Reggae is the heartbeat of Jamaica. While the term now covers everything from the upbeat grooves of ska and the spooky sounds of dub to the aggressive beats of dancehall, at its core reggae music is all about the one-drop rhythm, which features the bass drum disappearing on the first beat and coming in strong with the snare on the third as the keyboards and guitars add syncopated accents on the two and the four.
The origin of the word "reggae" is open to debate. Some say it's the distortion of "streggae," patois slang for prostitute, while other say it's just a made-up name of no particular origin. Toots and Maytals were the first to use the word on record, however, with the 1968 single "Do the Reggay" (the word's spelling hadn't been formalized yet).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Jamaican musicians took a Jamaican folk style called mento and mixed it with American jazz and especially R&B to create ska. As with R&B, the drumbeats were emphasized on the second and fourth bars, but it was the syncopated guitar or piano accents, which came from mento, on the upbeats that gave ska its distinctive energy. By 1966 the tunes had slowed into a style called rocksteady, which featured soulful vocalists and bass lines that took on a more prominent and free-ranging role. By 1968 the tempo had switched again, the one-drop rhythm came to form and reggae was born.
From the beginning reggae has been influenced by and identified with Jamaica's Rastafari religion, which was a belief system that was created by poor black Jamaicans in the 1930s who wanted to reclaim their African heritage and feel empowered in the face of a white Protestant ruling class that had previously run the island as a slave colony. Rastafarians believed that the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, was god incarnate. It's not that every reggae musician is a Rasta, but ever since Bob Marley spread Jamaica's national sound around the world, reggae and Rastafari have been almost as oneas have marijuana and the music. The Rastas use ganga as a sacrament; reggae fans use it as the perfect, if illegal, accompaniment to the music's slow-motion grooves, loose-limbed bass lines and laid-back vibes. Plus, Rastafari's African-derived drumming style, called burra or Nyabinghi, directly influenced the one-drop beat. Jamaican music that emerged in the late '60s and early '70s is called roots reggae, and some of its legendary artists include Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Dennis Brown and Inner Circleyes, of the Cops theme song fame, but before that, when the late and great Jacob Miller was its singer, the band was among the very best.
A standard joke from reggae's detractors is, "I love that song," indicating that all the music sounds the same. But the truth is that reggae features a remarkable variety of styles and influencesand it's constantly being reinvented. Dub is one such reggae recasting. Producers will take a rhythm, or "riddim," track and add or remove voices, instruments and sound effects to create something like a smeared Xerox copy of the original tune. While the "dub versions" often appeared on the B-sides of singles, the technique eventually took on a life of its own. In 1970 producer Errol Thompson engineered the first instrumental reggae album, The Undertaker, by Derrick Harriott and the Crystalites. Harriott is one of Jamaica's greatest soul singers, with a voice on par with Smokey Robinson. Yet his vox is little more than an apparition on The Undertaker, and Harriott's credited as playing "sound effects." By 1975 Lee "Scratch" Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo and the team of Harold Chin and Errol Thompson had established dub as a rich and enduringly popular reggae subgenre. No longer were older riddims simply versioned by producers; new music was created from the ground up as dub tunes. Electronica and hip-hop artists have adopted numerous cues from dub techniques, and modern masters like Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood and Bill Laswell have updated the style in the digital age.
The deejay is another stylistic spin-off from reggae. "Deejay" is what Jamaicans call somebody who talks, "toasts" or raps, usually contemporaneously, over a riddim. Some of the greatest deejays to emerge in the early 1970s included U-Roy, I-Roy, Dennis Alcapone and Big Youth, and their pioneering techniques influenced American hip-hop, which has its roots in New York City's Bronxa popular place for West Indian immigrants. Deejays would often perform over recycled riddims, and this sort of aural callback is a defining element of post-1970s Jamaican music. Classic beats like "Real Rock," "Stalag 17," "Satta Massagana" and "Sleng Teng" (the first digital-riddim smash) are revived every few years for a new round of hits.
Other styles than emerged out of roots reggae include rockers, a late '70s variant characterized by the high-hat heavy "flying cymbals" sound, and the U.K.-birthed lover's rock, a romance-heavy style capitalized on by crooners like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott and Freddie McGregor. Meanwhile, dancehall, which began in the 1980s with Yellowman, Eek-A-Mouse, Super Cat, Cutty Ranks, Shabba Ranks, Dillinger and more, began the dominance that extends to today. Originally called ragamuffin or ragga, the music is a combination of stripped-down, rhythm-heavy sounds (often all digital now) featuring deejays or "sing-jays," if the artist mixes toasting and crooning. The lyrics run the gamut, but "slackness" (topics of a sexual, rude or violent nature) is a familiar fallback. Modern dancehall superstars include Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Sizzla, Capleton, Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man.
The music has also traveled far beyond Jamaica to inspire musicians worldwide, from Australian Aboriginal bands and such African stars as Lucky Dube and Alpha Blondy, to Western pop superstars such as Elvis Costello and the Police (not to mention "Hasidic reggae" sensation Matisyahu.) Reggae, a scrappy music from a small island, is truly a part of the world's musical vocabulary. Christopher Porter