From New World Encyclopedia
Bob Marley in Concert Zurich, Switzerland May 30, 1980.

Reggae is a music genre developed in Jamaica in the late 1960s, and still popular today. The term is sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of Jamaican music, including ska, rocksteady and dub. The term is more specifically used to indicate a particular style that originated after the development of rocksteady. In this sense, reggae includes two subgenres: roots reggae (the original reggae) and dancehall reggae, which originated in the late 1970s.

Reggae is founded upon a rhythm style characterized by regular chops on the back beat, known as the skank. The beat is generally slower than that found in reggae's precursors, ska and rocksteady. Reggae is often associated with the Rastafari movement, which influenced many prominent reggae musicians in the 1970s and 1980s. The messages contained in these songs tend to deal with the subjects of faith, love, a higher power, and human freedom. The kind of reggae which contains these types of messages has been an important influence on the mentality of its listeners, invoking a peaceful spirit of faith.


Reggae's origins can be found in traditional African and Caribbean music, as well as the Rhythm and blues and jazz of the United States. Ska and rocksteady, distinctly different from reggae, are precursors of the form. It is thought that the word reggae was first used by the ska band Toots and the Maytals, in the title of their 1968 hit Do the Reggay. Other theories say the term came from the word streggae, a Jamaican slang term for prostitute, or that it originated from the term Regga, which was a Bantu-speaking tribe from Lake Tanganyika.

Pre-reggae movement

Through radio broadcasts and American import records, Jamaica, then still a British colony, was first hit by the jazz fervor in the 1940s. By the time the era of the jazz orchestra began to fade, with rhythm and blues music becoming the new favorite, Jamaica was undergoing a major transformation from a rural economy to a nation looking for its own piece of postwar prosperity. This led to many of the island's population to begin flooding into its capital, Kingston, where dance halls known as "sound systems" began to attract music enthusiasts seeking the latest sounds from overseas.

The dance organizers had no choice but to play foreign records, since the island had no recording facilities of its own. It wasn't until 1954 that the first label, Federal, opened for business, and even then its emphasis was purely on licensed U.S. material. Around this time, Rock and Roll had begun its world domination as the most popular form of musical entertainment, and it was the birth of this genre that finally kickstarted homegrown Jamaican music.

In 1958, Edward Seaga, who would go on to become Prime Minister of Jamaica, founded West Indian Records Limited (WIRL), which began to release records by local artists. They were blatant copies of American music, but the move was original enough to inspire three other groups to start their own labels that same year. As soon as the pressing plant Caribbean Records was established, Jamaica had officially formed its own autonomous recording industry. The only thing that was left for the scene was to establish its own identity in regards to a unique, Jamaican sound.

Around 1960, ska music, also known as "blue beat," which melded the rhythm of traditional mento music with R&B, came into creation when local musicians became weary of imitating the American sound. While many lay claim to the birth of ska, critics generally agree that it was producer Cecil Campbell, more commonly known as Prince Buster, who fathered the form with his label Wild Bells. All 13 tracks from the album were hits, and for the first time in modern Jamaican culture, music history was made.

With Jamaica receiving its independence, national pride was running high, and anything uniquely Jamaican was embraced. Thus, the homegrown music fitted in perfectly with the mood of the time. Also, the new ska, made by the working classes, was music of the people, particularly of the Kingston ghettoes. Some of ska's greatest stars of the time were Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, the Maytalls, and the Skatelites, who all came from humble beginnings.

Through the early 60's ska music enjoyed its popularity, as a plethora of artists emerged. However, despite its attempts to earn international attention, the scene barely made a dent outside the frontiers of its own native land. The one exception was in Britain, where a large Jamaican population thrived.

By 1966, interest in the ska beat began to wear down, with artists outgrowing the familiar basic rhythms and arrangements they had employed now for half a decade. The "rock steady" concept brought the new sound that ska artists had been seeking. This new form had a slower rhythm, which had the effect of making the bass play in clusters and forced dancers to "rock out" as opposed to "move wildly." Rock steady music was immediately successful, partly because it was new and also because dancers, not having to expend as much energy, could stay on the dancefloor longer. The Techniques, Slim Smith, and Lloyd Parks were some of the new stars born in the rocksteady phase of the Jamaican music culture.

