Wayne Smith, the reggae vocalist whose 1985 single “Under Mi Sleng Teng” reshaped Jamaican music by popularizing digital production in the genre, died in Kingston Monday at the age of 48. Smith was admitted to Kingston Public Hospital Friday after complaining of sudden stomach pains, according to his son, Tidel Smith, who confirmed his father’s passing with the Jamaica Observer.
Smith released his first album, Youthman Skanking, for producer Lloyd James’ Prince Jammy’s label in 1982 when he was 17. He wrote the lyrics to “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” an ode to marijuana partly inspired by Barrington Levy’s “Under Mi Sensi,” two years later while he and friend Noel Davey were toying with a Casio MT-40 keyboard. The pair completed the track, which utilized a preset keyboard melody based on Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else,” with the assistance of James, resulting in the first dancehall hit made using strictly digital technology.
The impact of “Sleng Teng” in Jamaica was instantaneous. Other reggae artists, such as Tenor Saw and Johnny Osbourne, recorded hits of their own over the instrumental, known as the Sleng Teng riddim, inspiring a run on further computerized dancehall tracks. The ensuing transition from live instrumentation to digital production sent shockwaves through the Jamaican music business, putting studio musicians out of work and contributing to the downfall of top Kingston studios such as Channel One, according to David Katz’s 2003 reggae history Solid Foundation.
Successive generations of dancehall artists, including Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, have continued to record new material on the instrumental. “Fruit Juice,” a track on Snoop Lion’s 2013 reggae album Reincarnated, utilized a modified version of the beat produced by Major Lazer.
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“’Under Mi Sleng Teng’ is still one of the most important songs in dancehall,” Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire tells Rolling Stone. “[Smith] was a turning point for dancehall. He ushered in the digital age.”
Smith continued to make music, but none of his subsequent recordings equalled the impact of “Sleng Teng.” He relocated to New York City in 1989, setting up his own label (also called Sleng Teng) before returning to Jamaica in 2012.
Smith is survived by his mother, five siblings, five children and three grandchildren.