Reggae Music and the 80s Mix

Reggae was used by artists like Gregory Issacs, Dennis Brown and Bob Marley as an outlet to fight racism and social inequality. In South London a subgenre known as lovers rock developed, where Jamaican patois met Cockney slang.

But reggae transcends politics: even the likes of Ian Dury and Led Zeppelin were drawn to its irresistibly catchy beat.

Many Rivers To Cross

Reggae music has given rise to some of the greatest songs ever heard in history. Reggae gained international popularity during the 80s thanks to acts such as Bob Marley. Their success propelled roots reggae, rocksteady and subgenres like ska and rocksteady into becoming popular, further spreading roots reggae’s reach around the globe and honing its distinctive rhythmic patterns which we recognize today as signature reggae beats.

Artists during this era also helped introduce different sounds from Africa into mainstream society, including Malian folk musicians like Ali Farka Toure and Nigerian juju pioneer King Sunny Ade from Nigeria who popularized African highlife, funk, and jazz styles in mainstream pop music with huge hits. Reggae artists like Fela Kuti fused big band jazz with Nigerian juju, funk and traditional African melodies to form what later became known as Afrobeat music – creating groundbreaking fusions that now known globally today as Afrobeat music.

Reggae songs of this era often focused on themes of love, romance and spirituality. Some artists also used reggae to advocate social justice – an issue which now defines its genre altogether. Artists such as Toots & Maytal used reggae music to voice their concerns for Jamaican people through songs like “Police and Thieves.”

Bob Marley & The Wailers were one of the biggest names in reggae music at that time, creating hits such as “One Love,” which talked about peace on earth as well as warning of deep punishments that will await those who cause pain to others.

The Wailers also produced a song that captured the beauty of Jamaica and its inhabitants – “Blackheart Man,” with its haunting melody that will draw listeners in; its lyrics talk about women being powerful sources of passion in men’s hearts. However, unlike some other reggae songs of this period this one does not contain overtly aggressive or harsh messages.


Reggae was developed in Jamaica during the 1960s under the influence of rhythm and blues and jazz music, specifically its precursors ska and rocksteady, featuring slow rhythms while its successor dancehall features faster beats. Reggae music has since inspired other genres including hip hop and dub. Reggae lyrical themes may be controversial such as marijuana use (considered sacred among Rastafarians), homophobia, antiracism or criticisms against colonialism or capitalism – making its lyrical themes especially interesting!

Jamaican artist Judy Mowatt was one of Bob Marley’s I-Threes backup singers and part of The Gaylettes band in the 1960s. Her soothing, soulful voice inspired listeners in this reggae song which speaks out against how society oppresses black women; its message addresses slavery, colonialism, imperialism in an engaging yet upbeat manner.

This 1968 track by The Wailers (later The Thrills), features Alva Lewis’ smoky guitar sound. The song introduced a signature sound for reggae music: sinewy “chick-ee” guitar lines that would later become iconic of reggae music itself. Furthermore, Bob Marley was on hand with his signature deep baritone voice giving his songs depth and power.

Junior Murvin of The Wailers made a major leap into rock territory with 1976’s Police And Thieves, an angry song about crime in Kingston’s ghettos that provided a soundtrack for London rioting at that year’s Notting Hill Carnival. Two years later, punk band The Clash covered this song – testament to its potency.

Other popular reggae artists in the 1970s included Toaster Yellowman, known for his style of toasting–which can be considered similar to rapping in American culture–in his hit Mister Yellowman (1982). Eddy Grant released his electronic Afro-rock-reggae-funk anthem Walking On Sunshine (1979). Gregory Isaacs created African Anthem/At The Control Dubwise (1981). Bunny Wailer released an instrumental track called I Don’t Wanna Be Sad (1982), while Ripton Joseph Hylton produced an acoustic Raggamuffin-style song entitled Wa Do Dem (1982).

One Drop

Reggae music has many distinguishing elements, one being its characteristic “one drop” drum pattern in which the drummer emphasizes beats 2 and 4, but closes down his hi-hat on beat 1. This beat cycle is repeated throughout each song as bassists play quarter notes; these rhythmic patterns were refined from rocksteady’s earlier creative explorations by adding influences such as R&B and funk; harmonic progressions also became less complex to create an ambient quality which better complemented Jamaican artists’ lyrics.

Roots reggae music was influential on ska and dancehall, which both feature vocal harmony with looser time signatures. Ska and dancehall in turn inspired “rockers”, an emerging subgenre from the mid 1970s characterized by more mechanical drum sounds and heavier beats; Sly & Robbie popularized this style at this point in time; other notable artists from this era include Janet Kay, Kofi Marks and Louisa Marks among many more. Lovers rock is another variation on reggae that embraces romantic elements; famous examples include Bob Marley hits such as “One Love.”

Reggae music has attracted musicians outside of Jamaica with its lyrics that celebrate marijuana (ganja) such as Dennis Brown’s “Pass the Dutchie” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Karma Chameleon.” These musicians found that reggae’s beats resonated with their rebellious spirits, leading them to contribute their talent towards mainstreaming reggae music into pop culture.

After Bob Marley’s death in 1981, reggae rapidly expanded and diversified. British bands Steel Pulse kept roots reggae alive while Black Uhuru pioneered dancehall with synthesizers creating more modern sounds. Reggae’s popularity even more so surged during the 90s thanks to a wave of female Jamaican artists such as Queen Ifrika, Jah Nine and Hempress Sativa, who signified an evolution from Rastafari’s traditional patriarchy towards equality among men and women within Rastafari philosophy.

Hip-hop’s rise in America introduced reggae music to an entirely new audience. DJs who provided breaks for young rappers or toasters influenced by reggae’s use of different cuts of rhythm tracks to vary groove and allow space for an MC’s delivery of verses over them, as well as its uptempo house/breakbeat styles – became familiar at raves of today.


Aswad and drumming legend Angus Gaye combine for this timeless reggae groove that shows just how integral rhythm sections are to reggae music – much as in rock, pop or dance music. Most great Jamaican reggae records of its time relied upon superb rhythm sections reminiscent of jam sessions among friends rather than professional teams who studied their craft through hard work and repetitive practice alone.

By the late ’60s, reggae had evolved beyond early Ska and Rocksteady into a more sophisticated sound. The beat slowed down, losing brass instruments altogether for more laidback songs with vocalists often providing both harmony and lyrics in tandem with lyrics – an essential ingredient that enabled rock-reggae stars like Bob Marley to cross over to rock audiences, helping establish reggae’s global profile through his groundbreaking Catch A Fire album.

Producers in an expensive studio environment began manipulating existing recordings to produce unmistakably brilliant dubs using Lee Perry and King Tubby as pioneers, who made mixing into an art form; others, like Tapper Zukie and U-Roy foreshadowing hip hop by rapping over recordings – an amazingly influential move!

As the result of postwar Caribbean migration to Britain, a new generation of musicians and studio hands emerged within Britain’s multiracial centres who took inspiration from Jamaican reggae but added their own British spin: this style became known as Lovers Rock. One iconic example is Louisa Mark who delivered delicate yet sensuous tracks evoking black British experience and identity through Lovers Rock. For most of its existence during the 70s however, UK reggae could never compare with Jamaican versions; thanks to pioneering work done by bands like Matumbi Aswad Steel Pulse as well as Lovers Rock; soon this perception would change; Lovers Rock proved its own potency and compellingness alongside its Jamaican cousins!