Toasting: A Callback to Ancient Chants

Chanting in reggae, ska, dancehall, and Jamaican music

The Malian singer of reggae

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Toasting is defined as a style of lyrical chanting which — in Dancehall music and reggae — involves a deejay talking over a riddim ("rhythm"). Though the art of chanting over a beat is quite ancient and found in many African-based musical traditions, toasting became quite popular in Jamaica in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and "sound systems" — traveling deejays and producers with large speakers and a library of beats and riddims — would feature toasting as part of their musical entertainment.

Toasting is not only important in Jamaican music but also featured heavily in the development of American popular music. It was, after all, Jamaican-born toaster DJ Kool Herc who brought the style to Queens, subsequently setting off the entire foundation of rap and hip-hop music.

Origins of the Chant

Perhaps as long as mankind has beaten on hollow items and produced a coherent beat, so have they, too, spoken over that rhythm to make music. While some sang, many African tribes were known for war chants and dances, which perhaps evolved to inspire Jamaicans with African ancestry to create the modern form of toasting we know today. 

In the 1950s, the first Jamaican deejay, Count Machuki, conceived the idea we now refer to as toasting (or deejaying in Jamaican tradition). He came up with the idea after listening to radio jockeys in the United States talking, annoyingly, over a track they were playing. Deciding he might actually be able to improve some of the riddims with his spoken word, Count Machuki began to popularize the tradition.

However, it truly wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that toasting became popular in Jamaica. Heard everywhere from dancehall shows to reggaeton performances, the deejays would spit their truth over a shared collection of riddims, traveling around the island-state spreading that good old-fashioned island sound wherever they traveled.

Spread and Modern Use

Over the next half-century, deejays evolved into DJs and hip-hop artists, reggae musicians, and rap stars alike. With the help of artists like DJ Kool Herc and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, the style seamlessly flowed into the already African-centric rap and hip-hop scenes, but the style remained niche in the genre. 

Even with the commercial success of artists like Sean Paul and Shaggy in the 1990s and early 2000s and more recently Damian Marley, the faster-paced, less-laid-back rap of artists like 50 Cent and Ludacris may have been inspired by early toasters, but they by far transcended their origins and continued to revolutionize the music scene.