Written by Jim the Boss
A Semi Brief History of Reggae
by Jim the Boss
“The people that reggae was being made for never separated it into this style or that style. This is music that comes from slavery, through colonialism, so it’s more than just a style. If you’re coming from the potato walk, the banana walk, or the hillside, people sing. To get rid of their frustrations and lift the spirits, people sing. It was also your form of entertainment on the weekend, whether at church or at the dance, or even outside your house. You were going to sing. The music is vibrant, it is a way of life. The whole thing isn’t just music being made, it’s a people, a culture, it’s an attitude.” This was once spoken by Rupie Edwards, a singer and record producer of many great Jamaican acts. What he says is true. We can learn this way of playing but in order for us to truly understand the motives behind the music and words, we need to understand their way of life, their way of thinking, their politics and their society. As Rupie said “it’s not this style or that style.” This could never be more true. It’s easy for us to look back on something that has been done already and separate it into Ska or Rocksteady and do it with such conviction. I have seen many people argue over this point but when it’s happening and evolving. It’s just music plain and simple.
The Jamaican music business started back in the late 1940s. “Soundsystems” were all the rage. Entrepreneurial people would create speakers and stack them in a pile. With a mono tube amplifier and one turntable, they would play all the rhythm and blues hits from the United States. They would charge admission and whether it would be in someone’s house, a yard, a cafe or street corner, many in the neighborhood would come. By 1950, the most popular was Tom the Great Sebastian Soundsystem. Tom would sometimes play Meringue and Calypso records to attract more upper class folk. In 1955, Coxsonne Dodd and Duke Reid would set up their own soundsystems called Downbeat and The Trojan, respectively. These two men would play a large part in the music business that was about to explode in the next decade.
Back in those days, if you owned a Soundsystem, you did everything in your power to make sure there wasn’t any competition taking from your income. The owners who were fortunate enough to travel to the US or even pay people to take the trip, would scour though 1000s of records to find the best tunes to have in their dances. They wanted exclusivity. The patrons at the dances surely couldn’t buy these songs so they would go to the dances to hear them. Owners would scratch labels off of records and rename them something of their own so their rivals wouldn’t know it’s true title. Coxsonne Dodd was known to have his “Coxsonne’s Hop” which was actually “Later for the Gator” by Willie “Gatortail” Jackson. Some of the big guys would send out people to the smaller soundsystems to check out what tunes were big hits with their crowd. If they liked what they saw and heard, they would make a monetary offer to the small guys that they couldn’t refuse. Other’s would sometime resort to violence. Just take a look at pictures of Prince Buster and find a large scar on his head. That scar came from a time when a rival soundsystem sent thugs to smash up his equipment. They threw him into the corner of the mixer in the process.
Sometime by the late 1950s, soundsystem owners were recording their own exclusive tunes to play at their dances. They hadn’t set up studios of their own so they would record at other studios that were mostly reserved for the upper class music like jazz and swing. Ken Khouri was the owner of Federal Records and Duke Reid would record many of his early productions here. The songs recorded were either covers of American Rhythm and Blues songs or brand new songs that sounded similar. Some early hits were “Lollipop Girl” by Derrick Harriot, “Easy Snapping” by Theo Beckford and “Manny Oh” by Higgs and Wilson which sold 25,000 copies. American songs such as “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino, “No More Doggin” by Roscoe Gordon, “Willie Mae” by Professor Longhair, to name a few would undoubtedly be the basis for what was to come.
“Ska! Ska! Ska!”
Ska, a genre that has gone through so many years of being tweaked and turned into other genres that it’s hard to believe that it was once just thought of boogie woogie and rhythm and blues versions by Jamaicans. The soundsystem owners weren’t the type of people to push the envelope in the early days so they never did much experimentation. If something wasn’t broken, why fix it was their way of thought. The turn into that chop on the upbeat or the guitar being the downbeat while the band plays around it, however you want to look at it, it happened on it’s own through the musicians feeling the music. Owen Gray’s massive hit “On the Beach” pushed the envelope a little further. Even further than that was Prince Buster’s self produced tune “Oh Carolina” which features the first rasta drumming recorded for popular music at the time. Still, we haven’t hit the Ska wave yet.
When the 1960s hit, big things came to the island. Radio parts became cheaper and pirate radio stations were popping up all over the place in the ghetto. They would play the hottest singles of the week. In 1962, Jamaica gained it’s Independence from Great Britain and with that an explosion of happiness throughout the land. Music was being created in celebration. Less than a year later, Rasta’s would clash with soldiers and it would leave a wake of chaos. The A sides of the records were upbeat to keep people happy but the B sides echoed the sentiments of the people in the unruly political climate. Radio stations demanded more up tempo music so the sound men got into the studio to make as much as they could.
