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Reggae: It Doesn't All Sound the Same

By John Skomdahl Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff Writer


If you are just getting into Jamaican music and would like a brief run down on the different styles of Reggae, the following info might help you out. The world of Reggae is huge and sometimes complex so what's written here just barely, and I mean BARELEY, scratches the surface of a nearly endless supply of Reggae artists and producers. No disrespect to anyone not mentioned here. The good news - if you want a much deeper look into Reggae, just check out any, or all, of the books sighted at the end of this piece.

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It was "party time" in Jamaica during the early days of Independence. Ska was the music in style when Jamaica broke loose from British rule in 1962.


Ska is right up there with Mento when it comes to indigenous Jamaican music. Ska was the dominant sound during the early to late 1960's and was spurred on, to an extent, by Jamaica's independence from British rule.

Despite having somewhat of a "rude boy" edge to it, Ska also has a spiritual side. It is a fast paced, horn driven music that was heavily influenced by American Jazz. Although many Ska tunes are instrumentals, there are plenty of songs with quality vocals. Many Americans got their first taste of Ska when Millie Small's version of "My Boy Lollipop" hit big in 1964.

After nearly 45 years, Ska music is alive and well today, just not in Jamaica. There's always been a Ska scene in the UK and for the last 20 years America has jumped on and off the Ska bandwagon. The latest wave of "American Ska" might just stick.

Major Ska Artists: The Skatalites, Don Drummond, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Justin Hinds and The Dominoes, Alton Ellis & The Wailers.

Top Ska Producers: Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Leslie Kong.

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Record producer Coxsone Dodd made it very clear that he was in the Rocksteady business with this LP cover


Rocksteady replaced Ska music in the mid to late 1960's. Rocksteady is as soothing and slow as Ska is speedy and intense - not to say there are not mixtures of the two styles. In Rocksteady, the drum and bass virtually replaced the horns as lead instruments and rich vocals drove the songs. Some incredible harmony groups popped up at this stage too. Love songs increased in the Rocksteady days and the smooth sound of this genre greatly resembled the coolness of early American R&B.

Many people say that Jamaican vocalists were at their peak during the Rocksteady years. Unfortunately, the days of Rocksteady didn't last as long as they should have. But in a short amount of time, some great records were made. One of the most well known Rocksteady tunes to reach mainstream America was Desmond Dekker's 1969 classic called "The Israelites."

Major Rocksteady Artists: Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe , The Paragons, Alton Ellis, The Melodians, The Techniques, The Heptones, & Justin Hinds and The Dominoes

Top Rocksteady Producers: Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd - these guys dominated the Rocksteady scene, just like they did in the Ska days.

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A postcard featuring Bob Marley. As the back says, Bob Marley "was the undisputed 'King' of Reggae music." I really like the crudeness of this statue - it's just like good Reggae - raw and unpretentious


Many people say that Reggae is Rocksteady sped up - with the band syncing together even more to create a constant, driving sound. With Reggae, the bass became the lead instrument, followed closely by the drums, with keyboards and guitars playing a key part in unifying the tempo. When all these instruments mesh just right, they can create a truly "steady" or pulsating beat. This skill is often overlooked - probably because it looks so easy - but if you ask most musicians, they will tell you that Reggae is one of the toughest styles of music to master.

Reggae is also the broad name used to lump together the many styles of Jamaican music, whether it be Ska, Dancehall, DJ or Dub. If it sounds like it came from Jamaica, it is usually called Reggae.

Reggae is one Jamaica's largest assets, falling just short of the north coast tourist trade and certain exports. Mainstream America has never fully jumped into the Reggae music scene like the English did in the early 1970's - and it's hard to say if Reggae will ever "break through" in the US.

Major Reggae Artists: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and The Maytals, Burning Spear, & Jimmy Cliff.

