The History Of Reggae Music

To write on the history of Reggae is tricky. I tried to keep this as compact as possible and add the proper context!

The Begginings: Soundsystems, Ska and Rocksteady

Soundsystem Days

It all began with Coxsone Dodd‘s soundsystem in 1950. After working as a plantation worker in Florida for some time Coxsone earned enough money to buy an amp, speakers and lots of records which he brought back with him to Jamaica. There he set up a soundsystem in front of the family’s record-shop to promote the music they were selling and to play up for dances. This proved to be an extraordinary success, and soon competition came in the person of Duke Reid, who set up a similar soundsystem named Treasure Isle, and others. Each party sent out guys to competing sets in order to find out what new records they were playing because the greatest records drew the biggest crowd. So the DJs started to scratch off the labels on the records to make them unidentifiable. As competition grew the demand for new music was immense and soon the playback of US- imported records alone wasn’t enough, so Coxsone started to produce music with his own new-found label, Studio One, located at Brentford Road in Kingston. He hired hotel/bar session musicians to form a studio band that later became known as Sound Dimension and turned out many classic reggae-riddims. At first they used the R&B-oriented pattern to sell records but in 1962 the idea for Ska came: the characteristic pronunciation of the offbeat. This driving kind of music was completely new at that time, also due to the excessive use of percussion, the catchy guitar riffs or the ever-present horn-section and proved to be a big success in Jamaica. Bands like The Skatalites, The Wailers, and guys like Tommy McCook or Cedric Brooks brought out many classic Ska hits and also were the first Jamaican musicians who had some oversea success in England and the States.


When The Skatalites split up in 1965 and Ska as an own music form was ever-present, it was time for a change: Rocksteady came, which is simply something like low-tempo Ska, but definitely still with an American R&B feel to it. The bass is more prominent, nice harmony-singing is important, there’s not much use of horns and the allover fashion becomes more laid-back – a thing that many people identify with reggae. The records of that time sound actually like a Jamaican version of the ‘50s and starting 60’s US tunes but with the pronunciation already on the offbeat. Since the tempo is quite slow most of the songs are love songs, but with great sing-along qualities and strange harmonies that simply stick to the ear. A very good example for this effect present The Paragons, who turned out lots of Rocksteady classics on Treasure Isle.

The Echoplex, Reggae, Rastafari, and the DJs

When Coxsone Dodd came back from a trip to England in 1968, he brought some gadgets with him, among them an electronic device called an Echoplex, a delay box. And this very kind of box changed music forever – especially from today’s point of view. It changed the way music is produced, the way it is perceived and along the way defined a very important thing: it set a completely new aim for what music can achieve. This new dimension, which later would emerge as Dub, would not have been possible without Reggae – and the Echoplex of course.

So Coxsone experimented with the new gadgets and accidently sent the guitar through the delay box which caused the guitar chord to come out doubled. This doubled chord on the offbeat became one of the main elements to identify reggae later on. The use of effects and new recording technology (like bigger mixing desks) changed the sound of music rapidly. A very good example for this transition from Rocksteady to Reggae is The Heptones album ‘On Top’ on Studio One. While the overall feel of the record is still rocksteady the sound is produced very crisp and some of the song structures definitely show the hypnotic riddim concept. The record was produced by Lee Perry who gave hints at the sound he was to create later on with his own productions. He soon left the label because of the low payment and other arguments and started his own career. Leroy Sibbles proved to be an excellent bass player and extraordinary singer with an outstanding voice, who had some great classics later on like ‘Garden Of Life’ and ‘This World’ on the legendary Wackies label.


While Coxsone Dodd changed the sound of music at that time due to newly available technology, the concept was changed by others. Guys like Bunny Lee (who worked as a salesman for Duke Reid’s Trojan label) or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (who was something like an inofficial producer at Studio One and turned out many hits there) left the two big majors and started releasing their own records.They hired younger, not very experienced musicians, and soon found an own style that got a name fast: Reggae.

Compared to rocksteady the bass steps in the center of the tracks much more clearly. While playing at still a slower tempo the bass drives the rhythm in an offbeat fashion and plays a more or less distinct melody, that produces together with an unvarying two-chord pattern an extremely nice looplike hypnotic effect. Because the overall speed is quite low (around 80 bmp), there is more space for the drums and cymbals to experiment and vary – and to put in effects, another element that keeps the tracks constantly interesting. As a result of this, many reggae songs sound slow and fast at the same time. This paradox is definitely one of the very reasons, that it is almost impossible to get bored with reggae – provided you once understood the concept and found it going in sync with your inner metronome.

