The Origin and History of Reggae Music
For most people, the word “reggae” may spark the picture of dreadlocked warblers plucking out syncopated guitar beats under heavy marijuana clouds. Chill vibes, palm trees, and tropical locations may also come to mind.
But how much do you really know about reggae?
The history of reggae and how it became a universally accredited music genre that is listened to on record players around the world is a fascinating story. This story is built on ambition, commitment, and national pride. Building on indigenous Jamaican musical styles to address the plight of Jamaicans during the last half of the 20th century, reggae forged a new path for Jamaican music and helped bolster the nation’s image at a time when it was still exploring its newfound independence.
With the inspiration of greats like Haile Selassie and the influence of musical geniuses like Bob Marley, Reggae has become a distinctive and unmistakable genre of sound. From its roots in Jamaica to international appeal, here’s how reggae landed on the map.
The Roots of Reggae
Reggae music draws from various genre backgrounds and influences to create its inimitable, immediately recognizable sound. Its unique blend of musical styles includes:
- Traditional African music
- Traditional Caribbean music
- Jazz, R&B, and rock
- Earlier Jamaican styles like ska and steadyrock
For many, reggae represents more than a musical genre.
As an enduring symbol of Jamaican pride and national identity, it epitomizes for many an entire culture and way of life. But to understand how reggae went from the pet project of a few diligent artists to becoming a globally beloved art form, it’s necessary to take a minor detour for a brief history lesson on the genre’s home country, Jamaica.
A Brief History of Jamaica
The earliest records of civilization on the island we now know as Jamaica date back to around 600 CE, when the mysterious Redware people arrived.1 They were followed about two hundred years later by the Taino people, who were the first to settle the island.
For hundreds of years, the Taino people lived on the island in small villages governed by individual chieftains. It’s estimated that the island was home to as many as 60,000 people at its most populous. They primarily survived by fishing and growing corn and cassava.
Then, on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1494, Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica, then called Xaymaca, a paradise known as “the land of blessed gold.” The rumors of gold turned out to be false, but Columbus’s arrival officially signaled the presence of Europeans on the island and inaugurated a period of (first Spanish) British colonial rule that lasted until Jamaica declared its independence in 1962.
It was during the 1960s, against a backdrop of newly gained independence and a burgeoning sense of nationalism, that the history of reggae began.
Where Reggae Comes From
As in many parts of the world, the end of World War II signaled a turning point in Jamaica’s history. Jamaicans flocked in droves from the island’s rural areas to its growing capital city—Kingston—in search of the opportunities the end of the war seemed to promise.
There, they built a vibrant social culture around the city’s famous dance halls, known as sound systems for the music they played.
For much of the 1940s and 1950s, these dancehalls played imported music, mostly American rock and rhythm and blues. But the rapid transformation the nation was undergoing at the time soon prompted a desire for a sound that was quintessentially Jamaican.
Enter ska music.
Reggae is a disciple of Ska, a music genre that started in the ‘50s. Ska is a by-product of Afro-Caribbean music and R&B. Ska’s distinct sound includes off-beat rhythms, blaring horns, piano, heavy guitar slaps, and quick beat drums. The pioneers of ska include:
- Ernie Ranglin
- Derrick Morgan
- Prince Buster
- Toots and the Maytals
- The Dominos
By the middle of the 1960s, however, the popularity of ska began to wane in favor of an emerging subgenre known as rocksteady.2 Primarily instrumental, rocksteady incorporated many of the same elements as ska but with more importance given to bass guitar and drums. Rhythmically, rocksteady is slower than ska, and the sound is more pared down.
With Afro-Carribean and R&B beats begetting ska, and ska giving birth to rocksteady, the question still remains: When was reggae created?
It is the road through ska and rocksteady that takes us to reggae, which first emerged in the late 1960s.3 Slower than rocksteady and featuring far more musical complexity than ska, reggae paid tribute to the music that came before it while still establishing itself as a distinct, brand-new sound of its own. Ska & Reggae classic albums are still loved by many today.
