Reggae essentially lives on two parallel planes, one Jamaican and one English. These are mirrored and inverted stories because if ska is born first in Jamaica and then, gradually, you get to reggae, in England the exact opposite happens, since before (beyond an ephemeral ska fashion at the end of the 60s) Bob Marley’s reggae established itself. Then, in a wave of revival, ska was rediscovered, hence the still widespread misunderstanding that ska comes from reggae.
To find a thread in the intricate story of SKA and Reggae, the best thing is to start from the origins; place, and period. Jamaica in the early 60s, fresh from independence, which begins to mint its own popular music, ska. In fact, the typical line-up of ska is a strange combination of electric instruments typical of rhythm and blues and winds partly linked to the jazz tradition: saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. The style of music is a strange cross between jump blues and Mento, highly syncopated traditional Jamaican music.
Strongly influenced by the American music scene, from which the 45 rpm R’n’B played by the sound systems that animated the parties of the Kingston ghetto come from. Jamaicans have a predilection for music with a strong boogie component, such as jump blues and certainly early R’n’B, precisely and when these sounds are abandoned by American bands, the owners of sound systems like Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid do a very logical thing: they form their own labels and begin to record and produce on the spot the music that is no longer produced in America.
The First SKA Stars
In a short time, the sound begins to become more personal and to merge the original styles, the Mento, and rhythm and blues first of all. It is precisely from this intersection that the characteristic upbeat beat is born which becomes a characteristic sign of ska and all its derivatives. Playing the chords in counterplay was a typical stylistic element of the Mento but it is with the fusion with R’n’B, with its characteristic emphasis on the rhythmic element, which creates the perfect blend.
The first ska stars are Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker (who with “The Israelites”, in 1969, will set off a fleeting fashion of ska in the UK), Toots & the Maytals, and the Wailers of Bunny Wailer, Pete Tosh, and Bob Marley. A separate case is made up of the Skatalites, not only leading exponents of the original ska scene but also fixed backing band of Studio One, the seminal recording studio owned by the aforementioned Coxsone Dodd.
The popularity of ska collapses sharply in the summer of 1966. An exceptionally hot summer convinces ska performers to drastically slow down the rhythms of their execution, and this is how rocksteady was born. A slowed version of ska, bass in the foreground, and trombone replaced by the piano. The Wailers adapt easily to the new style, while other groups are replaced by the new wave of performers and groups, which include Heptones, Dominoes, Alton Ellis, and Ken Boothe.
Compared to ska, rocksteady is musically closer to soul and doo-wop, boasting greater care for harmonies and vocal parts and partly putting the melody before the rhythm. And not only that: social and political themes soon begin to peep into the texts.
The function of conjunction with reggae is evident, in which these elements are accentuated and brought to maturity. It happens in the early 70s when the sound slows down further. The Rasta religion takes on a central role in the music and the singer becomes a sort of preacher of the cult of Jah. The most important records, released during the 70s, are largely signed by ex-wailers. Bunny Wailer with “Blackheart Man” (1976), Pete Tosh with “Legalize” (1976), but above all Bob Marley. For the first time 1974 with “Natty Dread”, a record that will lead Marley to stellar success and make him the first international reggae star.
Reggae takes over
Central figures of early reggae are also Burning Spear and Augustus Pablo, in whose records the reggae matrix happily coexists with another derivative of rocksteady: dub, a genre that falls into the vast category of styles invented by producers. In 1967 the producers of the sound system began to rework, overdub and remix rocksteady singles in the studio to make instrumental versions. These instrumental versions feature the toasters (Jamaican DJs) speaking and improvise new vocals: it is the birth of toasting, the ancestor of rap, and the background of Dance Hall. Meanwhile, a sound engineer, King Tubby, began experimenting with instrumental tracks, using the console as a real instrument and exasperating reverberations and echoes, and dub, with its cavernous and submerged sound, was born.
However, we have to wait a few years for the first entirely dub records to appear, with the 1973 release of “Blackboard Jungle Dub” by Tubby himself and “Double Seven”, a 1974 album signed by the other great dub producer: Lee “Scratch “Perry.
Even in England, where 20 years later it will be a key element in the development of the Bristol trip-hop sound, dub takes root and the scene is carried on and kept alive during the 80s by artists such as Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood.
The credit goes in large part to a label that, since the late 60s began to promote and distribute Jamaican music in Europe. It is Island, the label responsible for the importation of the first ska-rocksteady singles such as “Al Capone “By Prince Buster and” The Israelites “by Desmond Dekker. Island took the promoting the Wailers records first and then Bob Marley and finally spreading the first dub records, on itself.
Jamaican music popularization takes way on the gloomy English coasts. From the indigenous dub scene to inventions of the early 90s such as trip-hop and drum N bass, passing through the ska revival at the turn of the 70s and ’80s.
At the beginning of the 70s, the first cries of Dance Hall are celebrated, the toasters increasingly launched in superimposing words and melodies on the notes of the classics of ska and rocksteady. Techniques, Heptones, John Holt, Wailers, and Dennis Brown are among the most illustrious “samples”. Due to the fiery tones used, sexist, homophobic, and violent messages, these songs were often censored by the radio and the dance halls became the only places where it was possible to listen to them.
U-Roy released the first dancehall single to climb the charts, in 1970. “Wake the Town” built on the notes of “Girl I’ve Got a Date” by Alton Ellis. He is followed by a horde of disciples, first of all, Dennis AlCapone, I-Roy, and above all Big Youth, first with the brilliant single of 1972 “S 90 Skank”. The producer Keith Hudson had a brilliant intuition to bring a motorcycle to the studio to be able to sample the rumble and put it on the record. Then with the album “Screaming Target” (1973), one of the best expressions of Jamaican sound.
In the early ’80s rhythms and melodies became more catchy and we begin to talk about rub-a-dub. There’s a new series of successful characters such as Clint Eastwood, Dillinger, and, above all, Yellowman, probably the most popular dancehall singer. Also, in the 1980s, particularly in 1985, a decisive turning point took place, largely linked to an intuition of Wayne Smith. The use of the Casio keyboard immediately attracts followers and marks the birth of ragamuffin.
Reggae and Jamaican music, in general, have maintained their popularity through the 90s all up until the present day, but we will cover this in a future article.
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