Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A Jamaican popular music style, emerging in the 1970s as an important influence on world musics, but suffering from the early death of its only superstar, Bob Marley. Sound systems (primitive discos) began in the late 1940s; the recording of mento, the island's raggedy calypso style, began in the early 1950s and was probably the first indigenous popular music to be recorded (Stanley Motta was a pioneer producer), but went into hiatus during that decade as U.S. R&B was tremendously popular and Jamaican youths began to perceive mento as quaint. The U.S. scene changed as Elvis Presley was drafted, Little Richard left music etc, and Jamaica invented ska in the late '50s, a shuffling hybrid of R&B and mento, the name coming from the chopped guitar or piano sound on the second and fourth beats. Chinese-born Leslie Kong and Edward Seaga (later a prominent Jamaican politician) were early producers, Kong's Beverly's label remaining important until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1970. Clement Seymour 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd (d 4 May 2004 aged 72) ran Downbeat, a leading dance hall sound system and began recording in the late '50s at first just to have his own exclusive music, but then it became obvious the records would sell: his Studio One was the most important; most of the artists subsequently to make their mark in Jamaica recorded there, including singers Marcia Griffiths, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott (d 10 July 2010 aged 54), Burning Spear, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Osbourne; groups such as the Maytals, Wailers, Ethiopians, Heptones, Skatalites, many more. (Steve Barrow and Stuart Baker published Studio One Records: Album Cover Art 2011.)

Dodd was a cricket fan; he was nicknamed 'Coxsone' after the Yorkshire bowler Alec Coxon. Dodd and the others adopted rough-and-tumble methods in order to survive in the cut-throat Jamaican record scene, and didn't pay their artists much, but an atmosphere of informal creativity resulted in rhythms that still dominated the dance hall decades later. Dodd reportedly had a wealth of unreleased material, but his output slowed; Lee 'Scratch' Perry (Rainford Hugh Perry, d 29 August 2021 aged 85) began working with Dodd, later went into competition with him and made some of the best records by Marley and the Wailers, as well as many others (and later regarded the Wailers with ambivalence, feeling that they'd stolen his principles). The Skatalites were the island's best house band: Don Drummond on trombone, Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook on tenor saxes, Lester Sterling on alto, Johnny Moore and Leonard Dillon on trumpets, Jah Jerry on guitar, Jackie Mittoo on piano, Lloyd Brevitte on bass, Lloyd Nibbs on drums. (Moore d 16 August 2008 of cancer, aged 70; he should not be confused with Johnny Moore of the Drifters.) 

Prince Buster (b Cecil Bustamente Campbell, 24 May 1938; d 8 September 2016 in Miami) learned the business working for Dodd, initially in security because he had been a boxer, converting to Islam after meeting Mohammed Ali. As a singer, producer and sound-system owner, he was called the king of ska, the British band Madness named after one of his hits. 

Recording sessions had important effects on Jamaican politics because the personnel knitted together various slums, and the hit records were the voice of the people, although they were not played on Jamaican radio stations, dominated by the island's aristocracy, who hired foreigners to run them. Ska slowed down and became heavier, influenced by US rock, and was called 'rude boy' music in 1964-7 after the street anarchists who followed the music. Hits like Prince Buster's 'Judge Dread' and the Slickers' 'Johnny Too Bad' and 'Shanty Town' emphasized the injustices which the rudies thumbed their noses at, while 'Rudy, A Message To You' blamed them for making trouble. The music slowed down still more and became more sensual: in the late 1960s it was called 'rock steady', after the Alton Ellis hit 'Get Ready To Rock Steady'. (Alton Ellis d 11 October 2008 aged 70 of bone cancer, in Middlesex, England, where he had lived for two decades. Some said he was the most popular singer of all in Jamaica; Dennis Alcapone said 'Everybody, even Bob [Marley], would love if he could sing like Alton Ellis.')

Meanwhile white Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell formed Island Records in London and had a world-wide hit with the first Jamaican export, the ska-influenced 'My Boy Lollipop' by Millie Small. The song had been recorded a decade earlier by an American, Barbie Gaye, but the cute and sparky Small (b Millicent Dolly May Small, 6 October 1946, Clarendon Jamaica; d 5 May 2020, London) gave it the effervescent ska beat. (She had more, lesser hits, then left music c.1970.) Island then issued Marley's best-known albums as well as LPs by Aswad, the Abyssinians, etc. The next international Jamaican hit was Desmond Dekker's 'Israelites' '68, recorded by Kong. Then Jamaican music slowed still further. The word 'reggae' perhaps came from patois 'streggae' (rudeness), or 'regge-regge' (quarrel); Toots (Frederick) Hibbert, who wrote 'Do The Reggay', said it was descriptive, meaning simply 'regular'. (See Toots and the Maytals.) The first artist to record on Island was guitarist Ernest Ranglin, after Blackwell heard him playing at a hotel at Montego Bay; Ranglin remained at the centre of the scene as a writer, sideman and producer, and said that reggae was invented while recording 'Say What You Say' by Monty Morris: 'We were playing some rock-steady rhythms, but it seemed too relaxing. You want to get the blood flowing, so I said let's speed things up a little more ... and this beat came in.' (Ranglin was a jazz fan; his album Memories Of Barber Mack '97 on Island celebrated a Jamaican saxophonist.)

