This piece was prepared to illustrate the origins of Jamaican popular music which has established itself across the globe over the last 50 years. During that time, it maintained its popularity as it passed through different musical styles, from ska, rock steady, reggae, dub, deejay and dancehall.
Jamaican music can be said to have emerged in 1961 in a serious way. The year 2011 is also the 50th anniversary of the emergence of Jamaican music which, in the course of its development, demonstrated a triumph of creativity by borrowing nothing to build something.
We can now assess the importance of Jamaican music to the country and the world over the past half century.
The Jamaican sound system of the inner-city has become the disco of uptown, at home and abroad, engineering a trans-formation through popular music with a social message.
The development of dubbing and dee-jaying in Jamaica spawned the most compelling popular music in America today, rap and hip hop.
Jamaican music has had a greater global impact than the music of any other country proportionate to size. This is a proud record of worldwide achievement.
This presentation is intended to set the development of Jamaican popular music in the sequence of the emergence of its rhythms and styles.
Boogie, rock, rhythm and blues
Boogie, rock, rhythm and blues
Dub / Dee - Jay
To fully understand these developments, the music must be set in the framework of the media through which music reached the people and how it was produced and promoted.
After World War II, in the late 1940s, Jamaicans had few choices available to them for hearing recorded music. There was a part-time radio station with a call sign ZQI. It operated for a short period only each day to broadcast the news. Some music was played. The selections were mostly American tunes with a few other Western or Latin American pop selections. Radios and gramophones for playing 78 rpm records were found only in the homes of well-off residents. The broad mass of the population had little opportunity to hear music at their leisure.
Three developments occurred between the late 1940s and early 1950s:
By the mid 1950s Jamaicans were in a much better position to enjoy and be entertained by recorded music. Radio stations in nearby American states could be received at nights and recent American recordings could be heard on radios and at dances.
American music at that time, was undergoing a paradigm shift from jazz and big band to rhythm and blues, boogie and rock and roll. In Jamaica, the mass of the population enjoyed rhythm and blues (R&B) and boogie while residential urban areas were entertained by big band and rock and roll. Sound systems, in particular, relished the R&B and boogie music of the top artistes in America. Some of the most popular artistes were: Fats Domino, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and BB King.
Records were imported for the general public. Sound system operators, however, went to America to find unique recordings which would not be known to others here. These choice recordings were a vital part of the sound system repertoire in establishing which sound was best. Their reputation and financial success depended on these special records being used as surprise hits at dances and when two or more sounds “clashed” in a play-off. Sound systems would set up their equipment in their favourite dance areas of downtown Kingston, turn up the volume of their powerful sets to drown the sound of rivals nearby. Sometimes strong-arm tactics would be used to dissuade patrons from attending nearby dances. But mostly, the competitive edge was secured by having exclusive records to play which would draw the crowd.
To ensure anonymity, the recordings would be soaked in water to remove the record label. When the record became a hit, it would be given a name and be sold in very limited numbers at exorbitant profits. Later they would be released, gradually, in larger quantities at decreasing prices.
RJR played few local records, or even imported R&B recordings. Popular local tunes played by sound systems, hardly received airplay at RJR. It is said that the Wailers had to employ strong-arm tactics to get their records played.
In 1957, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) was launched. JBC changed the policy of marginalizing Jamaican recordings. A programme featuring Jamaican recorded music, American R&B and boogie, was initiated to be aired every Friday in the early evening hours from The Glass Bucket Club in Half Way Tree, the leading uptown nightclub in Kingston. It was appropriately called Teen Age Dance Party with well known deejay Dwight Whylie as the host. It was very popular and well attended by teens as a live show. Hit music downtown, local and foreign, could be heard uptown.
The earliest recording of popular music done in Jamaica was a driving American instrumental, Dumplings. I found Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires, then an up-and-coming dance band, eager to “cover” (re-record) it. I produced it at the Ra and R recording studio in 1960.
By the beginning of 1961, Jamaicans began to compose their own music. In the beginning, these were recorded on acetate disks. The earliest were:
Boogie In My Bones was produced by Chris Blackwell, oneof the pioneers in the development of Jamaican music.
