jaSka developed in Jamaican studios in the late 1950s, born of the earlier genre known as Mento. It is often recognized by its quarter-note walking bass-lines, accentuated guitar or piano rhythms played offbeat, & a drum pattern that emphasizes the 3rd beat in the bar. The jazz-influence can be heard in the exuberant horn-riffs that are so characteristic of the ska-genre. The music became a staple for Jamaican & international youth, outside of Jamaica most notably the UK Mods.
Lively, fast-paced & vibrant, ska-music was played at a slower tempo by some musicians. It is believed that this trend had begun when the singer Hopeton Lewis had been unable to pitch his vocal when recording the hit-song “Take It Easy” at a ska-tempo. By 1968 this trend had caught on with the release of a single by the artist Alton Ellis, which defined & established what became known as ‘Rocksteady’ as a distinctive genre in itself. The new genre sounded similar to what we recognize now as reggae but lacked the emphasis on social conscience, protest & spirituality that permeated the early form of reggae. To its’ early protagonists, reggae was seen as a progression from rocksteady that had a more grass-roots appeal than it’s’ more pop-oriented forbearers.
Reggae developed from mento, ska, R & B & jazz in the 1960s. The shift from rocksteady was illustrated by the use of the ‘organ-shuffle’ technique pioneered by Jamaican musicians such as Jackie Mittoo & Winston Wright. It can be heard in singles such as ‘Say What you’re Saying’ (1967) by Clancy Eccles, & in ‘People Funny Boy’ (1968) by Lee “Scratch” Perry. “Long Shot(Bus Me Bet)” (1968) by The Pioneers is cited as being the earliest example of the new, slowed-down rhythm that became reggae.
In 1968, a series of genuine original reggae hit-songs were released, notably “Nanny Goat” by Larry Marshall & “No More Heartaches” by The Belltones. The American artist Jonny Nash had a hit with “Hold Me Tight” which is credited with introducing reggae to the American public. The influence of reggae had by now reached as far as The Beatles, who adopted some of its techniques for their hit-single “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” the same year.
Perhaps the best known & loved example of the authentic reggae pioneers is The Wailers. Formed in 1963 by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh & Bunny Wailer, they were to transit the whole range from ska, rocksteady to reggae. Their contemporaries include Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker & Ken Boothe.
Besides the musicians who made it happen, were the notable producers such as Coxsone Dodd, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs & King Tubby. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records in 1960, had relocated to the UK by 1962. He was an important figure whose promotion of the reggae genre did much to consolidate its appeal among the UK pop & rock fans. Reggae’s appeal was also big in America. In 1972 reggae had found its’ way into the influential & prestigious US Billboard Hot 100 chart, with the band Three Dog Night having had a hit with their cover of The Maytones’ “Black & White”. By the end of the year Johnny Nash was at number 1 with “I Can See Clearly Now”, whose clear reggae/calypso influences were plain to hear.
By 1973, Jamaican culture/music as a valuable pop-cultural asset was very much in it’s’ ascendancy. The film “The Harder They Come” starring Jimmy Cliff, did much to introduce foreign audiences to Jamaican culture. Although the film achieved cult-status, its’ success could in no way match that of Eric Clapton’s song “I Shot The Sheriff” which became a global hit. It had been produced using all the trickery & technology available in professional music-production & managed to retain some of the original reggae-techniques. The song, although superficially something of a comical pastiche, nevertheless paved the way for the commercial success of Bob Marley & The Wailers & others.
By the mid-70s, DJs such as John Peel were giving air-time to reggae dub plates & specials. He continued to promote reggae throughout the remainder of his career. The Jamaican culture from which reggae had emerged was further promoted by UK film-maker Jeremy Marre who documented the Jamaican music-scene in his film “Rock Roots Reggae”.
In the late 70s the reggae scene had become a significant, if unlikely element of the then growing UK Punk scene. The DJ Don Letts would often play reggae songs along with punk rock anthems at clubs such as The Roxy.
Established punk bands such as The Clash, The Ruts & The Slits played many reggae-influenced songs. As if taking a leaf from the UK punk scene, UK reggae at this point became more protest/politically-oriented. Bands such as Steel Pulse, ASWAD & UB40 were typical of this return to a more grass-roots form of the genre. Steel Pulse, with their public-performances of songs such as the satirically-scathing “Klu Klux Klan”, were regarded as being too provocative by the Birmingham reggae scene from which they had emerged. To get exposure, Steel Pulse became involved with the punk-driven Rock Against Racism movement, often double-billing with notable bands such as The Stranglers.
Come the 1980s, successful pop-acts such as The Police & (to a lesser degree) Culture Club were adopting reggae techniques & molding them into a new, mainstream pop-culture where reggae’s inherent easy-on-the-ear sound could flourish in a commercially-lucrative fusion with the UK New Wave. Bob Marley was by now a huge global star. Steel Pulse are still active & touring. Like other significant movements such as Rock n’ Roll, reggae has evolved from parochial grass-roots to become a major global-mainstream genre, profoundly influencing other genres along the way.