From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘Reggae’ chapter was written by Nick Kimberley
Jamaica is a poor island, trying to find a place for itself in the Third World. Reggae expresses many of the contradictions of the island’s situation; but it also exists as an escape route from the real world, like any other pop music. Most attempts to provide a context for the music have failed to take into account its real history, opting instead for a romanticized view of reggae as a revolutionary force. Certainly reggae has positioned itself in society in a unique, sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary way; but no sense can be made of its social role without an accurate idea of its internal history as another pop music.
Reggae’s roots go back to the early fifties, when the musical diet (calypso, its local variant, mento, and church music) no longer satisfied Jamaican audiences. Radio’s alternative was bland pop, so people turned instead to the dancehalls, which, at a time when there were no recordpressing plants on the island, thrived on American rhythm and blues records. The increasingly sophisticated Kingston dancers insisted on Smiley Lewis, Amos Milburn and Roscoe Gordon, and sound-system operators struggled to stay ahead of the game. The best sounds (Sir Coxsone the Downbeat, Duke Reid the Trojan, V Rocket and later Prince Buster) almost literally fought over the best, most exclusive American records.
Contacts were established in the States, boats docking in Kingston Harbour were plundered, and rivalry often boiled over. Buster had his head broken by a brick-wielding gang of Duke Reid’s men, and such confrontations were not uncommon. For the most important occasions, opposing systems would play out against each other, the audience deciding whether Coxsone had dropped V Rocket, or vice versa. Eventually, there simply weren’t enough records to go round, and the far-sighted (notably Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid) saw that staying ahead would mean making their own music in the studios of radio station RJR, which were duly invaded by local musicians able to imitate r & b. The results were cut as acetates at Richard Khourys’ Federal plant (opened in 1958), and then played at dances to an ecstatic reception; as far as the dancers knew, they were hearing new American records.
This response established a market for home produce, and when Khourys opened his Federal Recording Studios, quickly followed by Coxsone’s Studio One at Brentford Road, Jamaica had a nascent music industry all its own. Records like Theophilus Beckford‘s ‘Easy Stepping’ or ‘Pink Lane Shuffle’ by Duke Reid’s Group (1960), after proving popular on the dance-floor over a period of weeks, months or even years, would eventually be issued to the public. The sound was a primitive tribute to the rolling r & b of New Orleans; the nearly-boogie piano carried the rhythm with the drums, while sax, trombone or sometimes a vocal would provide the lead, supported by a guitar plucked on the beat. But the demand was for freshness, and musicians as talented as Don Drummond (trombone), Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso (saxes), and Richard Ace (piano) were innovators as well as copyists, so something less derivative inevitably evolved. Prince Buster suggests that musicians adopted the rhythms of Poco mania, a local AfroChristian cult of possession; certainly there’s a manic, almost possessed raucousness to new music of 1961, christened ‘ska’.
The best records retained the r&b feel, emphasizing the offbeat; instrumentals predominated, and the Skatalites, including the soloists listed above, were the best band, working mainly with Dodd and Reid. Their ‘Treasure Island’, a typical ska vehicle, issued here in 1964 under the name of Don Drummond and Drumbago, defines the music’s potential: the beat is established by drums, bass and guitar; the horns join in with a simple tune, followed by sax and trombone solos against furious riffing from the ensemble. The solos betrayed a familiarity not only with the r & b of Fats Domino, but also with the hard bop of fifties jazz. Another Skatalites tune, , ‘Ball Of Fire’, moves along in similar fashion, with the addition of a novel percussion instrument; the human voice. Ska’s most endearing trait was to use an obviously well-lubricated throat, clucking and sputtering along with the band, and it’s possibly this scat vocalizing which gave ska its onomatopoeic name.