Easy Snapping was produced by Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, one of the big three sound system operators along with Duke Reid and Tom the Great Sebastian (Thomas Wong). Dodd and Reid played the central and critical roles in the development of Jamaican music in the very early period.
Oh Manny Oh, another hit tune of 1961, a rhythm and blues composition, was produced by me. It was the first Jamaican hit record to be manufactured on vinyl. Vocals were by Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson. This was a very significant step in creating an industry.
Vinyl was more durable than acetate and capable of much longer life. This transformed the exclusive, closed shop sound system productions to a broader based audience. This attracted many talented performers and composers.
At the time of the production of Oh Manny Oh, I had just set up a record manufacturing plant on Bell Road in the Industrial Estate of Kingston which I called West Indies Records Limited (WIRL). This development emerged from my anthropological research in folk music from which I had an album produced by Folkways Records of New York. The album featured Revival and Kumina songs, drumming and ceremonies. In trying to sell the album in order to expose music that had never been commercially recorded before, I was repeatedly asked to import other recordings, mostly by uptown favourites like Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis, so-called “soft tunes”. This path took me into the recording business as an importer. But soon I had to become a producer and manufacturer, because government began to restrict imports to assist local manufacturers.
I did not indulge in removing the labels on imported records, I tried to discover their true identities. I was successful in many cases which allowed me to import quantities of the original commercially produced recordings at much lower prices. One such success was very rewarding. A record which was given the suggestive blank label title, Beardman Shuffle, was very popular and in great demand. I came across a copy and detected a tiny piece of the original label still attached with the tell tale Imperial Records colours. With the knowledge of the identity of the label I soon discovered the real title:
This was a lively instrumental with an infectious rhythm. I imported a quantity and flooded the market. The record became very popular. It was adopted by Teenage Dance Party as its signature tune, in a version form with more African drumming.
My use of durable vinyl which greatly extended the life of records instead of soft acetate and the ability to identify anonymous records sent a signal to sound system record importers to find another way to get unique records which they could use exclusively to excel among their rivals. To do so they would have to record and produce records locally. This became the impetus that drove the big sound system operators into major record production.
Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio at Bond Street and Coxsone’s Downbeat label operating out of Studio One at Orange Street, a few blocks away, became the two major producers of Jamaican recordings of that time.
With these developments in place, Jamaicans had a choice of radio stations to hear Jamaican music, a choice of producers providing a steady stream of hits on durable vinyl and a choice of shops to buy Jamaican records. The Jamaican recording industry was born. All that was needed was a rhythm (“riddim”) which could be clearly identified as Jamaican.
There are different stories as to how the ska rhythm emerged. Out of the maze of background stories the only one with details, true or not, is the Clement Dodd involvement. Dodd, it is said, wanted something new and fully Jamaican for his sound system repertoire since imports were declining in availability and popularity. He instructed two of his studio instrumentalist, Cluet “Clue J” Johnson and Ernie Ranglin, to create a new “riddim.” The creative effort produced a rhythm with an emphatic off-beat. This story goes on to attribute the name ska to an abbreviation of a street slang “shavoovie”, which was popular at the time, according to Clue J.
Whatever the origin,the first truly indigenous Jamaican popular rhythm was born. It was very popular, particularly since it was both song and dance. Coming just before Independence in 1962 and extending beyond, the ska was a launching pad for one of the most creative periods of Jamaican music. New composers, new songs, new performers emerged as if all this talent had been in a cupboard just waiting for the door to be opened.
In a couple of years the ska not only was the dominant music in the country but had begun to penetrate the international market reaching many thousands of Jamaicans who migrated to England in the previous decade.
Unbelievably, in these early years the ska scored a huge international hit in 1964: My Boy Lollipop, (a cover of the Barby Gaye hit) sung inimitably by the baby voiced Millie Small and produced by Chris Blackwell. From there on, a series of Jamaican hits followed in England where the ska was known as the Blue Beat.
