The Boisdale guide to Reggae
Reggae is an intrinsic part of Boisdale's musical life. In this essential guide, Angus Taylor takes you through the artists bringing new energy to Jamaica's music scene
April 8 2020
BY ANGUS TAYLOR
Since its birth in the late Sixties, from an already fertile and innovative music scene in Jamaica, reggae has spread around the globe. Nearly 60 years later, the sonic export of an island with a brutal history and a population of just three million people still retains its distinctive, off-beat rhythm and adaptive versatility. It has yielded some of the most inventive cover versions of international hits, and has been a vehicle for completely original songs about love, justice, poverty and faith. Through Bob Marley’s music, it has introduced the world to Rastafari, a spiritual belief system rooted in African religion.
Today reggae is listened to and played by people of all ages in every country. Its influence is felt in almost every genre from grime and hip hop – through the use of microphone battles over records spun on sound systems – to electronic dance music, adopting the remix and production techniques developed in reggae’s instrumental offshoot, dub. Yet many of reggae’s veterans are still touring to adoring crowds, and in the last decade, a resurgence of young Jamaican performers have continued to espouse the teachings of Rastafari to a fresh audience.
Here follows a selection of six Jamaican reggae artists, both established and new, who are shaping the world scene. Reggae is an incredibly broad music and there are many worthy vocalists who could have been included. That said, each of these six represents a different aspect of this immortal and multifaceted art form, born to uplift in the face of struggle.
THE RISING SUPERSTAR
Soft-voiced Spanish Town vocalist Jamar “Chronixx” McNaughton carries the weight of the reggae industry’s expectation on his young shoulders. The son of the singer Chronicle, Chronixx revealed musical talent at an early age, directing his local church’s youth choir. Now a proponent of Rastafari, he enjoys a grassroots following in Jamaica and abroad. Comfortable with reggae and more up-tempo dancehall rhythms, he satisfied the purists with 2014’s extended EP, The Dread & Terrible Project, before experimenting with a diverse range of global styles on 2017’s debut album, Chronology. Chronixx is a leading figure in a collaborative group of young Jamaican artists, controversially called the “reggae revival”, which includes Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal and Jah9. His recent concert at Alexandra Palace, with Protoje as support, was sold out.
Key album: Chronology. Reggae purists question the second half, which departs from traditional “one-drop” beats in favour of hip hop and even chant-chorused dance pop. But Chronixx resists categorisation as purely a reggae artist and these songs bring his Rasta messages to the mainstream.
THE ELDER STATESMAN
Possessed of a grainy tone as rich as a pint of creamy stout, veteran crooner Beres Hammond still fills venues with crowds of screaming admirers for more than 40 years. He achieved superstar status fairly late in his career: Following a stint as the singer in Seventies group, Zap Pow, he became a hit-maker in the Eighties and Nineties with producers Willie Lindo and Donovan Germain. Since then he has been unstoppable. His 2018 UK tour sold out and his latest album Never Ending, topped the Billboard charts. Reggae songwriting is often honed with new melodies to existing famous rhythms. At this Beres excels – his keen observations of romantic encounters or reggae dances mark him as one of the all-time greats.
Key album: His catalogue is vast, but a worthy starting point is 2001’s Music is Life, featuring the nostalgic “Rock Away”, and “Dance 4 Me” with Wyclef Jean.
THE DEEP THINKER
A crucial figurehead in Jamaica’s new roots movement, Protoje is a lyricist specialising in cool love songs and scathing social commentary. The son of singer Lorna Bennett, who had a 1972 British chart hit covering Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast in Bed”, Protoje has gradually ascended the international reggae rankings with an easy-going manner and a steely determination. Following a phase of riding retro rhythms influenced by Eighties studio wizards Sly and Robbie, he distilled his music down to a highly original, seamless blend of contemporary roots and conscious hip hop. His 2014 collaboration with Chronixx, “Who Knows”, was the first reggae song in years to be play-listed by Radio 1 and in 2018 he repeated the achievement with solo single “Like This”.
Key album:A Matter of Time. Protoje’s fifth long-player (his second with producer Winta James) is his most streamlined and innovative to date – a moody, late-night rumination on the meaning of modern existence.
THE RASTA POET
After decades of under-representation, female reggae artists are becoming more numerous. One of the more striking to come out of Jamaica recently is poet, activist and Rastafari thinker, Janine “Jah9” Cunningham. The daughter of a preacher, who walked away from a corporate career to become a musician, Jah9 combines an unconventional yet pleasing sense of melody with a mixture of fierce commitment and playful humour. Jah9’s unapologetically intellectual stance and Rasta repositioning of modern millennial pursuits such as yoga, wellness and veganism make her a feminist icon – even if she has rejected the label in the past. Her new EP, Feelings, is out now.
Key album:New Name. Jah9’s 2013 debut, built with producer and sound system selector Rory Gilligan, trumpeted her arrival. It showcases both her seriousness (the title track’s mystical clarion call) and her earthy wit (organic love song “Avocado”).
THE CLASSIC ROOTS SINGER
Where reggae purists might question the genre-hopping of a Chronixx or Protoje, devout young Rasta singer Samory I offers a gateway to the cultural music of the Seventies. His eerie, otherworldly voice helped him escape a troubled youth in the Kencot area of central Kingston, catching the ears of Rory Gilligan and Bridgett Anderson (manager of beloved Nineties singer Garnett Silk). His first album, Black Gold arrived flawless and fully formed. This year he has been travelling the European festival circuit earning rave reviews.
Key album: Black Gold. Samory’s Rory-produced first record is one of the strongest reggae albums of the decade.
At just 18 years of age, has rocketed from Spanish Town schoolgirl to Jamaica’s fastest rising young reggae artist. Her songs, “Burning” and “Raggamuffin”, have been played at sound-system dances around the world, she’s appeared at Jamaica’s famed Rebel Salute festival and has travelled to Europe as the guest of seasoned singers Cocoa Tea and Chronixx. A humble, thoughtful, prodigiously talented vocalist and lyricist, her progress thus far suggests a bright future ahead.
Key album: Koffee has yet to release an album but has recently signed a record deal with Columbia UK, and is working on a project with Walshy Fire of Major Lazer.