The advent of rock steady ignited the small flame that ska had made overseas into a growing fire. This was largely in part to the Trojan record label, which licensed a great deal of Jamaican products, and the British rock steady superstar, Desmond Dekker. The reign of the style was brief, however, at least in Jamaica. It ran from mid-1966 to the close of 1967 when artists began to experiment with different alterations of the beat once again. It is said that Derrick Morgan first did this with a remix of an earlier hit of his, "Fat Man," using the organ to creep along in a particular style with the rhythm guitar. Supposedly the method created a scratchy noise that sounded like "reggae, reggae, reggae."

The birth of the reggae form

Whether it was Derrick Morgan who originated the new sound, or the Maytals with their 1968 album "Do the Reggay," or any of the other popular theories out there, there was room for many in this new genre as its popularity quickly grew, surpassing the previous scope of the island's preceding musical forms. The music itself was faster than rock steady, but tighter and more complex than ska, with obvious debts to both styles.

The original young guns of the style were producers Lee (Scratch) Perry, Bunny Lee, and engineer Osborne (King Tubby) Ruddock. Once again, the advent of a new form opened the way for new, unknown artists to come out and prove themselves. Perry was the first of the new crop to make it big as a recording artist with the hit "People Funny Boy." Off of this success, Perry started the label Upsetter Records in 1969. One of the labels most prominent contracts was with the experience group, The Wailers comprised of five artists including future superstars, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh.

In the U.K. Trogan was focusing on the very commercial end of reggae: music with a beat, a soft melody, and strings behind it. The sound was fining great success in Britain with 23 top 30 hits between 1970 and 1975 from such artists as John Holt, Bob and Marcia, Ken Boothe, Desmond Dekker, and Dave and Ansell Collins. The two subsidiary labels, Bunny Lee's and Lee Perry's, were also doing well during this time.

Jimmy Cliff in concert, 1997 photograph by Philippe Jimenez.

In 1972, the first Jamaican feature film, "The Harder They Come," directed by Perry Henzell and starring reggae artist Jimmy Cliff was released. The film brought reggae and Jamaica to global attention more than anything that had come before it, without any concessions to the mass market. The movie featured characters that spoke in patois, virtually incomprehensible to non-native ears, and told the story of a "rude boy's" rise and fall in Kingston. The ghettoes were accurately portrayed and the movie's soundtrack featured real reggae as opposed to pop-reggae, mostly songs written by Jimmy Cliff.

Between chart success and the film, reggae now had world recognition. What it needed was one person to bring together the disparate elements of songwriting, musicianship, and image, in order to fully establish reggae both commercially and critically.

By 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers had gotten their act together and were now signed on Chris Blackwell's label, Island, which had experience with Jamaican artists but was also one of the U.K.'s premiere labels in the field of white progressive rock. The group, who had spent the last couple years in Europe supporting reggae superstar Johnny Nash, returned to Jamaica to record the tracks that would make up the "Catch a Fire" album. The record was a decent hit, receiving a great deal of press, and the band went on tour across Europe and America.

Triggered by the release of Catch a Fire as well as Eric Clapton's cover of the group's hit, "I Shot the Sheriff," the Wailers experienced a steady rise to international stardom from there, led by the group's now legendary frontman Bob Marley. In 1974, the group disbanded and the three main members went on to pursue solo careers. Marley performed with a backup band (also called the Wailers) and a group of backup vocalists which included his wife, called the I Threes. Marley's new group released nine very successful albums between 1975 and 1981 when the musician died from cancer at the age of 36.

Bob Marley is considered as the embodiment of reggae music for several important reasons, namely that he is unanimously considered to be the best songwriter and musician of the genre, producing more hits than any other reggae artist to date. He also was a devout Rastafarian, which, although is not a requisite of the musical form, does reflect well the island's culture as it is a religion unique to them, just as reggae is a musical form unique to them. Inspired by his beliefs, Marley's songs were chock full of powerful messages urging his listeners to unite as a global family and form a world of love. Sadly, it is said that Marley died doubting that any of his fans ever truly heard his message. Bob Marley is exceptional in that he found a way to garner a mainstream audience, which still remains strong today, without ever having betrayed his roots as a true reggae artist, or his homeland of Jamaica as a resident and ambassador of it. Largely due to his success, reggae has cemented itself as a substantial genre in international music culture, and is arguably the top category of the world music genre.

