A Brief History Of...The Development of Reggae


29. Jan. 2008, 4:00

The description and playlist below are from the weekly radio show (A Brief History Of…) that my friend and I host on WSUM 91.7fm Madison (the University of Wisconsin's radio station). We selected songs we felt were either historically important or just representative of each specific topic. Please comment if you feel we missed something or just to give your opinion. Remember, however, that we do this show in an hour (about 50 minutes of music). Track length is a major factor in our decisions (shorter is usually better). Thanks!

A Brief History of…The Development of Reggae follows the course of popular Jamaican music from imitations of American R&B around 1960 to Reggae’s international emergence as a fully developed musical form in 1972. The show analyzes what parts of Jamaican history and culture affected the stylistic and lyrical changes in the music. Among the topics covered are the psychological change caused by the island’s independence from Great Britain in 1962 and the impact of Rudeboy culture in the mid-60s. Of particular note in this show is a discussion of the impact of this Jamaican music culture on later African-American music, especially the origins of hip-hop.

Here's the playlist we used for this show:

American R&B Origins:
This is the process by which we got the earliest forms of reggae:

Step 1: The Creation of the Sound System, which is essentially a portable dance party. Jamaicans began to demand to hear the most popular records coming out of the U.S. in the early 50s instead of their local live mento bands.

Step 2: After listening to enough American R&B (especially artists like Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Fats Domino, and Bill Doggett), local bands started playing it themselves, but they still often incorporated the rhythms of traditional Jamaican folk music and mento.

Hey, Bartender by Laurel Aitken (1961). Aitken was known as "the Godfather of Ska." This song could almost have passed as American R&B, but it has just a little different feel to it.

Step 3: Sound System owners like Duke Reid and Clement Dodd began producing songs by the best local musicians. Their intent was still to be able to play the best records at the parties they hosted.

Ska was meant to be dance music, so the beat was rather up-tempo. Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962 and the ska dance craze, played by Jamaican musicians, matched the optimism associated with the time.

Pink Lane Shuffle by Duke Reid & His Group (1961). Many of the artists who would later become The Skatalites worked as musicians for Reid until...

Step 4: Clement Dodd founded Studio One. Dodd created a new studio in late 1963 and to go along with it he created a new record imprint, Studio One. Dodd was the first major ska producer to have his own recording studio, beating out Reid by a few months. Reid founded Tresure Isle records, but he had lost most of the future members of The Skatalites to Dodd's Studio One. Studio One has been called “the Motown of Jamaica.” Studio One records led the Jamaican music scene until about 1966 when artists on Reid's labels (most notably Treasure Isle) brought Reid back to the forefront.

Fidel Castro by The Skatalites (1964). The Skatalites were the house band at Studio One and played on most of their hit records in the mid-60s.

My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small (1964). Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (A Brit who had lived in Jamaica since 1961) brought Millie Small to England to record. "My Boy Lollipop" surprisingly reached #2 in both the UK and the US. A young Rod Stewart supposedly played the harmonica solo.

Shame and Scandal by The Wailers (1965). Yes, this is the same Wailers that we know from the '70s. They originally formed in 1963, recorded at Studio One (with The Skatalites), and participated in each of the style shifts in the development of Reggae. "Shame & Scandal" was an old calypso and mento standard. This evidences that Jamaican traditions were still vital to the development of ska. Peter Tosh sang lead vocals on this track.

Rocksteady - Romantic Love Songs:
Rock Steady was only popular from the fall of 1966 to summer of 1968. In Rock Steady, the musical emphasis shifted to the bass and drums and the ska rhythm was slowed considerably. Lyrically, Rock Steady was dominated by two basic formats: romantic love and rudeboy culture.
Ain't That Bad by The Heptones (1966)
I'm Still in Love With You by Alton Ellis & The Flames (1967)
The Tide Is High by The Paragons (1967). This is, of course, the song that Blondie covered in 1980.

Rocksteady - Rudeboy Culture:
The term "Rudeboys" meant the youth culture of urban Jamaica. Rudeboy culture was sometimes blamed for the increased crime and rudeboys were often scapegoated as the reason things were worse after Jamaica gained independence from England in 1962. Artists took both sides regarding the issue. Some said rudeboys were harmless, others said they were criminals, but that their poverty was to blame, and others held the rudeboys wholly responsible and warned of consequences. Rudeboys were also known for having an affinity for Spaghetti Westerns and James Bond.
007 (Shanty Town) by Desmond Dekker & The Aces (1967). "007 (Shanty Town)" includes every one of the aspects listed above. It both glorifies and warns rudeboys and it name-drops James Bond and the Rat-Pack film Oceans 11. “007 (Shanty Town)” hit the Top 15 in the UK and at least charted in the US.

The Hip-Hop Beef developed out of sound system competitions in the Bronx between Afrika Baambaataa and DJ Cool Herc (who was himself from Jamaica - he is the link). As mentioned above, sound system competitions first occurred between Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Arthur "Duke" Reid in 1950’s Jamaica. In addition, following this strand, the idea of writing attack and response songs directly or indirectly about a rival musician can be traced at least as far back as this 1966-7 contention between Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster (a debate about the merits and detriments of rudeboys):
Tougher Than Tough by Derrick Morgan (1966)
Judge Dread by Prince Buster (1967)

Growing Influence / Mature Form:
Israelites by Desmond Dekker & The Aces (1968). "Israelites" was a number one hit in the UK and reached the Top Ten in the US. This was the first truly international reggae hit.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by The Beatles (1968). With "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" Paul McCartney acknowledged the growing popularity of Reggae in England. The character named Desmond in the song is in reference to Desmond Dekker. The groove is an odd mix of ska and honky-tonk.
Rivers Of Babylon by The Melodians (1969). "Rivers of Babylon," just like "Israelites," uses the parallel between the Biblical Jews and the enslaved Africans. With "Rivers of Babylon," Reggae had reached a fully mature form (the groove is perfect, as are the harmonies, call and response vocals, and production).

Reggae Hits the Mainstream:
The line between Rocksteady and Reggae is a little blurry. Reggae was generally not as smooth lyrically or musically as Rock Steady. The music could be faster or slower than Rock Steady (Bob Marley would tell you it got even slower). Basically, Reggae meant a lot more experimentation and variety.
Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon (1972). Mr. World Music Extraordinaire himself actually had a Reggae hit just as authentic Reggae became popular in the US with the soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come (think Blaxploitation films, like Shaft, but set in Jamaica). The next two tracks are both from that soundtrack album and "Rivers of Babylon," although already three years old in Jamaica, was included on the album as well.
The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff (1972).
Pressure Drop by Toots & The Maytals (1972). Toots & the Maytals had been around since the early 60s and I regret not putting any of that earlier music on this playlist - if one more song would have fit in the playlist, it would have been early Toots.

Reggae Experimentation:
I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash (1972). Great song from an American artist, but what are those strange noises in the background during the chorus of this Reggae song? Experimentation.


  • Furngully

    The David Katz books are a good read, Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae. Another one of my favourites is, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, pretty dense, but you feel like you are right there going from studio to studio on a CB200 for some of it.

    17. Apr. 2008, 18:35
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