First things first, some of the best reggae is NOT easy to find. Outside of big names like Marley, Tosh, Toots or Jimmy Cliff, finding quality reggae titles can be a challenge. A recent interest in 60’s and 70’s reggae has spawned some reissues of classics, but this really only scratches the surface of what is out there. It’s best to develop an eye for the different reggae labels and what each has to offer. Literally dozens exist, but for the purpose of this series, I will be choosing a few of my personal favorites that I feel represent the best of 60’s and 70’s Jamaican music. Omitting larger labels, such as Island and Virgin, Here are a few classic labels and what they can be counted on for:
For many, Trojan is THE mark of quality for classic reggae, the go-to label which spawned many producers and sub-labels. The Trojan catalog effectively features the best of every other label; they’ve issued recordings by virtually everyone! Besides importing the finest Jamaica had to offer, Trojan also released some excellent homegrown reggae, produced by immigrants living in the UK. Compilations are an excellent starting point for anyone looking to dig into the Trojan catalog. Many are sorted by producer (i.e., a collection of tracks produced by Harry J., or Joe Gibbs), while others are more free form. For beginners, I’d recommend the free form comps as they will provide a better overview to build on. The “Tighten Up”, “Club Reggae” and “Reggae Chartbusters” series are excellent starting points, as are the four volumes of “20 Reggae Classics”. In fact, my love affair with reggae began with volume 1 of“20 Reggae Classics”! Depending on where you live, finding original Trojan LPs in your local shop might present a bit of a challenge. UK vinyl junkies will probably have better luck, since the label is based there. However, reasonably priced copies can be found easily on the internet via Discogs and Ebay. Trojan have recently begun reissuing an extensive “best of” series, which focus on the different styles within Jamaican music. These are a great way to learn about many of the artists, before digging deeper into their individual catalogs.
Often referred to as “the Motown of Jamaica”, many reggae superstars have passed through Studio One. As is the case with Trojan, compilations are a great place to start and shouldn’t be too difficult to track down, as many of Studio One’s most popular titles are still in print. A note of caution – Jamaican pressings are notorious for their poor quality, so it’s not uncommon to find subpar, hazy sounding records. Reissue imprints like Soul Jazz and Heartbeat Records alleviated this issue by obtaining large parts of the Studio One catalog, making it available to a whole new generation of listeners. Reasonably priced “themed” compilations are quite easy to track down and feature some top Studio One material. The 2lp “Studio One Story” compilation is a perfect starting point, but you really won’t go wrong with anything Soul Jazz puts out. Furthermore, their vinyl pressings are well done and sound good. Finally, some Studio One material was released on a sub-label called “Coxsone”, named after the label’s legendary producer, Coxsone Dodd. I always say that it’s a good rule of thumb that if you see “Studio One” or “Coxsone” on there, it’s going to be great reggae music.
This UK based label is much more difficult to come by in North America, but if you can find their LPs, you are guaranteed some of the best classic reggae out there. Pama was started to compete with Trojan for the homegrown reggae market in the UK, catering to Caribbean immigrants living there. Again, compilations are the way to go, but these may be more difficult to hunt down as they’ve yet to benefit from a reissue campaign, with originals selling for hefty sums. Some more popular Pama artists like the Godfather of Ska, Laurel Aitken, have been reissued by European labels like Cherry Red and Mad Butcher.
Treasure Isle/Duke Reid
Treasure Isle Records isn’t a label that you will run into very often, but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for. The label was started by producer Coxsone Dodd’s top rival, “Duke” Reid, and released some top notch ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Particularly known for their incredible rocksteady catalog, original copies are somewhat scarce. But, as is the case with Studio One, Heartbeat and Trojan have issued Treasure Isle recordings in various forms over the years.
This label was started when bandleader and producer Byron Lee bought out a label called WIRL (another good one to look out for). The newly named imprint began releasing excellent records by Eric Donaldson, Hopeton Lewis, and his own Dragonaires, among many others. Dynamic has issued A LOT of music, of all genres, so you can expect to be treated to a very wide range of Jamaican music styles. Just digging into The Dragonaires’ large catalog of recordings will cover mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, soca, soul and more. Sub-label Jaguar is also a great one to keep an eye out for.
The Major Labels (Island, Mango, Virgin, A&M)
After Island Records succeeded in breaking Bob Marley & The Wailers over to an international mainstream market, reggae became big business. Bands like Steel Pulse, Third World, and Aswad were now more broadly available, on major labels with worldwide distribution. This is good news for us vinyl hounds, and these LPs will make up a majority of the used reggae vinyl you’ll be able to find in your local shops. You can’t go wrong with any of the albums by the Wailers released on Island/Tuff Gong, and the same is true of the major label releases of artists like Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and Toots and the Maytals. When I first started buying reggae, well before the days of instantaneous internet availability, I’d just have to take chances on whatever I could find in the local used bins, which wasn’t much, but inevitably there’d be something standard hiding in there.
The Rest (Greensleeves, VP, Justice League)
Some of the best reggae you’ve never heard might just be tucked away on a label that you’ve yet to experience. Take a chance if you see something interesting. Soon you’ll learn more about the different players, producers, and studios to inform your choices, even if you don’t recognize the label. There are also a ton of newer reissue labels on the scene. Pressure Sounds, Sunspot, Dub Store, and Grover are just a few of the newer imprints that are steadily resurrecting classic material
NEXT: Reggae 101 – The Dirty Dozen
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