The Architects of Reggae
Reggae is the construction of many talented and innovative musicians who worked together (and separately) to build a wholly original Jamaican music and sound. From musicians and singers to visionary producers and recording studio owners, reggae, as we know it today, would not exist without the individual talents and shared passions of many people. Each reggae musician on this list has made an impact in the genre and has helped form some of the top Reggae records of all time. Early innovators in Jamaica such as Alton Ellis and Jackie Mittoo, paved the way for reggae's continued evolution.
Reggae would gain worldwide acclaim thanks to legends like Peter Tosh, Desmond Dekker, Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, and others. That said, there are a few names that repeatedly rise to the surface. Among the producers who helped guide and give form to a nascent reggae were:
- Lee “Scratch” Perry – Described by Keith Richards as “the Salvador Dali of music” for his surreal, futuristic style, Perry was responsible for pushing the tempo of reggae beyond the bounds set by ska and rocksteady.4 Lee Scratch Perry was also an early practitioner of the reggae subgenre dub, which heavily influenced African American hip-hop and dance music.
- Bunny Lee – In 1969, Bunny Lee played an organ shuffle on The Stranger Cole and Lester Sterling classic “Bangarang.” A technique for playing the organ by shuffling between chords to create a choppy, syncopated sound, it became a trademark of the genre.5 Later, Bunny Lee was instrumental in bringing reggae to an international audience in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
- Osborne Ruddock – Known as King Tubby, Ruddock worked closely with some of reggae’s most famous artists and producers out of his homemade studio. In experimenting with audio effects like delay and reverb, he had a hand in defining the parameters of reggae and inventing dub.6
On the other side of the mixing board, the earliest reggae leaders included:
- Toots and the Maytals – After helping to develop ska, Toots and the Maytals became among the first musical acts of reggae. Their 1968 record “54-46 (That’s My Number)” became one of the first substantial hits of the genre.
- Jimmy Cliff – Cliff is a reggae musician who cut his teeth as a ska performer and drew big crowds in London and South America.7 His 1970 album, Wonderful World, Beautiful People, was one of reggae’s earliest international hits.
- The Wailers – Although iterations of the Wailers (along with The I-Threes, who are arguably the most influential female reggae singers) go back to the early 1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the band found widespread success with the release of their classic reggae album “Catch a Fire'' in 1972 and its 1973 follow-up, “Burnin’.” The group was founded by Neville “Bunny” Livingston, Peter McIntosh, and the reggae singer who would go on to become the face of the genre, Bob Marley.
These early reggae architects were just as invested in Jamaican society and culture as music-making. From the beginning, a hallmark of reggae was the spotlight it gave to issues affecting Jamaicans, particularly those who lived in the ghettos of Kingston.
Like all popular music, reggae lyrics were not above addressing romantic subjects. Still, the early progenitors of the genre held special space for building conversations around poverty, social justice, and human rights.
Reggae Goes International
It didn’t take long for reggae to spread from Jamaica to the rest of the world. Whereas its predecessor’s ska and rocksteady had failed to make a lasting impact off the island, reggae was always destined for greatness.
In the early 1970s, reggae was winning over the world:
- “The Harder they Come” – This 1972 film made explicit the connection between reggae music and the Jamaican struggle against poverty and disenfranchisement. Starring reggae star Jimmy Cliff, it was an international success that helped introduce reggae to a worldwide audience.
- The Bob Marley effect – As the frontman of the Wailers, Bob Marley became one of the most recognizable figures of reggae and a driving force behind the genre’s appeal outside of Jamaica.8 Popular American artists like Eric Clapton found big hits with covers of Marley’s songs. Eric Clapton even called reggae his "favorite music." The Wailers brought reggae to even bigger audiences while opening tours for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Sly and the Family Stone brought. As a devout Rastafarian, Marley was also instrumental in solidifying the connections between reggae and the spirituality he and so many others practiced.
