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You don’t like reggae?

You don’t like reggae?

Toots and the Maytals “In the Dark” album cover

In our febrile polarised times, a question like “why don’t you like reggae?” can be a loaded gun. Reggae is one of those genres that people just “get” – or they don’t. Maybe it gets associated with ill-advised late night spliffs in far-off student days, or beachfront hotels blandly pumping out Bob Marley’s greatest (and overplayed) hits. For me, reggae is a cherished treasure, long overlooked by the music industry and mainstream media. It’s something we should all celebrate for its sunny soulfulness and power to soothe or shift our perspective on the world.

In the late 1970s, reggae artists regularly featured in the UK charts. The songs were more often easy listening, but the genre was far better represented than today. Money In My Pocket by Dennis Brown, OK Fred by Errol Dunkley and Junior Murvin’s swoony falsetto on Police & Thieves thrilled us as youngsters. We couldn’t possibly have known that these were well-established artists and we were getting the iceberg-tips of an underground scene adored by snarling punk rockers. As we bopped our flares off to Janet Kay’s hypnotic Silly Games, what had us tinies missed out on since reggae’s inception?

Although it came to life in the early 1960s, reggae’s roots date back to post-war 1940s and ’50s. Born from mento, a Jamaican folk music that blends African rhythms with European elements, reggae also found its influences in American jazz and R&B. Jamaican musicians mixed these different sounds with calypso to form something entirely new, accenting the off-beat in R&B songs while keeping their “walking” bassline. And so was created the infectious bouncing “skank” heard in tracks like Enjoy Yourself by Prince Buster and 007 (Shanty Town) by Desmond Dekker. Played at a fast tempo, ska would collect negative connotations through the 1960s, giving rise to the gentler rocksteady, with acts such as Alton Ellis and the Paragons. This sonic shift also brought forward reggae stars of the next generation. The Paragons’ singer John Holt became a leading light in lovers rock, a more romantic style of reggae that blossomed in the mid 1970s. And “deejays” such as U-Roy and Dillinger would not only influence future reggae, but are seen by many as the originators of hip-hop.

U-Roy is best known for “toasting” (rap-singing) over instrumental versions of rocksteady tracks. His infectious style is utterly unique; full of joyous yelps, oddly-sung phrases and exaltations to the Almighty. He and Dillinger became left-field stars in 1970s UK, perhaps a warmer and zanier antidote to po-faced punk. The deejays’ instrumentals were born of necessity; Jamaican studios were improving technically, but lack of money made new recordings expensive. So the instrumental B-sides or “versions” were played by sound-system DJs or fiddled around with by mad-genius producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry to create mind-melting echoey overtures, which we now know as dub.

Toots and the Maytals were the first band to use the word in their track Do the Reggay. But the name most synonymous with reggae is of course Bob Marley. Aged eighteen, he formed the Teenagers with fellow legends-to-be Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. The band’s style went through ska and rocksteady, before adopting the slower and heavier reggae sound. Marley’s conversion to Rastafarianism also led to the songs becoming more political, with “conscious” lyrics about fighting injustice of all kinds.

After Marley’s death in 1981, the band’s impressive run of albums was diluted down to the greatest hits collection Legend, a must-have for British teenagers circa 1985. Critics call Catch a Fire and Exodus the best Wailers albums, but my favourite Bob Marley composition is Babylon System on the album Survival. As beautiful as it is mournful, the swaying rhythm conjures up a doomed chain-gang march as Marley defiantly sings, “We refuse to be what you wanted us to be”.

Throughout the 1980s, reggae continued to appear in the UK charts. But it was the lighter kind rather than more militant roots reggae. Were British record labels and broadcasters scared of these tougher statement songs? It is telling that when reggae did go mainstream, the artists making hits were largely white. The Police, UB40 and ska-inspired Madness, all great acts, but why were so few black reggae artists promoted? The only black boy band of the 1980s, Musical Youth, were just that – young boys. We did see some breakthrough stars, such as Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie and one-hit wonderful Sophia George. Their good-natured “chatting” tracks heralded the rise of dancehall and “raggamuffin” MCs like Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man and Half Pint, whose single Greetings has the best rolling bassline.

Reggae’s ever-morphing character and long, storied history is impossible to encapsulate in a one-page article. But if you have lost your love for reggae, or you never “got” it in the first place, I implore you to try again. It combines the sweet angelic choirs of female singers such as the I-Threes, the seductive magisterial tones of Bob Marley and the Old Testament gravitas of Peter Tosh, all wrapped in a heart-pulsing rhythm that can be both gentle AND heavy. As Toots Hibbert sings, Reggae got soul, got so much soul.

 

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

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Arts & Culture, July 2022, Music

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Great article! I have an old mate who literally breaks out in cold sweats if Reggae is playing, he definitely doesn’t get it! I’ve downloaded your playlist and will be listening and feeling it later!

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