As popular and successful as it was abroad, ska was not accepted in the uptown residential areas of Jamaica where it was socially disregarded as downtown music.
I took Byron Lee, leader of the top uptown dance band, the Dragonaires, to Chocomo Lawn in Denham Town where a session with The Techniques was in progress. Chocomo Lawn had been one of the original sound system dancehalls where dances were held almost every Sunday night. In 1963 it became my political headquarters.
The Techniques were performing with lead vocalist Slim Smith. The members of this young band (composers and singers) all taught themselves to play instruments I gave them. The group later scored several hits such asLittle Did You Know and Conversation. They made the English charts with other hits. The band migrated to England where their offspring established a young group, called Musical Youths. They scored with the hit tune, Pass the Dutchie produced in England,aversion of Pass the Kutchie by The Mighty Diamonds produced in Jamaica.
Byron was hearing the skabeat live for the first time. He was in awe. He carefully analysed the instrumentation and took it uptown to his band. Byron Lee could now play the ska uptown. That helped to move ska from strictly downtown music to music that was accepted nationally.
To attempt to penetrate the American market, I sent a team of ska artistes to perform at the New York World's Fair in 1964: Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Jimmy Cliff, Delroy Wilson, Desmond Dekker, Roy Shirley, Ken Boothe and others, including a team of dancers. They drew crowds when they played at the World’s Fair but the American market was not quite ready for Jamaican music. This move was ahead of its time. However, It was possible to copyright in the US a substantial number of Jamaican compositions which I vested in the government agency, the Social Development Commission, to hold for the composers/artistes. This protection was a necessity. In England, many disputes had arisen about copyrights and Jamaican composers were being deprived of ownership rights.
Ska, however made a strong beginning for Jamaican music.Many hits emerged. A sample of some of the earliest will suffice to illustrate the defining rhythm of the ska:
Sammy Dead by Eric Monty Morris (1964)
The ska was ideal for instrumentals or groups. The greatest instrumentalists of the period, The Skatalites, created some enduring hits, the most popular of which was:
Occupation by Don Drummond and The Skatalites (1964)
As a group, the Maytals were consistent hit makers.Top singer, Toots Hibbert, was given a short term in prison for possession of marijuana. He wore the number 54-46 which he used in a composition. This became the title of one of the most celebrated ska recordings.
54-46- by Toots Hibbert (1968)
Cherry Oh Baby– one of the most popular winners of the Annual Jamaica Festival competition.
It was a glorious time for ska and Jamaican pop music, which lasted five years before the next rhythm emerged. Indeed, other rhythms existed which were Jamaican in origin but these had limited success. The two most important compositions of this type in the ska period were:
Oh Carolina”- Folkes Brothers
Independent Jamaica– Lord Creator
Oh Carolina featured Rastafari drumming for the first time on recorded music in Jamaica. Independent Jamaica was a mento/calypso production to “hail” the independent state. This rhythm was never replicated in further Jamaican productions.
Before leaving the ska era, note must be made of the first Jamaican “clash” on a recording. The Prince Busta denunciation of Derrick Morgan in “Blackhead Chinaman” and Morgan’s lusty response with “Blazing Fire,” two classics in the ska rhythm, set off an age-old Jamaican “tracing” match where two people try to settle a difference by publicly abusing each other. Busta was upset because Morgan had switched allegiance from his studio to a rival, Leslie Kong.
The first rock steady hit emerged by chance in October 1967, according to Hopeton Lewis. He was recording a tune with an apt title: Take It Easy. He could not keep up with the rhythm so the timing was slowed down. What emerged was said to be a “rock steady” beat, considered to be Jamaican soul music.
Take it Easy- Hopeton Lewis(1967)
Other big rock steady records were:
Rock steady: Alton Ellis(1967), the most popular rock steady artiste;
The Tide is High-The Paragons (1967)
This record was a huge hit and was covered by more than one international artiste including Blondie; Tougher than Tough– Derrick Morgan (1967) Morgan entered short-lived the “Rude-Boy” period by proclaiming that “Rudie don't fear;”Shanty Town– Desmond Dekker (1968). This became the signature tune of the ”rude boys” who emerged in the growing urban violence of 1966.