Lee Perry and The Upsetters, his all-time backing band, created a sound of their own at that time. Hugely influenced by Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for Italo-Western they got a big success with records like ‘The Return Of Ringo’, which hit big even in England and lead to a six-week tour there (a novum for Jamaican artists). Perry set up his ‘Upsetters Record Shop’ in Kingston, which functioned as a promotional base for his Upsetters recordings, bar, rehearsal room and herb counter in one. During that time Perry also produced the first record of a young talent named Bob Marley, who later became the multi-million dollar-export-hit of Jamaica, today one of the most important factors in tourist merchandising industry and for some reason the one and only person whom many people can identify with this music.

The Upsetters were quite popular at that time and Lee Perry a well-known producer with an unique style, but one important thing for truly independent creative work was missing: an own studio. The constant ticking of the clock in the background of a studio with rented time often proved to be a distraction and many sessions could have turned out better. So in 1973, when the money situation was well, Scratch decided to build his own studio, the Black Ark, were many of Reggae’s and Dub’s all-time classics were recorded.

Jah Rule: Rastafarianism

Another aspect that was equally important for Reggae was the emerging of Rastafarianism. It set the music in a completely new context and defined a new goal. Suddenly the realities of the ghettos, poverty, civil violence and religiosity stepped in the center and were the all transcending background for the music.

Rastafarianism gave Jamaicans a cultural identity, stating the fact that all black people have their roots in the homeland Africa. Marcus Garvey said in 1929 in one of his sermons that at one time a divine black man will be king again in Africa. This prophecy came true only one year later with the coronation of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, who had the byname of Ras Tafari, fulfilling the prophecy and giving the movement a name. As Ethiopians being one of the twelve tribes of Israel (as written in Exodus in the Bible) and having a divine black king, Ethiopia became the symbol for the homeland and its colours (Red, Gold and Green) identify all Rastafarians until today. The movement gained importance when more and more people decided to live in the countryside hills, grew dreadlocks and follow Christian values. Many musicians adopted this way of living and Africa, Babylon, Jah and weed but also poverty, living in the ghettos and the deportation of black people as slaves became the ever-present reggae themes.

Studio One

With the new found sound, style and linked background philosophy absolutely groundbreaking records were released. Studio One had its best time then and countless wonderful riddims were created like “Armagideon Time“, Horace Andy’s ‘Money Money’, Sound Dimension’s ‘Drum Song’, Johnny Clarke‘s anthem ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’ to name a few. Parallel to the changes in life in Jamaica the movement and self-consciousness of black people in the States created a new musical style called Soul, which also had an immense impact on reggae a bit later on. Many people in Jamaica could adopt to the content and themes of the songs, everything wrapped in a cool danceable beat. So lots of reggae-versions of famous soul songs were released, many of them kicking even more than the originals due to a different and rougher production style.

DJs and Toasting

One important link in the history of that time is still missing, a link that would change the music again forever and emerge later as Rap: the DJ’s and toasting.

At first, economy reasons pushed  producers to start releasing ‘versions’ of their hits on the flipside of a record, being the original song minus the voice and some remixing done with reverbs and EQs. U-Roy then had a big hit with ‘Wear You To The Ball’, where he chanted in a kind of call and answer arrangement over the Paragon’s rocksteady song. This proved to be an extraordinary success and in 1970 U-Roy had five of his toasting versions in the Jamaican Top Ten. Soon lots of others followed this way of production – talking over a version of an already well-known hit single and simply recording this mix of voice and music. Check out Scotty‘s “Draw Your Brakes” (on Keith and Tex’s “Stop That Train“), Dennis Alcapone‘s “Spanish Amigo” (on Ken Boothe’s “Old Fashioned Way“) and Big Youth‘s “Screaming Target” on Dawn Penn’s classic “No, No, No“.

In his excellent liner notes in ‘The History Of Rap’ Curtis Blow defines Rap as “talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat”. This criterion is clearly fulfilled with many DJ tracks and if you know that DJ Kool Herc, who is commonly known as the creator of Hip-Hop, is a Jamaican-born DJ who moved to the Bronx, the trace is clear.

Dub: King Tubby, The Black Ark and Scientist

An important though small part in the evolution of dub played the ever-present Coxsone Dodd. In the mid-sixties he released an instrumental track where the then common horn section was missing, which he intended to overdub the already finished riddim-track with, but for lack of time at that day this couldn’t be done. But this very riddim-only track went well at the soundsystems and the audience liked it. So from that release onward it was common to put a ‘riddim solo’ (later called ‘dub version’) on the flipside of a record – a practice that’s in use until today. These riddim tracks, just the normal single minus the voice and plus some effects, proved to be extremely useful in the dancehalls and lead finally to the DJ style.

