Jamaican music is remarkable in its global impact. Jamaica is a Third World nation whose music has achieved long-standing international acclaim. The immense popularity of reggae and dub in particular has a made this tiny Caribbean island one of the musical centers of the world.

Table of contents
1 Early history
2 Early 20th century
3 1950s: Mento and sound systems
4 1960s: The ska era, DJs, and Island Records
5 1970s: Dub and reggae
6 1980s: Dancehall and ragga
7 1990s into present
8 References

Early history

Originally inhabited by the Arawaks, Jamaica was colonized first by the Spanish and then after the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, by the British. Many of the slaves that had been brought to the island by the Spaniards were ordered to resist the conquering troops of Great Britain while their masters fled. These people formed their own, mostly autonomous communities in the rural interior of Jamaica and became known as the Maroons. These poor villages became isolated from the rest of the island, and were eventually the birthplace of Rastafarianism, a religion which soon spread to the rest of the island and abroad.

British plantations soon covered the island until 1838, when slavery was abolished. The practice continued, however, in the guise of indentured servitude. The modern Bongo Nation, for example, has its roots in Angolans imported as indentured servants instead of slaves, a distinction that meant little actuality. The Bongo Nation remains a culturally distinct part of Jamaican society, and is known for Kumina, which refers to both a religion and a form of music.

The modern intertwining of Jamaican religion and music can be traced back to the 1860s, when the Pocomania and Revival Zion churches drew on African and Christian traditions and incorporated music into almost every facet of worship. Later, this trend spread into Hinduism among the numerous Indians (coolies), resulting in baccra music, and, most famously, Rastafarianism transforming the Jamaican music scene in the 1960s, incorporating religious nyabhingi drumming from grounation worship ceremonies into popular music.

Early 20th century

Junkanoo (a type of folk music now more closely associated with The Bahamas), the quadrille (a European dance) and work songs were the primary forms of Jamaican music at the beginning of the 20th century. They were soon synthesized, however, into mento music, which spread across the island and became the source for the first recordings of Jamaican music.

1950s: Mento and sound systems

Mento was recorded in the 1950s due to the efforts of Stanley Motta, who noted the similiarities between Jamaican folk and Trinidadian calypso, which was currently finding international audiences. While mento never found a large international audience as calypso had, some of these recordings, such as by Count Lasher, Lord Composer and George Moxey, are now widely-respected legends of Jamaican music. Though it has largely been supplanted by successors like reggae and dub, mento is still being made by traditionalist performers like the Jolly Boys.

By the mid-1950s, Jamaica had transitioned from a rural society to an urban one. The new city dwellers in Kingston and Richmond, for example, were exposed to American R&B, doo wop and rock and roll. Parties gathered around mobile sound systems, which played American hits. Some of the major figures of the Jamaican music scene came to the fore in association with sound systems during this period, including Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone. In 1958, the first local R&B bands (most influentially Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson) began recording for domestic audiences.

1960s: The ska era, DJs, and Island Records

By 1964, a distinctive Jamaican music had sprung up based around the sound systems called ska. Ska was fast, danceable and influenced by American rock and roll and soul. Perhaps the best-known of the original wave of ska were The Skatalites, whose career spanned decades and numerous styles of popular Jamaican music. At first primarily instrumental, ska's rhythms generally didn't lend well to vocal stylings, though some popular artists such as The Maytals and The Wailers got their start by singing in this style.

Some of ska's fans were rude boys, the local name for gangsters and petty theives. Rude boys were anything from fashionable posuers to hard-edged, violent and misogynist thugs with nothing to lose in Jamaica's post-independence depressed economy. Rude boys brought controversy to the ska scene and scorn from the island's almost entirely white middle- and upper-class. The rude boys also garnered attention from politicians, who promised protection, gifts of weapons or other incentives to harness their political support.

Along with the meteoric rise of ska came the popularity of DJs like Sir Lord Comic, King Stitt and pioneer Count Matchuki, who began talking over the rhythms of popular songs at sound systems. In Jamaican music, the DJ is the one who talks (known elsewhere as the MC) and the selecter is the person who chooses the records. The popularity of DJs as an essential component of the sound system created a need for instrumental songs, as well as instrumental versions of other popular songs. From this arose the dub, originally a recording with the vocals removed in the mix, and typically the b-side of a single, foreshadowing the later development of dub music as a distinct genre.

By the 1960s, Chris Blackwell's Island Records became the biggest label carrying music from Jamaica. Due to association with the record industry in the UK and First world funding, Island had the distribution to vastly increase exposure of reggae to the global pop market. Blackwell's stable of artists included Millie Small, singer of the first major UK radio hit, 1964's "My Boy Lollipop."

Rastafarianism, rocksteady and foundations of dub

Ska's popularity grew steadily in Jamaica, alongside Rastafarianism, which spread rapidly in urban areas and among the often politically radical music scene. The lyrics of ska songs began to focus on Rastafarian themes; slower beats and chants entered the music from religious Rastafarian music, and ska soon evolved into rocksteady.

Rocksteady was the music of Jamaica's rude boys by the mid-1960s, when The Wailers and The Clarendonians dominated the charts, taking over from pioneers like Alton Ellis (who is often said to have invented rocksteady. Desmond Dekker's "007" brought international attention to the new urban beat. The music began further emphasizing the bass line, as opposed to ska's strong horn section, and the rhythm guitar began playing off-beat. Session musicians like Supersonics, Soul Vendors, Jets and, most influentially, Jackie Mittoo (of the Skatalites) became legends during this period.

