The Essential: Reggae
From its beginnings in downtown Kingston and through multiple sub-genres, reggae has evolved into a worldwide cultural expression. Gary Tipp roots out its most crucial releases…
For what is a relatively small island in the Caribbean, Jamaica has held a wildly disproportionate sway over shaping music across the globe. This vibrant nation has its own soundtrack – reggae, an astonishing genre that has influenced everything from punk to rap, trip-hop to dubstep and more besides.
Reggae, in all its various shapes and forms, emerged in the early 1960s in Kingston when local bands, turned on by the contemporary sounds coming out of US radio stations, such as jazz, rock ’n’ roll and New Orleans R&B, started to put their own distinctive mark on it.
Ska signalled the beginning, using existing elements of Caribbean mento and melding them with rhythm and blues, to produce infectious, offbeat dance music. Important early ska artists included Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, The Skatalites, Desmond Dekker and the most famous of them all, Prince Buster.
During this time, soon after the island had gained independence from Britain in 1962, electricity was still a rarity in the majority of Jamaican households. This meant that locally pressed 45s were played to huge crowds on large outdoor sound systems which, in turn, fostered a dynamic and competitive DJ scene.
Rocksteady was ska’s melodic successor with a slower, more relaxed tempo, a greater emphasis on sweet vocal harmonies and a lyrical focus on political messages. The Heptones, Toots And The Maytals and Alton Ellis are all major figures.
The distinctive reggae beat evolved out of rocksteady by dropping the smooth, soulful sound and replacing it with funkier bass-driven rhythms. At this point, the music expanded rapidly into any number of marvellous sub-genres, including dub, roots reggae and DJ/toasting.
Dub originated in late-60s Kingston. In simplistic terms, dub is the art of creating unique instrumental versions of existing recordings by taking out the vocals, cranking up the drums and bass, then adding an unholy mass of echo and reverb. Its founding fathers are King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Errol Thompson, with Augustus Pablo and Keith Hudson waiting in the wings.
Roots reggae developed out of rocksteady during the early 70s and added elements of mainstream rock to give it a strong crossover appeal. It was typified by strong vocals and messages of cultural rebellion and devout Rastafarianism. This is the powerful concoction that made Bob Marley reggae’s first true global superstar.
At the same time, Jamaican superstar DJs, such as U-Roy, Big Youth and Tapper Zukie, were artfully talking over the top of existing records; all of them adding incredible flavour to the reggae genre and foreshadowing hip-hop.
Our selection of reggae’s most essential vinyl chronologically spans all these genres and steers clear of modern-day compilations. We also decided to use prices of UK first pressings, as opposed to the ridiculously rare, prohibitively expensive Jamaican first pressings.
Ancient Future – Protoje (2015)
The title of Protoje’s essential third release reflects the range of music on the album, from ska and rocksteady grooves to new roots rhythms and a splash of hip-hop. Ancient Future is the singer’s way of looking back, but at the same time surging forward, with some powerful and conscious contemporary roots reggae.
Latest 2015 Mr Bongo £20
Art and Life – Beenie Man (2000)
The Grammy-winning Art And Life bears testament to the invincible Beenie Man’s reputation as one of reggae’s smoothest and most versatile performers. As well as his trademark dancehall, the ambitious album fuses hip-hop and R&B stylings to produce a breezy, eclectic party record of epic proportions.
Rarest 2000 Virgin £25-£30
Latest 2002 Virgin £20
Black Woman & Child – Sizzla (1997)
The ever-hardcore, often controversial Sizzla – a strict adherer to the Bobo Ashanti sect – is one of the leading and most prolific figures in reggae’s conscious dancehall movement. Producer Bobby ‘Digital’ Dixon’s infectious backing rhythms provide the perfect platform for Sizzla’s own blend of melodic singing and rapid-fire chatting on this classic album.