Reggae's hypnotic, bass-dominated sound was capable of menacing power, but retained the ska chop on the offbeat; it was influenced by ganja (marijuana) and Rastafarianism. The Rastas were influenced by Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican-born preacher who gave up on the idea of racial harmony and decided blacks should return to Africa; he started a steamship line, sold shares for a dollar each, went bankrupt and was jailed in 1925 in the USA, his sentence commuted by President Calvin Coolidge; he ended up in London without ever seeing Africa, but in Kingston in 1927 he had said, 'Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned.' An Ethiopian warlord, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was crowned emperor in 1930 and took several titles including Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, etc, which seemed to fit biblical prophecies. Another preacher, Leonard Howell, sold pictures of Selassie to poor people as passports to Africa and was locked up in a lunatic asylum; released in 1940, he founded a Rastafarian commune in the mountains near Kingston, closed by police in 1954. The Rastas became an alternative cult to the rude boys in Kingston; ascetic, vegetarian and peaceful, they smoked the island's powerful weed as an aid to meditation; they regarded the world and all its works as Babylon. Hitler had been the biblical Beast and Mussolini the false prophet; Ethiopia was the Greek name for Africa, and all the prophecies seemed to be coming true. The sect of the Twelve Tribes, founded in Kingston in 1968, decided that the Second Coming had already happened, and that Haile Selassie was God on Earth. The Jamaican establishment feared and despised the Rastas, but given its violence and corruption the establishment was lucky that Marley and many others were deeply influenced by them, turning away from the rudies. On the face of it, Selassie was an ineffectual little man who lived too long and left his country a mess in 1974, but he never started any wars, and the image of the world as Babylon is hard to resist. Marley became reggae's superstar because of his musicianship and his powerful moral authority at a time when the horror of the Vietnam War was fresh, and when Jamaica itself seemed close to civil war.

An important lift for Jamaican music was Perry Henzell's film The Harder They Come '72, in which Jimmy Cliff played a Jamaican gunman who in real life was killed by police in the late 1940s: the soundtrack LP (on Blackwell's Mango label) had tracks by Cliff, Dekker, the Maytals and the Melodians (see Cliff's entry). (Henzell d 30 November 2006 aged 70.) Other important reggae acts included Hibbert and his Maytals, formed '62 as the Vikings (they recorded for Dodd, Prince Buster, Byron Lee, Kong and Lee again); their best LPs were said to be Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul on Island. Aswad was formed '76 in London (see their entry). The rhythm section of Sly and Robbie (drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Robbie Shakespeare) became stars in their own right: they first got together on Cliff's Follow My Mind '75, recorded with many of the best Jamaican artists and were in demand for sessions all over the world, with Grace Jones, Joe Cocker, Ian Dury, Bob Dylan, many others.

Toasting emerged in the late '50s as sound system DJs heard black U.S. disc jockeys rapping over the records; they dropped the vocals and used the microphone for satirical street poetry: U-Roy was the first prominent toaster, then Dennis Alcapone early '70s, swept away by Rasta-influenced Big Youth, succeeded by Brigadier Jerry; they were an influence in turn on rap/hip-hop in the USA. Augustus Pablo played melodica, a plastic keyboard-wind instrument; he got weird beauty from it on a few Wailers tracks and became one of the first dub artists with King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown '74, recorded by Perry (Augustus Pablo Presents DJs From '70s To '80s on Big Cat '97 was a good compilation). The dub was the Jamaican DJ's raw material, the rhythm track; Perry was one of the most eccentric of record producers, planting records in the garden and watering them; a deal with Island had collapsed and he burned down his own Black Ark studio in 1980, fed up with the Jamaican record business, and moved to Switzerland, but he had already become one of the most influential producers by innovating technically: he remixed the rhythm tracks for instrumental versions on B sides of records which often themselves became hits. A dozen compilations were listed '96 on Mango, Heartbest, Ariwa and other labels under Perry's name of his work with the Upsetters, Mad Professor etc including Black Ark Experryments, From The Secret Laboratory, Experiments At The Grass Roots Of Dub etc. The dub poet reads written verse to reggae backing tapes; Lynton Kwesi Johnson, of Brixton, South London, was the best known. Four-CD Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music '96 on Mango had 95 tracks, 30 years of Jamaican no. 1 hits; Arkology '97 on Island Jamaica had 52 tracks of Perry's brilliance. See also Bob Marley.

UPDATE   Ian Thompson, reviewing a book in the Times Literary Supplement for January 23 2009, presents an orthodox view: 'the advent in the late 1970s of DJ-based dancehall music...has helped to kill off the ordinary human business of recording musicians. Music in twenty-first-century Jamaica (as elsewhere in the world) has regressed to numbingly insistent rhythms of pre-set drum machines and computerized keyboards...[and] seems now to have lost its moral bearing...with scarcely any ideology left in it.' However, reviewing Beth Lesser's Dancehall: The rise of Jamaican dancehall culture, he goes on to say that for Lesser, 'Dancehall is a "vastly misunderstood" form of entertainment, that deserves proper recognition...this excellent book traces the rise of the music in the sound-system culture of 1950s and 60s Kingston' and brings it up to the present. It is illustrated by Lasser's own photographs, and published by Soul Jazz Publishing, ISBN 9780955481710.