Newer styles and spin-offs

In Jamaica, newer styles of reggae have become popular; among them, dancehall and ragga (also known as raggamuffin). The toasting style first used by artists such as U-Roy and Dillinger had a worldwide impact when Jamaican DJ Kool Herc used it to pioneer a new genre that became known as hip hop and rap. In Jamaica, the term Dee Jay or DJ is equivalent to the rapper or MC in American hip hop culture.

Mixing techniques employed in dub music (an instrumental sub-genre of reggae) have influenced hip hop and the musical style known as drum and bass. Another new style is new reggae, made popular by the ska band Sublime.

The dancehall genre developed around 1980, with exponents such as Yellowman, Super Cat and Shabba Ranks. The style is characterized by a deejay singing and rapping or toasting over raw and fast rhythms. Ragga (also known as raggamuffin), is a subgenre of dancehall, in which the instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music and sampling. Reggaeton is a form of dance music that first became popular with Latino youths in the early 1990s. It blends reggae and dancehall with Latin American genres such as bomba and plena, as well with hip hop. Reggae rock is a fusion genre that combines elements of reggae and rock music. The bands Sublime and 311 are known for this reggae rock fusion, as is singer Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jew, who blends it with traditional Jewish music. Billboard magazine named him "Top Reggae Artist" of 2006.[1]

The Elements of Reggae

A Rastafarian. Photograph by Jonathan Stephens.

Reggae is always played in 4/4 time or swing time because the symmetrical rhythm pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. Harmonically, the music is often very simple, and sometimes a whole song will consist of no more than one or two chords. The Bob Marley and the Wailers song "Exodus" is almost entirely comprised of A-minor chords. These simple repetitious chord structures add to the hypnotic effect that reggae sometimes has. However, Marley also wrote more complex chord structures, and the band Steel Pulse have often used very complex chord structures as well.


A standard drum kit is generally used but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbale-type sound. Some reggae drummers use a separate additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Rim shots on the snare are commonly used, and toms are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself.

Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One Drop, Rockers and Steppers. In the one drop, the emphasis is entirely on the third beat of the bar while the first beat of the bar is completely empty. This empty first beat is extremely unusual in popular music and is one of the defining characteristics of reggae. The bass will often leave this beat empty too. In fact, even in reggae drumbeats where the first beat is played like the rockers beat, the bass will still often leave empty space on beat one. Perhaps the best known exponent of this style of drumming was Carlton Barrett of The Wailers who is credited with inventing it.

In the Bob Marley and the Wailers song, one drop, named after the drumbeat, you can hear many of these elements including the hi-tuned snare, rim shots and the empty first beat. The bass also misses that first beat on every other bar in this song. Carlton Barrett also often used an unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat and this can be heard on many recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers - and example would be "Running Away" on the Kaya album.

The emphasis on beat three (usually played on the snare or as a rim shot) is in all reggae drumbeats but in the rockers beat the emphasis is also on beat one (usually played on the bass drum). A classic example would be on “Night Nurse” by Gregory Isaacs. The drums were played by Lincoln Scott of the Roots Radics band. The beat is not always straight forward though and various syncopations are often used to add interest. An example of this would be the Black Uhuru track “Sponji Reggae” in which the drums are played by Sly Dunbar.

In Steppers, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar giving the beat an insistant drive. A classic example would be “Exodus” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, played by Carlton Barrett. Here again you can hear his unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat. The steppers beat was also often used (at a much higher tempo) by some of the ska bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Examples would include “Stand Down Margaret” by The Beat and “Too Much Too Young” by The Specials.

Another unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal unlike in rock and pop.


In reggae the bass guitar plays an extremely significant role and is often the defining feature of a track. The drum and bass line to a reggae track is often called the “riddim”; this term can also include other rhythm instruments but it is usually the bass line that does the most to set one riddim apart from another. One illustration of the importance of the riddim in reggae is the fact that in Jamaica, several reggae singers could all release a different song sung over the same riddim.

The central role of bass in reggae can also be heard in dub which is effectively just the drum and bass line with the other instruments, including the vocals, reduced to a peripheral role, cutting or fading in and out with big echoes attached to them. In most other western popular music the intro leads you to the vocal which forms the main feature of the track. In dub the roles are typically reversed with the intro leading you to the drum and bass line.

The actual bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy and EQ’d so that the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The bass line is often a two-bar riff that centres around its thickest and heaviest note – the other notes often serve simply to lead you towards the bassiest note. A classic example of this would be “Sun is Shining” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The bass was played by Aston Barrett, brother of drummer, Carlton Barrett and one of the masters of reggae bass playing.

