Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements ofrhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, African and Latin American music, as well as other genres. Reggae is either played in 4/4 time or swing time, because the symmetrical rhythmic pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. One of the most easily recognizable elements is offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar or piano (or both) on the offbeats of the measure, often referred to as the skank.
This offbeat can be counted so that it falls between each count as an "and" (example: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and etc.) or counted as a half time feel at twice the tempo so it falls on beats 2 and 4. Harmonically, the music is essentially the same as any modern popular genre with a tendency to make use of simple modal chord progressions. For example: I - bVII7 and I - ii - iii - ii are both common progressions in reggae and both examples of the kind of chord structures used in modal jazz. The use of repetitive rhythmic patterns and static, modal chord structures add to reggae's sometimes hypnotic effect.
The concept of "call and response" can be found throughout reggae music, in the lyrics but also in the way parts are composed and arranged for each instrument. The emphasis on the "third beat" of the bar (depending on how it's counted) also results in a different sense of musical phrasing with bass lines and melody lines often emphasizing what might be considered "pick up notes" in other genres.
Drums and other percussion
A standard drum kit is generally used in reggae, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbales-type sound. Some reggae drummers use an additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Cross-stick technique on the snare drum is commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself.
Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One drop, Rockers and Steppers. With the One drop, the emphasis is entirely on the third beat of the bar (usually on the snare, or as a rim shot combined with bass drum). Beat one is empty except for a closed high hat commonly used, which is unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on three, or whether it should be counted half as fast, so it falls on two and four. An example played by Barrett can be heard in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song "One Drop". Barrett often used an unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat, which can be heard on many recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers, such as "Running Away" on the Kaya album.
An emphasis on beat three is in all reggae drumbeats, but with the Rockers beat, the emphasis is also on beat one (usually on bass drum). This beat was pioneered by Sly and Robbie, who later helped create the "Rub-a-Dub" sound that greatly influenced dancehall. Sly has openly stated he was influenced to create this style by listening to American drummer Earl Young as well as other disco and R&B drummers in the early to mid 1970s, as stated in the book "Wailing Blues". The prototypical example of the style is found in Sly Dunbar's drumming on "Right Time" by the Mighty Diamonds. The Rockers beat is not always straightforward, and various syncopations are often included. An example of this is the Black Uhuru song "Sponji Reggae".
In Steppers, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar, giving the beat an insistent drive. An example is "Exodus" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Another common name for the Steppers beat is the "four on the floor". Burning Spear's 1975 song "Red, Gold, and Green" (with Leroy Wallace on drums) is one of the earliest examples. The Steppers beat was adopted (at a much higher tempo) by some 2 Tone ska revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
An unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal. A wide range of other percussion instrumentation are used in reggae. Bongos are often used to play free, improvised patterns, with heavy use of African-stylecross-rhythms. Cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles and a set pattern.
The bass guitar often plays the dominant role in reggae, and the drum and bass is often the most important part of what is called, in Jamaican music, a riddim (rhythm), a (usually simple) piece of music that's used repeatedly by different artists to write and record songs with. Literally hundreds of reggae singers have released different songs recorded over the same rhythm. The central role of the bass can be particularly heard in dub music — which gives an even bigger role to the drum and bass line, reducing the vocals and other instruments to peripheral roles.
The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The bass line is often a repeated two or four bar riff when simple chord progressions are used. The simplest example of this might be Robbie Shakespeare's bass line for the Black Uhuru hit "Shine Eye Girl". In the case of more complex harmonic structures, such as John Holt's version of "Stranger In Love", these simpler patterns are altered to follow the chord progression either by directly moving the pattern around or by changing some of the interior notes in the phrase to better support the chords.
The guitar in reggae usually plays the chords on beats two and four, a musical figure known as skankor the 'bang'. It has a very dampened, short and scratchy chop sound, almost like a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used when the guitar still plays the off beats, but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. An example is the intro to "Stir It Up" by The Wailers. Artist and producer Derrick Harriott says, “What happened was the musical thing was real widespread, but only among a certain sort of people. It was always a down-town thing, but more than just hearing the music. The equipment was so powerful and the vibe so strong that we feel it.”
From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, a piano was often used in reggae to double the rhythm guitar's skank, playing the chords in a staccato style to add body, and playing occasional extra beats, runs and riffs. The piano part was widely taken over by synthesizers during the 1980s, although synthesizers have been used in a peripheral role since the 1970s to play incidental melodies and countermelodies. Larger bands may include either an additional keyboardist, to cover or replace horn and melody lines, or the main keyboardist filling these roles on two or more keyboards.
