Wayne Fortune of Argonaut Sounds breaks down reggae genres in Part Two of his Introduction to Reggae.
Ska & Rocksteady
In the early 1950s, the most popular kinds of music in Jamaica were American R’n’B, mento and calypso. Ska grew out of these towards the end of the decade. How this happened is a matter of debate, fiercely contested by those around at the time, but however it happened, the major change of putting the emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats in the bar, the off-beats, ultimately came to define most Jamaican music. Ska is characterized by the guitar or piano on the off-beat coupled with walking R’n’B style basslines and blazing horn riffs.
Key listening: The Skatalites, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan
Around 1966, ska evolved into rocksteady, exhibiting a much slower pace and the influence of soul music. Some have speculated that this was partly due to a particularly hot period of weather, making the energetic dancing associated with ska impractical. With cheaper modern instruments such as the electric bass arriving on the island, and much more space for vocalists and musicians to express themselves, this period prompted a surge of creativity. Although it was over by 1970, rocksteady left its mark by pushing the bass to the front of the music and it is still cherished by many as the finest period of Jamaican music.
Key listening: The Techniques, The Paragons, Phyllis Dillon, Alton Ellis.
In the ‘70s, reggae meant roots, and this remains the most well-known period of Jamaican music, popularised world-wide by the ubiquitous sight and sound of Bob Marley, dominated by increasingly complex basslines, one-drop drum patterns de-emphasising the first beat of the bar in favour of the third, and African percussion. Heavily influenced lyrically by the growing Rastafari movement (around the time of Haile Selassie I’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, many musicians became rastas – which explains how many started the ‘70s with relatively short dreadlocks and finished it with huge manes), roots carried a heavy spiritual, social and political message. Beyond Marley lies a wealth of stunningly beautiful and often militant music.
Key listening: The Congos, Johnny Clarke, Culture.
Despite its popularity, and the genius of some of its pioneers, dub owes its existence to all the other forms of reggae. Originally created as not much more than instrumental versions of popular tracks for singers to perfom live on, dub took on a life of its own as producers experimented with dropping instruments in and out of the mix, and applying effects such as delay and reverb, with incredible results. Dub’s influence on nearly all forms of modern music is incalculable, often being cited as the origin of the remix.
Key listening: King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Prince Jammy.
Towards the end of the ‘70s, and particularly in the early ‘80s, many in Jamaica felt roots had become too international, feted worldwide and no longer tending to the needs of the dancehall, the traditional barometer of public taste in Jamaica. In response, Jamaicans reclaimed their music and took it down a different path, picking up the tempo and introducing deejays with a rougher style alongside traditional singers. Lyrically much changed, with emphasis on everyday matters, humour and often a shameless slackness, although many artists continued to pursue social matters. Freed from the shackles of major labels focused on international markets, a fresh creativity washed over reggae.
Key listening: Half Pint, Johnny Osbourne, Sister Nancy, Yellowman.
On Saturady 23rd February 1985, Jamaican music changed forever when King Jammy dropped his Sleng Teng riddim at a sound clash. Widely regarded as the first all-digital piece of Jamaican music, recorded on a Casiotone MT40, it heralded a new era and an explosion of frankly brilliant new music, much cheaper to produce, and with a focus on dancing. In fact, producers became the drivers of the music, turning out instrumental riddims, which literally dozens of vocalists would record versions on.
Key listening: Cocoa Tea, Chaka Demus, Admiral Bailey, Jammy’s label.
In the ‘90s, this digital dancehall gradually evolved into ragga, with a sparse sound and higher tempo. The bassline, the focus of Jamaican music for almost a quarter of a century, took a backseat as drum patterns led the way. Lyrically, the music changed to focus increasingly on violence (“gun-talk”) and bling. Meanwhile, homophobia and misogyny crept in, and while this was to the undoubted detriment of the music, its influence should not be overstated – overseas media coverage in this period largely painted an inaccurate picture of a hate-filled music where nearly every track advocated violence against homosexuals and women, which certainly didn’t reflect reality.
Key listening: Shabba Ranks, Lady Saw, Ninjaman, Cutty Ranks.
In the mid-‘90s there was a move back towards Rastafari by many major artists, who looked back to the roots era and started to focus their lyrical content and musical style accordingly. One major turning point was Buju Banton’s album “Til’ Shiloh”, which in hindsight seems to mark a change in the music away from the strict dominance of dancehall. Many artists, while still continuing to record dancehall style tracks, returned to producing more traditional reggae forms combined with modern recording techniques and conscious lyrics.
Key listening: Sizzla, Tony Rebel, Anthony B, Buju Banton.
Over the past few years there has been a strong resurgence in reggae, with a number of young Jamaican artists adopting a sound influenced by the roots period. At the same time, the huge increase in the popularity of reggae in Europe, where many sound systems and production houses have sprung up turning out music on a par with that from Jamaica – and indeed working with many of the top Jamaican vocalists as well as European artists – has breathed new life into the reggae scene.
Key listening: Chronixx, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, Queen I-frica, Alborosie, Gappy Ranks.
All images courtesy of the author