The Roots Of Dub: King Tubby

In 1968, King Tubby was the owner of the ‘Hometown Hi-Fi’-Soundsystem. One evening he checked some Treasure Island tapes for recording quality he wanted to play at the upcoming dance. While fumbling around with the mix of it he suddenly cut out the voice and turned up the bass in the track. The effect was extremely impressing and he put this mix on a dubplate for testing it with the audience. The people at the dance freaked out that evening, U-Roy toasted to the dubs while the bass vibrated through the bodies and echos flew all over and around. So Dub as an own form of music was born.

Tubby soon had his own small 4-track studio where he continuously produced dubs and experimented with the sound. In this process the mixing desk itself became an instrument and the man at the controls a musician, while the ‘real’ musicians merely supplied the raw material, the elements and building blocks of the dubs. He discovered that a track can live by sounds and the dramaturgy of the mix alone, speaking to body and head likewise and that there is more to music to achieve than entertaining and dancing or – as a counterpart to that – just sitting and listening, like e.g. in Classical music. And that’s King Tubby’s great achievement.

Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee started a very efficient cooperation with Tubby, and loads of dubs of his own productions, with The Aggrovators as Lee’s studio band, were released. Many of these records, like ‘Dub From The Roots’ or ‘The Roots Of Dub’ are absolute essential Dub records today. But no matter how big Tubby’s achievement is regarding sound and mix, there stays one fact: King Tubby produced mostly ‘versions’ of already existing riddims (lots of Johnny Clarke hits, Burning Spear, Horace Andy, John Holtand others) which he essentially re-created and re-shaped. So the credits for discovering the possibilities of Dub and conquering elementary new territory for the next decades of music definitely belong to him. But the credits for fully making use of these possibilities go to another man, to which I would apply the term genius without any doubt: Lee Perry

Lee Perry and the Black Ark Studio

In 1973 Lee Perry was having a nap in the backyard of his family home in Kingston and had a strange dream, hearing the strangest sounds and music never heard before. After awakening he reflected on the dream, took it as a sign from the Almighty and decided to build his own studio on this very spot. After completion in 1974 it was named ‘The Black Ark‘ and one of the biggest mysticisms of Reggae music – and music in general – should have it’s origin there.

The studio was equipped with comparatively simple equipment through all it’s time: a four-track 1/4-inch Teac reel-to-reel, 16-track Soundcraft board, Mutron phaser, a Grantham spring reverb and a Roland Space Echo. But with these means only, completely independent ways of production and lots of time to experiment Lee Perry created the 100% unique sound and style that will identify him forever. He shot pistols, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, and used samples of crying babies, falling rain, animal sounds and TV-show audience to create music and cleaned the tapeheads with his T-Shirt and blew Ganja smoke into running tapes to alter the sound. In these surroundings Lee Perry’s production skills reached a new level, he played the mixing desk like an instrument, modulated everything with phaser and delays and made the 4-track-machine sounding like a 20-track. With records like the seminal ‘Blackboard Jungle Dub’ LP the dirty and magical quality of the Black Ark sound was formed, never to be re-created

The aura of the studio attracted many musicians, newcomers and veterans alike, and countless timeless classics were created there. The ‘Open the Gate’-Box on Trojan is an extraordinary document for the productions of that time and one of the best Reggae records ever put to vinyl. Check out tracks like Leroy SibblesGarden of Life‘ or the milestone ‘Congoman‘ by The Congos. Each song – great in themselves already – comes along with a Dub version that all have a deepness in them with no words to describe it. An absolutely essential release!

Besides stretching Dub over it’s breaking point and defining a new musical dimension of its own, Lee Perry was also a gifted riddim- master and songwriter. Loads of classic riddims were created by him in this era and – like ‘Police and Thieves’, ‘Soulfire’ or ‘I Chase the Devil’ – even reached Top Ten status in England. And that is the big difference between him and King Tubby: while Tubby re-created (in this time) Lee Perry created. The music done by him in the Black Ark studio present the pinnacle of Jamaican creativity, Reggae at its highest heights and greatest power.