Rarest Greensleeves 1997 £25-£30
Latest VP Records £20
Nyah Man Chant – Bushman (1997)
Going against the grain of the ubiquitous Jamaican dancehall scene, the debut release from Bushman (real name Dwight Duncan) sparked a mini-resurgence in roots reggae. Produced by Steely and Clevie, the album strove to recreate the textured feel of a classic 70s album, while the songs tackled traditional Rastafarian themes.
Rarest Greensleeves 1997 £40
Latest Greensleeves 2001 £30
’Til Shiloh – Buju Banton
Informed by his conversion to the Rastafarian faith, the brash teenage lyrical slackness of Banton’s early albums gave way to social awareness on this high-water mark release. The fusion of dancehall and classic roots, coupled with a newly found social awareness, cemented his reputation as a serious artist.
Rarest Loose Cannon £30
Latest Music On Vinyl £25
It’s Growing – Garnett Silk (1992)
After cutting his teeth in the dancehall scene as a teenager, Silk developed quickly into a roots singer with a powerful voice and massive promise. His masterpiece of a debut album was a huge hit in Jamaica. Sadly, his potential was not to be realised, as he died in a house fire at the age of 28.
Rarest 1992 Vine Yard £40
Latest 1995 Vine Yard £30
Mister Yellowman – Yellowman (1982)
The albino DJ, King Yellowman (Winston Foster), overcame obvious adversity as a youth to become dancehall’s first superstar in the 80s. His debut release on the Greensleeves label is a showcase for his masterly toasting skills; laced, as they are, often comically, with amplified bragging about his sexual prowess. Bob Marley, he wasn’t – great rhythms, though.
Rarest 1982 Greensleeves £30
Latest 2014 Greensleeves (Blue vinyl) £40
Night Nurse – Gregory Isaacs (1982)
One of reggae’s greatest vocalists, the Cool Ruler (aka The Lonely Lover) was the founding father of ‘lover’s rock’ and his delivery is at its silky smoothest on this his most successful release. Night Nurse brought with it a taste of international stardom that has previously gone a-begging, despite a back catalogue of undoubted greatness.
Rarest 1982 Island £25-£30
Latest 2009 Island £15-£20
Red – Black Uhuru (1981)
With Puma Jones and Michael Rose joining Derrick ‘Duckie’ Simpson, the classic line-up delivered the band’s finest studio recording. Sly and Robbie’s propulsive bass-and-drum sound adds some funky soul and crossover appeal to the album’s spiritual messages. The band progressed to be the first reggae act to win a Grammy.
Rarest Island 1981 £30
Latest Island 2014 £25
Live At The Counter Eurovision 79 – Misty In Roots (1979)
Proclaimed by many to be the best live reggae album of all time, this British roots-reggae band’s debut documents a gig in Belgium. Formed in Southall in 1975, the band were a solid John Peel favourite, with their lyrics poignantly quoted at his funeral.
Rarest 1979 People Unite £40-£50
Latest 1990 Kaz Records £25
Africa Must Be Free by 1983 – Hugh Mundell (1978)
Augustus Pablo met Mundell at a recording session and took him under his wing to cut this imperious debut album. His pure vocals and precocious songwriting talent belied his tender years; he was only 16 at the time. Tragically, Mundell was shot dead – ironically, in 1983 – at the age of 21.
Rarest 1978 Message £50
Latest 2012 Greensleeves £30-£35
Dread Beat An’ Blood – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1978)
Born in Kingston and raised in Brixton, Johnson adapted the vocal delivery of Jamaican DJs to originate his own unique dub poetry style. With producer Dennis Bovell at the controls, this compelling debut covers the racism and injustices dealt to the capital’s West Indian population. It is both a great album and, contextually, an important document.
Rarest 1978 Front Line (released under Poet And The Roots) £45
Latest 2013 Virgin £25
Best Dressed Chicken In Town – Dr Alimantado (1978)
Straight out of reggae’s leftfield, Dr. Alimantado’s righteously bonkers debut is an eclectic mix of different production styles – both Lee Perry and King Tubby contribute – all tied together by the DJ’s crazed delivery. With vocals provided by such giants as John Holt, Horace Andy and Gregory Isaacs, the Doctor was truly born for a purpose.
