POP / Wrapping up gangsta: As Jamaican police set out to to silence the sound systems, Philip Sweeney asks, can reggae really be under threat on its home turf?

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An odd record has been knocking around the British reggae circuit for a few months now: a 12-inch single of no less than 26 minutes' duration, featuring a dozen or so of Kingston's top dancehall artists chanting, rapid-fire, about a new threat to their music.

Can't Stop the Dance by the Yardcore Collective is not great music - despite Papa San's wonderful manic fade-out sequence - and it hasn't set the clubs on fire ('What's a DJ going to do, put it on and go to make a cup of tea?' said a salesman in London's Dub Vendor Records). It is, though, remarkable for the circumstances behind its recording.

It represents a broadside from the artists in the long-running stand-off between the dancehall sound systems and the Jamaican police. The tension, now high, is largely due to the attitude of Jamaica's new police commissioner, Colonel Trevor McMillan, a 27-year- old former army officer who has spent his first year in the job clamping down on criminality in and around the dancehalls.

First, there is the noise: an open- air sound system can thud out 30,000 watts of sternum-pulping bass, audible for miles. Second, there are the guns, fired in 'lickshot' salutes to the DJs and, occasionally, in anger. Third, the lyrics, not so much the 'slack' (obscene) ones, but those advocating violence - Buju Banton's 'Boom Boom Bye Bye', which recommended the shooting of homosexuals, was the textbook example, and 'gun lyrics' by artists like Bounty Killer and Terror Fabulous are common. Fourth, the drugs . . . fifth, the bottle-throwing . . .

Although Colonel McMillan has threatened to invoke Section 8 of the Jamaica Act, sanctioning soliciting to murder, against performers of gun lyrics, it is primarily under the less serious Towns & Communities Act, dealing with public nuisance ('it shall be lawful for any householder . . . his servant . . . or any police constable . . . to require any street-musicians, juggler, dancer, actor or showman, to depart from the neighbourhood') that police action has taken place.

The first of the big battles in the dancehall war was in April 1991, when 100 police, firing into the air, closed down Kingston's Front Line system. Louise Frazer-Bennette, of the Sound Systems Association, formed by 75 leading systems in response to the crisis, is indignant: 'This is the only entertainment available for poor youth which releases tension. We charge next to nothing, and hundreds of small entrepreneurs - cane men, jelly men, drinks-sellers - make a living on the sidelines. We want to cut out slack lyrics and gun lyrics, but the middle classes, the Establishment, just don't like sound systems.' Meanwhile, the association's attorney, Barry Frankson, who has successfully contested fines and equipment seizures, complains of police 'donmanship', an excessive hauteur and violence.

Since the Front Line raid, association members have boycotted records with gun lyrics, and some prominent artists - Ninjaman, for example - now lecture audiences against guns. But the association's power is limited. Gun lyrics continue to be popular, particularly in the bragging 'clashes' between DJs. And the roots of the problem go deep. As Maureen Sheridan, the co-producer of Can't Stop the Dance, explains, the gun culture is the creation of a murky trade in firearms and drugs, by which ghetto 'dons' delivered power to local politicians through the Seventies and Eighties.

Noise-levels also remain high. Colonel McMillan's 1994 guidelines stipulate that, by 9pm, sound systems must be inaudible 100 yards away and that, by 11pm, sound must be confined within the venue. Reaction to this may be gauged by a recent dancehall lyric: 'Don't bodder turn it low . . . if they can' hear the bass, can' wind up their waist.'

So the war goes on. At a recent Miss Dancehall competition in Kingston, police 'donmanship' was seen again. According to the Jamaica Daily Gleaner, the dance was in full swing and DJ Richie B was about to usher on the contestants, when 'scores of police officers swooped down', arresting patrons. A fist-fight broke out between a female patron and a female police officer who 'put her hand on the lady's genital areas', while the unfortunate Richie B was left 'sitting on a pile of beer boxes pondering his next move'.

After the raid, Maureen Sheridan, on behalf of Richie B, protested that 'the gun salutes were started by off-duty police' and again emphasised that dancehall's guns and lyrics were merely a symptom of a wider problem: 'Many of the lyrics only describe the reality which exists. If Colonel McMillan is on a real clean-up campaign, he has to go to the source of the violence.' One can only assume that a good deal of donmanship, and music, is still to come.

'Can't Stop the Dance' is on the Greensleeves label