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Stylistic origins: R&B, Jazz, Mento, Calypso, Ska, Rocksteady

Cultural origins: Late 1960s Jamaica, especially Kingston

Typical instruments: Bass - Drums - Guitar - Organ - Brass - Melodica

Mainstream popularity: Early 1970s onward, worldwide

Derivative forms: Trip hop - Drum and bass - Dancehall


Roots reggae - Dub - Dub poetry - Toasting - Lovers rock - Dancehall - Ragga

Fusion genres

Reggaeton - Seggae - 2 Tone - Reggae rock

Regional scenes

African - Kanéka - New Zealand

Other topics

Jamaica - Rastafari movement - Haile Selassie - Marcus Garvey - List of reggae musicians

Reggae is a music genre first developed in Jamaica in the late 1960s.

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 rhythm style characterized by regular chops on the off-beat, known as the skank. The tempo is generally slower than that found in ska. Reggae usually has accents on the 3rd beat in each bar, there being four beats in a bar; many people think it's accentuated on the 2nd and 4th, because of the rhythm guitar.

Reggae is often associated with the Rastafari movement, an influence on many prominent reggae musicians from its inception. Reggae song lyrics deal with many subjects, including faith, love, relationships, poverty, injustice and other broad social issues.


Toots Hibbert, lead singer of the Maytals.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 as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit "Do the Reggay" by the vocal group the Maytals, but it was already being used in Kingston as the name of a slower dance and style of rocksteady. As singer Derrick Morgan has reminisced,

"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.'"

However, by Maytals' lead singer Toots Hibbert's account,

"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 name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records."

Reggae historian Steve Barrow credits producer Clancy Eccles with altering the word streggae into reggae. Bob Marley is said to have claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for "the king's music". The suggestion that reggae was derived from the Latin regis meaning "to the king" is less likely to be correct, although the music style is sometimes referred to as "JAH Throne music" in Rastafarian contexts. In the Caribbean, Reggae in general is also sometimes known as Rockers music.


Music of Jamaica

Kumina - Niyabinghi - Mento - Ska - Rocksteady - Reggae - Sound systems - Lovers rock - Dub - Dancehall - Dub poetry - Toasting - Raggamuffin - Roots reggae

Anglophone Caribbean music

Anguilla - Antigua and Barbuda - Bahamas - Barbados - Bermuda - Caymans - Grenada - Jamaica - Montserrat - St. Kitts and Nevis - St. Vincent and the Grenadines - Trinidad and Tobago - Turks and Caicos - Virgin Islands

Sound samples

Other Caribbean music

Aruba and the Dutch Antilles - Cuba - Dominica - Dominican Republic - Haiti - Hawaii - Martinique and Guadeloupe - Puerto Rico - St. Lucia - United States - United Kingdom

Although strongly influenced both by traditional African and Caribbean music and by American rhythm and blues, Reggae owes its direct origins to the progressive development of ska and rocksteady in 1960s Jamaica.

Ska music first arose in the studios of Jamaica over the years 1959 to 1961, itself a development of earlier mento. 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 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-60s, many artists had begun actually playing the tempo of ska slower, while emphasizing the walking bass and offbeat aspects. The slower sound had a new name: Rocksteady, taken from a single of the new genre by Alton Ellis. This phase of Jamaican music lasted only until 1968, when the musicians began to slow the tempo of rocksteady into yet another gear, and add still other effects. This was the genesis of the now world-famous sound known as reggae.

The shift from rocksteady to reggae was caused by the organ shuffle that was pioneered by Bunny Lee, and was also featured in the transitional singles "Say What You're Saying" (1967) by Clancy Eccles, and "People Funny Boy" (1968) by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Pioneers' 1967 track "Long Shot Bus' Me Bet" has been identified as the earliest recorded example of the new rhythm sound that would soon become known by the name reggae. Early in 1968 was when the first bona fide reggae records came into being; both "Nanny Goat" by Larry Marshall, and the Beltones' "No More Heartaches" have been claimed for this honour. Music historian Piero Scaruffi credits US artist Johnny Nash's 1968 hit "Hold Me Tight" with first putting reggae on the American listener charts.

