It Doesn't All Sound the Same
John Skomdahl Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff Writer
DOESN'T ALL SOUND THE SAME
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.
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
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.
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.
Record producer Coxsone Dodd made it very clear that he was
in the Rocksteady business with this LP cover
COOL DOWN THE PACE
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.
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
Artists: Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe , The Paragons, Alton Ellis,
The Melodians, The Techniques, The Heptones, & Justin Hinds
and The Dominoes
Producers: Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd - these guys dominated the
Rocksteady scene, just like they did in the Ska days.
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
JAMAICA ON THE MUSICAL MAP
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.
Artists: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and The Maytals, Burning
Spear, & Jimmy Cliff.
Top Reggae Producers:
Coxsone Dodd, Lee Perry, King Tubby, Joe Gibbs
Max Romeo's LP cover exemplifies the "sufferers"
side of "Roots Reggae."
UP AND TAKE A STAND
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.
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.
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
There are many
Reggae fans who only listen to and collect Roots Reggae.
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"
Nyahbinghi specialist, Ras Michael beating the drum and shaking
up Babylon in Los Angeles, CA circa 1988.Photo by John Skomdahl
STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART
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.
serious nature, Nyahbinghi can be quite beautiful and uplifting
- it all depends on how the listener interrupts the message behind
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
Artists: Ras Michael & Count Ossie
LP/CDs: Ras Michael - "Nyahbinghi", "Dadawah"
& "Spiritual Roots" ;
Count Ossie "The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari"
DUB: NO LYRICS,
"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
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.
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
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
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
DJ: TALK AINT CHEAP
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Artists: Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man & Sean Paul
Producers: Dave Kelly, Bobby "Digital B" Dixon,
UK based artist Vivian Jones can belt out a Lover's Rock tune
just as well as he can a Roots Reggae Song.
SWEETEST SIDE OF REGGAE
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
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.
Rock Artists: UB40, Lloyd Brown, Deborahe Glasgow, Peter Hunnigale,
Sandra Cross & Vivian Jones
MODERN ROOTS: THE RASTAMAN NEVER DIES
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
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
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.
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.
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