Another prolific period of new music was in the making. Some of the hits which were to emerge were among the greatest of all. Rock steady did not last too long. Soon it was overtaken by Reggae, the flag-bearer of Jamaican music.
The first reggae song is said to be: No More Heartaches by The Beltons ( 1968)
This was just the beginning of a dominant period in Jamaican music, popularly accepted by all. It produced big stars at home and abroad. Desmond Dekker, who had successive hits in this new period, scored big with Israelites which became a number one hit in England and was top rated the Billboard charts on the USA, a rare achievement.
Israelites - Desmond Dekker(1968)
He migrated to England to follow up with his success. Success of the recording was helped by Jewish people in America who adopted it as a lament of their tragic history. But conversely, it was the devout Jamaican peasantry who had adopted the Israelites of the Bible as the symbol of their suffering that Dekker was lamenting. Rock Steady did not last too long. Soon it was overtaken by reggae, the flag bearer of Jamaican music.
In everyday reference, particularly abroad, reggae became a generic term for all Jamaican music, the sound of Jamaica. Reggae, like its predecessors, ska and rocksteady, was a musical style complete with rhythm, lyrics, melody and dance. A slow compulsive beat with compelling melodic music was its main characteristics.
Some of the first reggae recordings were classified as early reggae because of their transformation features as they moved from Rocksteady to Reggae. The first such recording ushering in the Reggae rhythm is said to be: No More Heartache: The Beltones(1968)
This was quickly followed by: Israelites by Desmond Dekker(1968)
One of the classics. The recording reached the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, a rare achievement, with some support from Jewish people who adopted it as a lament of their tragic history. But to the contrary, it was the devout Jamaican peasantry who had adopted the Israelites of the Bible as a symbol of their suffering that Dekker was lamenting.
The next big early Reggae hits was enduring, becoming a standard at dances.
Cherry O Baby by Eric Donaldson(1971)
But two other recordings of the time could lay claims to being the most popular. The first was:
54-46 was my number by Toots and Maytals(1971)
54-54 by Deejay Dub
The song was a dramatic triumph over adversity celebrating the release of Toots, the lead singer of the group from prison after a short stint for marijuana possession.
The second was a recording claimed by many to be a Reggae anthem of Jamaican music. But no sooner had the early Reggae music established itself with mega hits than a characteristic of Jamaican music appeared on the musical scene. Jamaicans are always creatively looking for something new. This time it was the style of presentation that was changed with public acclaim.
Jimmy Cliff (James Chambers) was part of every period of Jamaican music. From the outset he was writing beautiful hit songs. One of his earliest was King of Kings. Jimmy Cliff proved to be one of the most enduring artistes even until today. His most successful years were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In England he broke ranks with rhythm-based music, producing the melodic Wonderful World, Beautiful People which was a smash hit.
Wonderful World, Beautiful People by Jimmy Cliff (1970)
Then came the biggest hit of Jimmy’s career, one of reggae’s most renowned hits, and anthem of Jamaican music:
The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff (1972)
This recording was the central theme of a Perry Henzell film of the same name, and it marked Jimmy’s debut as a film star with other films to come. As a film,The Harder They Come broke new ground. It was a story of the music industry in Jamaica and its seedy background of exploitation of the artistes in the early days.
The reggae movement grew in the 1970’sto be a greater avalanche of hit songs and new stars.
Cherry O Baby by Desmond Dekker
Brown started composingand singing while in his early teens. He was one of the most prolific composers. He wrote and performed successive hits at home and abroad starting in the early 1970s. Hits such as:
No Man Is An Island
West Bound Train
As a performer, he was one of the artistes who could consistently “fill the house and stop the show.”Reggae’s biggest years were ahead.The Wailers were no longer performing together with Bob Marley. They became a separate act. The advent of Bob Marley on the international scene began to internationalize reggae in England, America, and eventually, everywhere.
