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What Is Rocksteady?

Kathy Dowling
Kathy Dowling

Rocksteady is genre of music that originated in Jamaica during the late 1960s. Following from ska, rocksteady was a short-lived style categorized by soulful singing and lyrics that were socially conscious. Its music was also known for its prominent bass lines and floating, offbeat rhythms, while the lyrics were inspired by the pros and cons of the "rude boy" subculture in Kingston. There were many popular rocksteady groups, such as The Melodians and The Gaylads, and these groups set the foundation for a style of music that developed later called reggae.

During the late 1950s, a music genre called ska originated in Jamaica. It came about after the end off World War II in 1945, when American military were stationed in Jamaica. Throughout this period, Jamaicans listened to American music, including rhythm and blues and American jazz. These styles, along with Jamaican folk music, called mento, and a style originating from Trinidad and Tobago, called calypso, influenced ska.

A drum kit is central to most Jamaican music, including Rocksteady.
A drum kit is central to most Jamaican music, including Rocksteady.

Originally, ska was characterized by a hard-hitting offbeat and a walking bass line commonly used in jazz. The music was upbeat and quick, and demonstrated a reversal of the shuffle rhythm used in rhythm and blues. As music in America was starting to change, however, so, too, was ska. American music was becoming slower and smoother, and eventually ska evolved into rocksteady.

Despite its popularity, rocksteady only lasted for two years, from 1966 until 1968. During this time, Jamaica was facing difficult circumstances with increasing poverty and unemployment. Many of its youth moved into the ghettos of Kingston, becoming delinquents known as "rude boys." The rude boy subculture made its way into the lyrics of some songs, which spoke-out about the political and social injustices, and either favored or disapproved of the rude boys' criminal and violent behavior. Not all songs were political, however, with many being love songs largely influenced by American soul music.

Although ska influenced rocksteady, it developed a sound that was slow and mellow in comparison. The bass lines were louder, and rhythms varied from the continuous rhythm of the piano and guitar. Drumming patterns were also different from ska, and more emphasis was placed on the "one drop" beat. Jamaican musicians called this the "afterbeat" and achieved it by playing the snare and bass drum together on the third beat.

The Melodians and The Gaylads are just two of many popular groups during this time. Coming together in 1965, The Melodians produced international hits called Rivers of Babylon and Sweet Sensation. The Gaylads also formed in 1965, and made hit songs including Over the Rainbow;s End and Joy in the Morning.

By the end of the late 1960s, rocksteady evolved into a music genre called reggae. This style is much slower than both ska and rocksteady and came about with the introduction of the organ shuffle. Reggae has produced many popular artists inspired by the Jamaican culture and subcultures, the most influential being Bob Marley.

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    • A drum kit is central to most Jamaican music, including Rocksteady.
      By: Pavel Losevsky
      A drum kit is central to most Jamaican music, including Rocksteady.