The reggae organ-shuffle is unique to reggae. Typically, a Hammond organ-style sound is used to play chords with a choppy feel. This is known as the bubble. This may be the most difficult reggae keyboard rhythm. The organ bubble can be broken down into 2 basic patterns. In the first, the 8th beats are played with a space-left-right-left-space-left-right-left pattern, where the spaces represent downbeats not played—that and the left-right-left falls on the ee-and-a, or and-2-and if counted at double time. In the second basic pattern, the left hand plays a double chop as described in the guitar section while the right hand plays longer notes on beat 2 (or beat 3 if counted at double time) or a syncopated pattern between the double chops. Both these patterns can be expanded on and improvised embellishments are sometimes used.
Horn sections are frequently used in reggae, often playing introductions and counter-melodies. Instruments included in a typical reggae horn section include saxophone, trumpet or trombone. In more recent times, real horns are sometimes replaced in reggae bysynthesizers or recorded samples. The horn section is often arranged around the first horn, playing a simple melody or counter melody. The first horn is usually accompanied by the second horn playing the same melodic phrase in unison, one octave higher. The third horn usually plays the melody an octave and a fifth higher than the first horn. The horns are generally played fairly softly, usually resulting in a soothing sound. However, sometimes punchier, louder phrases are played for a more up-tempo and aggressive sound.
The vocals in reggae are less of a defining characteristic of the genre than the instrumentation and rhythm, as almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. However, it is very common for reggae to be sung in Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, and Iyaric dialects. Vocal harmony parts are often used, either throughout the melody (as with vocal groups such as the Mighty Diamonds), or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line (as with the backing vocalists, the I-Threes). More complex vocal arrangements can be found in the works of groups like The Abyssinians and British reggae bandSteel Pulse.
An unusual aspect of reggae singing is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather thanvibrato (pitch oscillation). Notable exponents of this technique include Horace Andy and vocal groupIsrael Vibration. The toasting vocal style is unique to reggae, originating when DJs improvised spoken introductions to songs (or "toasts") to the point where it became a distinct rhythmic vocal style, and is generally considered to be a precursor to rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it is generally melodic, while rap is generally more a spoken form without melodic content.
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing. Many early reggae bands coveredMotown or Atlantic soul and funk songs. Some reggae lyrics attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about controversial subjects such asApartheid. Many reggae songs promote the use of cannabis (also known as herb, ganja, or sinsemilla), considered a sacrament in theRastafari movement. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music — whether it be discussing a specific religious topic, or simply giving praise to God (Jah). Other common socio-political topics in reggae songs include black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and criticism of political systems and "Babylon".
Criticism of dancehall and ragga lyrics
Some dancehall and ragga artists have been criticised for homophobia, including threats of violence. Buju Banton's song "Boom Bye-Bye" states that gays "haffi dead". Other notable dancehall artists who have been accused of homophobia include Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man. The controversy surrounding anti-gay lyrics has led to the cancellation of UK tours by Beenie Man and Sizzla. Toronto, Canada has also seen the cancellation of concerts due to artists such as Elephant Man and Sizzla refusing to conform to similar censorship pressures.
After lobbying from the Stop Murder Music coalition, the dancehall music industry agreed in 2005 to stop releasing songs that promote hatred and violence against gay people. In June 2007, Beenie Man, Sizzla and Capleton signed up to the Reggae Compassionate Act, in a deal brokered with top dancehall promoters and Stop Murder Music activists. They renounced homophobia and agreed to "not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community". Five artists targeted by the anti-homophobia campaign did not sign up to the act, including Elephant Man, TOK, Bounty Killa and Vybz Kartel. Buju Banton and Beenie Man both gained positive press coverage around the world for publicly renouncing homophobia by signing the Reggae Compassion Act. However, both of these artists have since denied any involvement in anti-homophobia work and both deny having signed any such act.
The "early reggae" era can be looked as starting in roughly 1968. The influence of funk music from American record labels such as Stax began to permeate the music style of studio musicians and the slowing in tempo that occurred with the development of rocksteady had allowed musicians more space to experiment with different rhythmic patterns. One of the developments which separated early reggae from rocksteady was the "bubble" organ pattern, a percussive style of playing that showcased the eighth-note subdivision within the groove.
