Reggae music crept into the streets of Kingston in the mid-1960s as the voice of the oppressed; Jamaica’s underprivileged in a society in civil unrest. The island struggled with poverty but the former British colony had bred an industrious and resilient people who managed to hustle for their daily bread. A wide variety of fruits grew abundantly on trees throughout the island, including the native “ackee”, which would be gathered and sold at local markets, and fishermen’s nets were abundantly full of red snapper and other treasures from the sea. This was a nation of great faith in God, boasting more churches per capita than anywhere else on Earth. And where there were churches there was music, singing praises to His name.
The happy-go-lucky “ska” music of the early 1960s depicted easier times, when Jamaican musicians were imitating the rock and roll sounds of Fats Domino and the like, which could be heard over radio waves from the United States. These were love songs with a danceable shuffle, and in response local dances became hugely popular. The premier band of the 1960s was called the Skatalites, employed by Clement Dodd as the house band at the Jamaica Recording Studio. He would become known as Sir Coxone aka “Downbeat”, and the studio was dubbed “Studio One”.
The transition to reggae music happened through what would become known as “rocksteady”, a slower version of the same beat, featuring a hypnotic, walking electric bass line, in place of the traditional stand up. Around 1965 the Skatalites were replaced by a young set of musicians that would go by several names as they created their formidable canon, including Soul Brothers aka Soul Vendors aka Brentford All-Stars aka Jamaica All-Stars. This new Studio One collective was led by young trumpeter Bobby Ellis and a keyboard prodigy named Jackie Mittoo, who would go on to shape the sound of reggae music to come. This was the hay day of rocksteady, primarily still love songs to swoon and croon to, still danceable enough to woo a date at the local club.
Dozens of singers and aspiring young singing groups adorned the rhythm tracks created by the Studio One band, and several other studios and respective house bands began popping up around Kingston town, including Duke Reid Studio and Channel One. These studios began pumping out hit after hit. Sometimes a 7” single was mixed and pressed on vinyl the same day, and then quickly couriered to “sound systems” throughout the city by bicycle. Sound systems were literally a collection of homemade speaker boxes, piled one atop the other for maximum bass, volume and velocity. Ample amplification and maximum wattage was of paramount importance as competing sound systems increasingly played a major cultural role in spreading new music throughout the land.
Meanwhile, a growing alternative religion was gaining popularity in Jamaica. Prominent black rights activist and president of the UNIA, Jamaican born Marcus Garvey, had purportedly suggested that his followers “look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand”. Many agreed that this was Haile Selassie, crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 under the name Ras Tafari, whose Biblical lineage could be traced back to King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. When Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, his plane was met by hundreds of spectators, including dozens of natty, dreadlocked “Rastafarians”, proclaiming his divinity, citing Revelation 5:5 “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” and 17:14 “…for he is the Lord of lords, and King of kings”.
The Wailing Wailers trio (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) was one of the singing groups backed by the Skatallites and then by the Soul Brothers at Studio One in the early sixties. As they gained notoriety with hits such as “Simmer Down” and “One Love”, The Wailers became devout Rastafarians, spreading the message of “One God. One Aim. One Destiny.” Under the persuasion of executive producer Chris Blackwell, who had invested in The Wailers’ first full length album Burnin’, the three singers decided to pursue solo careers around 1974. Bob Marley shot to fame and became a champion of Rastafari, inspiring thousands of followers around the globe to embrace Rasta as their religion. Check out Marley’s “The Lion Of Judah”
As political unrest exploded in the capital’s streets, a vibrant spiritual revolution was sweeping Jamaica. Reggae music of the 1970s became the voice of the oppressed, demanding equal rights and justice, juxtaposed with the Rasta doctrine of pure, natural living in the spirit of peace and love and fraternity. In addition, cannabis sativa had been introduced to Jamaica in the 1950s, earning an international reputation for its ideal climate for growing exceptional herb. Embraced by Rastas as a religious sacrament, smoking ganja contributed a euphoric inspiration to the alchemy of roots reggae music. At once militantly revolutionary and spiritually mystical, the resulting Jamaican “hit parade” created a vibrant music culture that went on to influence popular music around the globe.
Bob Marley spread the infectious music far and wide, along with his peers Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Toots Hibbert. Countless others became Jamaican superstars including Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown. Reggae music pulsed throughout the world, flying its red, gold and green banner right up through the 80s, when production began to incorporate cheesy synthesizer sounds. Artists such as the UK’s Aswad and Maxi Priest embraced the 80s sound, and while some great music came out of this decade, the raw, analogue Jamaican studio sound began to lose its potency, and with it its following. Towards the end of the 80s, the sound of “dance hall” began to emerge from Jamaica’s studios. Studio musicians became less important in favour of programmers who could create drum loops and play everything themselves. The music became much simpler, but maintained the ever-important hypnotic quality of the roots reggae that came before it.
“Toasters” began to “chat” on the mic, who acted as MCs throughout the 70s. This style became all the rage as young “DJs” such as Supercat and Shabba Ranks flooded the airwaves into the 90s. Forward to 2020 where Sean Paul is king, still lending that Jamaican sound to pop artists like Rihanna and Cardi B.
It is worth mentioning that roots reggae music purists have managed to maintain the legacy of its predecessors through what is commonly known as “modern roots”. Throughout the 90s and 2000s many young Jamaican and non-Jamaican artists alike have been producing some good music, but much of it lacks the passion of its reggae roots.
Speaking as a reggae aficionado, I like it all. Late 80s dance hall will always hold a special place in my heart, and while much of it was ‘slack’, much more of it was ‘conscious’ music, with a positive message. Reggae has always been, and always will be, “message music”. I & I use it for inspiration, to keep on going through hardships; the trials and tribulations that we all endure. It is the human condition that we all share in common that makes us one race.
This is why I sing:
Bring back real reggae music, I & I want some culture again.
Bring back roots rock reggae music, I & I want some teachings again.