Styles & Forms | Ragga | Reggae

Ragga (short for ‘ragamuffin’) is the term for later-model dancehall reggae adopted by the sound system crowds to highlight their existence somewhere outside polite Jamaican society. Ragga is the all-digital style that came about in the mid-1980s, which took computerization to such a degree that, for the first time, reggae rhythms were made with no bass line.

Ragga was a harsher, more jagged sound that positively revelled in its sounding anything other than ital (that is, anything that remains in its natural state and is uncontaminated by the western world) and was perfect not only for the new wave of faster-talking, uncompromising deejays, but also seemed better-suited to the edgier mood of the inner cities at the time. Ragga completed the power shift away from artists who had, essentially, controlled things during the roots era, but were being edged out as dancehall took over.

Driven By Rhythm

Once ragga established itself in the second half of the 1980s, producers built rhythms themselves and then brought in artists to voice them, rather than building up a song around a singer’s idea for a tune. It was a return to the way the likes of Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd had done things in the ska days. This rhythm-driven situation led to vast numbers of different versions of popular tunes, and instead of stifling creativity it resulted in an explosion of talent among deejays, as they had to try just that bit harder to make something special. It’s difficult imagining any other era producing the likes of Bounty Killer (‘My Xperience’), Elephant Man (‘Log On’), Beenie Man (‘Maestro’), Shabba Ranks (‘Raw As Ever’), Buju Banton (‘’Til Shiloh’) and Ninjaman (‘Bounty Hunter’).

Dancehall had been moving towards computerisation since 1984, as The Roots Radics Band, The Blood Fire Posse and Sly & Robbie were creating rhythms so automated and robotic in style they might as well have been fully digital. But the song that really sounded the starting pistol for this music to dominate the dancehalls was ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’, sung by Wayne Smith and produced by King Jammy’s, an established sound system operator (King Jammy’s Super Power) and record producer with a broad adventurous streak. In 1985, while looking to do something different, he took pre-programmed rhythm from a cheap Casio keyboard (as opposed to using drum beats played in his studio), slowed it down and added chords, but nothing else – no conventional bass line. With Wayne Smith’s vocal laid on top, the genre was born, and for the next five years Jammy’s studios were the most important in Jamaica as he recorded ragga’s original superstars. Singers Tenor Saw (‘Ring The Alarm’), Sanchez and Pinchers (‘Pinchers Meets Sanchez’) made their names during this period, while Cocoa Tea and Frankie Paul adapted to the new style with Jammy’s, as did Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, while Jammy’s equally high-calibre deejays included Admiral Bailey, Lieutenant Stitchie, Josey Wales and Major Worries.

Setting The Standard


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


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