When you think of dancehall music, Jamaica immediately comes to mind. But through migration and globalization, this vibrant genre has taken root in communities many miles away from the Caribbean island. One such place is Brooklyn, New York, where some of the music’s most iconic stars got their start. This emergence of dancehall in Brooklyn is chronicled in Dutty Vannier and Ben DiGiacomo’s new documentary Bad Like Brooklyn Dancehall, starring and executive produced by dancehall legend Shaggy. As this insightful film debuted at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Radar caught up with the directing duo to discuss the extensive collaborations and cultural significance behind the filmmaking.
Shane Slater: What was your personal connection to dancehall before you started this film? And what made you interested in making a documentary about this topic?
Dutty Vannier: I knew the music when I was in Europe, when I was 18 years old, so almost 20 years ago. And when I moved here, I saw the culture that was attached to it. The food, the fashion, the dancing. And I just fell in love with it. Then Ben and I were friends for a long time, about 10 years. And he saw my passion for it and said, “Yo, man, this music is amazing. We need to tell a story about it.” And that’s pretty much how we started.
Ben DiGiacomo: Yeah, that was an interesting concept, that only the music passed the borders, not the whole culture. This idea of this multi-layered culture was not really translated abroad. It was more about the music. And that’s how I actually experienced it in France. It was all about the music. And coming here, and really seeing all those layers was fascinating.
SS: How long did it take to put all of this together?
BD: It took about four years.
DV: Yeah, plus a lot of years before like, going to parties and meeting people. It started like that. I mean, we met people and those people had interesting stories. As for the movie itself, it took us about four years.
SS: You have some of the icons of dancehall in your film, doing interviews. What was it like approaching them and getting them interested?
BD: It happened very gradually. So it was really nice. We didn’t really think of this doc as a whole, it was constantly evolving. And every time we heard a story, we were like, “Okay, we need to tell this story to be able to understand, and the stories actually go with each other.” So you needed the voices of the people to understand.
SS: Was there one particular person or one particular source of information that you found really valuable in making the film?
BD: for this film, Shaggy was extremely valuable in terms of the knowledge, because that’s story, that’s his life. He knows all those people. So yeah, Shaggy actually was the most important person we had and him being an executive executive producer was very nice. To have him to be able to really grasp the story.
SS: As you said earlier, the music traveled across the world, but sometimes not necessarily the culture around it. What were some of the most surprising things that you learned when you delved into the culture?
DV: I think it was the dancing. Like, when you see somebody starting a step and everybody in the club looks at him and everybody’s doing it. I thought that was amazing. All the people react with each other, looking at each other. And then some of the stuff are famous and others improvise on the moment, but everybody’s doing it. And I thought it was really powerful to see a group of people doing the same stuff just by looking at each other and vibing. That was really the biggest difference with Europe at the time. Now, it’s kind of like that too.
BD: That synergy is unbelievable. The connection. People understand each other perfectly when they’re dancing, and everybody’s together. It’s really, really impressive.
SS: Another part of the culture is, unfortunately, the way crime has been linked to dancehall. In Jamaica, there are always debates about the influence of dancehall in promoting crime, and there has even been some censorship. How did you approach that part of the culture in the film?
BD: I believe that every strong music is a rebellion music. Sometimes, if you’re not heard, you’re gonna go louder and louder, because that’s what you need to do. That’s what you need to do to be heard. It has the same codes that hip hop did at the time. It’s very it’s embedded, but at the same time, it’s a scream to be heard.
DV: I think a lot of Jamaican artists and hip hop artists just talk about what happened around them, you know? So they kind of do the news of the streets. So are they the reason for the violence? Or do they just talk about it? It’s difficult to say. I think it’s easier to blame them, but sometimes they just talk about what’s around them.
SS: You have a lot of really cool archival videos, especially with Shaggy from those earlier days as a young artist. How did you get access to all that archival footage?
BD: For this project, we had an amount of tapes that is beyond what we imagined. Everything was documented. Boxes and boxes of VHS tapes. So they were given by anyone around us. They were like, “Look at those tapes, look at these.” They were documented, but they were on tape. So it’s not like YouTube, where it’s a little more easy. So a lot of those tapes were unseen. People were giving us that material. Like, we spent a lot of hours watching footage and go through the tapes. We actually did it right through the VCR and we digitized the stuff we need. And it was a lot.
There is so much that has been documented. And there are so many stories. Every single one of those steps has their own story and the people that were there will tell you 20 stories about them. It just keeps growing. There are so many untold stories. You can actually discover things.