An expansive, impassioned history of Jamaican reggae.
British music journalist Bradley roots his story in the details and personalities of the Jamaican postwar era: as colonialism faded away, nascent island cultures, stoked by the 1950s economic boom, made their mark, particularly through their “sound system” phenomenon, a precursor to today’s raves and hip-hop culture, at which operators played new, rare soul records from the UK and America to increasingly raucous crowds. A bizarre rivalry between sound systems like Trojan and Downbeat (and flamboyant sound men like Prince Coxsone and Duke Reid) soon led to widespread violence; the public obsession over the sound systems also reflected the class- and appearance-based stratification that ran rampant within Jamaican society. Although ambitious local singers soon issued their own crude recordings, which eventually gelled around the up-tempo “ska” sound, it was the once-scorned Rastafari subculture (rooted in the thwarted Black Nationalism of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia) that transformed Jamaican music, becoming “never so much as one step removed from the heart and soul of Kingston’s studios.” This occurred primarily in the person of Bob Marley, who embodied a great deal more than an archtypical “country bwoy” with an outsize musical talent. He was Jamaica’s “Malcolm X for the 1970s.” Bradley also works hard to include compressed stories of the many musicians both famous and obscure, who helped advance Jamaican music—from early artists like the Skatalites and Desmond Dekker, and eccentric innovators like Lee “Scratch” Perry, to international acts like Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear—and discusses how subgenres like ska and rocksteady reflected the volatile political thrashings of Jamaica in the ’60s and ’70s.
An exciting and thorough sense of reggae’s originality and perseverance in the face of crooked businessmen, thuggish interlopers, and general apathy from the Jamaican establishment. This will be the standard reference on the subject.