UK Reggae Sound Systems
The 70s saw the rise of the live DJ, previously earning their reputation through radio studios UK sound systems like Saxon Sound, Channel One and Jah Shaka grew in popularity though playing the latest music at live events. Setting up banks of powerful large speakers on the road or from the back of their vans, these pioneering DJs introduced exclusive dubplates and vinyl records. DJs played alongside percussion musicians, with ‘toasters’ chanting or rapping over the distinctive bassline. The popularity of the sound systems spread to provincial cities, such as Bristol, with sound systems like ‘Flipping Bass I’, who featured Bristol Reggae singers Dan Ratchett & Bunny Marrett. The founder of popular Bristol Sound System ‘Tarzan and the High Priest’ was Hector Thaws. His grandson grew up to become Trip-Hop poster boy Tricky and co-created his own Sound System The Wild Bunch.
The Emergence of Dub Music
Meanwhile, in Jamaica, producers were embracing new technology to experiment with a new sound. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (pictured), King Tubby, Errol Thompson and Bunny Lee pioneered these new production techniques to produce Dub. The new sound, with a heavy emphasis on live instruments, featured delays and echoes, plus special effects like thunderclaps and even gunshots. Producers famously began rewinding a vinyl record to the beginning of the track, known as ‘wheel and come again!’ A Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry production, ‘Blackboard Jungle Dub’ (1973), by the Upsetters 14, was one of the first Dub recordings. These recordings usually started life as Dub ‘versions’ on the B-side of vocal tracks.
Reggae in the Movies
Cult 1972 Jamaican film ‘The Harder they Come’ starred Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff (pictured), who played a struggling singer ‘Ivan’, at the mercy of unscrupulous record producers and the police, on the run after turning to violent crime. The popularity of the film’s soundtrack in the US and UK brought Reggae to new audiences. Cliff had a hit with the title track as well as the gospel inspired classic ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ (1972).
The 1970′s saw a new popularity of Rastafari, a movement now recognised not only as one of the most popular Afro-Caribbean religions of the late twentieth century, but also as one of the leading cultural trends in the world. Bob Marley joined the Rastafari movement and quickly became a spokesperson for Rastafarianism, with tracks like ‘Selassie is the Chapel‘ (1968). Based on teachings from the Book of Revelations Rastafari prophesises a second-coming of Christ, from the Tribe of Judah. Rastafarians believe this messiah to be Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who lead his country to defeat an Italian invasion in 1936 (and was exiled between 1936 and 1940 in Bath! ‘Rastas’ are known for growing their hair into dreadlocks and Rastafarian symbols such as the colours red, gold and green; the Lion; the marijuana plant and words such as Jah, Dread and Babylon have found themselves embedded into modern popular culture.
Politics, Bob Marley & Reggae Movement
After a split within the Wailers in 1974, Marley (pictured) reformed the group as Bob Marley & the Wailers, working closely with Chris Blackwell, resulting in Island Records becoming one of the most influential record labels in the world. The group were joined by backing singers the I-Threes, made up of his wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths. Marley continued to gain international recognition with tracks such as ‘No Woman No Cry’ (1974) taking his place as leader of a new Reggae movement. Marley also took a more social and political role, at home and on the international stage. Locals were always welcome at his home, in the heart of Kingston, for shelter or financial support. Through his songs, Marley was critical of the politicians who did nothing to bridge the divide between rich and poor, with tunes like ‘Them Belly Full – But We Hungry’ (1975). At the time there was a great political struggle between the two main Jamaican political parties – Edward Seaga’s more right-wing Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and Michael Manley’s socialist People’s National Party (PNP) in an increasingly impoverished country. Whilst favouring neither party, rumours spread about Marley’s support for Prime Minister Manley and in 1976, he was shot several times as he stood in his kitchen. In 1977, he recorded the seminal album ‘Exodus’, which would propel him to international superstardom. The album reflected his vision, like the prophet Moses leading his people away from Babylon and also referenced his own exile in London after the shooting. In 1978 he returned to Jamaica, further cementing his reputation as global peacemaker by orchestrating a truce on stage, clenching the ‘fist of peace’ between the warring political factions. Watch the trailer for the film: ‘Marley: The Man, The Legend‘.
Although Lovers Rock was born from Jamaican roots, its popularity heightened within the Blues, Shabeens and dark night clubs of Black Britain. Artists like John Holt and Alton Ellis, who specialised in singing with a more soulful melody, influenced by American soul artists, became popular in the London sound systems, like Jah Sufferer, featuring producer and musician Dennis Bovell. The sound had a growing appeal to a female audience, emphasising softer melodies and exploring the ups and downs of relationships. Female artists like Carroll Thompson, Sandra Cross and Deborah Glasgowe were popular, with Londoner Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ (1979) hitting the mainstream music charts (pictured). South London female trio Brown Sugar featured Kofi, Pauline Catlin and Caron Wheeler, who recorded their first track, ‘I’m in Love with a Dreadlock’ (1977), whilst still at school. Caron Wheeler went on to provide vocals for another 1980s London sound system Soul II Soul.
The Beginning of Dancehall
By the late 70’s in Jamaica themes of social injustice, repatriation and the Rastafari movement, which featured in Roots Reggae, were overtaken by lyrics about dancing, violence, and sexuality, all stemming from the change in political parties and unrest in Jamaica. This new genre of Ragga or Dancehall, focused on more risqué topics – known as ‘slackness’, with artists like Barrington Levy, Eek-A-Mouse and Yellowman (pictured) gaining notoriety in the UK and the US.
Reggae & Punk Rock
A new wave of Punk music was sweeping Britain by the late 70’s. Alongside this was a more militant Reggae sound from bands like Birmingham’s Steel Pulse who wrote honest lyrics that reflected the hardship and struggle of second generation Black British youth. As young Punks and Reggae fans recognised shared anti-establishment cultures, music collaborations emerged between artists. Steel Pulse toured with the Stranglers whilst Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson toured with Sioxsie and the Banshees. Punk band The Clash covered Reggae songs, like the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry produced ‘Police & Thieves’ by Junior Marvin (1976). By 1977, Marley (then living in London) had recorded the track ‘Punky Reggae Party’ for his Exodus album, name-checking Punk bands like The Damned and The Jam. Reggae and Punk acts also appeared together as part of ‘Rock Against Racism’, started in 1976, which put on a series of concerts that aimed to combat the rise of far-right and white nationalist groups like The National Front, ironically many of whom were ‘skinhead’ fans of Ska music.
Meanwhile, in the US, two Caribbean migrants had become influential pioneers in the Hip-Hop scene. Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc and Barbadian Grandmaster Flash (pictured) pioneered turntablist culture through their legendary ‘block parties’, influenced by sound system culture. Other artists, like Afrika Bambaataa, were similarly inspired from sounds of the Caribbean using rhythmic speech patterns, clearly evolved from ‘toasting’. Hence Rap and Slam-poetry was born.