Introduction | Reggae

Reggae is unique. No other style has made so much out of its original musical resources to present itself in so many different guises with only a couple of structural changes in over 40 years. No other style has so accurately reflected the people that create and consume it.

Jamaican music’s relationship with its people is such that it is not unusual for music to influence political and social change as much as it does the other way around. No other community has had such a large and successful musical output. The music is also extremely influential: without dub the reggae remix culture would not exist, and reggae’s deejay style is directly responsible for one of the biggest international genres of recent times – rap. But then no other music serves its audience first and its industry second. To understand this and, indeed, reggae and its various subsections, it is necessary to appreciate the importance of the sound system.

The sound system has existed longer than Jamaican music itself. In the late 1950s, an enterprising generation of dance promoters found it made much more sense to play records instead of hiring bands. This opened dances up to a much wider section of the population and the sound system lawns, huge open-air spaces where the latest American R&B records boomed out, became the entertainment staple of downtown Kingston’s poor. The sound system lawn was the place to be, something uniquely ghetto which was looked down on by the middle classes: all local life could be found there, presided over by sound men who would be local heroes. To keep themselves ahead of the rest, the sound men continually searched for new and exclusive records to play, and it was not too long before they started making their own. Jamaica’s first record producers, Prince Buster, Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, were all sound men recording tunes to play at their dances, with no intention of offering anything up for sale.

And nothing has really changed, other than the fact that they soon found it was possible to sell the records that got the best reactions, so every sound man worth his system started his own record label. The sound system soon became a valuable testing ground, and the recording side of their businesses would stay in touch with market forces by seeing which versions of which tunes were most eagerly received. The reaction of the sound system crowds were responsible for the sound men taking reggae down new avenues: Dodd and Buster switched from playing R&B records to something more indigenous and came up with ska and records like ‘Easy Snappin’’ and ‘Oh Carolina’. Duke Reid saw the potential in having instrumental versions of tunes and a deejay ‘toasting’ records (where the deejay talks in rhyme in time to the beat), and released singles such as U-Roy’s ‘Wear You To The Ball’ and ‘Wake The Town’. King Tubby’s live sound system mixes convinced him there was...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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