Reggae music originated in Jamaica from two similar Jamaican styles called ska and rocksteady. It can be identified by its backbeat rhythm and simple chord progressions. The lyrics are typically sung in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English. Bob Marley and The Wailers are some of the most famous reggae musicians.
Although reggae originated from a combination of ska and rocksteady, it was also influenced by American rhythm and blues (R&B), American jazz, and Jamaican mento. By the late 1960s, both Jamaica and the U.S. recognized reggae as a distinct genre of music. A 1967 single, “Long Shot Bus’ Me Bet” by The Pioneers, is generally considered the first specifically reggae recording.
The characteristic that distinguishes reggae music from other genres is its rhythm, or riddim. Songs are played in 4/4 time, with the emphasis falling on off beats. In addition, the third beat of each measure is frequently emphasized by a guitar or the bass drum, giving the music a distinctly African feel.
Percussion is generally provided by a drum set, tom-tom drums, and high tuned snare drums or timbales. A simple chord structure is layered on top of the drums by a guitar, bass guitar, and organ, piano, or keyboard. Many reggae bands use a trumpet, trombone, or saxophone to play short riffs or countermelodies in contrast to the vocals.
Most reggae lyrics are sung in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English, which many American and British listeners find difficult to understand. Some lyrics deal with Rastafarianism, a religion popular in Jamaica, which uses cannabis as part of a religious sacrament. Cannabis, referred to by the Jamaican slang term Ganja, is the plant that can be used to make the psychoactive drug marijuana.
One famous Rastafarian convert was singer and guitarist Bob Marley. Beginning in the early 1970s, Marley became internationally famous as a member of The Wailers, along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Other famous reggae musicians include Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Jackie Mittoo.
Many genres of music were influenced by reggae. Jamaican dub, American ska, and dancehall music all show its effects, as well as British bands such as UB40. Hip-hop and rap were also impacted by reggae’s rhythms.
Reggae music is associated with youth, rebellion, and rude boys, the street culture of Jamaica. The term “rude boys” refers to the often disaffected, unemployed, and violent young men that frequented the dance clubs where reggae began in the 1960s. As reggae music became a globally recognized genre, it became somewhat distanced from the rude boy culture, but reggae is still considered somewhat rebellious in nature.