Rarest 1978 Greensleeves £30-£40
Latest 2017 Keyman £13
Handsworth Revolution – Steel Pulse (1978)
Formed in inner city Birmingham and named after a racehorse, Steel Pulse can lay fair claim to being the UK’s greatest reggae band. A sounding board for their political protest, their ferocious debut album, including the iconic Ku Klux Klan single, was instantly lauded as a roots classic – and it remains so to this day.
Rarest 1978 Island £35
Latest 2017 Island £20
Heart Of the Congos – The Congos (1977)
This 1977 release is another roots masterpiece from the erratic genius that is Lee Perry. Recorded at Black Ark Studios, the album’s pastoral tone benefits from an untypical ‘less is more’ Scratch production. The Congos provide the masterful harmonies and a roster of killer songs. It was first released in the UK in 1981 on The Beat’s reissue label, Go-Feet.
Rarest 1981 Go-Feet £30
Latest 2017 VP Records £25
Party Time – The Heptones (1977)
Survivors of the ska/rocksteady transition into reggae, The Heptones are up there as one of Jamaica’s greatest vocal trios and worked with many of the island’s major producers. But it wasn’t until they teamed up with Lee Perry that their full talent was realised, marked by the release of Party Time. The album contains the utterly wonderful Sufferer’s Time, as well as a stand-out cover of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.
Rarest 1977 Island £25-£30
Latest 2013 Island £20
Police & Thieves – Junior Murvin (1977)
The combination of Junior Murvin’s unique, fierce falsetto and Lee Perry’s peerless Black Ark production delivered the goods on this irresistible roots album. An all-time classic, massive international hit and Murvin’s greatest moment on vinyl, the title track was lovingly butchered, sorry, covered by The Clash on their debut album.
Rarest 1977 Island £30-£40
Latest 2015 Island £15-£20
Exodus – Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)
Marley’s best-selling studio release was recorded in London exile after a failed attempt on his life drove him out of Jamaica. Despite the turmoil, Exodus is the work of an artist at the peak of his songwriting powers. Add Jamming, Three Little Birds and Waiting In Vain to the title track and you have a landmark album that is as accessible as it is captivating.
Rarest 1977 Island £30
Latest 2017 Universal (40th Anniversary boxset) £120
Dennis Brown – Wolf & Leopards (1977)
The prolific Crown Prince Of Reggae is often cited as Bob Marley’s favourite singer and is one of the genre’s great voices. The Wolf & Leopards album is significant, as it was his first as a fully-fledged Rastaman and features one of his most-loved songs, Here I Come. Brown died at the age of 42, but his legacy lives on.
Rarest 1977 DEB £35
Latest 2005 DEB Music £20
Tappa Zukie – In Dub (1977)
The young Tappa was shipped out to London from Kingston to keep him out of gang trouble. The DJ/producer largely reconfigured his stunning sophomore album M.P.L.A. and its reincarnation, In Dub, is a heavyweight slice of rumbling bass-driven genius. Tappa was revered by the UK punk scene and he even supported Patti Smith on her 1976 tour of the UK.
Rarest 1977 Stars £125-£150
Latest 2011 Jamaican Recordings £25-£35
Two Sevens Clash – Culture (1977)
A huge favourite of John Peel, the debut release of vocal group Culture was recorded at Joe Gibbs Recording Studio in Kingston. The title refers to a Rastafarian prophecy that foresaw 7 July 1977 as the day of the apocalypse. The album, surprisingly up-tempo considering its subject matter, is a roots-reggae classic.
Rarest 1976 Lightning £40
Latest 2017 VP (3xLP) £30
Augustus Pablo – King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown (1976)
Dub wizard Augustus Pablo teamed up with fellow sonic pioneer King Tubby to produce this deeply cavernous and hugely influential album. Pablo’s famed ‘Far East’ sound, created with his trademark melodica, drifts across the tracks. Johnny Rotten-approved, it remains the very definition of essential: a home isn’t a home without a copy.