Bob Marley added a new dimension to Jamaican music which had largely depended on rhythm with rich melody and everyday lyrics. Now the lyrics became “message” music with Bob Marley as the “conscious” artiste. His message was, human rights: freedom, struggles against oppression and discrimination. These were universal themes at a time when the world was listening because of the struggle for civil rights in America and against the ongoing anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Bob Marley became an international star in the 1970s reaching out with a universal message to mankind. Redemption Song became the theme of struggles everywhere. More than anyone else, he put reggae firmly on the map.
Redemption Song by Bob Marley (1979)
It was then possible to reach the American market and to regularly score hits on the Billboard charts.But strangely,during Bob’s journey to success, white America listened, black America did not. Bob had to record Buffalo Soldier to reach the hearts of African Americans. Buffalo soldiers were black soldiers who fought in the US Civil War. Although Bob Marley died in 1981,his music remains comparable only to other great recording artistes of the world.
After Marley died, there was a huge void. None could truly fill the gap in reggae. It was logical that something new had to emerge. This was the right time for a new style. Dub and deejay became popular.
Strangely enough,deejay was the earliest distinctive Jamaican style. Its date of origin can be pinned to December 26, 1950. Tom The Great Sebastian, one of the earliest great sound systems, was playing in downtown Kingston. Tom left the scene to buy ice for drink sales, according to Salewicz and Boot in their album portrayal Reggae Explosion. In his absence his selector, Count Machuki (Winston Cooper) made “live chat” over the records while in play. The crowds loved it.
Yet the new style remained a novelty until the late 1960s. King Tubby was the master cutter for Duke Reid. He experimented with acetate disks to create a new sound for sound systems. He discovered that leaving out the vocals in some sections of play, allowing only the beat and instruments to dominate, created an ecstatic reaction among patrons when the vocals returned.
Dub was born.
One of his most popular hits was: King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown - King Tubby and Augustus Pablo.
The vocal blanks on the dubs left space for artistic creativity to “toast” the patrons with limericks, nursery rhyme phrasings, greetings, boasting, and other livelychatter. The performers were not traditional singers. They were the selectors, sound system operators and studio people who became known as deejays. The first deejay to make a hit record was King Stitt with Fire Corner in 1969.
Fire Corner by King Stitt (1969)
Then came U-Roy (Ewart Beckford) who was handling the sound for King Tubby. He made three quick successive hits in 1970 which ranked one, two and three on the charts at the same time.
Wear You To The Ball by U-Roy
Wake The Town by U-Roy
Rule The Nation by U- Roy
This blew away opposition to the new style of music and cemented the deejay as a new arrival who was here to stay.
Not withstanding this huge success, the deejaystyle declined in popularity in the 1970sprobably because it was overshadowed by the success of Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, other emerging reggae stars and the dominance of Bob Marley.
In the late 1970s, a new refreshing deejay team arrived. Two youngsters calling themselves Michigan and Smiley broke into the charts with a new style of deejaying which became very popular. It was called the rub-a-dub style. Their big hit was:
Rub-a-Dub Style by Michigan and Smile
This set the stage for one of the great deejays of all timeto emerge after the death of Bob Marley created a gap in reggae.
Yellow Man (Winston Foster) was the man who energized the deejay style with a consistent run of hits. In fact, he was unique in style and appearance; it was Yellow Man who introduced the “slackness” style to music. His open references to sexuality, and in particular, to females as an object of sex, brought out the cheering crowds, including women. When challenged about his open references to sex, he replied directly, “Is slackness the people want and is slackness I a give dem.” He redirected the music to the personality of the singer.
Mad Over Me by Yellow Man
His popularity spanned over 25 years and he is still a drawing card on stage shows today and internationally.
Deejays quickly got the message. “Slackness” brought success. This was to become a wave of the future. Just as dub gave rise to the deejay,the stage was set for the deejay to expand into the dancehall movement.
Dancehall is more than music. It is a lifestyle which promotes music and dance with outrageous sexy fashions, glorification of macho sex and the boastful bravado of gun violence, mixed with more than a dash of drugs. It is the showpiece of a renegade, raucous sub-culture with a large emotionally involved following of youth.
