Predecessors of Reggae: Ska and Rock Steady
Many people associate Jamaica with reggae music, but before reggae there was ska and rock steady. Ska originated in the 1950s by Jamaican Sound Systems emulating North American R & B, especially the sounds from New Orleans, Memphis and Miami. Flavored with mento, the music quickly assumed a uniquely Jamaican up-tempo beat that became known as ska. Mento is a Jamaican form of music similar to Trinidad's calypso. Simply put, ska is a fusion of Jamaican mento and American R & B. The 1959 recording of Easy Snapping by Theophelus Beckford is considered by some to be the first ska record, though several artists claim to have invented the ska sound. Prominent singer and producer Prince Buster is among those who claim to have invented ska.
Don Drummond and The Skatalites did much to popularize ska. The Skatalites played on hundreds of records and are regarded by many as the greatest ska band even though they were together for just 14 months (1964-65). The Skatalites reformed again in the 1980s. Other popular artists of the ska era include Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitkin, and Owen Gray. Many well-known reggae artists such as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots & the Maytals, and Jimmy Cliff all began their careers performing ska.
By 1964 ska had become the preeminent music in Jamaica. The first ska song to become an international hit was Millie Small's 1964 recording of My Boy Lollipop. The multi-million selling single became a top 10 hit in both the UK and the USA.
Since the 1960s ska has been revived in many forms, and continues to be very popular in many countries.
By the summer of 1966 the jumpy, syncopated ska beat began to give way to the slower, more melodic tempo of rock steady. With the slower beat, musicians began to experiment with more complicated melodies. The horns began to move to the background and vocals became more prominent. Lyrics reflected the everyday lives and experiences of the people.
One of the more popular songs of the rock steady era was Prince Buster's Judge Dread. The fictitious Judge Dread was known for handing out 400-year sentences to rude boys. Alton Ellis, the "King of Rock Steady," had hits with Willow Tree, I'm Just a Guy, and Sitting in the Park. The Tennors scored big with Pressure and Slide. Desmond Dekker and the Aces produced a string of hits including 007 (Shanty Town), one of many responses to Judge Dread, and the international number one hit Israelites.
Rock Steady had a relatively short life span (1966-1968). By 1969, Rock Steady gave way to the new sound of reggae. Jamaican music was about to go international in a major way.
What is Reggae?
In the 1960s the term reggae, pronounced "ray-gay", was used to refer to a "ragged" form of dance rhythm popular in Jamaica. No one is quite sure where the word "reggae" came from, but it may have come from a 1968 dance single by Toots and the Maytals called "Do the Raggay." Reggae music lyrics typically deal with poverty, politics, and Rastafarianism. Reggae music has always been strongly linked to the Rastafarian religion, making the music culturally important. Rastas do not have an organized church; instead Rastafarianism is a set of spiritual and cultural beliefs open to a variety of interpretations.
A significant difference between reggae and its predecessors, ska and rock steady, was its new spiritual emphasis. This traditional form of reggae is called "roots reggae". This is by far one of the most popular styles of the reggae genre. Other forms of reggae include lover's rock, dub, and dancehall. Bob Marley is primarily responsible for taking roots reggae to the international arena. Other recording artists such as Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker and the Aces also did much to popularize reggae outside of Jamaica. In 1969, Desmond Dekker and the Aces took their hit Israelites to the top of the charts in several countries including Britain, Canada, Holland, South Africa, Sweden, and West Germany. Israelites also went top 10 in the USA. For many people around the world, this was their first exposure to Jamaican music.
Bob Marley - The Legend
Bob Marley (1945 - 1981) a Jamaican singer, guitarist, songwriter and pioneer of reggae music, together with his group the Wailers was largely responsible for the widespread popularity of reggae. Bob Marley still remains the worlds' most widely acclaimed reggae artist.
Bob Marley's musical career began in 1961 when he formed his first group The Rudeboys, which later became known as The Wailing Wailers. They eventually shortened the name to The Wailers. The Wailers consisted of Robert Nesta Marley, Peter Mackintosh and Neville Livingston, now known as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Their first recordings were done in ska style.
By the late '60s, The Wailers were extremely popular in the Caribbean but were still unknown internationally. This all changed in 1972 with the recording of Catch A Fire, their first album.
