For many of us, Jimmy Cliff’s 1973 song “The Harder They Come” was the first reggae piece we’d heard.
Reggae grew out of two earlier styles of Jamaican music, ska and rocksteady. And these were both preceded by the Jamaican folk/pop music of the 1950s, a style called mento. Here’s Alerth Bedasse’s “Rough Rider” from 1955.
While Jamaican musicians were playing Mento, though, they were also listening to R&B music from New Orleans and Memphis. Folks like Louis Jordan, Fats Domino and Rosco Gordon. Here’s Gordon's from 1952, with a song called “No More Doggin’.”
So what the Jamaicans were picking up on in songs like this Rosco Gordon track were the offbeats. So if the song is going 1-2-3-4, what they were hearing was 1-and-2-and-3-and-4. And that’s important because that offbeat would go on to become the basis of Jamaican ska music.
And ska held the seed of reggae. Accenting the offbeat and playing songs at a fairly brisk tempo made ska a wildly popular dance music. This is The Wailers with “Simmer Down” from 1963.
The next step in the evolution towards reggae was a form of music called rocksteady, which was basically ska slowed down. This is Alston Ellis with “Rocksteady” from 1966.
This sounds a lot like reggae. What’s the difference between this rocksteady that we’re listening to and the reggae we’re going to hear in a moment?
The sonic differences between rocksteady and reggae are small. But while the music may not have changed much, the world was changing around the music. Jamaica became independent in 1962, there were a lot of economic struggles related to that. And there was a religious aspect to reggae; most of the reggae artists were Rastafarians. And also at the same time, the black identity movement was happening.
So what started out as dance music wound up as protest music you can dance to. This is “Get Up, Stand Up” from Bob Marley.