Ska, Rock Steady, Roots Reggae, and Dub: Understanding Jamaican Music Through 46 Records

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.

Bob Marley describing the difference between Ska, Rock Steady, and Reggae.

Ska

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.

Trombonist Don Drummond, saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, drummer Lloyd Knibb, bassist Lloyd Brevett and other members of The Skatalites were the prime instrumental innovators, while Toots and The Maytals, John Holt, and Ken Boothe all made their first hit recordings in the form. Bob Marley and the Wailers’ opening gambit, "Simmer Down", was the first of many unstoppable hits, while producer Clement Dodd of Studio One ruled the roost in Jamaica. Prince Buster became ska’s greatest icon overseas, thanks to international hits like "Madness" and "One Step Beyond."

Essential Ska Records


Rock Steady

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.

Essential Rock Steady Records


Roots Reggae

As The Ethiopians vocal group so memorably put it in their hit song of the same name, “Reggae Hit The Town” in late 1968, initially as a fast-paced dance music, punctuated by an organ shuffle. Smaller downtown-based ghetto producers such as Lee Perry, Clancy Eccles, and Bunny Lee had instigated the massive jump to staccato guitar and frantic drumming, but by 1970, the beat slowed again as a more meditative sound emerged. Roots reggae (as it would eventually be termed) became the platform for increased social commentary and songs of political activism, with the Abyssinians’ “Satta Massa Ganna” and Burning Spear’s “Door Peep Shall Not Enter” offering stunning portents of the new style.
The main roots reggae period, roughly 1972-81, had Rastafari content at its most upfront and evocative. During the late 70s, the thick and thunderous sound of reggae rebellion saw select groups such as Burning Spear, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown given widespread international acclaim in the wake of the incredible success of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Essential Roots Reggae


Dub

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.

Essential Dub Records