The sun has been shining all weekend which means my life has obviously been soundtracked by glorious reggae, dancehall and soca. One particular sound has pervaded the vibe – the seminal Sleng Teng riddim.
A brief explanation of the riddim concept is perhaps necessary. Riddims are the rhythmic patterns of a song – predominantly the bass and the beat, but essentially the riddim is the instrumental track of a song. There’s no exact equivalent outside of Afro-Caribbean music, as far as I’m aware; sampling is probably the closest you get to it. But while a sample is re-using a section of a song, riddims are “versioned” – so hundreds of different artists will have versioned the same riddim. That is to say, entirely different songs will be constructed over the same rhythmical track. In part, it seems to derive from the reggae and dancehall traditions of adapting old lyrical phrases and tunes in new songs.
It’s kind of a fascinating challenge: you’ve got a track that everyone agrees is great, but it’s not yours, so what are you going to create on top of it to make it stand out – how will you make it yours? From a legal standpoint it’s a complex system regarding ownership and international copyright – increasingly so in a digital age. If you’d like to know more about it all, then the Manuel and Marshall essay on riddims is super.
A perhaps lesser-known example is the Diwali riddim, produced by Steven “Lenky” Marsden which is used in a ton of great songs, including Sean Paul’s ‘Get Busy‘ and Wayne Wonder’s ‘No Letting Go‘ (yes, I am mentioning this solely because I am charmed by the coincidence of a riddim with a name alluding to my Indian background happening to backtrack two songs I love).
Anyway, I can recall my introduction to riddims coming via the Sleng Teng riddim. I just thought the DJ at the time had somehow done this incredible mix in which, one after the other, three completely different songs managed to fit perfectly over this one beautiful instrumental track. But, of course, they were just versions; the Sleng Teng riddim has been versioned hundreds of times. This should not be surprising to anyone who has heard the outstanding track – it’s a landmark for Jamaican music: the first ever fully-computerised riddim (the beginning of the digital age). As is showcased on the original ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ track above (a collaboration between Wayne Smith and King Jammy), it’s got a seductively rich bass line that is visceral in the way it hits you in the gut. You can really feel the languid, earthy groove as it loops around. It is a truly fantastic riddim and without fail it makes me want to dance whenever I hear it. Getting down to Sleng Teng is a glorious end to a sunny Sunday, so here are some of my favourite versions – enjoy: