Are Jamaica’s Biggest Stars Leaving Reggae Behind?
Or are they taking it to the next level?
Jamaica’s first reggae radio station, IRIE FM, debuted on the island’s airwaves in August 1990. In Jamaican Rastafarian parlance, “irie” means good, cool, nice, and the station utilized a simple jingle to announce its content: “Reggae in the morning, reggae in the evening, reggae at nighttime on IRIE FM.” Thirty years on, IRIE still plays the original jingle. But it’s no longer quite true.
Some of the biggest stars featured on IRIE FM are playing a hybrid style that would’ve been unrecognizable as reggae when the station began. To many fans, it’s unrecognizable now. The new sound of Jamaica owes as much to trap, EDM, Afrobeat, and contemporary R&B as it does to dancehall or the original roots of reggae. It’s a style that doesn’t have a name yet, at least not one that’s stuck (although it’s sometimes referred to as trap dancehall) and you can hear it all over Jamaica.
“Reggae and dancehall continue to influence and contribute to the birth of various genres, as we’ve seen with hip hop, reggaeton and tropical house; now we are experiencing the birth of trap dancehall. Listeners to IRIE hear reggae and dancehall but also their offspring in a bid to further propel the art forms,” comments Kshema Francis of IRIE FM.
Three marquee names—Tarrus Riley, Protoje, and Dre Island—released outstanding albums this year that embody this evolutionary sound. All have incorporated influences and teachings from their Rastafari way of life, yet numerous tracks on their new albums bear little resemblance to the reggae of a generation ago. “I love the authentic reggae and dancehall sounds, but there are mixtures of other influences within those sounds,” Tarrus Riley, whose album Healing dropped on Aug. 28, told The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom interview.
Tarrus, 41, is an unlikely poster child for this new movement. He ascended to reggae stardom in 2006 with “She’s Royal,” a beautiful roots tribute to women and one of the decade’s most popular Jamaican singles. Tarrus’s breakthrough was part of the ‘00s mid-decade resurgence in roots reggae. Another roots movement appeared in Jamaica in the early 2010s, referred to as the Reggae Revival, which saw the emergence of several charismatic young talents including Chronixx, Jah9, Jesse Royal, and Kabaka Pyramid. Tarrus sees himself as the middle child in the reggae family.
“Buju [Banton] and Sizzla were before me in the 1990s and Chronixx is after me so, I understand the roots and I understand the youths,” he explains. “When I was young, me and my father (the late Jimmy Riley whose singing career began in Jamaica’s mid-’60s rocksteady era) never liked the same music. It’s a new decade now, new things are happening so while the people from before want to hold on to music that had its time, the youths want to give you something new.”
Tarrus’ impressive catalogue showcases his finely tuned expressive vocals, which are adaptable to a range of styles from soft rock (“Jah Will”) to traditional Rastafarian Nyabinghi drumming (“Lion Paw”) to energetic dancehall (“Good Girl Gone Bad”). Then there’s the EDM power ballad “Powerful,” a certified gold single produced by Major Lazer, featuring Tarrus and Ellie Goulding.
Jamaica went into its coronavirus lockdown in late March. Tarrus abruptly ended his touring, returned home, and began writing and recording the songs that would become Healing, produced by Tarrus with co-production by Shane Brown and legendary saxophonist Dean Fraser.
Several tracks offer what Tarrus calls “experimental sounds”: over spatial dub and trap effects, Tarrus and rising trap dancehall artist Teejay trade quickly rhymed bursts referencing current racial and political sparring on “Babylon Warfare.” “Connect Again” with dancehall star Konshens anticipates a post-quarantine world and offers trap with a subtle reggae reverb while the spiritually fortifying “My Fire” (featuring singer Dexta Daps) is quintessential trap-R&B. The album’s biggest hit “Lighter” blends trap, EDM and dancehall into a catchy pop nugget, featuring female dancehall powerhouse Shenseea and is produced by (Jamaica born) Rvssian, well-known for his dancehall hits and Latin trap and reggaeton international chart toppers. The “Lighter” video has received over 32 million YouTube views since its release on Sept. 6. A fearless creative, Tarrus says the only thing to expect from his music is empowering messages.
“Don’t watch the tempo,” he cautions, “because I like doing new things. People are concerned with names, labels, trap, rap, hip-hop, dancehall, I can’t bother with them things. I have always been doing different kinds of sounds and I will continue. Music is going through a change right now, people are blending and fusing, everybody wants to call it a name, but I just call it good music.”
Reggae, like its direct Jamaican forerunners, ska and rocksteady, is an amalgam sound. In the late 1950s the ska beat was developed in Kingston recording studios by singers and musicians influenced by American doo wop, early rock and roll, gospel, rhythm and blues as well as Jamaica’s mento and Trinidad’s calypso. Rocksteady followed in 1966 with a slower tempo that allowed vocalists to fully showcase their talents while the basslines grew steadier and more pronounced. In 1968, the drum and bass led a faster, more complex rhythm called reggae. Experimentation on reggae tracks by Jamaican engineers and producers led to the birth of dub shortly thereafter. Dancehall reggae, reggae’s digitized strain, was created in 1984.
Over the decades, reggae has undergone organic stylistic changes and intentional adaptations aimed at reaching wider audiences. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell strategized marketing The Wailers’ 1973 Catch A Fire as a rock album, overdubbing guitar riffs and keyboard flourishes on the trio’s Jamaican recordings. Seeking to connect with an African American audience Bob Marley incorporated disco influences on his 1980 single “Could You Be Loved.” Esteemed rhythm section and production duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare brought the aggressiveness of the rock influences they absorbed while touring as members of Peter Tosh’s band opening for Santana and The Rolling Stones.
“As we did a couple of tours with these rock bands, we were wondering, how can we get that power, that energy, behind the reggae groove?” Dunbar told The Daily Beast. “So Robbie and I changed the sound of what we were playing, it was reggae but with a different attitude. The first experiment was (vocal trio) Black Uhuru, one of their first songs was “Shine Eye Gal” and people were like what is this?”
Sly and Robbie’s modernizations earned widespread attention, yet some protested they were changing the music too much. In the 21st century their sonic advances continue to inspire another generation of artists and producers. Stephen and Damian Marley sampled Sly and Robbie’s production of singer Ini Kamoze’s “World-A-Music” for Damian’s 2005 Grammy winning blockbuster “Welcome to Jamrock,” a profoundly influential consolidation of hip-hop, dancehall and reggae elements. In 2012, Protoje, deeply inspired by Marley’s “Jamrock,” sampled Kamoze for his provocative hit “Kingston Be Wise,” written about the Jamaica Defense Force’s incursion into the city’s Tivoli Gardens community in search of wanted drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, which resulted in an estimated 100 deaths.
Earlier this year Protoje sampled another Sly and Robbie rhythm for his production of singer Lila Ike’s single “Thy Will.” “Sly personally sent me the Baltimore riddim,” Protoje shared with The Daily Beast via Zoom, “and he told me, I love how you sample and lick over these riddims but now I want you to add something and move it forward.”
Protoje, 39, was born Oje Ken Ollivierre, the son of Jamaican lawyer (and former singer) Lorna Bennett and Mike Ollivierre, a former calypso king from St. Vincent. He was a core member of the Reggae Revival movement of the 2010s; since his initial impact on Jamaican music with the 2011 single “Rasta Love,” delivered in his mesmeric spoken/sung/patois-rapped vocals, Protoje has made tremendous strides in moving the island’s industry forward. He has signed three young female singers (Lila Iké, Sevana and most recently Jaz Elise) to his Kingston based label In.Digg.Nation Collective and made history as the first Jamaican artist to have his label contracted to an American major, RCA Records. In Search of Lost Time, released on August 28, is his premiere album through that deal. Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, Protoje’s broad based influences including classic dub, 80s dancehall, grunge guitars, trap, hip hop, and electronica are intricately woven into a multi-layered sonic.
The album opens with “Switch It Up,” blurring hip hop, R&B and a touch of roots, as Protoje and 20-year-old Jamaican sensation Koffee (who cites Protoje as a significant career influence) impressively change their flows, singing together then trading blistering verses. Incorporating a mash up of classic dancehall and hip-hop, Protoje reimagines the 1991 hit “Strange” by veteran Papa San into “Strange Happenings.” “Weed & Ting” is an unexpected take on a ganja song that also muses on life’s blessings and is set to a transcendent trap-one drop reggae fusion; the album’s other marijuana tune, “A Vibe,” featuring Wiz Khalifa, is straight up trap. Protoje wrote the motivational “Like Royalty” (featuring dancehall superstar Popcaan) after attending the 2019 Grammy Awards (he was nominated for Best Reggae Album for A Matter of Time); wreathed in hip hop, funk and soul, the song’s complex patois rhymes acknowledge the sacrifices made by a few close friends and especially his mother to advance his career.
Working alongside a stellar cast of Jamaican producers including Iotosh Poyser, Supa Dups, Ziah Roberts, Natural High, The Grei Show, Stephen McGregor and longstanding collaborator Winta James, Protoje incorporates live instrumentation, samples, dub reverbs and various effects into a sophisticated tableau that’s beyond genre classification yet retains many distinctive Jamaican elements: the heavy reggae bassline and signature Wailers’ percussion on “Deliverance;” a bassline sampled from renowned (British) dub producer/engineer Mad Professor on “Still I Wonder” and a sample of veteran singer Freddie McGregor’s “I’m A Revolutionist,” that’s flipped into the sultry neo-soul influenced love song, “In Bloom,” featuring Lila Iké.
“When Bob Marley dropped Exodus people probably said it wasn’t real reggae,” Protoje offered. (Recorded during Marley’s exile period in London, some critics balked 1977’s Exodus was unrelated to what was happening in Jamaica then, rather than applauding the album’s sonic innovations; Exodus was named Album of Century by Time Magazine in 1999.)
“I always incorporate indigenous Jamaican elements, but music evolves, and our generation is responsible for what the sound is now. It’s the youths them me check for but me want the elders to respect my music. Freddie McGregor, Papa San, Sly, all them people say them a love what me a do so me nah listen to the others. I just keep making music how it sounds in my head.”
Dre Island’s debut album Now I Rise combines Rastafarian roots reggae’s denunciations of societal injustices underpinned by atmospheric genre-defying beats. Released in May, the Now I Rise Deluxe Edition dropped on July 24, with Dre writing, singing and producing most of the album’s 20 tracks. Born Andre Johnson, Dre, 32, is a classically trained pianist who worked as an engineer/producer before stepping in front of the mic. He made his initial impact with such singles as the jubilant “Rastafari Way” and the poignant commentary on the disparities between “Uptown/Downtown;” Dre’s fan base was further expanded through acoustic performance clips uploaded to the internet and posted on social media showcasing his keyboard expertise and raspy, emotive vocals. His biggest hit to date “We Pray,” featuring Popcaan, a widely embraced hymn of spiritual strength (its video has received over 32 million YouTube views) was released in 2017 and is included on Now I Rise.
Dre skillfully explores a range of styles including EDM (“More Love-Dub Fx Remix”) exuberant funk pop (“Four Seasons”) Afrobeats (“Calling”) and several trap-influenced tracks such as “Run to Me” featuring Alandon. Raised in the volatile Red Hills Road area of Kingston, it’s Dre’s gritty firsthand observations that provide the album’s most riveting moments. Over a hazy trap-inspired rhythm track, Dre’s melancholy, deeply affecting vocals on “My City” deliver a bittersweet love letter to Jamaica’s capital, “where politicians every day dem import a strap and dem no care about the issues weh the voters got.”
“Kingdom” was written in 2014 about the Tivoli Gardens incursion, its sparse martial beat underscores the lyrics’ galvanizing spiritual call to arms: “I was living in a community that was affected dearly by that, a lot of innocent youths died, so I approached the song as we Rasta coming forward with Jah message,” Dre recalled. Equally haunting and likewise rhythmically stark, “Still Remain” remarks on the continual gang war in Kingston’s Mountain View community: “shotta spray like how the fountain spew, your door police will squeeze round ten through, stand over three man and found them blue.”
“Many artists speak on these kinds of things but because of where I come from, it’s only a few that strike it and let me see that harsh reality where me say, this is what really happen, him not lying,” Dre offers. “That’s why today I can say ‘it was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! Magazine,’” quoting lyrics from Biggie Smalls. “I felt I lived that too, Biggie. Biggie’s long gone in the flesh, but his soul will forever live on because he never lied, he struck in that reality. That’s what Bob Marley did too, he never tried to pretty it up: ‘man to man is so unjust you don’t know who to trust,” Dre adds, quoting from “Who The Cap Fit.” “Bob never tell no lie, that is exactly how it goes today, too.”
Wyclef Jean recruited Dre for the remix to his song “Justice” a tribute to slain jogger Ahmaud Arbery, then offered Dre the remix for Now I Rise. “Bang Your Head” pairs Dre’s mother’s wise encouraging words with producer Winta James’ futuristic EDM meets hip-hop infused rhythm. The impressively sweeping musical scope of Now I Rise won’t outwardly be identified as roots reggae although Dre’s impassioned delivery and provocative statements extend the music’s revolutionary spirit with a sonic update for a new generation. “I don’t watch genre because reggae is not a beat for I,” says Dre, who like Tarrus and Protoje resists categorizations. “Reggae is the music that Rasta use to deliver the message of His Majesty (Ethiopian Emperor, Rastafarian Savior Haile Selassie I) and as a Rastaman, I message say burn (condemn) division, burn segregation, we are one people: I say no race, no color, so how am I going to say genre? As long as the message is speaking righteousness and love to the people, then the music is reggae for I.”