The Origin and History of Reggae Music
For most people, the word “reggae” conjures very specific associations—dreadlocked warblers plucking out syncopated guitar beats under heavy marijuana clouds, for instance, chill vibes, palm trees, and tropical locations.
But how much do you really know about reggae?
The history of reggae and how it became a universally accredited music genre is a fascinating story of 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.
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 there.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.
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.
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 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.
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:
On the other side of the mixing board, the earliest reggae leaders included:
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 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, while opening tours for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Sly and the Family Stone brought the Wailers and reggae to even bigger audiences. 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 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, hip-hop, rock-n-roll, and R&B.
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.
From quality record players and turntables that wow for sound quality, to our extensive record store full of titles from every genre, with Victrola, you can listen to the best of reggae on the incredible equipment. From Coxsone Dodd, Haile Selassie, Black Uhuru, Duke Reid, Desmond Dekker, King Tubby, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Prince Buster, Peter Tosh, Jackie Mittoo, Ziggy Marley, Lee Scratch Perry, Dennis Brown, and other greats.
And if you’re just here to learn more about the genre, we have quite a few resources for you to peruse.
- 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