Reggae is most easily recognized by the rhythmic accents on the off-beat, usually played by guitar and/or piano, known as the skank. This pattern accents the second and fourth beat in each bar (or the "and"s of each beat depending on how the music is counted) and combines with the drums emphasis on beat three to create a unique feel and sense of phrasing in contrast to most other popular genres focus on beat one, the "downbeat". The tempo of Reggae is usually felt as slower than the popular Jamaican forms, ska and rocksteady, which preceded it. It is this slower tempo, the guitar/piano offbeats, the emphasis on the third beat, and the use of syncopated, melodic bass lines that differentiates reggae from other music, although other musical styles have incorporated some of these innovations separately.
The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as "a recently estab. sp. for rege", as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either "rags, ragged clothing" or "a quarrel, a row". Reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit "Do the Reggay" by The Maytals, but there are many different theories as to how the term originated. The music itself was faster than rock steady, but tighter and more complex than ska, with obvious debts to both styles, while going beyond them both. Speaking to the terms origins, Reggae artist Derrick Morgan stated:
We didn't like the name rock steady, so I tried a different version of 'Fat Man'. It changed the beat again, it used the organ to creep. Bunny Lee, the producer, liked that. He created the sound with the organ and the rhythm guitar. It sounded like 'reggae, reggae' and that name just took off. Bunny Lee started using the world [sic] and soon all the musicians were saying 'reggae, reggae, reggae'.
Reggae historian Steve Barrow credits Clancy Eccles with altering the Jamaican patois word streggae (loose woman) into reggae. However, Toots Hibbert said:
There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'. If a gal is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, 'OK man, let's do the reggay.' It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing 'Do the reggay, do the reggay' and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records.
Bob Marley is said to have claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for "the king's music". The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regi meaning "to the king".
PrecursorsAlthough strongly influenced by traditional African, American jazz and old-time rhythm and blues, reggae owes its direct origins to the progressive development of ska and rocksteady in 1960s Jamaica. An important factor in this development was the influence of Rastafari, with Rasta drummers like Count Ossie contributing to seminal recordings, bringing the influence of these rhythmic patterns into the music.
Ska arose in the studios of Jamaica in the late 1950s; it developed from the earlier mento genre. Ska is most easily characterized as a quarter note walking bass line, accentuated guitar and/or piano rhythms on the offbeat, and a drum pattern that places the emphasis on the 3rd beat of the bar. It is very memorable for it's jazz-influenced horn riffs. Jamaica gained it's independence in 1962 and Ska became the music of choice for Jamaican youth seeking music that was their own. It is also worth noting that Ska gained some popularity among Mods in Britain.
There have been many interesting theories as to why Jamaican musicians slowed the Ska sound to make rocksteady, including the singer Hopeton Lewis simply being unable to sing his hit record "Take It Easy" at a Ska tempo. By 1968, many musicians had begun playing the tempo of ska slower, while utilizing more syncopated bass patterns and smaller bands. This new, slower sound was called rocksteady, a name solidified after the release of a single by Alton Ellis. The rocksteady style is most often indistinguishable from reggae, although reggae tends to focus lyrically more on lyrics based on black consciousness, Rastafari and the effects of poverty. Some reggae also introduced a much slower tempo than rocksteady. The "double skank" guitar strokes on the offbeat were also part of the new reggae style.
HistoryReggae developed from ska, mento and R&B music in the 1960s. The shift from rocksteady to reggae was illustrated by the organ shuffle, which was pioneered by Jamaican musicians like Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright. This new technique was featured in the transitional singles "Say What You're Saying" (1967) by Clancy Eccles, and "People Funny Boy" (1968) by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Pioneers' 1967 track "Long Shot Bus' Me Bet" has been identified as the earliest recorded example of the new rhythm sound that became known as reggae.
Early 1968 was when the first genuine reggae records were released: "Nanny Goat" by Larry Marshall and "No More Heartaches" by The Beltones. American artist Johnny Nash's 1968 hit "Hold Me Tight" has been credited with first putting reggae in the American listener charts. Around that time, reggae influences were starting to surface in rock music. An example of a rock song featuring a slight taste of reggae rhythm is 1968's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by The Beatles.
Bob Marley in 1980.
The Wailers, a band started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, are perhaps the most recognised band that made the transition through all three stages of early Jamaican popular music: ska, rocksteady and reggae. Other significant reggae pioneers include Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and Ken Boothe.
Notable Jamaican producers who were influential in the development of ska into rocksteady and reggae include: Coxsone Dodd, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and King Tubby. Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1960, relocated to England in 1962, where he continued to promote Jamaican music. He formed a partnership with Trojan Records, founded by Lee Gopthal in 1968. Trojan released recordings by reggae artists in the UK until 1974, when Saga bought the label.
