We all have origin stories. My introduction to reggae occurred in May 1989 while traveling to Virginia during my high-school senior class trip. Someone had a cassette of Bob Marley’s “Legend.” The most well-known compilation of the reggae star’s greatest hits, it was released posthumously in 1984. “Legend” became my North Star to Marley and reggae beyond.
Reggae evolved during an intriguing junction of culture and music in Jamaica in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The sound didn’t emerge whole cloth. Rather, Jamaican bands were mimicking American R&B acts, Marley included. Eventually, a contingent of artists grew tired of trying to sound like Americans. Pulling from the Nyabinghi chant and drum tradition, they slowed down their soulful music while injecting their own cultural heritage into the mix.
Nyabinghi were the first Rastas, growing from enslaved populations to live off the land, living by biblical passages and consuming Ital diets. The Rasta image received a boon with Bob Marley after he started locking his hair. He was part of a continuum of reggae artists yet one of the most musically gifted. Marley lived in both country and city, navigating the treachery in the streets while educating himself about nature, all of which made its way into his incredible music.
Which is why I open with a track from Marley’s Island Records debut, “Catch a Fire.” While Marley had been performing for well over a decade, producer Chris Blackwell decided to market The Wailers like a rock band, posting a rebellious Marley on the cover smoking a spliff. It worked. “Midnight Ravers” is an upbeat gem, though I highly recommend backtracking in his catalog, especially during the years he was produced by Lee Perry.
This month’s playlist isn’t limited to Jamaican artists, though it does lean heavily in that direction. Assembling a comprehensive reggae list would be impossible. Since Jamaican copyright laws are lax, there are hundreds of versions of songs, many deserving attention. There’s also a ton of mediocre reggae. As it’s been in my life for decades, I choose some of my favorites for this collection.
This playlist generally goes old to new, roots to electronica. The Abyssinians, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, Dawn Penn, Dennis Brown—all classic artists. Misty in Roots formed in London in the mid-1970s, but I pulled a track from their 2002 record “Roots Controller,” which includes the wonderful elements of roots reggae with a modern production. I bookend the rootsier half of the set with one of Marley’s later tracks, the effervescent and inspired “Zion Train.”
The torch is then passed to two of Marley’s sons, Stephen and Damian. Stephen produces most of the Marley sons, yet in the family landscape, he’s overshadowed by Ziggy and Damian. That’s a shame. The fun, hip-hop beat of “Hey Baby” features Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def). While most people found out about Damian thanks to “Welcome to Jamrock,” his previous album was more playful and diverse. A loose cover of his father’s “Catch a Fire” is stellar.
Two newer additions to the reggae soundscape follow. Chronixx and Protoje are younger Jamaican artists exploring an updated version of the roots sound. Luciano has been in the game for decades, but I’ve always loved 2005’s “Babylon Go Down.” Uplifting, to say the least.
Hollie Cook is another British artist who nails the lover’s rock style with a heavy tilt toward bass. Great production meets an incredible voice. Likewise, Jamaica’s I Wayne slides in with a smoother edge.
The California-based Groundation (the only band I’ve seen live on three continents, as it turns out) was founded to explore the philosophical and sonic components of classic reggae. They succeed best on 2006’s “Under the Ground.” John Brown’s Body was founded with similar intent, only in Ithaca, New York. Lead singer Elliot Martin is a mesmerizing live performer, as you can imagine hearing him croon “Plantation.”
I’ve always loved Nyabinghi drumming, so when Six Degrees Records asked my production partner David “Duke Mushroom” Schommer and I to remix a song by Malian artist Vieux Farka Touré, an intriguing cultural flip came to mind. Exploring the musical and cultural connection between Africa and Jamaica—Rastafari culture was born of a fascinating mix of African and Indian influences—we remixed Touré in halftime, with a slow, steady Rasta rhythm to feature Touré’s unbelievable guitar playing.
Exploring the connection between electronica and reggae, the set concludes with a variety of hypnotic tracks from See-I, Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack, and one of my favorite remixes ever, Sade guitarist and saxophonist Cottonbelly (aka Stuart Matthewman), makes a Gregory Isaacs classic even better.
Speaking of Sade … well, you don’t really have to speak about her. You just need to sit back and fall into the track.
The journey through the soul of reggae concludes with another Burning Spear track that I first heard mixed into MJ Cole’s 2002 edition of “Back to Mine.” All music is emotional, and that record defined a time in my life. Outro music by Zero 7 presents an instrumental version of the Johnny Osbourne classic.
Photo credit: Toa Heftiba, Unsplash