Jamaica Music
The Twist and Turns of Reggae

In Jamaica music is our release. And the music we have used to express ourselves for the last four decades is reggae. Our dreams, struggles, frustrations, triumphs, anger, passion have all been given a voice through this music.

This page will give a quick look at some of the branches of reggae and how they developed - roots reggae, dub music, rockers, lovers rock. Dancehall music, a force all its own, will have a page to itself.

The first songs to be labelled "reggae' were made in the late 1960s, when the days of rock steady music were drawing to a close. The big producers of rock steady had been Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Leslie Kong. Other producers were determined to make their mark by creating a new sound.

They dispensed with the smoothness of rock steady, gave even more emphasis to the bassline, and used a faster beat. This was reggae, the name supposedly derived from the word "streggae", Jamaican slang for a not-so-virtuous woman.

One of the earliest reggae songs was "Nanny Goat", by Larry Marshall and Alvin Perkins. Jamaica Music 1968

Recording technology up to the mid 1960's was quite basic. It was near the end of the decade that studios began multitrack recording. This presented a world of opportunities to a new brigade of producers/engineers (the most influential being Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bunny "Striker" Lee and Osbourne "King Tubby" Ruddock) who would set the course of Jamaican music for decades to come.

Simple to us now in the 21st century, the ability to record vocals on a separate track from the backing music was a huge, huge development for the music of Jamaica. It meant recorded music tracks - what we now call "riddims" (rhythms)- could be reused after the original vocals were recorded.

Sections could be cut out of the vocal tracks, so that at times only the underlying rhythm tracks would be heard. These modified songs were called "versions" or "dubs", and opened the door for a new category of performer - the deejay. In the dancehall, the deejays manning the turntables would add their own commentary over the dubs as it pleased them and their audience. In time, studios began to record these masters of improvisation, and deejaying became an art in its own right, in the time of dub music.

"Wear you to the ball", a hit by the by the Paragons, was transformed by U Roy's (not Hugh Roy!) unique style of delivery. Jamaica Music (Dub)

During this period of technical experimentation, the voice of the ghetto was growing stronger. More and more youths embraced the tenets of Garveyism, Rastafari and Black Power. This included young Bob Marley, Bunny Livingston and Peter McIntosh who had already began their recording careers in the era of ska as The Wailing Wailers, and later as The Wailers. In 1968 The Wailers joined forces with bass man Aston Barrett and his brother Carlton, a drummer. Working with producer Lee Perry, they recorded what many regard as their best songs. 

Small Axe was one of these Lee Perry productions.
Jamaica Music (early Roots Reggae)

In 1972 The Wailers signed with British based Island Records. Dub music continued to be popular locally, but it was the roots reggae of the Wailers that resounded with foreign audiences. Their first album "Catch a Fire", and the soundtrack of the movie "The Harder They Come" provided a launching pad for reggae to hit the the world stage

Throughout the 1970's Marley continued to make roots reggae - gritty music with a message blasting injustice, encouraging the oppressed and promoting Rastafari. Burning Spear and groups like Culture also spread their messages through this roots music, also called "culture", or "conscious" music. Most of this music was made using the "One Drop" rhythm, in which the drum emphasised the third beat of each bar.

In the mid seventies, there was also another type of reggae being made in Jamaica. Instigated largely by the "Riddim Twins" Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, new versions of old reggae and rock steady rhythms were being recorded (as opposed to merely reusing rhythms).

The familiarity of the old rhythms, combined with fresh new lyrics and tunes, was irrestible to local audiences. The new recordings used a harder drum rhythm, emphasising the first and third beats of each bar - this was called rockers music.

Here's the Mighty Diamonds "Right Time", rhythm by Sly and Robbie.
Jamaica Music 1976 (Rockers)

Lovers rock was another offshoot of reggae. It started in the early days when singers like John Holt, Ken Boothe and Dennis Brown began singing reggae versions of popular love songs. Sweet and smooth, lovers rock blossomed in the mid 1970's to include original material, as well. Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown developed this style almost to perfection in the 1970's. Beres Hammond took it to the sublime in the 1990's. It is a style which has remained popular up to today (2009).

Listen to Gregory Isaacs "Number One".
Jamaica Music 1977 (Lovers Rock)

After Bob Marley died in 1981, roots reggae took a backseat for a while. The digital age of the dancehall swept Jamaica in the mid eighties, and the scope and variety in dancehall music has kept on growing since that time. But roots reggae was only slumbering - it has re-emerged with force in the first decade of the 21st century. Talented writers and performers like Morgan Heritage, Tarrus Riley, and Queen Ifrica, amidst a host of others, have made it their business to raise the consciousness of Jamaica and the world through reggae music.

Check out "Parables" by Tarrus Riley.
Jamaica Music 2007 (Roots Reggae)

Dancehall and reggae now exist side by side, for the most part very distinct in lyrical content and musical style. Since the 1990's dancehall has definitely been the most prolific of the two, but many of the recordings have an instant value to them, that quickly wears off. Roots reggae songs, while not as plentiful, tend to have a longevity not often found in modern dancehall music.

Some people think that the frank self-expression fostered by reggae, in particular dancehall, has ruined Jamaica. Others believe it provides an essential release from what is often a difficult life. However you feel about it, it can't be denied that reggae music has given Jamaica an international presence that is amazing for such a small country.

For more about other types of Jamaican music, click here.

See who we think are the best reggae singers ever. You can even add your opinion.

Forward Jamaica music!

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