The 1972 film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, generated considerable interest and popularity for reggae in the United States, and Eric Clapton's 1974 cover of the Bob Marley song "I Shot the Sheriff" helped bring reggae into the mainstream. By the mid 1970s, reggae was getting radio play in the UK on John Peel's radio show, and Peel continued to play reggae on his show throughout his career. What is called the "Golden Age of Reggae" corresponds roughly to the heyday of roots reggae.
In the second half of the 1970s, the UK punk rock scene was starting to form, and reggae was a notable influence. Some punk DJs played reggae songs during their sets and some punk bands incorporated reggae influences into their music. At the same time, reggae began to enjoy a revival in the UK that continued into the 1980s, exemplified by groups like Steel Pulse, Aswad, UB40, and Musical Youth. Other reggae artists who enjoyed international appeal in the early 1980s include Third World, Black Uhuru and Sugar Minott. The Grammy Awards introduced the Best Reggae Album category in 1985.
Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, African and Latin American music, as well as other genres. Reggae is either played in 4/4 time or swing time, because the symmetrical rhythmic pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. One of the most easily recognizable elements is offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar and/or piano on the offbeats of the measure, often referred to as the skank. This offbeat can be counted so that it falls between each count as an "and" (Example: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and etc.) or counted as a half time feel at twice the tempo so it falls on beats 2 and 4. Harmonically, the music is essentially the same as any modern popular genre with a tendency to make use of simple modal chord progressions. For example: I - bVII7 and I - ii - iii - ii are both common progressions in reggae and both examples of the kind of chord structures used in Modal jazz. The use of repetitive rhythmic patterns and static, modal chord structures add to reggae's sometimes hypnotic effect.
The concept of "call and response" can be found throughout reggae music, in the lyrics but also in the way parts are composed and arranged for each instrument. The emphasis on the "third beat" of the bar (depending on how it's counted) also results in a different sense of musical phrasing with bass lines and melody lines often emphasizing what might be considered "pick up notes" in other genres.
Drums and other percussion
A standard drum kit is generally used in reggae, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbales-type sound. Some reggae drummers use an additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Cross-stick technique on the snare drum is commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself.
Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One drop, Rockers and Steppers. With the One drop, the emphasis is entirely on the third beat of the bar (usually on the snare, or as a rim shot combined with bass drum). Beat one is empty except for a closed high hat commonly used, which is unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on three, or whether it should be counted half as fast, so it falls on two and four. An example played by Barrett can be heard in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song "One Drop". Barrett often used an unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat, which can be heard on many recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers, such as "Running Away" on the Kaya album.
An emphasis on beat three is in all reggae drumbeats, but with the Rockers beat, the emphasis is also on beat one (usually on bass drum). This beat was pioneered by Sly and Robbie, who later helped create the "Rub-a-Dub" sound that greatly influenced dancehall. Sly has openly stated he was influenced to create this style by listening to American drummer Earl Young as well as other disco and R&B drummers in the early to mid 70s, as stated in the book "Wailing Blues". The prototypical example of the style is found in Sly Dunbar's drumming on "Right Time" by the Mighty Diamonds. The Rockers beat is not always straightforward, and various syncopations are often included. An example of this is the Black Uhuru song "Sponji Reggae."
In Steppers, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar, giving the beat an insistent drive. An example is "Exodus" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Another common name for the Steppers beat is the "four on the floor." Burning Spear's 1975 song "Red, Gold, and Green" (with Leroy Wallace on drums) is one of the earliest examples. The Steppers beat was adopted (at a much higher tempo) by some 2 Tone ska revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
An unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal. A wide range of other percussion instrumentation are used in reggae. Bongos are often used to play free, improvised patterns, with heavy use of African-style cross-rhythms. Cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles and a set pattern
The bass guitar often plays the dominant role in reggae, and the drum and bass is often the most important part of what is called, in Jamaican music, a riddim (rhythm), a (usually simple) piece of music that's used repeatedly by different artists to write and record songs with. Literally hundreds of reggae singers have released different songs recorded over the same rhythm. The central role of the bass can be particularly heard in dub music ? which gives an even bigger role to the drum and bass line, reducing the vocals and other instruments to peripheral roles. The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The bass line is often a repeated two or four bar riff when simple chord progressions are used. The simplest example of this might be Robbie Shakespeare's bass line for the Black Uhuru hit "Shine Eye Girl". In the case of more complex harmonic structures, such as John Holt's version of "Stranger In Love", these simpler patterns are altered to follow the chord progression either by directly moving the pattern around or by changing some of the interior notes in the phrase to better support the chords.
