Reggae 101: Chronology And Sub-Genres

The throbbing bass, wiry chicken scratch guitar, honeyed vocal harmonies, and that everloving, non-stop groove… So you love Bob Marley and the reggae that you’ve heard here and there… but aren’t sure where to go next? Never fear! I’m here to provide a few suggestions that will get your classic reggae collection up and running.

Most folks don’t realize the vast amount of reggae that has been released, over the past 70 or so years. Consider this: Jamaica is a TINY island, 50 x 150 miles, yet nearly every music store in the world has a section devoted to their indigenous popular music. In fact, Jamaica produces more music, per capita, than any other country in the World.

Unless you’re familiar with the genre, expanding your reggae collection beyond Marley and Tosh can be a slightly daunting task. Jamaican music has very deep roots and a rich history, and there are so many artists, singers, musicians, producers, and engineers, all lending their personal touches to the small island’s big sound. As with any other type of record digging, there really aren’t any rules. If it looks interesting, give it a spin! I’ve been collecting reggae vinyl for over 25 years, and I’m still discovering new music and learning ALL the time! We’re currently compiling a list of recommendations for beginning a reggae vinyl collection without breaking the bank, so keep your eyes peeled for more Reggae 101 articles in the coming weeks. For now, here’s a short introduction to the various sub-genres which exist within reggae.

A Quick History Lesson
The music of Jamaica can be split into several sub-genres based on chronology and the development of different styles. The artists in this article merely serve as suggestions, a starting point for anyone interested in digging deeper.

ska calypso
These terms are often used interchangeably, but Mento is actually the true Jamaican form (calypso being from Trinidad Tobago). For a point of reference, think of this as the early folk and blues that eventually evolved into rock, R&B, and country in the US. Almost exclusively an acoustic based form that was popular from the 1940’s through the 50s, and even into the 60s. The banjo was often a featured instrument. Recommended artists: Count Owen, The Sea Seas



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This style is also sometimes referred to as Blue Beat, and is not much different from the jump blues sounds coming from places like New Orleans in the 1950’s (think Fats Domino, for example). This style was really the genesis of the island’s recording industry, as sound system operators (mobile DJs) battled for more exclusive tunes, locals were forced into creating their own brand of R&B. Recommended artists: Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster





Ska evolved from Jamaican R&B, leaning heavily on the accented upbeats. The emergence of ska’s unique sound coincided with Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain, and became an international dance craze. A group of stellar jazz trained studio musicians further honed the sound over just a few short years, with instrumental ska taking cue from jazz and vocal ska following the lead of R&B and soul music. Recommended artists: The Skatalites, The Wailing Wailers




rock steady

Somewhere around 1966, the frenetic pace of ska started to slow into Rocksteady. The style is very similar to ska, but more relaxed, and allowing more freedom for the bass in particular, which had previously been restricted to mainly walking basslines. Rocksteady also carried a strong American soul influence, and was ruled by vocal groups. Recommended artists: The Paragons, Desmond Dekker





The rocksteady period really only lasted about a couple years before the music started to change even further. Although still frequently used, horns became less prominent, and the organ became a staple instrument (usually alongside a piano and at least one guitar). The basslines became even more syncopated, and the jazzy open hi-hat style often heard in ska and some rocksteady drumming was replaced with a tighter funkier driving beat. Early reggae tended toward a quick pace, often rivaling that of ska, however the distinct upbeats heard in ska and rocksteady, were now choked and subdivided in different rhythmic variations depending on the song. Recommended artists: Clancy Eccles, The Pioneers, The Hippy Boys




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Slightly ambiguous and hard to define term, which can cover a wide range of music. For the purposes of this discussion, I would refer to the period of around 1970-74. This is when reggae settled into a less frantic pace and the doubled up guitar “skanks” (i.e., the upbeats) are simplified into a single stroke. Recommended artists: Ken Boothe, Toots & The Maytals, Delroy Wilson



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Again, another term that gets used to describe a large variety of reggae. “Roots” generally refers to the time period of around 1973-1980 and is mainly categorized by lyrical themes centered around Rastafarian spirituality and social injustice. This is the type of reggae that most casual listeners are familiar with due to the international popularity of artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear. Musically speaking, roots can have variation in terms of the beats which can range from the traditional one-drop style to the more rock influenced rockers and steppers styles. Recommended artists: The Congos, Matumbi, The Abyssinians




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This is an offshoot of reggae that picked up popularity in the UK, sort of as a counterpoint to the more socially conscious roots sound. Lovers rock is based around romantic lyrical themes and is made for slow dancing. Many of the style’s most popular singers were young females. Recommended artists: Louisa Mark, Honey Boy



This is a sub-genre that was pioneered by the late King Tubby in which instrumental versions of reggae tracks are stripped down, effected, and remixed as to create an entirely new tune. The style is widely popular and has had a massive influence on all types of music around the world. Generally characterized by thundering bass and heavy delays and reverbs, dub has an atmospheric and psychedelic quality. Recommended artists: King Tubby, Scientist, Lee “Scratch” Perry




Emerging from the deejay culture of the late 70s, dancehall is yet another style that covers a lot of ground. But in general, it is a sparse and tough style with super heavy bass that places focus on the vocalist or deejay (i.e., toaster, or rapper in American slang). Dancehall heavily incorporates the usage of popular older rhythms, and in the 80s evolved to include the use of drum machines and other electronic instrumentation. Recommended artists: Yellowman, Johnny Osbourne


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