Prince Buster incorporated this trick into his declamatory style, the mid-sixties ska archetype, on ‘AI Capone’, ‘Dance Cleopatra’, etc. Buster moved from DJ to producer to performer with ease; his records observed every aspect of Kingston life, from his wife’s lasciviousness to the street-roaming of local youths, the rude boys. The rudies invested ska with the first suggestion of ‘rebel music’, although responses to their hooliganism were predictably confused: Buster‘s ‘Judge Dread’, representing outraged law and order, sentences Emmanuel Zachariah Zachypum, George Grabanflee and cohorts to 400 years imprisonment. For the defence, young Bob Marley’s Wailers offered ‘Jailhouse’, ‘Can’t fight against the youth now . . . we’re gonna rule this land.’ The outlaw rudies provided obvious heroes for youth fighting the tyranny of unemployment, poverty and exploitation; and Buster, sensing that he’d backed the wrong horse, granted freedom to his prisoners with ‘Judge Dread Dance The Pardon’, on condition they guarantee ‘no more looting, no more shooting, no more bum-showing’. These records also usher in a new era; ska’s reign from 1961 to 1966, when its r & b roots were becoming dated, was terminated with the arrival of rock steady.
Still with an eye on black America, Kingston now took to the more melodic soul music of Curtis Mayfield, Joe Tex, and Sam Cooke, and local talent had to adapt accordingly. The call was for tuneful vocals, more emphatic bass and a slower rhythm, accurately labelled ‘rock steady’. ‘Hold Them’ by Roy Shirley inaugurated the sedate sound; immediately Coxsone covered ‘Hold Them’ with Ken Boothe, and the race was on. Ska’s brashness was replaced by delicate singers like Slim Smith and Pat Kelly; Dodd and Reid still dominated, with the Duke’s Treasure Isle studios and label perhaps just ahead. Slim Smith’s Coxsone-produced ‘Born To Love You’ (1967) displays all the rock steady virtues: guitar states the melody while the ponderous bass underpins the drumming, and Slim’s mildly hysterical vocal perfectly catches the poignancy of the Isley Brothers’ tune, despite fumbling the words. Love songs saw the music through its brief heyday, and broader issues took second place. By 1968, love alone wouldn’t do. Something more committed, more frenetic, was needed, and musicians and producers stepped forward to provide.
Using rock steady bass, while harking back to the chugging ska rhythms, the 1968 sound was known as ‘reggae’, a word allegedly coined by the Maytals in ‘Do The Reggae’. The music was popular with Britain’s rudies, the skinheads, and reggae’s early days saw London’s best attempts at an imitation of the real thing; Laurel Aitken‘s ‘Woppi King’ (1969) is an excellent example. Back in Kingston, instrumentals by the Upsetters and the Dynamites embody the effervescent reggae beat, but sound flaccid now. By contrast, Burning Spear‘s 1969 vocal ‘Door Peeper’ maintains its sombre power, reflecting young Jamaica’s growing preoccupation with Rastafarianism, still reggae’s overriding ideology. Briefly, Rastas see themselves as Africans exiled and captive in Babylon, which represents all forms of oppression from baton happy police to money-grabbing producers. Haile Selassie is the godhead, and the cult’s adoption of dreadlocks, and ganja as a Sacrament, is overwhelmingly attractive to Jamaican youth. It is also attractive to European youth, so that 1966’s rudie, Bob Marley, a rebel in 1971 with ‘Screw Face’, had by 1973 become absorbed into rock music with the Catch a Fire album. Simultaneously, the youth market allowed younger producers like Lee Perry and Niney to challenge the supremacy of Dodd and Reid. Reid had played his ace back in 1969, taking young U Roy into Treasure Isle to cut the records which best defined reggae’s latest hero, the ‘toaster’.
The sixties sound systems had spawned a new star, the DJ, who talked and shouted over the records, encouraging and berating his audience. Some, like the legendary Count Machuki, never recorded; others (Sir Lord Comic and especially King Stitt) successfully recreated their act on record. U Roy had been Stitt’s deputy at Downbeat, but, fed up with playing second fiddle, he left to join King Tubbys’ system. Displaying his unique patter, called ‘toasting’, Roy had little success with his first records, but at Treasure Isle the sparks began to fly. ‘Wake The Town’, ‘Rule The Nation’ and ‘Wear You To The Ball’ occupied the top three positions in the J A charts in 1969, giving producers one more bandwagon to jump on. Scores of DJs, on hundreds of records, still try to steal Roy’s thunder, but Jew have bettered their teacher: only the best, Dennis Alcapone, I Roy and Big Youth – stand the comparison. Artistically, most of the others struggle, although often with some financial reward; ten years after the event, U Brown still pays obvious homage to the master, and reaches the lucrative African market. U Roy’s trick was to string together nonsense catch-phrases, bouncing ideas off the rhythm track; others, especially Big Youth and I Roy, use the DJ mode for their political and religious, basically Rastafarian, beliefs.
