The Types of Reggae Music
Reggae is one of the most enduring musical genres in the world. Since it originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s, it has amassed followers and fans around the globe and influenced the work of musicians across a variety of musical styles and genres.
But aside from helping to shape contemporary music, reggae has spawned a number of distinct subgenres. In different ways and through various channels, these subgenres push against the constraints and traditions of reggae while remaining true to the trademarks of its sound and its essence as a spiritually engaged, politically invested mode of expression.
From the genres that helped birth it to the ones that wouldn’t exist without its coming, here’s your guide to the types of reggae music.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Jamaican musicians began to develop the first recognized forms of indigenous Jamaican music. After a history marked by hundreds of years of European colonization and rule, the island nation finally claimed its independence from Great Britain in 1962.
This shift signaled many societal changes, notably in arts movements that sought to establish a cohesive and recognizable Jamaican identity separate from its associations with Europe.
In music, the first fruits of those efforts were represented by two genres: ska and rocksteady. Both genres drew from the music that had always characterized Jamaican life, such as traditional West African music and the styles that flourished throughout the Caribbean.
They also incorporated a range of contemporary influences, like:
The first of these genres to emerge was ska, which fused Mento and calypso rhythms with elements from jazz and R&B. Characterized by traditional rock instruments like guitar, bass, and drums, ska music heavily incorporates horns such as:
By the mid-1960s, rocksteady had emerged as an extension of ska. Rocksteady borrowed heavily from ska’s use of rock instruments but featured much slower tempos and stripped-down production. It further distinguished itself from ska with:
- Three-part vocal harmonies
- Pronounced basslines
- Off-beat guitars
The rocksteady genre was pioneered by legendary Jamaican producers like Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd in some of the island’s very first recording studios. However, the popularity it enjoyed among Jamaicans was brief.
Although ska and rocksteady helped inspire Jamaican musicians to begin developing a musical tradition all their own, it wasn’t until the two genres gave way to reggae, toward the end of the 1960s, that the people of Jamaica had a wholly unique sound they could claim.
The original form of reggae, sometimes known as roots reggae, grew out of the rhythmic and melodic concerns of ska and rocksteady. From the beginning, it featured more musical complexity than ska and rocksteady and even slower beats than rocksteady.1
Roots reggae is further distinguished from ska and rocksteady by its use of:
Syncopated bass lines – Although syncopated rhythms didn’t originate with reggae, the genre nevertheless placed more of an emphasis on this technique than ska. As a result, it became one of the most recognizable traits of the genre.
Skanking guitars – Also known as the ska stroke, skanking is a technique for playing the guitar that relies on the use of upstrokes to create a stopped, clippy note. Compared to the genres that preceded it, reggae incorporates more skanking.
Fewer horns – No reggae band is complete without a brass section. That said, reggae sets itself apart from ska and rocksteady by limiting the use of horns. Whereas ska features horns that play along with the guitar lines, reggae incorporates horns intermittently at specific moments.
Roots reggae is by far the most popular and recognizable of all types of reggae. Pioneered by an interconnected community of musicians and producers, it quickly grew into a music genre popular around the world.
Among the most notable figures of roots reggae is Bob Marley, who, with his band the Wailers, became synonymous with the genre in and outside of Jamaica.
The Subgenres of Reggae
After taking the world by storm in the early 1970s, reggae began to lay the foundation for its legacy with the emergence of distinct subgenres that honored reggae while still pushing the music in new and exciting directions.
The subgenres of reggae include a diverse mix of musical styles, creators, and artistic ambitions.
Some subgenres hew closely to reggae’s commitment to shedding light on social justice issues while others seek liberation through vices or the dancefloor. Some honor the craftsmanship of live music while others take full advantage of technology.
But they all take the original reggae as their driving inspiration.
Among the many subgenres of reggae, dub reigns supreme (both for its innovation and its lasting impact on musical styles around the world). Producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Osborne “King Tubby” Ruddock were among the pioneers of this reggae offshoot, which would go on to influence contemporary hip hop and dance music.
Emerging in the 1970s following the success of reggae, dub music found an audience among the DJs of Kingston’s dance halls or “sound systems” and the people who came to dance there.
