Reggae is a music genre first developed in Jamaica in the late 1960s. While sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to most types of Jamaican music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that originated following on the development of ska and rocksteady.
Reggae is based on a rhythmic style characterized by accents on the off-beat, known as the skank. Reggae is normally slower than ska but faster than rocksteady. Reggae usually accents the second and fourth beat in each bar, with the rhythm guitar also either emphasising the third beat or holding the chord on the second beat until the fourth is played. It is mainly this "third beat", its speed and the use of complex bass lines that differentiated reggae from rocksteady, although later styles incorporated these innovations separately.
The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as "a recently estab. sp. for rege", as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either "rags, ragged clothing" or "a quarrel, a row". Reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit "Do the Reggay" by The Maytals, but it was already being used in Kingston, Jamaica as the name of a slower dance and style of rocksteady. Reggae artist Derrick Morgan stated:
We didn't like the name rock steady, so I tried a different version of "Fat Man". It changed the beat again, it used the organ to creep. Bunny Lee, the producer, liked that. He created the sound with the organ and the rhythm guitar. It sounded like 'reggae, reggae' and that name just took off. Bunny Lee started using the world and soon all the musicians were saying 'reggae, reggae, reggae'.
Reggae historian Steve Barrow credits Clancy Eccles with altering the Jamaican patois word streggae (loose woman) into reggae. However, Toots Hibbert said:
There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'. If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, 'OK man, let's do the reggay.' It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing 'Do the reggay, do the reggay' and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records.
Bob Marley is said to have claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for "the king's music". The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regi meaning "to the king".
Although strongly influenced by traditional African, American jazz and old-time rhythm and blues, reggae owes its direct origins to the progressive development of ska and rocksteady in 1960s Jamaica. One of the main individuals who progressed this genre was Count Ossie.
Ska arose in the studios of Jamaica around 1959; it developed from the earlier mento genre. Ska is characterized by a walking bass line, accentuated guitar or piano rhythms on the offbeat, and sometimes jazz-like horn riffs. In addition to being massively popular with the Jamaican rude boy subculture, it had gained a large following among Mods in Britain by 1964.
Rude boys began deliberately playing their ska records at half speed, preferring to dance slower as part of their tough image. By the mid-1960s, many musicians had begun playing the tempo of ska slower, while emphasizing the walking bass and offbeats. The slower sound was named rocksteady, after a single by Alton Ellis. This phase of Jamaican music lasted only until 1968, when musicians began to slow the tempo of the music again, and added yet more effects. This led to the creation of reggae.
Reggae developed from rocksteady music in the 1960s. The shift from rocksteady to reggae was illustrated by the organ shuffle, which was pioneered by Bunny Lee and was featured in the transitional singles "Say What You're Saying" (1967) by Clancy Eccles, and "People Funny Boy" (1968) by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Pioneers' 1967 track "Long Shot Bus' Me Bet" has been identified as the earliest recorded example of the new rhythm sound that became known as reggae.
Early 1968 was when the first genuine reggae records were released: "Nanny Goat" by Larry Marshall and "No More Heartaches" by The Beltones. American artist Johnny Nash's 1968 hit "Hold Me Tight" has been credited with first putting reggae in the American listener charts.. Around that time, reggae influences were starting to surface in rock music. An example of a rock song featuring reggae rhythm is 1968's "Ob-La-Di , Ob-La-Da." by The Beatles.
The Wailers, a band started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, are perhaps the most recognised band that made the transition through all three stages of early Jamaican popular music: ska, rocksteady and reggae. Other significant reggae pioneers include Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and Jackie Mittoo.
Notable Jamaican producers who were influential in the development of ska into rocksteady and reggae include: Coxsone Dodd, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and King Tubby. Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1960, relocated to England in 1962, where he continued to promote Jamaican music. He formed a partnership with Trojan Records, founded by Lee Gopthal in 1968. Trojan released recordings by reggae artists in the UK until 1974, when Saga bought the label.
The 1972 film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, generated considerable interest and popularity for reggae in the United States, and Eric Clapton's 1974 cover of the Bob Marley song "I Shot the Sheriff" helped bring reggae into the mainstream. By the mid 1970s, reggae was getting radio play in the UK on John Peel's radio show, and Peel continued to play reggae on his show throughout his career. What is called the "Golden Age of Reggae" corresponds roughly to the heyday of roots reggae.