Rarest 1976 Yard Music £175
Latest 2013 Clocktower Records £35-£40
Legalize It – Peter Tosh (1976)
After thumping Bob Marley on the 1973 UK tour, the former Wailer stepped out of his former bandmate’s shadow with his stunning debut album. Legalize It affirmed Tosh as a standalone and razor-sharp creative force to be reckoned with. The explicit pro-ganja stance of the album earned it a radio ban at the time, but that didn’t prevent its widespread and enduring acclaim.
Rarest 1976 Virgin £20-£25
Latest 2016 Columbia £20
CB 200 – Dillinger (1976)
The gangster-inspired DJ named his first release on Island Records after his much-loved Honda motorbike.The effortlessly catchy Cokane In My Brain was the big break-out hit, earning him the endless devotion of a legion of spotty UK punks, including Joe Strummer.
Rarest 1976 Black Swan £20
Latest Island £25
Super Ape – The Upsetters (1976)
The Upsetters was the generic name given to Lee Perry’s various awesome house bands. This dub powerhouse of an album was one of the last releases to be completed at the legendary Black Ark Studios, before it was lost to fire. Super Ape remains the purest testament of the boundless genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Rarest 1976 Island ILPS 9417 £50
Latest 2015 Island £25
War Ina Babylon – Max Romeo & The Upsetters (1976)
Before putting his name on this superlative release, Romeo was best known for the smutty ska smash Wet Dream (“Lie down girl, let me push it up, push it up”, etc). War Ina Babylon was another thing altogether, a deeply spiritual album full of politically charged songs and a top-drawer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry production. As is the way, some albums are more essential than others – and this is one of them.
Rarest 1976 Island £40
Latest 2013 Island £30
Blackheart Man – Bunny Wailer (1976)
After walking away from The Wailers, the band he formed with his childhood friend Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer launched his own record label, Solomonic. Its first release and his debut solo album was Blackheart Man, one of the most intense, ferociously captivating roots albums of the era (or any era come to that). Tosh and Marley both contribute backing vocals.
Rarest Island £35
Latest 2014 Island £25
Right Time – Mighty Diamonds (1976)
Initially issued with the title When The Right Time Come (I Need A Roof), the debut album from the Mighty Diamonds is an enduring roots-reggae classic. The trio’s trademark sweet harmonies owe as much to Motown as Trenchtown, with the groove provided courtesy of ace sessioneers Sly and Robbie. They were among the first artists to sign to Virgin when the label entered the reggae market in the 70s.
Rarest 1976 Virgin £30
Latest 2010 Virgin £20
Marcus Garvey – Burning Spear (1975)
The third album from one of Jamaica’s most influential and long-standing reggae artists (aka Winston Rodney) proved to be his masterpiece. Named after the titular Rastafarian prophet, this deep-roots classic rhythmically seethes with religious foreboding and outrage. A dub version of the album called Garvey’s Ghost was released four months later.
Rarest 1975 Island £30-£40
Latest 2014 Island £22
Pick A Dub – Keith Hudson (1974)
The Dark Prince Of Reggae trained as a dentist and sunk his earnings into founding his own record label (Inbidimts). As a highly respected producer with a signature dominant drum-and-bass groove, Hudson put his own name on one of the greatest dub albums of them all. Pick A Dub is a slab of seminal dub genius.
Rarest 1974 ATRA £70-£85
Latest 2016 VP Records £18
Catch a Fire – The Wailers (1973)
The first reggae album to make the crossover to the rock audience on both sides of the Atlantic, this milestone release was The Wailers’ first album on Island Records. It paved the road to superstardom for Bob Marley and includes the peerless Stir It Up. The original album possessed a die-cut ‘Zippo lighter’ hinged album sleeve, and it remains as essential as they come.