Generally, the music is explosive predominantly as “riddim,” regardless of the other elements: lyrics and melody. A good “riddim” is the bedrock of Jamaican music especially dancehall tunes. “Building a tune” starts with the “riddim” section.
Coxsone and Duke Reid were the early producers whose studios created their own rhythms. They were succeeded by other specialists who guided the rhythm industry especially through periods when the rhythm became the dominant feature of the recording.
The“riddims” were taken to another dimension through the genius of Sly and Robbie (Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare), the internationally recognized duo. It is in dancehall that the African linkages to Jamaican music is most evident. With consistently good“riddim” makers in place, dancehall needed star performers. It was Shabba Ranks (Rexton Gordon) who best personified the exaggerations of dancehall in dress, music and a strong coarse macho voice.
One of Shabba’s greatest hits includes:
Trailer Load by Shabba Ranks(1991)
His outstanding success earned him Grammies in 1991 and 1992, the only Jamaican artiste to receive two such top awards in dancehall.
Many deejay stars in dancehal lhave emerged in the 1990s almost too many to mention. But no record of this period would be complete without the performances of Ninjaman (Desmond Ballentine) and Buju Banton (Mark Myrie). These two were rival performers with Shabba Ranks with whom they staged many “clashes” to the delight of the massive crowds. They are of recent enough vintage for everyone to remember their memorable:
Border Clash by Ninjaman (1990)
During this period every now and then a special recording emerged, flowing in melody and strong in lyrics, moving back to the spiritual or “conscious” days. The beautiful, poignant Untold Story byBuju Banton was one the melodic diversions with a conscious message in this period.
Untold Stories by Buju Banton (1995)
This was a theme which was to reoccur with other artistes striving to return to “conscious” memorable music. Another performer who pursued this music with a difference in a dancehall setting was, notably, Luciano’s beautiful:
Lord Give Me Strength by Luciano (1995)
Moving closer to the end of the decade two other giant deejays emerged. Bounti Killa (Rodney Price) and Beenie Man (Moses Davis) have been consistent hit makers “clashing” in memorable shows like Champions in Action.
King of the Dancehall by Beenie Man
Beenie Man was the Grammy Award winner for the reggae category last year, a well-deserved tribute to his musical skills.
While dancehall was strictly downtown music, it has created an uptown following with its own superstar, Sean Paul, whose mixed ethnic background of uptown origin has made him an even more unique talent. His hit song launched him into the dancehall hierarchy.
Gimme the Light by Sean Paul
Looking back at the wealth of Jamaican styles and rhythms, one recording stands out as a fusion of dub, deejay and dancehall. The opening stentorian voice with a warning, the pounding base drum of African tradition, then the choral group in a clear statement breaking out into a deejay rap. The song fuses all the styles and could lead the way to a new direction in Jamaican music. The record is the very controversial and infectious rhythmic production of Chi-Chi-Man by TOK. (T.Kelly, N. Ragney, G. Shayne)
Another song leading in another direction of cross-over which fuses reggae and pop music, is the mega hit:
It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy
Still more fusion is occurring. Junior Gong (Damion Marley), one of Bob Marley’s many talented children has been awarded a Grammy for the album Half Way Tree, as was his brother, Ziggy. Junior Gong’s place in this presentation is in recognition of his fusion of the reggae music of his father’s time with the deejay style of today, a new direction as in the Grammy Award winner:
Welcome to Jamrock by Damian Marley
But most important, apart from the influence on musical styles, one man stands out as being the supreme musical star of the century, a tribute to his music and his message: Robert Nesta Marley. For this he received the distinctive honour of two of his recordings
One Love - Song of the Century, chosen by the BBC
Exodus - Album of the Century selected by Time Magazine
This is understandable because of the strong universal message content of Bob Marley’s music.
In the song One Love, Bob seems to be saying - if you are looking for a new direction, not a new sound, or new rhythm, the course to take is “one love.” It’s a message to all mankind.