In the second half of the 1970s, the UK punk rock scene was starting to form, and reggae was a notable influence. Some punk DJs played reggae songs during their sets and some punk bands incorporated reggae influences into their music. At the same time, reggae began to enjoy a revival in the UK that continued into the 1980s, exemplified by groups like Steel Pulse, Aswad, UB40, and Musical Youth. Other reggae artists who enjoyed international appeal in the early 1980s include Third World, Black Uhuru and Sugar Minott. The Grammy Awards introduced the Best Reggae Album category in 1985.
Reggae is either played in 4/4 time or swing time, because the symmetrical rhythmic pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. Harmonically, the music is often very simple, and sometimes a whole song will have no more than one or two chords. These simple repetitive chord structures add to reggae's sometimes hypnotic effects.
A standard drum kit with is generally used in reggae, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbale-type sound. Some reggae drummers use an additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Cross stick technique on the snare drum is commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself.
Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One drop, Rockers and Steppers. With the One drop, the emphasis is entirely on the third beat of the bar (usually on the snare, or as a rim shot combined with bass drum). Beat one is completely empty, which is unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on three, or whether it should be counted half as fast, so it falls on two and four. Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace calls the beat the "two-four combination". Many credit Carlton Barrett of The Wailers as the creator of this style, although it may actually have been invented by Winston Grennan. Hugh Malcolm and Joe Isaacs were also active Kingston studio drummers at the time. An example played by Barrett can be heard in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song "One Drop". Barrett often used an unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat, which can be heard on many recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers, such as "Running Away" on the Kaya album.
An emphasis on beat three is in all reggae drumbeats, but with the Rockers beat, the emphasis is also on beat one (usually on bass drum). This beat was pioneered by Sly and Robbie, who later helped create the "Rub-a-Dub" sound that greatly influenced dancehall. The prototypical example of the style is found in Sly Dunbar's drumming on "Right Time" by the Mighty Diamonds. The Rockers beat is not always straightforward, and various syncopations are often included. An example of this is the Black Uhuru song "Sponji Reggae."
In Steppers, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar, giving the beat an insistent drive. An example is "Exodus" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Another common name for the Steppers beat is the "four on the floor." Burning Spear's 1975 song "Red, Gold, and Green" (with Leroy Wallace on drums) is one of the earliest examples. The Steppers beat was adopted (at a much higher tempo) by some 2 Tone ska revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
An unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal. A wide range of other percussion instrumentation is used in reggae. Bongos are often used to play free, improvised patterns, with heavy use of African-style cross-rhythms. Cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles and a set pattern.
The bass guitar often plays a very dominant role in reggae, and the drum and bass is often called the riddim (rhythm). Several reggae singers have released different songs recorded over the same riddim. The central role of the bass can be particularly heard in dub music — which gives an even bigger role to the drum and bass line, reducing the vocals and other instruments to peripheral roles. The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The bass line is often a simple two-bar riff that is centered around its thickest and heaviest note.
The guitar in reggae usually plays the chords on beats two and four, a musical figure known as skank or the 'bang'. It has a very dampened, short and scratchy chop sound, almost like a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used when the guitar still plays the off beats, but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. An example is the intro to "Stir It Up" by The Wailers. Artist and producer Derrick Harriott says, “What happened was the musical thing was real widespread, but only among a certain sort of people. It was always a down-town thing, but more than just hearing the music. The equipment was so powerful and the vibe so strong that we feel it.”
From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, a piano was generally used in reggae to double the rhythm guitar's skank, playing the chords in a staccato style to add body, and playing occasional extra beats, runs and riffs. The piano part was widely taken over by synthesizers during the 1980s, although synthesizers have been used in a peripheral role since the 1970s to play incidental melodies and countermelodies. Larger bands may include either an additional keyboardist, to cover or replace horn and melody lines, or the main keyboardist filling these roles on two or more keyboards.
The reggae-organ shuffle is unique to reggae. Typically, a Hammond organ-style sound is used to play chords with a choppy feel. This is known as the bubble. There are specific drawbar settings used on a Hammond console to get the correct sound. This may be the most difficult reggae keyboard rhythm. The 8th beats are played with a space-left-right-left-space-left-right-left pattern, where the spaces represent downbeats not played—that is the left-right-left falls on the ee-and-a.
Horn sections are frequently used in reggae, often playing introductions and counter-melodies. Instruments included in a typical reggae horn section include saxophone, trumpet or trombone. In more recent times, real horns are sometimes replaced in reggae by synthesizers or recorded samples. The horn section is often arranged around the first horn, playing a simple melody or counter melody. The first horn is usually accompanied by the second horn playing the same melodic phrase in unision, one octave higher. The third horn usually plays the melody an octave and a fifth higher than the first horn. The horns are generally played fairly softly, usually resulting in a soothing sound. However, sometimes punchier, louder phrases are played for a more up-tempo and aggressive sound.