It ditches the vocals and lyrics of reggae tracks in favor of heavy drum-and-bass beats known as “riddim.”2 Frequently, dub songs also feature the use of mixing board sound effects like:
Dancehall reggae is one of the more carefree types of reggae music.
Named for the Kingston nightclubs where listeners were first exposed to the sound in the 1970s, it features the rhythms and cadences of roots reggae but replaces live instrumentation with electronic music and pre-recorded tracks.3
Lyrically, dancehall music steps back from the overtly political concerns of roots reggae, focusing instead on the escapist aspects of dancehall culture. Another unique characteristic of dancehall reggae is its focus on hybridity.
In dancehall reggae, traditional rock instruments bump up against electronic sounds and DJs talk or “toast” over tracks. Dancehall reggae today is essentially a hybrid genre itself, mashing together reggae, R&B, and hip hop sounds.3
A range of contemporary artists have dabbled in dancehall sounds and aesthetics or fully embraced the style, including:
- The rapper Sean Paul
- The pop star Rihanna
- The singer and songwriter known as Spice
Ragga or Raggamuffin
Ragga or raggamuffin is a subgenre of reggae that pushes the techno aspects of dancehall reggae even further. It ditches live instruments altogether, building songs with only digital sounds.4 As such, it has earned the nickname “digital dancehall.”
Ragga was among the first Caribbean music genres to incorporate digitally produced instrumentation through MIDI technology and sampling. Today, the term ragga is generally used to refer to dancehall reggae music in general. Damian Marley, son of renowned reggae powerhouse Bob Marley and Rita Marley (who, herself is one of the most influential female reggae singers), is one of the more prominent artists of this genre.
Given the worldwide popularity of the genre, it makes sense that at least some of the subgenres of reggae would crop up outside of Jamaica. Reggae rock is one such genre.
If you trace the history of Reggae rock, it originated in Southern California in the 1990s and early 2000s.5 As its name suggests, it blends traditional reggae music with ska and American and British rock styles, from classic and grunge to punk. It was popularized by bands like:
- Slightly Stoopid
- The Expendables
- The Police
- Stick Figure
In addition to the Jamaican musical styles of reggae and ska, reggae rock also borrows reggae’s lyrical interest in themes of spirituality and the struggles inherent to daily life.
Reggaeton is another of the subgenres of reggae that doesn’t come from Jamaica. Instead, it has its roots in 1990s-era Panama and Puerto Rico.6 It’s known for its zesty balance of:
- Roots reggae
- Dancehall reggae
- Latin music like plena, bomba, and salsa
- African American hip hop
Primarily an electronic genre, reggaeton features driving beats, catchy hooks and choruses, and beefed-up percussion for a sound that plays well in dance clubs and car radios.
It’s also known for its oftentimes graphic lyrical content. Although themes of modern Latinx identity feature prominently, the music also overtly engages issues like violence, drugs, and sex.
Soundtrack Your Life with Victrola
Reading about the various types of reggae music is wonderful, but nothing beats the enjoyment of experiencing the music first-hand. And there’s no better option for the vinyl pressings reggae heads want than Victrola’s online record store.
From the classic albums of every reggae sound to the latest releases in any genre—plus special selections curated just for you—Victrola makes it easy for music lovers of all kinds to craft the soundtrack of their lives.
- Live About. What’s the Difference Between Ska and Reggae? https://www.liveabout.com/difference-between-ska-and-reggae-3552831#
- Master Class. Dub Music Guide: 4 Characteristics of Dub Music. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/dub-music-guide#a-brief-history-of-dub-music
- Master Class. Dancehall Music Guide: Explore the History of Dancehall Music. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/dancehall-music#a-brief-history-of-dancehall-music
- Discogs. Ragga Music. https://www.discogs.com/style/ragga
- Tribes. Reggae Rock Movement. https://www.tribes.org/web/2019/3/27/reggae-rock-movement
- Pro Musician Hub. What is Reggaeton Music? Definition, Origin, Artists, & History. https://promusicianhub.com/what-is-reggaeton-music/