Rarest 1973 Island – original Zippo sleeve £150-£175
Latest Island Records 2015 £20
Screaming Target – Big Youth (1972)
Initially influenced by master toaster U-Roy, Big Youth (Manley Augustus Buchanan to his mum) developed a distinctively fresh, streetwise, often political, delivery style of his own. Screaming Target – his landmark debut album, produced by Gussie Clarke – is packed with classic rhythms and big hits of the day, and remains a seminal release in reggae’s evolution.
Rarest 1973 Trojan £40
Latest 2015 Trojan £20
Funky Kingston – Toots and the Maytals (1972)
Formed by the charismatic frontman Toots Hibbert, the influential vocal group transitioned smoothly from the early days of ska through rocksteady and into reggae. Indeed, their 1968 single Do The Reggay was the first song to use the word ‘reggae’. Funky Kingston, featuring a crazy cover of Richard Berry’s Louie Louie, showcases the band’s dynamically raw yet soulful sound.
Rarest 1973 Dragon £30
Latest 2014 Trojan £20
The Harder They Come – Jimmy Cliff (1972)
The lead role as rude boy Ivan in The Harder They Come propelled Cliff towards global superstardom. His intense performance aside, one of the reasons for the movie’s success was a killer soundtrack. Alongside hits from Toots & The Maytals (Pressure Drop) and The Slickers (Johnny Too Bad), the man himself delivered three classics (Many Rivers To Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want and the title track).
Rarest 1972 Island Records £30
Latest 2010 Island Records £25
Version Galore – U-Roy (1971)
Ewart Beckford, aka U-Roy, aka The Originator, was the prime pioneer of toasting – the DJ’s art of rapping/rhythmically chatting over the instrumental versions (usually the B-side) of the popular songs of the day. All cut for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio, Version Galore was a milestone release and gathers up a dozen of U-Roy’s highly original interpretations of classic Jamaican hits. His vocal style was a major influence on early rap.
Rarest 1973 Trojan £40
Latest 2015 Trojan £15
Young Gifted and Black – Bob and Marcia (1970)
The couple were a Jamaican vocal duo consisting of Bob Andy, formerly of The Paragons, and Marcia Griffiths, a successful solo artist in her own right (who had a 1967 hit in the UK with Feel Like Jumping). This essential album is best known for its title track, a cover of the Nina Simone song. After parting with Bob A, she joined Bob Marley’s female back-up trio, the I Threes.
Rarest 1970 Trojan £30
Latest 2015 Trojan £15
This is Desmond Dekkar – Desmond Dekker (1969)
Reggae’s first superstar made his major international breakthrough with 007 (Shanty Town), the opening track of this pioneering compilation album of early Jamaican hits. The classic album was rush-released to capitalise on Dekker’s newfound popularity in the UK; so much so that the original rude boy’s name is misspelt on the cover. Dekker also played a role in launching the career of Bob Marley.
Rarest 1969 Trojan Records £25-£30
Latest 2015 Trojan Records £15
On the Beach – The Paragons (1967)
Delivering sweet American soul music mixed with a rocksteady beat, The Paragons are best known for writing and first recording The Tide Is High; later a big hit for Blondie. Masterminded by lead vocalist John Holt, who went on to have a successful solo career of his own, On The Beach is a heavenly slice of Jamaican pop at its very finest.
Rarest 1967 Doctor Bird £250
Latest 2013 Music On Vinyl £25
Ska Boo-Da-Ba – The Skatalites (1965)
The core members of this legendary ska band first met up in a school for troublesome boys and ended up defining the sound of 1960s Jamaica. This revered collection, also known as Top Sounds From Top-Deck, showcases perfectly the combined instrumental genius of the Studio One label’s extraordinary house band.
Rarest 1965 Top Deck £265
Latest 2003 Top Deck £25
I Feel The Spirit – Prince Buster (1963)
Cecil Bustamente Campbell is one of the true giants of Jamaican music. His debut album is a joyful listen and remains to this day as irresistible as it has been influential. A cursory glance at the tracklisting reveals the debt owed to the Prince by the 2 Tone ska revivalists of the late 70s – this is so great, it’s madness.
Rarest 1963 Blue Beat £150
Latest 2016 DOL £15