Catch A Fire laid the foundation for reggae to become an international phenomenon and was the beginning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' trek to worldwide fame and recognition.
On May 11, 1981, at the height of his career, Bob Marley died
of cancer. A month before his untimely passing Bob Marley was
awarded Jamaica's Order of Merit, one of the nation's highest
honors in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country's
culture. In the ensuing years, Bob Marley's music has continued to
increase in popularity. In 1984, Island Records released Legend, a
compilation of Marley's songs. Legend has gone on to sell more
than 10,000,000 copies in the USA. Bob Marley, Jamaica's first
superstar, is still the most recognized name in reggae. His legend
The Harder They Come
The 1972 film The Harder They Come did much to bring Jamaican culture and reggae music to international audiences. The film, which stared reggae singer Jimmy Cliff in the principle role, earned the Best Young Cinema award at the 1972 Venice Film Festival. The soundtrack album includes a selection of reggae classics such as the Melodians' Rivers of Babylon, Desmond Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town) and Toots and the Maytals' Pressure Drop. Along with a half-dozen Jimmy Cliff compositions including the title track, Many Rivers to Cross and You Can Get It (If You Really Want), The Harder They Come did more than anything before it to introduce reggae to audiences world-wide. The film along with the soundtrack helped propel Jimmy Cliff to superstar status. At the 2002 Caribbean Music Expo Jimmy Cliff was presented with the Bob Marley Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dub and Lover's Rock
Over the years, reggae has continued to grow and diversify into many different styles. One such style is known as "dub." Osbourne Ruddock, better known as King Tubby, (1941 - 1986) pioneered the dub style - a form of re-mixing in which an instrumental version of a song was manipulated by adding special electronic effects. Dubs typically have an echo and reverberation effects, giving an eerie psychedelic feel to the music. A DJ would then "toast" (talk or sing) over the instrumental track. Daddy U-Roy's number-one hit Wake the Town ushered in the era of dub reggae.
The influence of King Tubby's re-mixing techniques on others styles of music is considerable. His re-mixing techniques are now commonplace in dance music of all genres and toasting eventually led to the birth of American rap music.
The 1970s also saw the birth of "lover's rock" reggae. Originating in England, influenced by American soul music, and traveling back to Jamaica, lover's rock is a romantic, soulful style of reggae with lyrical themes of love and relationships. Dennis Brown ("The Crown Prince Of Reggae"), Gregory Isaacs and Freddie McGregor are among the pioneers of lover's rock. The most prominent name in lover's rock at the turn of the century is Beres Hammond.
Dancehall reggae exploded onto the scene in the 1980s. Popular artists of the day included the DJs Tiger, Yellowman and Lt. Stitchie. The popularity of dancehall soared to greater heights in the 1990s on the strength of hits such as Chaka Demus and Pliers' Murder She Wrote and Inner Circle's Bad Boys. Shabba Ranks burst onto the scene with a string of major hits including Trailer Load of Girls, Mr. Lover Man and Housecall (with Maxi Priest). He also received Grammy Awards for his As Raw As Ever and X-tra Naked CDs. Other popular dancehall artists from the 80s and 90s include Super Cat, Beenie Man and Shaggy.
Since its inception, dancehall has been characterized by "slackness" (sexually explicit lyrics) and "gun talk" (violence). However, turn of the century dancehall has taken slackness, gun talk and negative themes to a new level. Numerous dancehall DJs have had criminal charges brought against them for violating Jamaica's laws against excessive use of profanity. Lyrics about sex, violence, and rampant homophobia dominate dancehall music. One of the biggest dancehall hits of 2001 was TOK's Chi-Chi Man, a hate song advocating violence and death to homosexuals. Turn of the century Dancehall is a far cry from the One Love roots reggae that Bob Marley sang.
However, not everything about dancehall is negative. In the mid 1990s artists such as Luciano, Tony Rebel and a converted Buju Banton brought conscious lyrics to dancehall. Also, a number of former dancehall stars such as Papa San and Lt. Stitchie have turned to performing gospel reggae, with a dancehall flavor.
The impact that one tiny island in the Caribbean Sea has had on modern music is remarkable. People around the world know and love reggae music. And when one thinks of reggae, one thinks of Jamaica.