The vocals in reggae are less of a defining characteristic of the genre than the instrumentation and rhythm, as almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. However, it is very common for reggae to be sung in Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, and Iyaric dialects. Vocal harmony parts are often used, either throughout the melody (as with bands such as the Mighty Diamonds), or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line (as with the backing group I-Threes). The British reggae band Steel Pulse used particularly complex backing vocals. An unusual aspect of reggae singing is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather than vibrato (pitch oscillation). Notable exponents of this technique include Dennis Brown and Horace Andy. The toasting vocal style is unique to reggae, originating when DJs improvised along to dub tracks, and it is generally considered to be a precursor to rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it is generally melodic, while rap is generally more a spoken form without melodic content.
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing. Many early reggae bands covered Motown or Atlantic soul and funk songs. Some reggae lyrics attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about controversial subjects such as Apartheid. Many reggae songs promote the use of cannabis (also known as herb, ganja, or sensimilia), considered a sacrament in the Rastafari movement. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music — whether it be discussing a specific religious topic, or simply giving praise to God (Jah). Other common socio-political topics in reggae songs include black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and criticism of political systems and "Babylon".
Some dancehall and ragga artists have been criticised for homophobia, including threats of violence. Buju Banton's song "Boom Bye-Bye" states that gays "haffi dead". Other notable dancehall artists who have been accused of homophobia include Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man. The controversy surrounding anti-gay lyrics has led to the cancellation of UK tours by Beenie Man and Sizzla. Toronto, Canada has also seen the cancellation of concerts due to artists such as Elephant Man and Sizzla refusing to conform to similar censorship pressures.
After lobbying from the Stop Murder Music coalition, the dancehall music industry agreed in 2005 to stop releasing songs that promote hatred and violence against gay people. In June 2007, Beenie Man, Sizzla and Capleton signed up to the Reggae Compassionate Act, in a deal brokered with top dancehall promoters and Stop Murder Music activists. They renounced homophobia and agreed to "not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community". Five artists targeted by the anti-homophobia campaign did not sign up to the act, including Elephant Man, TOK, Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton.
Early reggae, sometimes dubbed "skinhead reggae" due to its popularity among the working class subculture in the UK, started in the late 1960s, as the influence of funk music from American labels such as Stax began to permeate the playing of studio musicians. The characteristic defining early reggae from rock steady is the "bubbling" organ, a percussive style of playing that brought to closer light the eighth-note subdivision within the groove. The guitar "skanks" on the second and fourth note of the bar were more frequently doubled up in recording studios using electronic tape echo effects, thus complementing the double-time feel of the organ bubble. Overall more emphasis was on the groove of the music; the growing trend of recording a "version" on the B-side of a single produced countless instrumentals led by a horn or organ.
Major skinhead reggae artists include John Holt, Toots & the Maytals, The Pioneers and Symarip. Cover versions of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records soul songs were common in skinhead reggae, reflecting the popularity of soul music with skinheads and Mods.
Roots reggae is a spiritual type of music whose lyrics are predominantly in praise of Jah (God). Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to government and racial oppression. Many of Bob Marley's and Peter Tosh's songs can be called roots reggae. The creative pinnacle of roots reggae was in the late 1970s with singers such as Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Clarke, Horace Andy, Ijahman Levi, Barrington Levy, Big Youth, and Linval Thompson, and bands like Culture, Israel Vibration, the Meditations, and Misty in Roots, teaming up with various studio producers including Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Coxsone Dodd. Musically, on the song "Roots, Rock, Reggae" Marley devised a new style of "off beat" music where a bar of six beats is played, with the guitar skanking on the fourth and sixth beat. Although entirely separate from the beats of ska, rock steady, reggae, skank, flyers, rockers and all later styles, this unique beat seems to have been so closely associated with Marley that few others adopted it.
Dub is a genre of reggae that was pioneered in the early days by studio producers Lee 'Scratch' Perry and King Tubby. It involves extensive remixing of recorded material, and particular emphasis is placed on the drum and bass line. The techniques used resulted in an even more visceral feel described by King Tubby as sounding "jus’ like a volcano in yuh head." Augustus Pablo and Mikey Dread were two of the early notable proponents of this music style, which continues today.
The rockers style was created in the mid-1970s by Sly & Robbie. Rockers is described as a flowing, mechanical, and aggressive style of playing reggae. One article calls the rockers era the "Golden Age of Reggae".
The lovers rock subgenre originated in South London in the mid-1970s. The lyrics are usually about love. It is similar to rhythm and blues. Notable lovers rock artists include: Gregory Isaacs, Freddy McGregor, Dennis Brown, Maxi Priest and Beres Hammond.