- Jamaican immigrants in the U.K. – A large Jamaican population in the United Kingdom led to the rise of reggae across the pond beginning in the 1970s.9 Artists like Asad, Steel Pulse, and others helped popularize the genre internationally.
The Instruments and Sounds that Define Reggae Music
The original artists who started reggae music were building upon the genres of their time. Hence, they pioneered the style using the instruments available to them. In 1960s Jamaica, these included:1
- Electric bass
- Electric and acoustic guitars
So, essentially, early reggae artists made use of the same instruments their contemporaries in the rock and roll world were playing on.
On the one hand, it's easy to draw a connection between the wobbly guitar tones of reggae and the rock tracks they inspired, such as Led Zeppelin’s D'yer Mak’er. On the other hand, reggae’s chill island grooves are a far cry from the increasingly heavy rock tunes of the late 60s and early 70s.
So, how do reggae artists produce such unique sounds while equipped with the same tools as other musicians? Since the origin of reggae music, acts have been using various instrumental idiosyncrasies to distinguish the style and highlight its uniquely Jamaican roots.
Diversity in Drums
Although they’re no strangers to the standard kit, reggae percussionists have also learned to master a wide range of regional instruments to deliver the genre’s distinctive timbre. While rock drummers such as Neil Peart favored technical complexity in their playing style, reggae musicians leaned on the diversity of their arsenal to push the boundaries of the genre and keep things fresh. Over the years, different reggae musicians have embraced:1
- The repeater drum
- Wood blocks
On top of the sheer range of instrumentation, reggae drummers have also adapted to playing standard kits in their own style. Or, to be more accurate, in three distinct styles, including:2
- One Drop – This drumming technique involves metronomic banging of the hi-hats to keep pace. Every third beat is accented with a pound of the bass drum and a rim-shot on a snare.
- Rockers – Rockers follows the same basic formula as One Drop, but doubles-up on the bass drum bashes. The result is a heavier and harder sound than the more laid-back beats of One Drop.
- Steppers – Just as One Drop uses the hi-hats to keep pace, Steppers bangs the bass for every single beat. The result is a much heavier, rockier style of reggae than the other two drumming techniques create.
Basslines in much of rock music are metronomic and meant to keep the other instruments on track. In reggae, however, the bassist doesn’t take a back seat while the other musicians hog all the glory—they drive the show.
Reggae’s rhythmic tempo is defined by its bass-forward approach to instrumentation. Dance is more intertwined with reggae than other forms of popular music that arose around the same time. Thus, bassists opted for a consistent, pounding beat to set the pace and inspire people to get their bodies moving.1
Graceful Guitar Playing
As reggae’s contemporary rock developed, it relied on loud, distorted, and technical guitar tones to produce increasingly heavy music, eventually resulting in the birth of metal.
Conversely, reggae incorporates guitar in a more harmonious fashion with other instruments. Reggae guitarists use various tricks to add panache to their sound, but the most prominent style in the genre is known as skanking, a technique defined by:3
- Its staccato approach, characterized by sharp pull-offs rather than smooth transitions between notes.
- Not pressing all the way down into the frets in order to mute certain chords.
- Rhythmic strumming performed offbeat from the percussion and bass.
- Sparse use of the lower two strings to avoid clashing with the keyboardist.
Speaking of keyboardists, as music has progressed, synthesizers have grown increasingly crucial to popular sounds and styles. From defining disco and new wave in the 80s to replacing virtually every instrument in contemporary pop tunes, their modern importance can’t be understated.
Synths have always been a huge part of reggae and adjacent genres such as ska and dancehall, however. In reggae tunes, the keyboardist and the guitarist often play in unison and on contrasting beats to the percussion. Modern bands have also taken to using keys to layer in drums and basslines to bolster the rhythmic complexity of their music.1
While ska’s transition to rocksteady and reggae noted a reduction in the importance of horns, they still remain more central to the genre than most other forms of popular music.4 Blasting, boisterous brass lines back many bands' instrumental repertoires, especially on the edges of the genre that overlap with ska.