The cult also gave birth to another soundsystem convention: various DJs relied for their success on custom-pressed acetates of familiar rhythms, with which they could. win support; these ‘dubs’ offered remixed versions of vocal hits, with voice mostly removed and drum and bass brought forward. Audiences clamoured for their favourite dub cuts from their favourite DJs, and producers saw in drum and bass versions a cheap way to increase sales, with a version on the B-side of their records. The Hippy Boys ‘Voodoo’, the drum and bass flip to Little Roy‘s ‘Hard Fighter’ (1971), is a good early example, produced by Matador Daley, As techniques improved, more elabotate horns, organ, echo or equalizer versions followed, while for Herman Chin-Loy’s Aquarius label, a shy young session-man turned out versions using a melodica, a child’s toy halfway between, harmonica and piano; Augustus Pablo made a virtue of the melodica’s limitations on countless records like ‘East Of The River Nile’ and ‘Bells Of Death’. Again, Herman capitalized, on dub’s popularity with the first completely dub album, ‘Aquarius Dub’ was the first of many, and if it sounds uncomplicated by today’s standards, the quality of the music makes it a classic nonetheless.
These then are contemporary reggae’s major issues: DJs, dub and the flirtation with Rasta. This short essay cannot cover every twist and turn of reggae eccentricity; the flying cymbal sound, for example, proposed by Bunnie Lee as a concession to New York disco tastes (‘None Shall Escape The Judgment’ by Johnnie Clarke is a fine 1973 example). Then there’s Sly Dunbar‘s fussy ‘rockers’ drumming, pioneered on the Diamonds’ 1975 hit, ‘Right Time’, and eventually parodied by every drummer in Kingston, including Sly himself. These, and every other trick used by reggae, are designed to take the music forward while reaching a larger audience. With white record companies controlling so much, reggae approaches 1980 in amiable chaos, on the knife-edge of political and artistic disaster. A lot of real (and some minimal) talent is trying to make a lot of real money, and only time will tell if the music has already passed its peak, or whether it can pull itself back from the abyss of pop culture. Meanwhile, Jamaican history progresses, and reggae continues to be used by those shaping that history, both as an instrument for change and as a sop offered instead of real change.
Reggae albums are often quickly deleted, especially in England. Many vital examples of the music never see the light of day there, so this list includes several Jamaican imports (marked J A after the label). In addition, Kingston labels have generally dispensed with catalogue numbers. Most reggae shops now carry a selection of import albums, but in the event of any problems, the most comprehensive mail-order service (including lists) is offered by Dub Vendor, 18 St Johns Avenue, London SW 15.
Essential Reggae Singles
Baba Brooks Band
(1966) prod. Duke Reid
Ska chaos at its best: gunfight sound effects, ‘schookascicka’ vocal hiccoughs, frantic rhythm, and a torrid horn section. All human life is here, somewhere.
Keith and Tex
Stop That Train
(1968) prod. Derrick Harriott
On ‘The Harder They Come’ sound-track, Scotty toasted this as ‘Draw Your Brakes’, and both versions are brilliant. Harriott was "a master of the cool approach to rock steady, both as singer and producer.
So Close To You
(1968) prod. Duke Reid
John Holt’s best sentimental singing, the doowopping Paragons, a pretty organ and a subtle but solid rhythm attest to the Duke’s rock steady primacy.