Top Reggae Producers: Coxsone Dodd, Lee Perry, King Tubby, Joe Gibbs

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Max Romeo's LP cover exemplifies the "sufferers" side of "Roots Reggae."


The "Roots" style of Reggae music is known for its high concentration of "conscious" lyrics. Conscious lyrics in Roots Reggae firmly address topics that most genres of music steer away from including politics, poverty, world-wide peace, spirituality, human rights Godliness, - just to name a few.

Roots music is more centered on sending a message via music than it is on making people dance - despite the fact that many Roots songs are also fun to dance to. Songs about romance and love do not generally fall into the Roots category.

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Jah Woosh's "Religious Dread" LP cover represents the "spiritual" spectrum of "Roots Reggae."

As early as the mid 1960's conscious lyrics could be found in some Ska songs. But it was the 1970's that saw "Roots" music hit its peak. Even though "Roots" Reggae slowed down in popularity by the 1980's, it is once again an extremely popular style of Reggae.

Jamaica's independence from Great Britain and the island's 1970's political struggles were two important factors for the emergence of Roots music. Jamaicans were seeking answers to life's problems and it was Roots music that offered a level of relief and an injection of hope.

There are many Reggae fans who only listen to and collect Roots Reggae.

Major Roots Artists: Max Romeo, Culture, Twinkle Brothers, Pablo Moses

Top Roots LP/CD: Max Romeo - "Open The Iron Gate" ; Culture - "Two Sevens Clash" ;
Twinkle Brothers - "Rasta Pon Top" ; Pablo Moses - "I Love I Bring"

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Nyahbinghi specialist, Ras Michael beating the drum and shaking up Babylon in Los Angeles, CA circa 1988.Photo by John Skomdahl


Nyahbinghi is often called the "heartbeat" of Reggae music because the slow, thumping pattern of the funde, repeater and bass drums is so similar to the human heartbeat. Typically, the only instruments used in Nyahbinghi are hand drums and vocals come in the form of "chants." Jamaican Nyahbinghi stretches back to the 1940-50's.

The word Nyahbinghi translates into "death to black and white oppressors." It's no secret then that Nyahbinghi is the heaviest, and most stern style of Jamaican music.

The roots of Nyahbinghi come from Africa yet it's played by Rastafarians across the globe. Nyahbinghi sessions come in all sizes, but usually there are at least 5 drummers (playing the beat of the heart) and the results can be quite dread.

Lyrics in Nyahbinghi range from extremely spiritual to intensely condemning. Songs about the divinity of Haile Selassie and repatriation to Africa are quite common, as are lyrics about the downfall of western society.

Despite its serious nature, Nyahbinghi can be quite beautiful and uplifting - it all depends on how the listener interrupts the message behind the heartbeat.

There is no doubt that Kingston born Rastaman, Ras Michael, is the most well known and talented Nyahbinghi artist to come out of Jamaica. He has continued to release some of the best Nyahbinghi albums - never straying from the roots and cultural messages he began over 30 years ago. California has truly benefited from Ras Michael living in the Los Angeles area for the last 10-15 years. He has given many people a chance to hear authentic Nyahbinghi music in the heart of Babylon (AKA Hollywood).

Major Nyahbinghi Artists: Ras Michael & Count Ossie

Top Nyahbinghi LP/CDs: Ras Michael - "Nyahbinghi", "Dadawah" & "Spiritual Roots" ;
Count Ossie "The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari"


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"Dub Pn Dis Ya Side" is what you'll get when you play the B sides of most Reggae 45's.

Dub music was one of the more dramatic additions in the world of 70's Reggae music.
It was invented - some say by accident, some say by design - by "removing" the vocals from a song - stripping the record down to just the musical portion. This job was done by a sound engineer during the post-production stage of a record. The first known examples of Dub date back to the late, late 1960's to early 1970's.

Dub is quite unique to Jamaica. It made its debut in the dancehall but gained in popularity as "musical backsides" of 45rpm records.

