From Reggae to Dancehall: A Brief History of Jamaican Music






Compared to most other major countries, Jamaica has a relatively tiny population. However, this has not stopped Jamaicans from leaving a significant mark in the history of music as we know it today. If it weren’t for Jamaica and its music, the world would remain void of the work of popular bands such as The Police, Sublime, and Skrillex, to name a few.

But how and when did it all start? Here is a brief look into the history of Jamaican music, right from Reggae to Dancehall and much more.

It Started With Ska

Even though reggae has been one of Jamaica’s most popular music genres, the more up-tempo sound of ska ruled the hearts of many before that. This unique genre combined the elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz rhythms and blues. Ska became more popular as American soldiers stationed in Jamaica during World War 2 found some solace in all the chaos.

However, the ska genre’s celebratory music coincided with Jamaica’s independence in 1962. As a result, many legendary acts, such as the Wailers and The Skatalites, integrated some aspects of ska into their music. But the evolution of ska began much earlier when artists such as the legendary Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Sphere formulated reggae.

Peace And Reggae

After the world had been through the two most significant wars in the history of humankind, the urge for peace was rising steadily among the youth. It was in the 1960s when prominent artists like Bob Marley leveraged reggae music to spread their message of peace. Fortunately, this was also when the American counter-cultural movement started garnering mainstream attention.

With Bob Marley and The Wailers, the reggae genre found a global audience that appreciated the balanced socio-political discourse in the lyrics. But the message of love and peace among humankind struck a chord with the masses. Eventually, reggae began to spread across different countries and continents.

Some of the most notable acts of that time include the Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, Toots & the Maytals, and Culture. These acts help enhance the reach of the genre and, more importantly, the message of peace and harmony across the global community. Soon enough, bands like The Police made reggae mainstream, and Grammy Awards introduced a Best Reggae Album category in 1985.

Dancehall And Technology

Nowadays, people hardly compose or sing any song without technology enhancing the output. But this trend was at its infancy stage in the late 1970s when dancehall was becoming very popular in Jamaica and beyond. Suddenly, most evening shows at prominent Montego Bay Beach Resort were playing dancehall music while everyone tapped their foot along the beat.

The dancehall music genre was something entirely novel since it borrowed some elements of reggae music but replaced the live musical inputs with digitally composed or pre-recorded tracks. But the dancehall genre was much more than just integrating reggae with technology in an attempt to create something new. The lyrical content of this genre focused on celebrating earthly pleasures rather than reggae’s mystical and spiritual language.

This unique combination started gaining unmatched popularity among the youth, and soon dancehall became popular around the globe. Even popular artists of the modern age draw their influence or inspiration from the magic of the dancehall genre. Some of these artists’ best-known names include Beenie Man, Sean Paul, Lady Saw, Rihanna, and even Drake. This makes it very clear that the dancehall genre’s overall impact on the music world gives us tunes we adore even today.

Dub Music, Hip-Hop, And Beyond

While all that fantastic music from the little island of Jamaica was transforming, something more significant was going on. With the ongoing Cold War between the two most powerful superpowers, technology began to evolve at an unprecedented pace. This directly impacts people’s lives and, more importantly, the music they listen to.

As a result, we soon had another genre of music from Jamaica known as the dub music genre. This was mostly an instrumental version of the reggae style originally used to test sound systems. Here, the DJ would remove the vocals from older reggae records and remix them to focus more on the beats. This new chatty style boosted the artist’s prowess, gave shout-outs to friends, and dissed competitors. Viola! Hip-hop is born.

When DJ Kool Herc moved to the Bronx, his parties were the masterminds who gave birth to this new genre of music we today call hip-hop. Eventually, hip-hop went on to influence almost every MC and DJ out there. However, over the past couple of decades, hip-hop as a genre has spread its wings and is no longer cooped within the Jamaican style.

Today, hip-hop is one of the most followed music genres, where different people with different demographics express their emotions through rhymes and raps. Be it a little kid from India or someone living in Africa, every region has its own unique style of hip-hop. The best part of it is that hip-hop gives artists the freedom to incorporate unique native elements to make the music more acceptable and relatable for everyone.

Jamaica And Its Musical Impact

Music has always been a means to express what’s inside a human being and what makes us humans. Over the last half-century, music has continually evolved, and Jamaica as a country has played a significant role. It is no secret that this country’s influence on music continues and will continue to do so for ages to come. It is fair to say that Jamaica has had one of the most significant and positive impacts on the music industry, and the world must appreciate that.

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