Carlton and the Shoes
Love Me Forever/Happy Land
(1968) prod. C. S. Dodd
As rock steady becomes reggae, the Shoes step forward as a seminal, close harmony group. ‘Happy Land’ is a close relation to ‘Satta Massa Gana’ (see below), while ‘Forever’ has been recorded in countless versions.
Queen Of The Minstrels/Stars
(19689 prod. C. S. Dodd
Two of Dodd’s favourite rhythms for dubbing; Cornell Campbell’s fragile lead vocal was at its best on these early tracks, and the tuneful fills from the band show why these tracks dub up so well.
Satta Massa Gana
(1969) prod. Bernard Collins
Singer Collins took the Shoes’ song and made a Rasta hymn and anthem from it. Ahead of its time in 1969, it took two years to become a hit, and still sounds modern today.
Lee Van Clee
(1970) prod. Clancy Eccles
Deformed since birth, Stitt paraded his ugliness, on stage and record; here he issues a challenge to Clint Eastwood, over Eccles’ chugging rhythm: ‘This is the days of wrath, Eastwood; I am the Ugly One … DIE!’
Here Comes The Judge
(1970) prod. Joel Gibson
Over Gibbs’ version of the ‘Satta’ rhythm, Tosh gives us his only classic: as a Buster-style Judge, he sentences white imperialists to be hanged by their tongues.
Pick Up The Pieces
(1970) prod. C. S. Dodd
Very much in the Abyssinians’ mould, lead Roy Cousins employs his lisp to good effect. Classic sufferers’ music.
If I Follow My Heart
(1972) prod. C. S. Dodd
A mere lad of sixteen or so, Dennis handled this song of confused love like a veteran. Openly acknowledging his debt to Studio One, Brown, still in his early twenties, is one of the most talented singers and producers in J A.
My Voice Is Insured For Half A Million
(1973) prod. Duke Reid
Dennis’s bragging toast to the Techniques’ ‘Queen Majesty’ shows him at his best. Six years later, the fickle audience wouldn’t give twopence for Al Capone’s superior toasting.
Niney the Observer
(1973) prod. Niney
Over the heaviest of heavy rhythms, Niney lectures on the repriations of black J A vocabulary after its annexation by white exploiters. Much more fun than it sounds.
Big Youth and U Roy
Battle Of The Giants
(1974) prod. BigYouth
Although both artists are covered in the main text, this recorded confrontation is just too good to omit, and a rare chance to see Roy’s old-style toasting mash up (well, almost) Youth’s newer style.
Step Forward Youth
(1974) prod. Prince Jazzbo
Jazzbo was the most vituperatively racialist DJ, and here sulkily advises his brethren to rise up against Babylon, the Catholic Church, and capitalism. Another anthem for youth.
Best Dressed Chicken In Town
(1974) prod. Dr Alimantado
An update of ska lunacy using electronics, a strong sound-system rhythm, and just about every trick in the DJs handbook; the Doctor was making good records long before the punk market discovered him, but not for long afterwards.
(1975) prod. Jimmy Rodway
Desmond appeals to God over a rhythm as good as reggae ever produced, and one toasted by both Big Youth and I Roy.
Battering Down Sentence
(1975) prod. B. Livingstone
Bunny isn’t very prolific, but at his best can equal Marley. In facts despite his diffidence, he often seems to be the most talented Wailer, although he now only rarely associates himself with the group.
Johonny C. Brown
(1975) prod. Glen Brown
Johonny is a thinly disguised Glen Brown, who apparently never bothered to learn the finer points of the melodica. A grand eccentric in the studio, Glen concentrated on making this the perfect dance record, so melodica virtuosity was superfluous.
I Man A Grasshopper
(1975) prod. Geoffrey Chung
Chung’s deft hand makes the record, with the biting guitar counterpointing the jaunty rhythm, over which young Pablo preaches toleration for the ganja smoker.
I Man A Rasta
(1976) prod. C. S. Dodd
Over a dense rhythm, Freddie denounces capitalism in favour of revolution. After more than twenty years in the business, Coxsone could be forgiven for occasionally resting on his laurels, but here in 1976, and later with Prince Lincoln, he showed he still had something to teach the youngsters.