The guitar "skanks" on the second and fourth beat of the bar began to be replaced by a strumming pattern similar to mento and the so-called double chop that can be heard so audibly in the introduction of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" was developed during this time. More emphasis was put on the groove of the music, and there was a growing trend of recording a "version" on the B-side of a single. The mass popularity of instrumental music in the ska and rocksteady eras continued in reggae, producing some of the most memorable recordings of the early reggae era. Cover versions of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records soulsongs remained popular in early reggae, often helping Jamaican artists gain a foothold in foreign markets such as the U.K.
As a testament to its far reaching impact in other markets, this era and sound of reggae is sometimes referred to in retrospect as "skinhead reggae" because of its popularity among the working class skinhead subculture in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s. One Caribbean band based in London, The Pyramids, even released an entire album dedicated to the unruly English youth culture under the name Symarip which featured songs such as "Skinhead Moonstomp" and "Skinhead Girl". Eventually the, often experimental, sounds of early reggae gave way to the more refined sound made popular by Bob Marley's most famous recordings. Indeed this era seems fittingly capped off by the 1973 release of "Catch A Fire". Notable artists from this era include John Holt, Toots & the Maytals and The Pioneers.
Roots reggae usually refers to the most recognizable kind of reggae, popularized internationally by artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, which dominated Jamaican recordings from around 1972 into the early 1980s. While there are distinct musical characteristics to this era of reggae music, the term "roots" often implies more the message of the music than specifically its musical style and is still often used today to refer either to a musical style/sub-genre or to give context to an artists music that may, in fact, cover several sub-genres of reggae. Roots reggae, in this descriptive sense, can be typified by lyrics grounded in the Rastafarian movement's "Back to Africa" message, equation of colonialism and slavery with the Biblical captivity in Babylon, and, of course, the belief in one living God,Jah, manifested as Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie. Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to economic and racial oppression as well as more poetic meditations on spiritual or topical themes.
Musically, the "roots" sound and era have a number of distinct features. Drummers developed more complex kick drum patterns based around the "one drop" of rocksteady and incorporated influences from funk and R&B. The guitar, piano and keyboard patterns in the music were refined from the creative explorations of the early reggae era into the patterns most recognizable as reggae throughout the world. Simple chord progressions were often used to create a meditative feeling to compliment the lyrical content of the songs. This refining of rhythmic patterns and simplification of chord progressions brought the bass guitar entirely to the forefront, helping to make bass one of the most definitive features of reggae as a genre. Producer/engineers like King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry and Prince Jammy (before he became a king) also played a large role in the development of the roots sound, with their heavy use of tape delay and reverb effects becoming one of the most recognizable features of the music. The roots sound can be best identified in the Jamaican recordings of the late 1970s by artists such as Burning Spear, Max Romeo, The Abyssinians, Culture and Israel Vibration.
Dub is a genre of reggae that was pioneered in the early days by studio producers Lee 'Scratch' Perry and King Tubby. It involves extensive remixing of recorded material, and particular emphasis is placed on the drum and bass line. The techniques used resulted in an even more visceral feel described by King Tubby as sounding "jus’ like a volcano in yuh head." Augustus Pablo and Mikey Dread were two of the early notable proponents of this music style, which continues today.
The term "rockers" refers to a particular sound of roots reggae, pioneered in the mid-1970s bySly & Robbie, and very popular in the late seventies. Rockers is best described as a somewhat more mechanical and aggressive style of playing reggae with a greater use of syncopated drum patterns.
The lovers rock subgenre originated in South London in the mid-1970s. The lyrics are usually about love. It is similar to rhythm and blues. Notable lovers rock artists include: Gregory Isaacs, Freddy McGregor, Dennis Brown, Maxi Priest and Beres Hammond.
Newer styles and spin-offs
Hip hop and rap
Toasting is a style of talking over music, making heavy use of rhythmic phrasing and rhyme patterns, that was developed in the 1950s by Jamaican disc jockeys looking to add excitement to the mainly American R&B records they played in outdoor venues, called "lawns", and dancehalls. This style was developed by pioneers Count Machuki, King Stitt and Sir Lord Comic who took the current style of introducing and speaking over records played by sound systems and developed it into a unique style. As ska moved to rocksteady, this style of vocals gained a wider audience among Jamaican listeners. One of the earliest examples of this style is Sir Lord Comic's 1966 recording, "The Great Wuga Wuga". This style finally gained chart topping popularity in the late 1960s with deejays such as U-Royand Dennis Alcapone scoring numerous hits. This style of speaking over records may have had a great impact on a young Jamaican DJnamed Kool Herc, who had emigrated to New York City in the late 1960s where he began holding parties in the Bronx. It was Kool Herc's parties and the scene that sprung up around them that is generally credited as birth of hip hop and rap. Mixing techniques developed later in dub music have also influenced hip hop.