But constant production and constant use of weed and booze took its physical and mental toll in the late ‘70s. Additionally the overall political situation in Jamaica became almost civil-war-like, the streets being dangerous, looters hanging around the studio and local gangsters pushing Scratch for protection money. Unable to take that strain his wife and children left him and Perry started to walk the slim line between reality and fantasy, reason and madness. Visitors and journalists arrived at the Black Ark to find Perry worshipping bananas, eating money or spouting long and violent diatribes. So in this time the Black Ark as a ‘living brain’, as he described it before, ceased to function. Perry spent much of his time vandalizing the Black Ark then, covering the once colourful decor in bizarre and profane graffiti and splotches of black paint. Reels of master tapes lay strewn on the floor, and the recording equipment was next to useless due to water damage from a leaky roof. The once proud studio was now little more than a junkyard. Then in 1979 Lee Perry burnt the studio down and left Jamaica for good. The whole story of it is not clear until now, it’s one more legend surrounding the mythos Perry, but as a reason for this final step – and point of no return – he said: “The Black Ark was too black and too dread. Even though I am black, I have to burn it down, to save my brain. It was too black. It want to eat me up!” He spent some time in New York and England in the 80ies and finally married a Swiss businesswoman, who became his manager afterwards. The releases he turned out after the death of the Black Ark never reached that quality again.

Dub in the late late ‘70s and early ‘80s: Scientist

Another person who impersonates dub, especially in the early 80ies before the Digital Revolution came, is Hopeton ‘Overton’ Brown, also known as The Scientist. He started off as an repairman for TV’s and radios in King Tubby’s electrical shop, using his downtime to experiment with the equipment in Tubby’s studio and thus learning the art of producing Dub from scratch. But he reached his creative heights only in the early 80ies when working as a full time producer for Channel One and producing lots of dub versions of their hits. Especially the minimal but tight sound of the Roots Radics presented a very interesting foundation for many Scientist records, giving him enough room to experiment with the dramaturgy of the mix that is overall great. Echos tear up space and a driving bass is tearing up head and heart alike with an extremely well- produced sound that uses all the dynamic up a record can bear.

Emmigrants of Dub: Wackies

Lloyd Barnes is certainly one of the most brilliant personas in Dub and Reggae history- and one of the most forgotten. In the numerous publications on Jamaican music he is seldom mentioned, maybe due to the fact that he didn’t operate from Jamaica but from the Bronx, New York / USA. After hanging around at Duke Reid‘s ‘Treasure Isle’-label a lot Lloyd Barnes started as a background singer in some of the releases there. In 1967 he left Jamaica and came via England to New York, where he soon grouped up with other Jamaican emmigrants. He and some friends rode the transit trains of New York with an own soundsystem and played a lot of dances. But the overall situation was quite violent at that time, gangs were around and after picking some bullets out of a speaker after a party he decided to give up the soundsystem business. But the name ‘Bullwackie’, Lloyd’s name in the gang, stuck. In 1973 the basement studio in the Bronx was built, a studio band called the Wreckless Breed was formed and the first 7″ releases on several labels came out in 1974. Another important step was the opening of the ’Wackies House of Music’ record shop at White Plains Road in 1977.

Creation Dub

1977 is the year Wackies really started out. With Dub-LPs like ‘Creation Dub’, ‘African Roots Act. 1’ or ‘Tribesman Assault’ by Roots Underground, the typical Wackies sound finally took on it’s unique shape and deepness. The Dub produced by Lloyd Barnes is actually the purest form of Dub imaginable, all the important elements sound perfect and are used to perfection. The riddims are extremely hypnotic and tearing, the echos and reverbs create wide space and soundscapes, the dramaturgy always holds the tension high throughout the tracks and is full of surprises – and the drum and bass sound is in a league of its own. A special drum booth with aluminium foil in the inside to reflect the sound better was constructed and special paddings were used. The bass is not EQed and often sent through delays – highly unusual for a bass. Barnes was also one of the first guys to use a sampler, and also a Moog synthesizer can be heard often. The sound itself is 100% analogue and organic, the dubs seem to live on their own thus accomplishing one of the main goals dub set to music.

In the early ’80s Wackies reached it’s prime time. Many artists were drawn to the Bronx for recording then, the sound of the already released records promising them to reach a new level of production, and many of them recorded their all-time best records then. Here timeless classics like Horace Andy’s ‘Dancehall Style‘, Wayne Jarrett’s ‘Bubble Up‘ and The Love Joys‘ ‘Lovers Rock’ LP were created. The number of outputs was immerse and the quality mostly absolutely great so it’s hard to understand how such incredible music almost remained unknown to many people after its release. Though the Wackies sound somehow couldn’t keep up its high quality after the Digital Revolution (being the manifestation of analogue production itself) the innumerable LPs and 12-inches from their best period remain a treasure that slowly will be unlocked in the next time via the re-pressings and much nice music is still waiting to be heard, still sounding fresh and still having all the power it had then.

Rhythm and Sound

Also a must-have are all Burial mix releases on the Rhythm and Sound label from Berlin, with many Wackies artists like The Love Joys, Jah Batta and Lloyd Barnes himself singing over the timeless soundscape-riddims they are famous for.