As opposed to most American 45rpms, which have two separate vocals - most Jamaican 45rpms, post 1970, had vocals on the A side, with the B side being the same song - minus most - if not all the vocals. Some engineers mixed in sound effects and bits of vocals to add texture to the B side.

The B sides of Jamaican 45's became known as the "dub side" or "versions". Dub got so popular that full length LPs were released in Jamaica and England. Imagine that - an entire LP with virtually no vocals - relying solely on the excitement of the music and the ingenuity of a crafty engineer.

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If Bob Marley is the undisputed "King of Reggae" then King Tubby is the undisputed "King of Dub." Here's 'Tubbs' pictured on the back of one of his best Dub LPs.

The "dub side" on 45s also served another purpose. The wide open, musical tracks provided a near perfect backdrop for DJ artists to do their own thing, creating yet another style of Reggae music. These open dub sides on 45rpms would be paradise for a Karachi fan that likes Reggae.

King Tubby is the Dubmaster. Tubby revolutionized the art of Dub by utilizing his knowledge of electronics to add or alter vocals and sound effects when remixing a record. Once King Tubby got done with a Dub, it almost became a new song within itself. 10 years ago, hardly anyone knew who King Tubby was but these days his name, and works, are plastered on dozens of reissue CDs. Sadly, King Tubby was shot and killed in Kingston in 1989.

Today, Dub is incredibly popular because of geniuses like King Tubby. Throughout the 1990's there was a wave of dub LPs released by Tubby inspired mixing engineers and the rave scene in the US surely heard, and copied, some ideas from this genre.

Top Dub Producers/Artists: King Tubby, Lee Perry, Prince Jammy, Scientist, Harry Moodie,
and Errol Thompson


Who would have ever thought that DJ artists would ultimately outnumber singers in Reggae music. Afterall, the art of being a DJ artist, one who "talks" or "chats" his or her lyrics basically started out as somewhat of a gimmick and barely threatened the popularity of singers. But if you take a look at Jamaican music charts today, it is rare to see a singer's name listed within the infinite string of DJ artists.

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Uroy is one of Reggae's best known and talented Jamaican DJs. His career dates back to the 1960's and to this day, he's still dishing out lyrics in fine style. Here he is just before he went on stage in Long Beach, circa 1990.Photo by John Skomdahl

The first DJ's started "talking" over rhythms in the Rocksteady days and by the early to mid 1970's almost every record producer employed their own house DJ. The godfather of DJs, Uroy, worked closely with Duke Reid, King Tubby and Tony Robinson, while other DJs like Trinity and UBrown were busy with producer Joe Gibbs.

DJ artists were known for being a little more outlandish and competitive with one another compared to most Reggae singers. While some DJs pumped out serious lyrics others relied on catchy hooks and humor to win over fans. It didn't take long for DJs to become very popular in Jamaican dancehalls.

Today, DJs in Jamaica are about as common as sunburned tourists at Dunns River Falls. While great Jamaican singers can still be found, mediocre DJs are everywhere. The current crop of Jamaican DJs have taken on more American rap characteristics than ever before. Everything from lyrics, to dress, to the emphasis of sex and materialism has blurred the previous dividing lines between the Jamaican DJs and American rappers.

Thankfully, there's been a resurgence of cultural/conscious orientated DJs to balance out the deeper pool of "slackness" DJs.

Top DJ Artists: (1970's) Uroy (The Godfather of DJs), Big Youth, Tappa Zukie, Jah Lloyd,
Prince Jazzbo, Prince Fari, Jah Woosh and Dr. Alimantado.
(1980's) Charlie Chaplin, Brigadeer Jerry
(1990's) Beenie Man, Bounty Killer & Tony Rebel
(2000-Present) Sizzla, Anthony B, Elephant Man & Sean Paul

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OK Likkle Wicked...your LP "Body Fine" really shows us how imortant sexy gals are when it comes to Dancehall music. Now, if you could have only put a gun in one of the girls' hand, it would have really summarized Jamaican music in the early late 1980's


Dancehall is usually the term used to describe the rapid, computerized beats that dominated Jamaica's musical scene after the 70's Roots era slowed down. Aside from being a style of Reggae the word Dancehall is also used to describe a location, indoors or out, where artists perform their music.