In the late 1960s, producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry began stripping the vocals away from tracks recorded for sound system parties. With the bare beats playing, DJs began toasting, or delivering humorous and often obscene jabs at fellow DJs and local celebrities. Over time, toasting became a more and more complex activity, and was as big a draw as the dance beats played behind it. In the early 1970s, DJs such as DJ Kool Herc took the practice of toasting to New York, where it inspired rap music.

1970s: Dub and reggae

By the early 1970s, rocksteady had evolved into reggae music. The style of music at the time is now considered roots reggae and comibines the influence of American soul music and the traditional shuffle and one-drop of Jamaican mento. Reggae quickly became one of the most popular forms of music in the world, due in large part to the immense international success of Bob Marley & the Wailers. Marley himself was viewed by some as a messianic figure, particularly throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and among Native Americans and Australian Aborigines. His lyrics on love, redemption and natural beauty captivated audiences, and he gained headlines for negotiating truces between rival gangs and, later, two violently warring Jamaican political parties. Reggae music was intricately tied to the expansion of Rastafarian religion with its principles of pacifism and pan-Africanism. Musicians like Gregory Isaacs, the Congos and Burning Spear and producers like Lee 'Scratch' Perry solidified the sound of reggae.

By 1973, dub music had emerged as a distinct reggae genre and heralded the dawn of the remix. Most influentially invented by record producers Lee Perry and King Tubby, dub featured previously recorded songs remixed with prominence on the bass. Often the lead instruments and vocals would drop in and out of the mix, sometimes processed heavily with studio effects. King Tubby's advantage came from his intimate knowledge with audio gear, and his ability to build better sound systems and recording studios than any of the competition. He became famous for his remixes of other's records as well as those he recorded in his own studio.

Popularity of DJs was still on the increase. U-Roy was one of the most popular. His successor as DJ king of Jamaica, Big Youth, invented a new style of DJ music by adding Rasta chants to songs. Big Youth and similarly styled performers dominated Jamaican pop music until the end of the decade, when dancehall stars like Ranking Joe, Lone Ranger and General Echo brought a return to U-Roy's style.

Other popular music forms that arose during the period include:

  • Linton Kwesi Johnon's dub poetry
  • Sly & Robbie's rockers reggae, which drew on Augustus Pablo's melodica playing became popular with a stable of artists including The Mighty Diamonds and The Gladiators.
  • Joe Gibb's mellower rockers reggae, including Culture and Dennis Brown
  • Burning Spear's distinctive style made him an enduring star. Some of his albums continue to rank as the most influential in history, such as Marcus Garvey and Man in the Hills.
  • Harmonic, spiritually oriented Rastas like The Abyssinians, Black Uhuru and Third World

In the later part of the 1970s, Brit Louisa Marks had a hit with "Caught You in a Lie" (1975 in music), beginning a trend of British performers making romantic, ballad-oriented reggae called lovers rock.

1980s: Dancehall and ragga

During the 1980s, the most popular musical styles in Jamaica were dancehall and ragga. 'Dancehall' is essentially reggae music with a basic rock drum beat and pop lyrics rather than the former political and spiritual lyrics popular in the 1970s. Ragga is characterized by the use of computerized beats and sequenced melodic tracks in reggae songs. Ragga is usually said to have been invented with "Under Mi Sleng Teng" by Wayne Smith (1985 in music). Ragga went on to barely edge out dancehall as the dominant form of Jamaican music in the 1980s. DJ and vocalist team Chaka Demus and Shabba Ranks proved themselves more long-lasting than the competition, and helped inspire an updated version of the rudeboy culture called raggamuffin. Dancehall was sometimes violent in lyrical content, and several rival performers made headlines with their feuds across Jamaica (most notably Beenie Man vs Bounty Killer). Dancehall emerged from pioneering recordings in the late 1970s by Barrington Levy with Roots Radics backing and Junjo Lawes as producer. The Roots Radics were the pre-eminent backing band for dancehall style. Yellowman, Ini Kamoze, Charlie Chaplin and General Echo helped popularize the style along with producers like Sugar Minott.

The 1980s saw a rise in reggae music from outside of Jamaica. The UK has long been a hotbed of Jamaican culture in exile, due to a large number of Jamaican immigrants seeking economic betterment. Reggae and ska influenced American and British punk bands of the 1980s. Bands including The Specials and Madness became popular with the British ska revival called two tone. During this time, reggae had a major influence on African popular music, where Sonny Okusuns (Nigeria) John Chibadura (Zimbabwe), Lucky Dube (South Africa) and Alpha Blondy (Ivory Coast) became stars.

1990s into present

In the mid-1990s, variations of dancehall continued in popularaity. Some of the most violent performers of the previous decade converted to Rastafarianism or otherwise changed their lyrical contents. Artists like Buju Banton (Till Shiloh) also saw significant crossover success in foreign markets, while Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and others developed a sizable American following due to their frequent guesting on albums by gangsta rappers like Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z. Some ragga musicians, including Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and Capleton, publicly converted to a new style of conscious music-making. Other trends included the minimalist digital tracks which began with Dave Kelly's "Pepper Seed" in 1995, alongside the return of love balladeers like Beres Hammond.

American punk ska bands like No Doubt, Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and Sublime became popular in the mid-1990s influenced by 1980s pioneers like Operation Ivy. American, British, and European electronic musicians used reggae-oriented beats to create further hybrid electronic music styles. Dub and electronica remain closely intertwined to the present.


  • Mthembu-Salter, Gregory and Peter Dalton. "The Loudest Island in the World". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 430-456. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mthembu-Salter, Gregory and Peter Dalton. "Lovers and Poets -- Babylon Sounds". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 457-462. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0