This is where Ska or Sca, as it was originally spelled, comes to take the island by storm. A very minor hit by future Skatalites members Clue J & His Blues Blasters “Pine Juice” or Eric Morris’ “Humpty Dumpty” and the more choppy “Forward March” by Derrick Morgan would become the first Ska songs. The Wailers “Simmer Down” would not only be the pinnacle of the Ska sound but also the call to tell the people to calm down and stop the violence. The first international hit would be a cover of Barbie Gaye’s “My Boy Lollipop.” Sung by a pre teen girl by the name of Millie Smalls and produced by one of the creators of the ska and rocksteady sound, Ernest Rangling, it would go on to hit #2 on the Hot 100 charts in both the US and UK and sell over 7 million copies. This was released on Island Records owned by Jamaican native and then English resident Chris Blackwell.
“People Get Ready and Come Do Rocksteady”
If we fast forward a few years, we will find ourselves right at the time when Reggae was to become the genre we know and love today. There was a different tempo starting to take form and eventually a different feel altogether. The precursor music to Reggae was called Rocksteady. I like to call it a transition era. It was comprised mostly of Motown and Doo Wop covers or sound alikes. Early playing were basically that of slowed down ska, completely with a walking bassline and the open hi hat pattern. That famous “one drop” drum beat eventually came but itwould take a bit of experimentation of each individual musician to have it come into it’s own. A rumor, that was never proven, tried to explain the sound of Reggae by people slowed their uptempo Ska 45s down to 33rpm so they could dance to something slower but in reality Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them” and Hopeton Lewis’ “Take it Easy” are undisputed to being the first Rocksteady songs. Both singers complained of not being able to fit their lyrics to the fast tempo so they slowed it down. The term would come from Alton Ellis’ “Rocksteady” which told the listeners of this brand new dance to go with the brand new beat. Other big songs of the Rocksteady period and which show the slowed Ska beats are The Wailer’s “Bus Dem Shut,” The Paragons “Tide is High” and The Uniques “My Conversation” which features Roy Shirley’s voice.
Later on, the music again would turn into the more choppy and bubbly sound that Reggae is known for. The Overtones “Girl You Ruff” and The Heptones “Pretty Looks Isn’t All” are some classic rocksteady tunes. Jamaicans were also very much inspired by Curtis Mayfield and his earlier group The Impressions. Many famous tunes of the Rocksteady and Reggae era made his songs into their own. Most notably The Uniques “Gypsy Woman” and The Wailers and later Bob Marley’s “One Love” which is a version of “People Get Ready.”
Around this time was the birth of the style known as “DeeJay” or known as “Toasting” later on by the rest of the world. Basically, either sound men or performers would talk and rap over songs even if they had vocals already recorded onto them. This DeeJay style was often crude in the beginning, using it as advertising for a local sound shop, record store or upcoming single. Later on it would morph into rhymed lyrics, sometimes nursery rhymes and later onto actual raps in the 1980s Dancehall music era. Some early pioneers were King Stitt and Count Matchuki.
The precursor to dub music was that of the “Version.” This would also come during the Rocksteady and early Reggae periods. Again, by accident, a studio hijink led to this and having versions on b-sides of records allowed DeeJays to rap over music with no vocals. They would employ delay and spring reverb on their vocals. Some versions even included snippets of the vocal either in the beginning to let the crowd know exactly what song it was or in the choruses. This would eventually lead to Dub music in the 1970s. If you read any history of music or listen to people talk about the birth of Hip Hop, they fail to mention Jamaican music at all. It was well known that Jamaicans migrated to New York City in the 70s and 80s and brought their soundsystem, version and DeeJay culture with them. Many agree that Jamaican versions and DeeJay music definitely influenced Hip Hop in some way.
“Do the Reggay”
Reggae comes in 1969 with Lee Scratch Perry’s “People Funny Boy” the first diss track in history against ex employer Joe Gibbs. Joe Gibbs would take Lee’s riddim and make two songs with the Pioneers called “Longshot” and “Jackpot.” Both songs were stories about Joe’s racehorse and they became big hits. Later they would follow them up with “Long Shot Kick De Bucket.” A proper farewell to the horse that made them a lot of money while he was alive.
Across the water in England, Jamaicans had traveled and settled bringing their music culture with them. Lower working class young white men and women would often hang out in Jamaican clubs because they weren’t welcomed in the upper class clubs. They took to the reggae music instantly and soon “Skinhead Reggae” was born. If you ask most Jamaicans who lived in Jamaica during that time period they would have no idea what Skinhead Reggae was and may not even have heard any of the songs. This is because most of the songs were made in Jamaica for that market only and sold only to the UK. Other older Jamaican Rocksteady tunes were dubbed as Skinhead Reggae by the listeners and continually end up on compilations to this day. Skinhead Reggae doesn’t sound much different from any other Jamaican reggae music of the time. The only differences were lyrics which mostly involved UK politics or Skinhead culture in general. Also, a lot of songs were instrumentals and led by organ or horn melodies. Some popular songs were Symarip’s “Skinhead Moonstomp” Dice the Boss’ “Brixton Cat” and Claudette & The Corporation “Skinhead A Bash Dem.”