Bob Marley Live a painting by Steve Brogdon 1992The Wailers, 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 literal 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.

Among these early producers was Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1959, 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, which lasted until 1972. Trojan continued to produce reggae artists in the UK until 1974, when it was bought by Saga.

1970s and 1980s

The 1972 film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, generated considerable interest and popularity for reggae music in the United States, and Eric Clapton's 1974 cover of the Bob Marley song "I Shot the Sheriff" is thought to signify reggae's acceptance as a global phenomenon by the "white rock world"[9]. By the mid 1970s, reggae was getting radio play in the UK on John Peel's radio show, and Peel continued to play much reggae during his career. What is called the first "Golden Age of Reggae" corresponds roughly to the heyday of roots reggae.

In the second half of the 1970s, the UK punk rock scene was starting to take off, and some punk DJs played reggae records during their DJ sets. Some punk bands, such as The Clash, The Slits, 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 80s include Third World, Black Uhuru and Sugar Minott.

The Grammy Awards introduced the "Best Reggae Album" category in 1985, which was won that year by Black Uhuru's Anthem LP. Winners for subsequent years have included albums by Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh, Ziggy Marley (four times), Bunny Wailer (three times), Shabba Ranks (twice), Inner Circle, Shaggy, Sly and Robbie, Beenie Man, Damian Marley (twice), Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sean Paul, and Toots and the Maytals.

Musical characteristics

Reggae is always played in 4/4 time or swing time, because the symmetrical rhythm pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. Harmonically, the music is often very simple, and sometimes a whole song will have no more than one or two chords. The Bob Marley and the Wailers song "Exodus" is almost entirely comprised of A-minor chords. These simple repetitious chord structures add to reggae's sometimes hypnotic effect. However, Marley also wrote more complex chord structures, and bands such as Steel Pulse have often used very complex chord structures.

Drums and other percussion

A standard drum kit is generally used, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbale-type sound. Some reggae drummers use a separate additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Rim shots on the snare are commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself. From the mid-80s onward, electronic instruments such as synthesizers and samplers have been used for the same purpose, especially by reggae artists who write in the Stepper and Dancehall styles.

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 bass guitar often plays a very dominant role in reggae, and the drum and bass is often called the riddim. Several reggae singers have released different songs recorded over the same riddim. The central role of the bass can particularly be heard in dub music — which gives an even bigger role to the drum and bass line, reducing the vocals and other instruments to peripheral roles. The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasised. The bass line is often a simple two-bar riff that is centred around its thickest and heaviest note (which in musical terms is often the harmonic root note) - the other notes in the bassline often serve simply to lead you towards the bassist note. An example of this can be heard on "Sun Is Shining" by Bob Marley and the Wailers.


The rhythm guitar in reggae usually plays the chords on beats two and four, a musical figure known as skank or the 'bang'. It has a very dampened, short and scratchy chop sound, almost like a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used when the guitar still plays the off beats, but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. An example is the intro to "Stir It Up" by The Wailers.

The lead guitar will often add a rock or blues-style melodic solo to a song, but much of the time it plays the same part as the bass line an octave higher, with a very muted and picked sound. This adds definition to the bass line (which is usually devoid of upper frequencies), and emphasizes the bass melody. Sometimes the guitar will play a counter-melody to the bass line instead.


From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, a piano was generally used in reggae to double the rhythm guitar's skank, playing the chords in a staccato style to add body, and playing occasional extra beats, runs and riffs. The piano part was widely taken over by synthesizers during the 1980s, although synthesizers have been used in a peripheral role since the 1970s to play incidental melodies and countermelodies. Larger bands may include either an additional keyboardist, to cover or replace horn and melody lines, or the main keyboardist filling these roles on two or more keyboards. The latter has become increasingly popular as keyboard technology improves.