Dancehall is relatively less melodic than other styles of Reggae, mainly because it is created via computers versus players of instruments. The earliest efforts in Dancehall sounded very similar to Reggae but a lot has changed since those early days.

Today, Dancehall is dominated by DJ artists that manage to cram truckloads of lyrics in their songs, creating an intense, driving feel to the music. To many critics' dismay, the majority of Dancehall artists have succeeded in the industry by promoting violence, vanity and sex in their songs. It is hard to say who feeds this "slackness" machine - is it the artists themselves or is it the people's music of choice.

The American rap scene, especially within the last few years, has had a huge influence in Jamaican Dancehall music. Dancehall music, much like rap in America, is very popular with the island's youth.

Major Dancehall Artists: Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man & Sean Paul

Top Dancehall Producers: Dave Kelly, Bobby "Digital B" Dixon,

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UK based artist Vivian Jones can belt out a Lover's Rock tune just as well as he can a Roots Reggae Song.


Lovers Rock is a style of Reggae that is most tied with English based singers. It is also a music that primarily deals with love and romance, hence the title Lovers Rock. Lovers Rock is top heavy with sweet, crooner type singers and rarely do you hear a DJ artist in this genre.
Certain artists only record Lovers Rock material.

Lovers Rock got going by the early 1980's and firmly established itself as a viable force in Reggae by the early 1990's. Despite being most popular in England there is no doubt its origins came from love songs performed by Jamaican based singers - particularly Gregory Isaacs.

Cover songs are very popular in Lovers Rock. If an American love tune hits big, you can bet that it will be flipped into a Lovers Rock format. So if you are in the mood for a heavy dose of romantic Reggae, Lovers Rock is what you want to hear.

Major Lovers Rock Artists: UB40, Lloyd Brown, Deborahe Glasgow, Peter Hunnigale, Sandra Cross & Vivian Jones


For those that wished the conscious Reggae music of the 70's had never ended, the Modern Roots movement of the early 1990's was the next best thing that could've ever happened to Jamaican music. For many Reggae fans, the 1980's was a wash. "Slackness" artists ruled the dancehalls and record shops and it looked like nothing was going to break that chain.

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Cultural singer Admiral Tibet almost single handedly kept the conscious side of Reggae music alive during the 1980's. It's next to impossible to find a "slack" song by this great artist, yet hes barely recieved the respect that he's due.Photo by John Skomdahl

Then, almost overnight, artists like Luciano, Coco Tea, Morgan Heritage & Admiral Tibet entered the studio doors and brought their Roots lyrics and melodic rhythms with them. They didn't kick-out the slack DJs altogether, but they did bring back a level of respect to Reggae music that many thought was gone forever.

"Conscious" lyrics and records soon followed. Themes of peace, love, unity, along with spiritual messages and warnings to oppressors were once again pouring out of Jamaican soundsystems. Even DJ artists, most notably Beenie Man, gave up their gold chains and slick suits for tam filled dreadlocks and red, green and gold necklaces.

Many say the music got better with Modern Roots. Rhythms became less monotonous, even if they were created using a computer. The beat and feel of 70's Reggae was back, quite possibly better and fresher than ever.

Major Modern Roots Artists: Admiral Tibet, Luciano, Bushman, & DJ Tony Rebel.

Chuck Foster, Roots Rock Reggae, Billboard Books, 1999
Stephen Davis & Peter Simon, Reggae International, Rogner & Bernhard GMBH & Co., 1982
Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton, Reggae, The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1997