Harry J Allstars’ “The Liquidator” was a very well known tune and it’s still popular today being known as the theme song for the Chelsea Football team. This song was originally Tony Scott’s “What Am I To Do” which was a near copy of Alton Ellis’ rocksteady hit “Girl I’ve Got a Date.” Harry bought the riddim from Scott and re-recorded it adding an organ melody played by Winston Wright. A Memphis drummer would later visit the studio and hear that song, taking it back to the US, he would show it to The Staple Singers and it became world wide known as “I’ll Take You There.” The first bar of this recording even gives a nod to the original by the drummer playing a one drop on the first beat. Harry J then ended up recording The Deltones version of the same song and in the end, the riddim came back around to where it first started. As much as I love The Staple Singers, unfortunately the world knows that as their song and the true origin is rarely written about.
As Reggae really came into it’s own, the Rasta culture started to influence many young Jamaicans. This led to the birth of Roots and the basis of most Dub music. Dub music allowed the engineer to become the musician by using the mixing board and effects as an instrument. Be it groovy by dropping everything but the bass and drums or really spacey by using long reverb tails and delay patterns, Dub became it’s own genre and became almost a common place after a song was mixed. The pioneers of dub music were that of King Tubby, Lee Perry, Carl Campbell, Scientist and Winston Riley. The first full dub albums were The Techniques All Stars “357 Magnum Dub” and Lee Perry “Blackboard Jungle.”
As the 1970s started to come to a close, a transition was very much needed. At this time, most of the riddims that singers were putting lyrics over were at least a decade or more old. Studio One’s Coxonne Dodd had kept his studio band recording up to 20 riddims a day for 2 years straight at the end of the 1960s. Dodd kept recycling riddims by making new mixes and even doing new drum track over dubs, percussion and primitive synthesized keys and drum sounds. This was an odd time for the sound of Reggae. Singers wanted to hear key changes that just weren’t there in the old riddims and sometimes they would intentionally sing off key to create the illusion of a key change.
“From The Dance Hall To The World”
Cue the Casio MT-40 and the birth of digital music for Jamaica and a new genre called Dancehall and later Ragga. The Casio preset “Rock” which was thought to be based of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” but was recently discovered to be based off of David Bowie’s “Hang On To Yourself,” inspired the famous Wayne Smith song “Under Mi Sleng Teng.” Producer King Jammy was messing around with the keyboard when he happened upon the preset. He then remade it by fitting it to the reggae feel. The first fully digital reggae song and the birth of the most popular riddim of all time. The riddim would lead to at least 450 different songs most notably other than Wayne’s version was Johnny Osbourne’s “Buddy Bye” and Tenor Saw’s “Pumpkin Belly.” If I could take a trip in a time machine back to the 1985 sound clash when this riddim debuted, that might be a better experience than anyone could imagine. To be there when a whole genre shifted over night must have been incredible to witness.
The music of Jamaica didn’t stop in the 1980s. It kept evolving and evolving. Dancehall was the pinnacle of the music and digital sounds kept on going. The old way of doing things with a band was a time well in the past. Some artists would go back to it but it was mostly non Jamaicans that gripped onto it and never let it go. England in the 1980s was a rough time both socially and politically. Third generation Jamaicans and the many generations of poor white kids birthed the 2nd wave of Ska music. Two Tone as it was called, it was mostly an amalgamation of reggae and punk. Most songs were just reworkings of past Jamaican hits. Most of these bands like The Specials, UB40 and The Beat would reach international status with numerous hit songs.
This brought in a newer generation of Ska in the 1990s with crossover bands from California and NYC. The West Coast mixed in Hip Hop and more punk rock whereas the East Coast seemed to gravitate towards traditional Ska and Rocksteady. In the West there was the most famous of them all, Sublime. Everyone knows this band and a lot of reggae purists like to pretend they had no impact on Reggae. They were essentially a cover band, taking riddims that were already decades old and fitting new lyrics or borrowed lyrics over them or sometimes doing punk covers in Reggae. This was not much different than what Jamaicans did for many years. It helped bring Reggae to national attention. Bob Marley had already showed the world the sound of Jamaica but Sublime crossed over many styles of music drawing so many different walks of life towards the sound and the beat. By this time, Bob was already gone and it was before the over commercialization of his name and image. Sublime appealed to a new and younger generation of fans that may have been totally unaware of the impact that Bob had made years prior.
The East Coast had a lot of influence from traditional reggae sounds thanks to the numerous Jamaican communities that had long been established there. Such bands as The Slackers, The Stubborn All-Stars and many more were being taught by their predecessors. Studios such as King Jammy’s and Version City produced some of the most authentic reggae music that sounded like Jamaica had produced some years before.
To this day and probably for the foreseeable future, Reggae will continue to inspire people to create it and evolve it. The music has left the little island in the Caribbean and has gone places most never dreamed of. Jamaica continues to innovate even though their music isn’t anything close to what it once was but that is ok because innovation and change is what is needed to evolve.
Author Jim the Boss is a producer, engineer and musician residing in the NY metro area. He started Hoboken HiFi recording studio in 2012 with the aim of reproducing the feel of 1970s reggae and dub music. He has worked with veteran Reggae musicians and producers such as Victor Rice, Dubmatix, David Hillyard, Cornel Campbell, Sly & Robbie and many more. His Hudson Soul label releases have been nominated for numerous awards worldwide. You can find him on all social media platforms and check out his work at hudsonsoul.com