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. The right-hand part coincides with the rhythm guitar and piano. It makes the music sound faster than it really is. The organ often also plays melodic runs and extra beats. The organ part is typically quite low in the mix, and is often more felt than heard. Examples include the songs "Natural Mystic", "Is This Love" and "Midnight Ravers" by Bob Marley.


Horn sections are frequently used in reggae, often playing introductions and counter-melodies. Instruments included in a typical reggae horn section include saxophone, trumpet and/or trombone. In more recent times, real horns are sometimes replaced in reggae by synthesizers or recorded samples. The horn section is often arranged around the first horn, playing a simple melody or counter melody. The first horn is usually accompanied by the second horn playing the same melodic phrase in unision, one octave higher. The third horn usually plays the melody an octave and a fifth higher than the first horn. The horns are generally played fairly softly, usually resulting in a soothing sound. However, sometimes punchier, louder phrases are played for a more up-tempo and aggressive sound.


The vocals in reggae are less of a defining characteristic of the genre than the instrumentation and rhythm. Almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. Vocal harmony parts are often used, either throughout the melody (as with bands such as the Mighty Diamonds), or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line (as with the backing group I-Threes). The British reggae band Steel Pulse used particularly complex backing vocals. An unusual aspect of reggae singing is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather than vibrato (pitch oscillation). Notable exponents of this technique include Dennis Brown and Horace Andy. The toasting vocal style is unique to reggae, originating when DJs improvised along to dub tracks, and it is generally considered to be a precursor to rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it is generally melodic, while rap is generally more a spoken form without melodic content.

Lyrical themes

Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love, sex and socializing. 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 marijuana 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.


Roots reggae

Roots reggae is the name given to a spiritual type of music whose lyrics are predominantly in praise of Jah (God). Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to government oppression. Many of Bob Marley's and Peter Tosh's songs can be called roots reggae. The creative pinnacle of roots reggae was in the late 1970s, with singers such as Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Clarke, Horace Andy, Ijahman Levi, Barrington Levy, Big Youth, and Linval Thompson, and bands like Culture, Israel Vibration, and Misty in Roots, teaming up with various studio producers including Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Coxsone Dodd.


Dub is a genre of reggae that was pioneered in the early days by studio producers Lee 'Scratch' Perry and King Tubby. It involves extensive remixing of recorded material, and particular emphasis is placed on the drum and bass line. The techniques used resulted in an even more visceral feel described by King Tubby as sounding "jus’ like a volcano in yuh head." Augustus Pablo and Mikey Dread were two of the early notable proponents of this music style, which continues today.

Lovers rock

Main article: Lovers rock

Lovers rock originated in South London in the mid-1970s, and is produced for a smoother, more commercial sound, with more apolitical lyrics.

Newer styles and spin-offs

Hip hop and rap

Further information: Toasting, Hip hop music and Rapping

Toasting is a style of chanting or talking over the record that was first used by 1960s Jamaican deejays such as U-Roy and Dennis Alcapone. This style greatly influenced Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, who used the style in New York City in the late 1970s to pioneer a new genre that became known as hip hop or rap. Mixing techniques employed in dub music have also influenced hip hop.


Main article: Dancehall

The dancehall genre was developed around 1980, with exponents such as Yellowman, Super Cat and Shabba Ranks. The style is characterized by a deejay singing and rapping or toasting over raw and fast rhythms. Ragga (also known as raggamuffin), is a subgenre of dancehall where the instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music and sampling. Notable ragga artists include Shinehead and Buju Banton.


Main article: Reggaeton

Reggaeton is a form of dance music that first became popular with Latino youths in the early 1990s. It blends reggae and dancehall with Latin American genres such as bomba and plena, as well as hip hop.

Reggae rock

Main article: Reggae rock

Reggae rock is a fusion genre that combines elements of reggae and rock music. Notable artists who have mixed rock and reggae include: The Police, Sublime, Slightly Stoopid, Bedouin Soundclash and The Beautiful Girls.


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