List all the reggae musicians you know. Bob Marley and the Wailers? UB40? The Specials? Probably not many more than that. Reggae (along with dub, the genre with which it shares a symbiotic relationship) has a reputation for being great chill-out music, and you’ll often hear reggae as accompaniment at many a cool eatery or bar. Look beneath the surface though and you’ll find much more than just breezy island vibes to most reggae and dub, genres that often dabble in the spiritual and the social with a great amount of pathos.
Toots and the Maytals – “Funky Kingston” (1973)
Toots and the Maytals are perhaps best known for contributing the muscular “Pressure Drop” to the iconic soundtrack of the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come, but it’s arguably the title track to their 1973 record Funky Kingston that is their defining moment. Adding a liquid saxophone part and some soulful call-and-response vocals to the heavily percussive flavour of their previous work, Toots and the Maytals created an almost unhinged tribute to the power of music that finds frontman Toots Hibbert doing his best James Brown impersonation. The eminently danceable song is like a salve – when times get tough, just do the Funky Kingston.
Burning Spear – “Slavery Days” (1975)
“Slavery Days” comes from Marcus Garvey, Burning Spear’s 1975 album named for the trailblazing Jamaican political leader. In his thick, earthy voice, over a groove as sticky as fresh mud, Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) asks “Do you remember the days of slavery?” It’s easy to forget that even in the 1970s the former British colony was still reeling from the effects of imperialism, but “Slavery Days” is an excellent reminder of the Jamaican national identity forged from the sharing of hardships. Burning Spear sings: “Some of us survive / Showing them that we are still alive.”
Augustus Pablo – “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” (1976)
Listening to dub music of the 1970s is an experience similar to listening to early American blues music. Where the latter found great wells of feeling beneath seemingly simple or mundane lyrics, dub does the same with barely any words at all. Dub is similar to reggae, but it’s all reverb and atmosphere, scaling back words and melody for the sake of sonic tricks. Augustus Pablo’s masterpiece “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” is a dub remix of “Baby I Love You So” by Jimmy Miller, which was originally produced by Pablo himself. With a mournful melodica line, ghostly shades of Miller’s vocal and sweeping guitar chords, this track creates something unforgettable in under three minutes.
The Congos – “Congoman” (1977)
Working with legendary producer Lee Perry proved to be a recipe for success for The Congos, the duo of Cedric Myton and Roy “Ashanti” Johnson. Until you hear the almost-hidden guitar bouncing away in the middle of the song, “Congoman” doesn’t really feel like reggae, centred around a gently pitter-pattering African-inspired beat and the luscious sound of Myton’s falsetto and Johnson’s rich tenor. The song is almost like a chant or a mantra, a paean to the African homeland that is wistful but not sad. Producer Perry takes the minimalist structure of the song and turns it into something grand – each beat feels like the gently lapping waves of the vast ocean.
Black Uhuru – “Youth of Eglington” (1981)
The production team of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare (who also collaborated with the likes of Grace Jones) worked regularly with Black Uhuru and with them created a decidedly contemporary brand of reggae. Their pop-reggae sound, characterised by the addition of synthesizers and other embellishments, works perfectly with Black Uhuru frontman Michael Rose’s effortless vocals and keen ear for melody. “Youth of Eglington” is a hard-hitting piece of pop that bemoans a restless and disenfranchised Jamaican youth that had become violent. The song doesn’t point fingers or try to lay blame, though – like the best reggae it observes what’s going on and hopes for a better tomorrow.