The dancehall genre was developed in the late 1970s by pioneers such as Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse. The style is characterized by adeejay singing and rapping over riddims and was originally developed in the sound system culture in the wake of the increased popularity of early pioneers like Big Youth. The style of these early deejays was developed into a more continual rhythmic pattern of rapping that contained much more melody than the rapping style being developed in America around this time. It's important to note that the rhythmic patterns dancehall deejays developed in their rapping are based around the phrasing and speech patterns of Jamaican patois. An important characteristic of dancehall was the role of the selectors (and later operators) on the sound systems, who would routinely use the volume control on their mixers to remix the riddim around the vocalists rhythmic patterns. Musicians took the rhythms created by this mixing technique and began incorporating them into the music they played and recorded, a style still often referred to today as the "mix". An early example of this in recording would be Barrington Levy's 1984 hit, "Here I Come". Ragga (or raggamuffin) is usually used to refer to the type of dancehall music that emerged since the 1980s which is based almost entirely around these "mix" rhythms and contains almost no elements of what is traditionally perceived as reggae. In recording, ragga instrumentation primarily consists ofsynthesizers and drum machines. Sampling and midi sequencing is also often used in ragga production. A definitive example of "ragga" might be Beenie Man's 1998 hit, "Who Am I". Dancehall is a style and genre that was developed primarily by urban youth in Jamaica, as such its lyrical content is based in the lives of the people who made it and often contains lyrical content considered by many Jamaicans to be overly sexual or violent. In a word, dancehall might be described as "raw" and it has often been maligned in a similar way togangsta rap despite the fact that many "conscious" artists continue to release dancehall music. In February 2009, dancehall with lyrical content "deemed explicitly sexual and violent" was banned from the airwaves by the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.
Raggamuffin, usually abbreviated as ragga, is a sub-genre of reggae that is closely related to dancehall and dub. The term raggamuffin is an intentional misspelling of ragamuffin, and the term raggamuffin music describes the music of Jamaica's "ghetto youths". The instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music. Sampling often serves a prominent role as well. As ragga matured, an increasing number of dancehall artists began to appropriate stylistic elements of hip hop music, while ragga music, in turn, influenced more and more hip hop artists. Ragga is now mainly used as a synonym for dancehall reggae or for describing dancehall with a deejay chatting rather than deejaying or singing on top of the riddim.
Reggaeton is a form of urban music that first became popular with Latin American youths in the early 1990s. Reggaeton's predecessor originated in Panama as reggae en español. After the music's gradual exposure in Puerto Rico, it eventually evolved into reggaeton. It blends West-Indian reggae and dancehall with Latin American genres such as bomba, plena, salsa, merengue, Latin pop, cumbia andbachata, as well as hip hop, contemporary R&B and electronica. Modern reggaeton beats follow the structure of the Dem Bow Riddim, a beat created by Jamaican producers Steely & Clevie in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, over the years, it has been losing every noticeable similarity with its original reggae origins.
Reggae fusion is a mixture of reggae or dancehall with elements of other genres, such as hip hop, R&B, jazz, rock, drum and bass, punk or polka. Although artists have been mixing reggae with other genres from as early as the early 1970s, it was not until the late 1990s when the term was coined.
Reggae outside of Jamaica
Reggae has spread to many countries across the world, often incorporating local instruments and fusing with other genres.
Reggae en Español spread from mainland South American Caribbean from Venezuela and Guyana to the rest of South America. It does not have any specific characteristics other than being sung in Spanish, usually by artists of Latin American origin. Samba reggaeoriginated in Brazil as a blend of samba with Jamaican reggae.
In the United States, bands like Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, and SOJA are considered progressive reggae bands. For decades, Hawaiian reggae has had a big following on the Hawaiian islands and the West coast of the US.
The U.K. was a primary destination for Caribbean people looking to emigrate as early as the 1950s. Because of this Caribbean music in the United Kingdom, including reggae, has been popular since the late 1960s, and has evolved into several sub-genres and fusions. Most notable of these is lovers rock, but this fusion of Caribbean music into English culture was seminal in the formation of other musical forms like drum and bass and dubstep. The U.K. became the base from which many Jamaican artists toured Europe and due to the large number of Jamaican musicians emigrating there, the U.K. is the root of the larger European scene that exists today. Many of the world's most famous reggae artists began their careers in U.K. Singer and Grammy Award winning reggae artist Maxi Priest began his career with seminal British sound system Saxon Studio International. Also British reggae is played by UB40 and Ali Campbell.
