Jamaican popular music has undergone a complex process of evolution, with several distinct genres emerging over the last six decades. The Jamaican recording industry dates to the mid-1950s, when a handful of entrepreneurs released 78 rpm records of local mento folk music to capitalize on the pan-Caribbean calypso craze that followed Harry Belafonte’s breakthrough Calypso LP. This era yielded sizeable hits like “She ‘Pon Top.”
A more important development, though, was the Jamaican variant of rhythm and blues that began to be produced by the mobile sound system proprietors catering to the island’s dancing public, starting with Simms & Robinson’s "End Of Time." From there, the "golden age" of Jamaican music evolved through different stretches, from the ska of the late 1950s and early '60s to the roots reggae heyday of the late 1970s, with the dub sub-genre among its most influential permutations.
The year 2018 marks 50 years of the reggae form and 70 years of sound system culture, and today, we're honing in on some of reggae’s most influential streams and emphasizing the work of some of key protagonists.
The truly indigenous hybrid called ska is a musical personification of Jamaica’s independence movement—a great creative stimulus for the island’s session players that allowed for less-curtailed musical expression. Ska drew largely from jazz, but also adapted Latin and pop elements. Its infectious after-beat and rapid pace is distinctly Jamaican and reflects the optimism of its time.
The demise of The Skatalites in late 1965 following the internment of Don Drummond at the local mental hospital was a big factor in the waning of ska. The pace subsequently slowed, as a spacious and mellow new sound came to the fore. In rock steady, the big-band ska orchestras were replaced by smaller studio ensembles that centered on guitar, with horn sections greatly reduced or totally absent.
The group that ultimately defined the style was Tommy McCook’s Supersonics, the house band at Duke Reid’s newly constructed Treasure Isle studio. Along with Tommy’s tasteful horn arrangements, their sound was given melodic anchorage by proficient bassist Jackie Jackson and innovative Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt. Soul-influenced harmony trios, typically singing love songs, became more prominent in rock steady: The Techniques, The Paragons, and The Jamaicans all kept Duke Reid at the top of the pack, as did solo crooner Alton Ellis, whose “Rocksteady” single was first to name the form.
The dub version, in which ordinary songs were dramatically re-mixed to elevate drum and bass, evolved from the instrumental B-sides of the late 1960s as an offshoot of sound system practices. The removal of pre-recorded vocals gave space for toasters to deliver spontaneous lyrics over the microphone at sound system events, prefacing the rap of American hip-hop. On vinyl, the dub practice came to prominence in Jamaica circa 1972, when the innovative minds of pioneers such as King Tubby, Lee Perry, Errol Thompson, and Augustus Pablo gave the genre credibility through the first full-length dub LPs, which soon earned cult followings overseas. Decades later, their mind-boggling techniques would be borrowed by European and American disc jockeys and aspiring producers, spawning various successful modes of dance music.