency. We took that approach from the start so we can have a wonderful moment filming with everyone. I think Amy’s work translates to the screen when you see how funny everyone is and how warm and welcoming the film ended up.”
Amy added that at the end of each interview, they would ask each interviewee to name another person that the filmmakers should contact. “I think that went a long way in terms of telling the story right, but also getting more people on board to participate rather than reaching out cold,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, everyone seemed happy to tell these stories that they recalled so fondly and had never really been asked about before, especially for a format like a feature documentary.”
As the film reveals, during its years of explosive growth, dancehall music and culture were inextricably intertwined with drug dealing, gang culture and violence. Did this connection to criminal activity tarnish the love of the music and culture for the filmmakers in any way?
“The link was certainly present, but I think also a general sign of the times,” Amy said. “We’re talking late 80s, early 90s in New York City. There was a lot of that going on that wasn’t exclusive to the dancehall scene, but the connection to drugs or violence in Brooklyn was a complex situation. We have a line in the film where Lee Majors admits that today these guys might be considered gangs, but at that time, they didn’t see them that way. That’s who was spending the money to get the venues, finance the sound systems, and promote the events, so that they would become this really special cultural staple in the city. They were almost seen as Robinhood-like figures, and even though their alleged extracurricular activities played into the broader “crack era” that New York was experiencing at the time, they were also an important lifeline connecting recent immigrants back to the culture of their homeland and supported the atmosphere that allowed the dancehall genre to really take off.”
Pointedly, Amy shared a particularly compelling moment during filming. While interviewing “Video Al,” a gentleman prominently featured due to the fact that he himself had shot hours and hours of video documenting the scene over the years which largely contributed to the archival footage utilized, they spent a lot of time talking about the Biltmore Ballroom and how it had quite a reputation for being a place where violence was known to break out. At one point, after the sit-down portion of the interview, he showed them a painting in his home that depicted Passa Passa, the well-known street dance that used to be held in Jamaica, painted by a man who goes by “Junior,” who actually happened to be visiting at the time of their shoot. Junior then came in to talk about his artwork, and when he heard they had been discussing Biltmore Ballroom, he lifted up his shirt to reveal a scar from a gunshot wound he had sustained one night partying at Biltmore. “He said it had been an unfortunate accident where he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Amy, “But it was definitely a ‘holy shit’ moment for our crew and added a very real layer to the many legends that we had heard about Biltmore.”
What started as a passion project for the three filmmakers to do “on the side” would ultimately span five years from its inception to its first unveiling this past June at Tribeca Film Festival. “After working for so long, and to see it become so much bigger than we anticipated, it’s a real accomplishment for us,” said Dutty Vannier. “Having my first film, on something that matters to me, being screened here in New York is amazing, I still can’t believe it.”
Ben said it felt “incredible” to finally bring this project to fruition. The experience of making his first feature length documentary taught him “to trust myself in the process” and “gave me confidence in my vision and in my ability to achieve that vision.”
He reflected, “I wanted to make this film so people can see their story on screen and relive the early days of dancehall in New York for the ones connected to the story,” he said. “But I also wanted this film to be a glimpse of what dancehall is for the people that have never heard of it, and more specifically, I want them to leave liking it and wanting to know more about the culture. Through our festival run we are seeing those responses and that’s really powerful.”
Currently making its rounds exclusively on the festival circuit, the filmmakers hope to have the film picked up for distribution, which would then earmark the film for select theaters throughout the country and/or make it available via various streaming platforms for mass consumption. For now, reggae fans and others interested in viewing should be sure to keep it on their radar by monitoring this link which will be updated with future viewing dates and locations.
Clips from Bad Like Brooklyn Dancehall will be featured at the upcoming event, Brooklyn Reggae Night, on Friday, January 5, at Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, NY. This event featuring bands and DJs from Brooklyn and beyond including SunDub, Mighty Mystic, Anant Pradhan, and Larry McDonald, Amy “Night Nurse” Wachtel, Digital English, and Jonnygo Figure, hopes to highlight the reggae music scene in Brooklyn and serve as a platform for all artists, young and old.