Toasting is a style of chanting or talking over the record that was first used by 1960s Jamaican deejays such as U-Roy and Dennis Alcapone. This style greatly influenced Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, who used the style in New York City in the late 1970s to pioneer the hip hop and rap genres. Mixing techniques employed in dub music have also influenced hip hop.
The dancehall genre was developed around 1980, with exponents such as Yellowman, Super Cat and Shabba Ranks. The style was characterized by a deejay singing and rapping or toasting over raw and fast rhythms. Ragga (also known as raggamuffin) and reggae fusion, are subgenres of dancehall where the instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music and sampling. Notable ragga originators include Shinehead and Buju Banton. In February 2009, Dancehall with lyrical content "deemed explicitly sexual and violent" was banned from the airwaves by the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.
Raggamuffin, usually abbreviated as ragga, is a sub-genre of reggae that is closely related to dancehall and dub. The term raggamuffin is an intentional misspelling of ragamuffin, and the term raggamuffin music describes the music of Jamaica's "ghetto youths". The instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music. Sampling often serves a prominent role as well. As ragga matured, an increasing number of dancehall artists began to appropriate stylistic elements of hip hop music, while ragga music, in turn, influenced more and more hip hop artists. Ragga is now mainly used as a synonym for dancehall reggae or for describing dancehall with a deejay chatting rather than deejaying or singing on top of the riddim.
Reggaeton is a form of urban music that first became popular with Latin American youths in the early 1990s. Reggaeton's predecessor originated in Panama as reggae en español. After the music's gradual exposure in Puerto Rico, it eventually evolved into reggaeton.. It blends West-Indian reggae and dancehall with Latin American genres such as bomba, plena, salsa, merengue, Latin pop, cumbia and bachata, as well as hip hop, contemporary R&B and electronica. Modern reggaeton beats follow the structure of the Dem Bow Riddim, a beat created by Jamaican producers Steely & Clevie in the late 80s and early 90s.
Reggae fusion is a mixture of reggae or dancehall with elements of other genres, such as hip-hop, R&B, jazz, rock, drum and bass, punk or polka. Although artists have been mixing reggae with other genres from as early as the early 1970s, it was not until the late 1990s when the term was coined.
Reggae has spread to many countries across the world, often incorporating local instruments and fusing with other genres.
Reggae en Español started in Panama in the mid 1970s and later expanded to the rest of Latin America. It does not have any specific characteristics other than being sung in Spanish, usually by artists of Latin American origin. By the end of the 1980s, the local music scene in Hawaii was dominated by Jawaiian music, a local form of Reggae. Samba reggae originated in Brazil as a blend of Samba with Jamaican reggae.
Caribbean music in the United Kingdom, including reggae, has been popular since the late 1960s, and has evolved into several subgenres and fusions. Since the early 1990s, several Italian reggae bands have emerged, including Sud Sound System, Pitura Freska, Almamegretta and B.R. Stylers. In Sweden, Uppsala Reggae Festival attracts attendees from across Northern Europe, and features Swedish reggae bands such as Rootvälta and Svenska Akademien. The first homegrown Polish reggae bands started in the 1980s. German reggae artist Gentleman rose to popularity with his album Confidence in 2004. Summerjam, Europe's biggest reggae festival, takes place in Cologne, Germany.
Nigerian reggae developed in the 1970s. In South Africa, Lucky Dube recorded 25 albums, fusing reggae with Mbaqanga. Reggae in Cape Town is notable in South Africa. In Ethiopia, Dub Collosus emerged in 2008 and has received wide acclaim. In Mali, Askia Modibo fuses reggae with Malian music, and is described by Last FM as "the most significant African reggae musician to emerge internationally within the past five years." In Malawi, Black Missionaries produced five albums. In Ivory Coast, Tiken Jah Fakoly fuses reggae with traditional music. Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast sings reggae with Muslim lyrics.
In the Philippines, several bands and sound systems play reggae and dancehall music in a style faithful to its expression in Jamaica. Their music is called Pinoy reggae. Japanese reggae emerged in the early 1980s. Reggae is becoming more prevalent in Thailand as well. Aside from the reggae music and Rastafarian influences seen ever more on Thailand's islands and beaches, a true reggae sub-culture is taking root in Thailand's cities and towns. Many Thai artists, such as Job 2 Do, keep the tradition of reggae music and ideals alive in Thailand.
Reggae in Australia originated in the 1980s. New Zealand reggae has seen many bands emerging since 2000, often involving fusion with electronica.