Rhythm guitar

The rhythm guitar usually plays the chords on the off-beat (beats two and four from a 4/4 rhythm) with a very damped, short and scratchy chop sound. It serves almost as a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used where the guitar still plays beats two and four but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. A typical example can be heard on the intro to “Stir it Up” by The Wailers.


The piano also usually plays chords on the off beats in a staccato style adding body and warmth to the rhythm guitar though both instruments might typically play extra beats, runs and riffs here and there to add interest and interplay.


The reggae-organ shuffle is unique to reggae. Typically a Hammond organ-type sound is used to play the chords with a choppy feel. Beats one and three are not played - if you imagine a count of “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and,” the organ plays “_ and 2 and _ and 4 and.” The left hand plays the “ands” and the right hand plays the numbers so you get “_LRL_LRL.” This is another example of the empty space on a primary beat one in reggae. The part is often quite low in the mix and is more felt than heard but a good example would be “Natural Mystic” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The organ part comes in 42 seconds into the song with the line “This could be the first trumpet.” Another example where it can be clearly heard would be “Is This Love” by the same band. The Organ often also plays melodic runs and extra beats.

Lead guitar

The lead guitar will often add a rock or blues style melodic solo to a track but most of the time it plays the same part as the bass line, an octave up with a very damped and picky sound. This helps add some definition to the bass line which is usually devoid of any upper frequencies as well as emphasising the all important bass melody. Sometimes, instead of following the bass exactly, the guitar will play a counter-melody.


Horn sections are frequently used in reggae playing intros and counter-melodies. A three-part horn section with Sax, trumpet and trombone would be typical.

Other percussion

A wide range of percussion instruments is used. Bongos are perhaps the most significant and will often play free, improvised patterns right through the track with heavy use of African-type cross-rhythms. Other percussion instruments like cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles playing a set pattern throughout the song.


The defining characteristics of reggae tend to come from the music rather than the vocal melody that is sung to it and almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. Vocal harmony parts are often used either throughout the melody as with vocal harmony bands like The Mighty Diamonds or as counterpoint to the main vocal as can be heard with Bob Marley and the Wailers backing vocalists, the I-Threes. The British reggae band “Steel Pulse used particularly complex backing vocals.

One vocal style that is peculiar to reggae is “toasting.” This started when DJs improvised along to dub tracks and it is thought to be the precursor of rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it has melodic content while rap is more a spoken form and generally has no melodic content.

Roots reggae

Roots reggae is the name given to explicitly Rastafarian inspired reggae: a spiritual type of music whose lyrics are predominantly in praise of Jah (God). Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to government oppression. The creative pinnacle of roots reggae may have been in the late 1970s, with singers such as Burning Spear, Johnny Clarke, Horace Andy, Barrington Levy, and Linval Thompson teaming up with studio producers including Lee 'Scratch' Perry, King Tubby, and Coxsone Dodd.

The value and importance of reggae music

Reggae's impact on the culture of Jamaica, world culture, and the international music scene, can be seen as both positive and questionable. There is no doubt that early reggae music, as well as its predecessors ska and rocksteady, contributed phenomenally to forming a unique Jamaican identity attractive enough to garner world attention. Such attention helped the poor nation to progress economically, directly through the growth of its record industry as well as indirectly through an increase in tourism, as well as instill in its inhabitants a national pride. In many ways, reggae music in the early days provided a positive influence for fans worldwide, as many of its message advocated pacifism, world peace, and the concept of a global family. However, there were also mixed signals generated by popular reggae artists, which included the spiritual use of marijuana, which was often blurred with recreational use of the substance. This contributed greatly to the world's partaking of marijuana, as it made the already popular drug appear even more attractive, as reggae artists were often perceived by overseas fans as exotic, creative, and cool. The impact of reggae music on world culture today is less intense than it was in its formative years. Its role in Jamaica's economy remains significant.


ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Barrow, Steve & Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. Rough Guides 2004 for the 3rd edition ISBN 1843533294
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  • Lesser, Beth. King Jammy's. ECW Press 2002 ISBN 1550225251
  • Manuel, Peter, with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, 2nd edition. Temple University Press, 2006. ISBN 1592134637
  • Morrow, Chris. Stir It Up: Reggae Cover Art. Thames & Hudson 1999. ISBN 0500281548
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