Other U.K. based artists that had international impact include Misty In Roots, Janet Kay, Tippa Irie, Smiley Culture and more recentlyBitty McLean. There have been a number of European artists and bands drawing their inspiration directly from Jamaica and the Caribbean community in Europe, whose music and vocal styles are almost identical to contemporary Jamaican music. The best examples might be Alborosie (Italy) and Gentleman (Germany). Both Gentleman and Alborosie have had a significant chart impact in Jamaica, unlike many European artists. They have both recorded and released music in Jamaica for Jamaican labels and producers and are popular artists, likely to appear on many riddims. Alborosie has lived in Jamaica since the late 1990s and has recorded at Bob Marley's famous Tuff Gong Studios. Since the early 1990s, several Italian reggae bands have emerged, including Sud Sound System,Pitura Freska and B.R. Stylers.
In Iceland reggae band Hjálmar is well established having released six CDs in Iceland. They were the first reggae band in Iceland, but a few Icelandic artist had written songs in the reggae style before their showing up at the Icelandic music scene. The Icelandic reggae scene is expanding and growing at a fast rate. In the past few years a number of bands have come forth such as Ojba Rasta and Amaba Dama. Ojba Rasta's first album is due before summer 2012. RVK Soundsystem is the first Icelandic sound system, counting 5 DJ's. They hold reggae nights in Reykjavík every month at clubs Hemmi og Valdi and more recently in Faktorý as the crowd has grown so much.
The first homegrown Polish reggae bands started in the 1980s with groups like Izrael. In Sweden, Uppsala Reggae Festival attracts attendees from across Northern Europe, and features Swedish reggae bands such as Rootvälta and Svenska Akademien as well as many popular Jamaican artists. Summerjam, Europe's biggest reggae festival, takes place in Cologne, Germany and sees crowds of 25,000 or more. Rototom Sunsplash, a week long festival which used to take place in Osoppo, Italy, until 2009, is now held inBenicassim, Spain and gathers up to 150,000 visitors every year.
Reggae in Africa was much boosted by the visit of Bob Marley to Zimbabwe on Independence Day 18 April 1980. Nigerian reggae had developed in the 1970s with artists such as Majek Fashek proving popular. In South Africa, reggae music has played a unifying role amongst cultural groups in Cape Town. During the years of Apartheid, the music bonded people from all demographic groups. Lucky Dube recorded 25 albums, fusing reggae with Mbaqanga. The Marcus Garvey Rasta camp in Phillipi is regarded by many to be the reggae and Rastafarian center of Cape Town. Reggae bands play regularly at community centres such as the Zolani center in Nyanga.
In Ethiopia, Dub Colossus emerged in 2008, and has received wide acclaim. In Mali, Askia Modibo fuses reggae with Malian music, and is described by Last FM as "the most significant African reggae musician to emerge internationally within the past five years." In Malawi, Black Missionaries produced five albums. In Ivory Coast a country where reggae music is extremely popular, Tiken Jah Fakoly fuses reggae with traditional music. Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast sings reggae with religious lyrics. In Sudan, beats, drums and bass guitar from reggae music has been adopted into their music as reggae is a very popular among the generations from young to old, some spiritual (religious) groups grow their dreadlocks and have some reggae beats in their chants.
Asia and the Pacific
In the Philippines, several bands and sound systems play reggae and dancehall music. Their music is called Pinoy reggae. Japanese reggae emerged in the early 1980s. Reggae is becoming more prevalent in Thailand as well. Aside from the reggae music and Rastafarian influences seen ever more on Thailand's islands and beaches, a true reggae sub-culture is taking root in Thailand's cities and towns. Many Thai artists, such as Job 2 Do, keep the tradition of reggae music and ideals alive in Thailand. By the end of the 1980s, the local music scene in Hawaii was dominated by Jawaiian music, a local form of reggae. Indonesia also has a thriving reggae scene, with the music brought by tourists to Bali in the 1970s and 1980s. Tony Q, and Steven and TheCoconutTreez are leading the charge for Indonesian reggae.
Australia & New Zealand
Reggae in Australia originated in the 1980s. Desert Reggae is a developing contemporary style possibly originating in Central Australia. Lyrics are often sung in Australian Aboriginal languages.