Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was the dominant style of music in Jamaica for nearly two years, performed by many of the artists who helped establish reggae. For example harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Righteous Flamesand The Gaylads; singers such as Delroy Wilson, Phyllis Dillon and Roy Shirley; musicians such as Jackie Mittoo, Tommy McCook and Lynn Taitt. The term rocksteadycomes from a popular (slower) dance style mentioned in the Alton Ellis song ‘Rocksteady’ that matched the new sound. Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.
The “early reggae” era can be traced as starting in roughly 1968. The influence of funk music from American record labels such as Stax began to permeate the music style of studio musicians and the slowing in tempo that occurred with the development of rocksteady had allowed musicians more space to experiment with different rhythmic patterns. One of the developments which separated early reggae from rocksteady was the “bubble” organ pattern, a percussive style of playing that showcased the eighth-note subdivision within the groove.
The guitar “skanks” on the second and fourth beat of the bar began to be replaced by a strumming pattern similar to mento and the so-called double chop that can be heard so audibly in the introduction of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” was developed during this time. More emphasis was put on the groove of the music, and there was a growing trend of recording a “version” on the B-side of a single. The mass popularity of instrumental music in the ska and rocksteady eras continued in reggae, producing some of the most memorable recordings of the early reggae era. Cover versions of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records soul songs remained popular in early reggae, often helping Jamaican artists gain a foothold in foreign markets such as the UK.
As a testament to its far reaching impact in other markets, this era and sound of reggae is sometimes referred to in retrospect as “skinhead reggae” because of its popularity among the working class skinhead subculture in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s. One Caribbean band based in London, The Pyramids, even released an entire album dedicated to the unruly English youth culture under the name Symarip which featured songs such as “Skinhead Moonstomp” and “Skinhead Girl”. Eventually the, often experimental, sounds of early reggae gave way to the more refined sound made popular by Bob Marley’s most famous recordings. Indeed, this era seems fittingly capped off by the 1973 release of Catch a Fire. Notable artists from this era include John Holt, Toots & the Maytals and The Pioneers.
Roots reggae usually refers to the most recognizable kind of reggae, popularized internationally by artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, which dominated Jamaican recordings from around 1972 into the early 1980s. While there are distinct musical characteristics to this era of reggae music, the term “roots” often implies more the message of the music than specifically its musical style and is still often used today to refer either to a musical style/subgenre or to give context to an artists music that may, in fact, cover several subgenres of reggae. Roots reggae, in this descriptive sense, can be typified by lyrics grounded in the Rastafarian movement’s “Back to Africa” message, equation of colonialism and slavery with the Biblical captivity in Babylon, and, of course, the belief in one living God, Jah, manifested as Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to economic and racial oppression as well as more poetic meditations on spiritual or topical themes.
Musically, the “roots” sound and era have a number of distinct features. Drummers developed more complex kick drum patterns based around the “one drop” of rocksteady and incorporated influences from funk and R&B. The guitar, piano and keyboard patterns in the music were refined from the creative explorations of the early reggae era into the patterns most recognizable as reggae throughout the world. Simple chord progressions were often used to create a meditative feeling to compliment the lyrical content of the songs. This refining of rhythmic patterns and simplification of chord progressions brought the bass guitar entirely to the forefront, helping to make bass one of the most definitive features of reggae as a genre. Producer/engineers like King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Jammy (before he became a king) also played a large role in the development of the roots sound, with their heavy use of tape delay and reverb effects becoming one of the most recognizable features of the music. The roots sound can be best identified in the Jamaican recordings of the late 1970s by artists such as Burning Spear, Max Romeo, The Abyssinians, Culture and Israel Vibration.
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