The History of Reggae Music – The Outbreak
On the first of May 1973 in London England, on BBC’s TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a vagabond band of Jamaican Rastafarian musicians made reggae music history by performing for the first time on British television. They set the world afire. Perfumed with the pungent aroma of cannabis clinging to their colorful clothing; their hair dreaded like the manes of young conquering lions; their soulful serenade a sound that few outside the Caribbean and West Indian immigrant communities had heard before. Bob Marley and the Wailers brought Reggae to the world and Reggae brought the world to Jamaica.
A Vibrational Virus
Reggae is both the music and history of Jamaica. It is the melodic embodiment of the soul of a place and its people. To describe it would be to describe an abstract organism. It is a vibrational virus whose DNA is composed of different musical and cultural influences unique to Jamaica. As it spreads it adapts, evolves, replicates, and when it hits you, you feel no pain.
From that breakout performance in London in 1973, Reggae has spread all over the world, adapting, evolving, and replicating. But the fever started many years prior. Before it went airborne on the BBC, Reggae fever was spread by direct contact. Its incubators were the steamy dance-halls, overcrowded ghettos, and impoverished rural villages of Jamaica. And as any mildly astute virologist would tell you, to understand the virus of reggae, you must understand its history; trace it back to its source, analyze its genetic composition, study the initial outbreak, and track its mutations.
Roots Rock Reggae
The term Reggae defines both a genre and sub-genre of Jamaican music history. Originally, the term Reggae referred specifically to a unique category of Jamaican music that originated in the late 1960s. It evolved from the earlier sub-genres of Ska and Rocksteady, and was popularized most notably by artists like Bob Marley. It would later come to be known as Roots Reggae due to the heavy influence of Rastafarianism and its socially conscious themes and lyrical content.
Over time, this sub-genre became so popular and so identifiable with Jamaica, that the term Reggae is now used to describe Jamaican music in general including Roots Reggae and its precursors Ska and Rocksteady. The genre of Reggae music includes the sub-genres of Ska, Rocksteady, Roots Reggae, Dub, Rockers, Lover’s Rock, and Dancehall.
Reggae continues to evolve, replicating and assimilating itself into other cultures. Mutating into new offshoots like Reggaeton, Reggae Fusion, etc. It has heavily influenced the creation and evolution of contemporary music genres like Hip-Hop and Electronic Dance Music, continuously adding to the rich legacy of Reggae music history.
The History of Reggae Music – In the Beginning, there was Sound
No exploration of the history of reggae music can begin without understanding the importance of Sound Systems. If the music was the virus, then the Sound Systems were the syringes of sound. They injected the masses with a fever whose symptoms included uncontrollable gyration and heavy perspiration. Jamaican Sound Systems brought the music to the people and greatly influenced the evolution of modern DJs.
Soundboys and Selectas
Sound Systems started in the 1950s. Live band promoters would hire Deejays aka, “Selectas” or “Soundmen” to play records during breaks and intermission. Soon the Sound Systems became more popular than the live bands. They could spin records nonstop and had an arsenal of tunes that could zombify the crowd from dusk to dawn.
By the mid-1950s, Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Duke Reid, two rival Sound System pioneers, became the “Champion Sounds” of Kingston and solidified themselves in the pantheon of reggae history. They began promoting their own dances and street parties. They would outfit trucks with generators, turntables, and massive columns of speakers, and made their profit by charging admission and selling food and beer.
By the end of the 1950s, Dodd and Reid had founded their own record labels and recording studios and became Jamaica’s first music moguls. It is in these studios, these ancient temples of Reggae history, like Clement Dodd’s Studio One, the most renowned record label and recording studio in Jamaica, often described as the Motown of Jamaica, that the first recordings of Jamaica’s first musical revolution would be made.
The Birth of Jamaican Music
The history of reggae starts with the history of Jamaica. The initial outbreak of Reggae fever began in the hot summer of 1962. Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain and the Sound Systems were injecting a new pathogen that embodied the joy and jubilation that accompanied the birth of the new nation. Ska became the soundtrack of Jamaican independence and was the first truly authentic Jamaican music. It was created by blending American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues with elements of Caribbean Calypso and Jamaican folk music.
By the late 1950s, the Sound Systems were relying less on imported music from the US and started their own recording studios and record labels to produce and promote homegrown Jamaican Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. A new genre of music unique to Jamaica was born. Sound Systems could now play exclusive songs by Ska pioneers like Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites, Jimmy Cliff, The Wailers, The Maytals, and many more budding artists who queued from morning to midnight for a chance to audition for the Sound System bosses and become part of reggae history.
The Music of the Ghetto
For most of these artists, some of whom would go on to influence entire generations and become music legends, the trials and tribulations of poverty were all they knew. The music was the only shot they had to make it out of the slums and ghettos of Kingston Jamaica. Ska was the music of the common people. A trait that would become a dominant genetic marker of Reggae music as it mutated and evolved. Just as with many other genres of music like Blues, Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, Hip Hop, etc., it was initially scorned by the upper classes who saw Ska as the music of the poor. Poverty and persecution have always been part of the history of reggae.
It was not until the independence of 1962 that Jamaicans, especially young Jamaicans of all classes, took pride in this new form of music they could call their own. The virus had taken hold. And the Sound Systems were pumping it into the bloodstreams of Jamaicans both near and far. If Kingston Jamaica was the first localized outbreak of Reggae fever, London England was where it became pandemic. The history of reggae music was as much written in London as it was in Kingston.
The History of Reggae – The British Invasion!
The history of reggae and Jamaica are inextricably tied to Great Britain. Jamaica had been a crown colony of Great Britain from 1655 until Jamaican independence in 1962. By that time, London was already home to a vibrant Jamaican immigrant community. But Jamaicans could not get into the trendy Jazz clubs of London because of the color of their skin. So they began building their own Sound Systems, hosting parties in backyards and basements, and opening their own night clubs. Jamaicans could enjoy the culture and comradery of their countrymen and the music of their homeland.
At British ports, Jamaicans stepped off passenger ships carrying a new contagion. Their suitcases loaded with the latest Ska records from back home, and the Jamaicans in London caught the bug and rejoiced. They didn’t need to go to white-only Jazz clubs to hear British or American music. Now they could go to Jamaican clubs and listen to Ska. Soon young white Londoners got hip to the Jamaican scene. In the early ’60s, British bands like The Rolling Stones would play their gigs at white clubs then head immediately to Jamaican joints to enjoy this infectious new music that was sweeping the underground. Reggae has had a hugely important but lesser known influence on music history.
In the history of reggae music, London was where Reggae fever jumped to white Brits and became mainstream. By the mid-’60s, Ska had conquered London. But the times and moods were changing back in Jamaica, and so was the music. The studio bosses and music producers in Jamaica were slowing down the rhythm. The Sound Systems began rocking to a steadier beat. Ska mutated into Rocksteady and the era of the Rude Boys began.
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