Jamaican popular music and dance style. It originated in the mid-1960s as a music of the Jamaican poor, reflecting social discontent and the Rastafarian movement. Its instrumentation features an electric bass played at high volume as a lead instrument, around which an ensemble of organ, piano, drums, and lead and rhythm electric guitars plays short ostinato phrases with regular accents on the offbeats. Reggae was popularized in the U.S. by the film The Harder They Come (1973), starring the singer Jimmy Cliff, and through tours by Bob Marley and the Wailers and by Toots (Hibbert) and the Maytals, whose influence was felt among white rock musicians.
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While sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to most types of Jamaican music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that originated following on the development of ska and rocksteady. Reggae is based on a rhythmic style characterized by regular beats on the off-beat, known as the skank. Reggae is normally slower than ska, and usually has accents on the third beat in each bar.
The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as "a recently estab. sp. for rege", as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either "rags, ragged clothing" or "a quarrel, a row".
The word reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit "Do the Reggay" by The Maytals, but it was already being used in Kingston, Jamaica as the name of a slower dance and style of rocksteady. As Reggae artist Derrick Morgan stated:
We didn't like the name rock steady, so I tried a different version of "Fat Man". It changed the beat again, it used the organ to creep. Bunny Lee, the producer, liked that. He created the sound with the organ and the rhythm guitar. It sounded like ‘reggae, reggae' and that name just took off. Bunny Lee started using the world [sic] and soon all the musicians were saying ‘reggae, reggae, reggae.
There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'. If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, 'OK man, let's do the reggay.' It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing 'Do the reggay, do the reggay' and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound it's [sic] name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records.
Bob Marley is said to have claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for "the king's music". The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regis meaning "to the king."
Ska music first arose in the studios of Jamaica over the years 1959 and 1961, itself a development of the earlier mento genre. Ska is characterized by a walking bass line, accentuated guitar or piano rhythms on the offbeat, and sometimes jazz-like horn riffs. Aside from its massive popularity amidst the Jamaican rude boy fashion, it had gained a large following among mods in Britain by 1964. According to Barrow, rude boys began deliberately playing their ska records at half speed, preferring to dance slower as part of their tough image.
By the mid-1960s, many musicians had begun playing the tempo of ska slower, while emphasizing the walking bass and offbeats. The slower sound was named rocksteady, after a single by Alton Ellis. This phase of Jamaican music lasted only until 1968, when musicians began to slow the tempo of the music again, and added yet more effects. This led to the creation of reggae.
Early 1968 was when the first bona fide reggae records came into being: "Nanny Goat" by Larry Marshall and "No More Heartaches" by The Beltones. Music historian Piero Scaruffi credits American artist Johnny Nash's 1968 hit "Hold Me Tight" with first putting reggae on the American listener charts.
The Wailers, a band that was started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer in 1963, are generally agreed to be the most easily recognised group worldwide that made the transition through all three stages — from ska hits like "Simmer Down", through slower rocksteady; and they are also among the significant pioneers who can be called the roots of reggae — along with Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Jackie Mittoo and several others.
Some of the many notable Jamaican producers who were highly influential in the development of ska into rocksteady and reggae in the 1960s include Coxsone Dodd, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and King Tubby. Another early producer was Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1960, then relocated to England in 1962, where he continued to promote Jamaican music. He formed a partnership with Trojan Records, founded by Lee Gopthal in 1968. Trojan released recordings by reggae artists in the UK until 1974, when Saga bought the label.
In the second half of the 1970s, the UK punk rock scene was starting to form, and some punk DJs played reggae songs during their sets. Some punk bands, such as The Clash, The Slits, The Police, and The Ruts, incorporated reggae influences into their music. At the same time, reggae began to enjoy a revival in the UK that continued into the 1980s, exemplified by groups like Steel Pulse, Aswad, UB40, and Musical Youth. Other artists who enjoyed international appeal in the early 1980s include Third World, Black Uhuru and Sugar Minott.
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 completely empty, which is extremely unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on the 3, or whether it should be counted half as fast so that it falls on the 2 and 4. This article follows the convention of placing the beat on the 3. Many credit Carlton Barrett of The Wailers as the creator of this style, although it may actually have been invented by Winston Grennan. 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 (pronounced like "raucous") beat, the emphasis is also on beat one (usually on bass drum). This beat was pioneered by the prolific innovative duo of Sly and Robbie — Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare — who later also helped create the "Rub-a-Dub" sound that greatly influenced Dancehall. An example of the Rockers beat is in "Night Nurse" by Gregory Isaacs. 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".
The Steppers beat was also adopted (at a much higher tempo) by some of the 2 Tone ska revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Examples include "Stand Down Margaret" by The Beat and "Too Much Too Young" by The Specials.
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 is used in reggae. Bongos are often used to play free, improvised patterns, with heavy use of African-style cross-rhythms. Cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles and a set pattern.
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. There are specific drawbar settings used on a Hammond console to get the correct sound. This may be the most difficult reggae keyboard rhythm. The 8th beats are played with a space-left-right-left-space-left-right-left pattern.
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love, sex and socializing. Many early reggae bands also covered Motown or Atlantic soul and funk numbers. 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 as Apartheid. Many reggae songs promote the use of cannabis (also known as herb or ganja), considered a sacrament in the Rastafari movement. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music — whether it be discussing a religious topic, or simply giving praise to the Rastafari God Jah. Other common socio-political topics in reggae songs include black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, criticism of political systems and "Babylon", and promotion of caring for needs of the younger generation.
The controversy surrounding anti-gay lyrics led to the cancellation of UK tours by Beenie Man and Sizzla. 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 — renouncing homophobia, and agreeing to "not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community". Five artists who had been targeted by the anti-homophobia campaign did not sign up to the act, including Elephant Man, TOK, Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton.
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