Some popular horns in reggae include:
While reggae has gone global and now bands sing in many languages and accents, the history of reggae music is inextricably intertwined with the history of Jamaica.
Residents of the Rock speak what is known as Patois, an English-based dialect that pulls influence from:5
- The rest of the anglophone world
- A variety of West African languages
- Its own slang
Patois defined much of early reggae and still jumps to the front of most people’s minds when they think of the genre or the country of Jamaica. Reggae has exploded beyond its tiny island origins, however, and now holds significant meaning for the country, its people, and its fans around the world.
The Legacy of Reggae
At the time of its creation, the success of reggae music as a valuable Jamaican export affirmed the nation’s right to sovereignty, both for Jamaicans and people abroad. As such, it both reflected and fulfilled the country’s departure from the colonialism that had framed its history since the 1600s.
Musically, reggae and subgenres of reggae would become influential in the work of a range of artists across musical genres, helping to shape American pop, African American hip-hop, rock-n-roll, and R&B.
The history of reggae is one of experimentation and adaptation. Just like other popular styles of music, reggae has grown and evolved immensely in the nearly 60 years since its genesis. If the last reggae record you took for a spin was Bob Marley’s 1977 classic Exodus, consider giving these modern albums a go to see how far the genre’s come:
- Eastern Standard Time: Time For Change – Eastern Standard Time has been coasting in the ska and reggae scene for the better part of three decades now. This latest album highlights their jazz influences while staying true to the distinctly Jamaican rhythms that define their sound. If you’re looking for something with traceable reggae roots and modern refinement, plop Time For Change on your platter.
- Ganja Anthems – For those who enjoy a more smokey sound, Ganja Anthems celebrates marijuana’s influence on reggae and the lives of its artists. With 12 tracks from different musicians, this record provides a strong sample of how modern musicians are elevating the fundamentals of the genre.
- Tiken Jah Fakoly: Braquage De Pouvoir – Reggae has gone global, and Tiken Jah Fakoly represents The Ivory Coast’s contribution to the thriving genre. With classic reggae rhythms and themes of struggle and liberty, Braquage De Pouvoir checks all the genre’s boxes and then some.
Reggae Sounds Better on Victrola
If you aren’t listening to reggae music in the shade of palm trees on a Jamaican beach, there’s only one place you should be listening: on a Victrola.
- University of Vermont. An Examination of Three Different Styles of Reggae And Their Possible Unique Rhetorical Messages.https://debate.uvm.edu/
- University of Vermont. Drums and Bass Guitar: The Foundation of Reggae Music. https://debate.uvm.edu/
- Guitar World. Learn Bob Marley’s essential reggae rhythm styles. https://www.guitarworld.com/
- Smithsonian Institute. Black History in Roots Reggae Music.https://folklife.si.edu/
- University of Vermont. Jamaican Patois and the Power of Language in Reggae Music. https://debate.uvm.edu/
- Britannica. Jamaica - History. https://www.britannica.com/place/Jamaica/History
- Red Bull Music Academy. Rock Steady’s Beginnings: An Introduction to Jamaican Music’s Most Influential Genre. https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2013/11/rock-steady-beginnings
- Britannica. Reggae | Definition, History, Artists, and Facts. https://www.britannica.com/art/reggae
- The Guardian. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Visionary Master of Reggae, Dies Aged 85. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/aug/29/lee-scratch-perry-visionary-master-of-reggae-dies-aged-85
- The Guardian. Bunny Lee Obituary. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/oct/09/bunny-lee-obituary
- Fact Magazine. A Beginner’s Guide to King Tubby. https://www.factmag.com/2015/05/19/king-tubby-beginners-guide-dub-reggae/
- Britannica. Jimmy Cliff, Jamaican Singer and Songwriter. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jimmy-Cliff
- Biography. Bob Marley: Quotes, Songs and Children. https://www.biography.com/musician/bob-marley#
- Britannica. Ska. https://www.britannica.com/art/ska