The guitar in reggae usually plays the chords on beats two and four, a musical figure known as skank or the 'bang'. It has a very dampened, short and scratchy chop sound, almost like a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used when the guitar still plays the off beats, but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. An example is the intro to "Stir It Up" by The Wailers. Artist and producer Derrick Harriott says, “What happened was the musical thing was real widespread, but only among a certain sort of people. It was always a down-town thing, but more than just hearing the music. The equipment was so powerful and the vibe so strong that we feel it.”
From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, a piano was often used in reggae to double the rhythm guitar's skank, playing the chords in a staccato style to add body, and playing occasional extra beats, runs and riffs. The piano part was widely taken over by synthesizers during the 1980s, although synthesizers have been used in a peripheral role since the 1970s to play incidental melodies and countermelodies. Larger bands may include either an additional keyboardist, to cover or replace horn and melody lines, or the main keyboardist filling these roles on two or more keyboards.
The reggae organ-shuffle is unique to reggae. Typically, a Hammond organ-style sound is used to play chords with a choppy feel. This is known as the bubble. There are specific drawbar settings used on a Hammond console to get the correct sound. This may be the most difficult reggae keyboard rhythm. The organ bubble can be broken down into 2 basic patterns. In the first, the 8th beats are played with a space-left-right-left-space-left-right-left pattern, where the spaces represent downbeats not played?that and the left-right-left falls on the ee-and-a, or and-2-and if counted at double time. In the second basic pattern, the left hand plays a double chop as described in the guitar section while the right hand plays longer notes on beat 2 (or beat 3 if counted at double time) or a syncopated pattern between the double chops. Both these patterns can be expanded on and improvised embellishments are sometimes used.
Horn sections are frequently used in reggae, often playing introductions and counter-melodies. Instruments included in a typical reggae horn section include saxophone, trumpet or trombone. In more recent times, real horns are sometimes replaced in reggae by synthesizers or recorded samples. The horn section is often arranged around the first horn, playing a simple melody or counter melody. The first horn is usually accompanied by the second horn playing the same melodic phrase in unison, one octave higher. The third horn usually plays the melody an octave and a fifth higher than the first horn. The horns are generally played fairly softly, usually resulting in a soothing sound. However, sometimes punchier, louder phrases are played for a more up-tempo and aggressive sound.
The vocals in reggae are less of a defining characteristic of the genre than the instrumentation and rhythm, as almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. However, it is very common for reggae to be sung in Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, and Iyaric dialects. Vocal harmony parts are often used, either throughout the melody (as with vocal groups such as the Mighty Diamonds), or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line (as with the backing vocalists, the I-Threes). More complex vocal arrangements can be found in the works of groups like The Abyssinians and British reggae band Steel Pulse. An unusual aspect of reggae singing is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather than vibrato (pitch oscillation). Notable exponents of this technique include Horace Andy and vocal group Israel Vibration . The toasting vocal style is unique to reggae, originating when DJs improvised spoken introductions to songs (or "toasts") to the point where it became a distinct rhythmic vocal style, and is generally considered to be a precursor to rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it is generally melodic, while rap is generally more a spoken form without melodic content.
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing. Many early reggae bands covered Motown or Atlantic soul and funk songs. Some reggae lyrics attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about controversial subjects such as Apartheid. Many reggae songs promote the use of cannabis (also known as herb, ganja, or sinsemilla), considered a sacrament in the Rastafari movement. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music ? whether it be discussing a specific religious topic, or simply giving praise to God (Jah). Other common socio-political topics in reggae songs include black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and criticism of political systems and "Babylon".
Criticism of dancehall and ragga lyrics
Some dancehall and ragga artists have been criticised for homophobia, including threats of violence. Buju Banton's song "Boom Bye-Bye" states that gays "haffi dead". Other notable dancehall artists who have been accused of homophobia include Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man. The controversy surrounding anti-gay lyrics has led to the cancellation of UK tours by Beenie Man and Sizzla. Toronto, Canada has also seen the cancellation of concerts due to artists such as Elephant Man and Sizzla refusing to conform to similar censorship pressures.
After lobbying from the Stop Murder Music coalition, the dancehall music industry agreed in 2005 to stop releasing songs that promote hatred and violence against gay people. In June 2007, Beenie Man, Sizzla and Capleton signed up to the Reggae Compassionate Act, in a deal brokered with top dancehall promoters and Stop Murder Music activists. They renounced homophobia and agreed to "not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community". Five artists targeted by the anti-homophobia campaign did not sign up to the act, including Elephant Man, TOK, Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton. Buju Banton and Beenie Man both gained positive press coverage around the world for publicly renouncing homophobia by signing the Reggae Compassion Act. However, both of these artists have since denied any involvement in anti-homophobia work and both deny having signed any such act.