Reggae is a collective term for a number of successive forms of Jamaican popular music, isolated examples of which have dented the U.S. Top Forty since the early 1960s. It is characterized by a loping beat, a strong dose of rhythm and blues, and recording techniques which have been simultaneously original in concept and primitive in execution. It has had an impact on 1970s rock that was far greater than its moderate commercial success.
The genre was a product of a diverse array of influences, including African-derived children's games, the ecstatic Christian Pocomania cult, Garveyite Rastafarians, and New Orleans rhythm and blues, which was broadcast all over the Caribbean via clear-channel radio stations in the late 1950s. These forces did not converge until the appearance of transistor radios revived Jamaican interest in popular music recordings. Out of this state of affairs emerged the "sound system man," who operated a generator-powered hi-fi rig mounted on the back of a flatbed truck which would be driven to rural areas for dances. These operators, utilizing catchy handles such as "Duke Reid," generated large audiences of fans.
In the early 1960s, the dearth of New Orleans talent (and corresponding drop-off of available imports) forced sound system men to make their own records. Primitive studios sprang up around Jamaica. The first recordings were bad copies of New Orleans music; the Jamaican musicians couldn't seem to get the New Orleans rhythm right. This "wrong" rhythm became standardized, and ska was born with its strict, mechanical emphasis on the offbeat (mm-cha! mm-cha!). One notable example of the ska style, Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop," became a Top Ten hit in the United States.
By 1965, ska had been superceded by the slow, even more rhythmic "rock steady" genre. Sound system men began employing deejays, who would "toast" or talk over the instrumental B-side of a record. The DJ--prime exponents included Prince Buster, Sir Collins, King Stitt, and U Roy--would improvise rhymes about his sexual prowess and the greatness of the sound system operator. This practice also became known as "dubbing"; some of it was "rude" (i.e., dirty; in Jamaican slang "dub" is equivalent to sexual intercourse.
Poppa-top was the next link in the evolutionary chain; bubblier than rock steady, it loosened up the beat to the point where greater rhythmic division was possible. The leading exponent of the style, Desmond Dekker, reached the U.S. Top Ten with his 1969 release, "Israelites."
The release of the Maytals' "Do the Reggay," in 1968, served notice that a new form had entered the marketplace. Jamiacan music had been expanding the role of the bass for much of the 1960s; reggae brought the bass to the forefront, emphasizing the complex interrelationship between it, the trap drums, and the percussion instruments. The beat was interspersed with silences, the pulse divided as finely as sixty-four times, and cross-rhythms abound. The bass appeared to be the lead instrument, with the guitar reduced to playing "change," mere scratching at a chord. Keyboard and horns were utilized to thicken the texture.
Despite the success of some reggae-styled material in the U.S. (e.g., Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Stir It Up," Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff"), the genre remained relatively unknown to most Americans until the U.S. release of the film, The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, in 1973. It became a cult favorite and opened the door to the American market for other reggae artists.
Its widespread acceptance in the states was hampered by the scarcity of live reggae music. This was because (1) most of the records used the same pool of studio talent, and (2) most Jamaicans couldn't afford nightclubs or stage show performances. The most famous reggae performer was Bob Marley, whose recordings featured protest lyrics, first-rate melodies, high quality production values, and seamless blend Jamaican roots and rock conventions (which enabled him please both his original followers and U.S. fans).
Marley's promising career was abruptly cut short by his death from lung cancer in 1981. Nevertheless, reggae has left a substantial musical legacy, including hip hop, disco dubs with a DJ rapping over the track, and an expansion of the rhythmic possibilities in rock (as realized by artists as diverse as Jimmy Buffett, the Grateful Dead, the Clash, Police, the Flying Lizards, the Selector, Generation X, the Slits, the English Beat, Public Image Ltd., and UB40. The genre has also long served the cultural and information needs of its people and supports the world's most successful self-contained Third World record business.
Top Artists and Their Recordings
Big Youth--"Pass the Dutchie" (1984)
Black Uhuru--Chill Out (1982); Now (1990)
Burning Spear--Marcus Garvey (1975)
Jimmy Cliff--The Harder They Come (1975); Follow My Mind (1975); Special (1982)
Culture--International Herb (1979)
The Heptones--Night Food (1976)
The Inner Circle--Everything Is Great (1979)
Bob Marley and the Wailers/The Wailers--Catch a Fire (1973); Burnin' (1974); Natty Dread (1975); Rastaman Vibration (1976); Live! (1976); Exodus (1977); Kaya (1978); Babylon By Bus (1978); Survival (1979); Uprising (1980); Chances Are (1981)
Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers--Conscious Party (1988); One Bright Day (1989); Jahmekya (1991)
The Mighty Diamonds--Right Time (1976)
Steel Pulse--True Democracy (1982); Earth Crisis (1984); State of...Emergency (1988)
Third World--Journey to Addis (1978); The Story's Been Told (1979); Third World, Prisoner in the Street (1980); Rock the World (1981); You've Got the Power (1982); All the Way Strong (1983); Sense of Purpose (1985); Serious Business (1989)
Toots and the Maytals--Funky Kingston (1975); Reggae Got Soul (1976)
Peter Tosh--Legalize It (1976); Bush Doctor (1978); Mystic Man (1979); Wanted Dread and Alive (1981); Mama Africa (1983); Captured Live (1984)