Catch a Fire: How Reggae and Dancehall Scorched the US. Part One: The ’60s and ’70s

“What? An era in Reggae and Dancehall before Sean Paul and Sean Kingston? Nooo! I’ll never let go of my notion; I’ll never let go!”Many of you have had that one conversation with a youngling when you’ve tried to explain who DJ Kool Herc, Alton Ellis, Shabba Ranks, Supercat or even Shinehead were. Instead, as […]

“What? An era in Reggae and Dancehall before Sean Paul and Sean Kingston? Nooo! I’ll never let go of my notion; I’ll never let go!”Many of you have had that one conversation with a youngling when you’ve tried to explain who DJ Kool Herc, Alton Ellis, Shabba Ranks, Supercat or even Shinehead were. Instead, as it slowly progresses, it turns out to be a dramatic remake of (an urban) Titanic, where it seems you (unknowingly) heralded the end of today’s Hip-Hop Meets Reggae Meets Dancehall world as they know it. Nonetheless, you brace against the youthful and frigid ocean of the kid’s stare and continue your tale about this time called “huuuh?”PrecursorsSince the Ska and Rocksteady yielding days of the 1950s, the Reggae of the 1960s, the Dub of the 1970s and the Dancehall of the 1980s, Jamaica’s mainstay musical forms have had an obvious and profound impact on the American urban market and history with the help of innumerable artists spanning the decades – each seeking to improve the course his forerunner had charted.“Do the Reggay” – T#### and the Maytals:1960sWinding down from the days of the upbeat and optimistic Ska and the slower Rocksteady, Jamaica made way for a new musical hybrid called Reggae. It has never been fully agreed upon whether the name Reggae was inspired by T#### and the Maytals’ 1968 dance single, “Do the Reggay,” or as Bob Marley said, the word was Latin word for “the king’s music,”  (the latin suffix Regis, meaning “of a king” or “belonging to a king”). Nonetheless, the music was a mid-tempo fusion of its two predecessors and had a distinct difference in its message: it was music of change and gave voice to the oppressed and impoverished of Jamaica…and later the world.Mid – Late 1960s – Also during reggae’s fecund years, yet another subgenre called Dub began to emerge in Jamaica. The Dub sound was comprised of instrumental remixes of existing recordings and was achieved by manipulating the recordings by removing the vocals, and alas, the remix was born. Producers Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock (while working as a selector for Duke Reid’s Sound System, began using a dub machine to eliminate the vocals from the tracks) and Lee “Scratch” Perry pioneered the style. At night, the country’s dancehalls were filled with patrons who would gather to hear the latest mixes while the selectors spoke to them over the beats. This became known as rapping or “toasting,” which was given a new, versatile, heavily rhymed flavor by DJ U-Roy “The Originator.”1967 – Alton Ellis records the “Mad Mad” riddim, which is later sampled and re-interpreted by Henry “Junjo” Lawes in the “Diseases” riddim on King Yellowman’s 1982 hit “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng.”1969 – Though Reggae music was undeniably later made internationally famous by Marley and the Wailers, artists including Desmond Dekker and the Aces climbed the US top 40 charts with their hit, “Israelites.” But in no time Marley and the Wailers (who at the time had been signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records) would hit the international scene and change the face of Reggae music forever.1970sAt the cusp of the 1970s, Reggae music was beginning to make strides in the US market, though it was still rejected in its homeland – a newly independent Jamaica. Often associated with the slums of Trench town (also Marley’s hometown), Reggae music was rarely featured on the nation’s radio stations. Instead, soul, funk and other overseas musical forms inundated the airwaves. In addition, Reggae didn’t do itself any favors when the already marginalized Rastafarians (who were still attempting to unshackle themselves from the criminal “Natty Dread” stereotype affixed to them) found solace in its anti-oppression message. Reggae music documented what the impoverished masses felt and more so, it spoke a universal language of self-love and Black unity that many in the newly “un-segregated” United States (both natives and the West Indian migrants, who found it easier to enter with the liberalization of the American immigration laws of the 1960s) could identify with. Thus, propelling the music, its message and its artists up the charts.1970 – Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” was released.1972 – The soundtrack to Perry Henzel’s film, The Harder They Come was released and undoubtedly helped popularize Reggae across the world. Though the film released in New York, the following year did so to little appeal, Cliff’s songs, “The Harder they Come” and “Many Rivers to Cross” along with T#### and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” helped the album peak on Billboard’s North America Pop Albums chart at no. 140.“The Harder They Come” – Jimmy Cliff:via videosift.com1973 – Producers, Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Aquarius studio engineer Herman Chin and (producer) Errol Thompson recognized that there was a lucrative market for Dub and released the first undiluted Dub albums. Perry’s album Blackboard Jungle Dub was released in Spring of that year.1973 – The Wailers’ first album, Catch A Fire, featuring the songs “Stir it Up” and “No More Trouble,” was released and peaked at No. 171 on Billboard’s North American charts.1973 – Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc, after migrating to the United States in 1967, started playing his own sound system around New York City. Yet, in a time when the US urban scene was still heavily influenced by R&B and funk, Herc found it difficult to amass a large enough following with the new Jamaican sounds at his street parties. He therefore decided to fuse (remix) Jamaican toasting elements, inspired by U-Roy, with some of his James Brown records, which help shape a new genre – Hip-Hop and one of its fundamental elements of deejaying.1974 – Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Burnin, which included the songs “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff” was released. These releases came at a pivotal time for the West Indies and United States. Prior to Malcolm X’s assassination nine years before, a shift away from naive nationalism started to occur. People and Black Power movements were moving toward employing legitimate force if they had to, as shown in the numerous riots sweeping Atlanta, Detroit and other US cities. This is starkly evinced in Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” – a grim dramatization against injustice that anyone could identify with, though he chose to use American characters (“Deputies” and “Sheriffs” do not exist in Jamaica, only “Police Officers”).1974 – Eric Clapton made a hit cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” which reached No. 1 in the United States and most of Europe, thus raising Marley’s international profile and that of Reggae music.1975 – Marley had his first international crossover with “No Woman, No Cry,” from the Natty Dread album.1975 – The first cover of T#### and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” was done by British singer/songwriter Robert Palmer (who later settled in New York) on his second solo album, also entitled Pressure Drop.1976 – Bob Marley and the Wailers released Rastaman Vibration, which spent four weeks on the Billboard charts Top Ten; they were also named Band of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine that year.1977 – Bob Marley and the Wailers released Exodus. It remains one of his biggest records to date, generating hits including, “Jamming,” “Waiting in Vain” and “One Love/People Get Ready.”“One Love” (with appearances by Paul McCartney) – Bob Marley and the Wailers:1977 – Inspired by DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, began organizing block parties around the South Bronx. He later formed the Bronx River Organization, then later, “The Organization”, which was later reformed as the Zulu Nation. As time went by, break dancers, more DJs, rappers and artists joined him in the Zulu Nation, thus spreading their different musical styles across urban America.