TIDAL 10: The Reggae Revival
This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a striking range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.
“Nuff a talk bout buss — buss wha?” said an up-and-coming artist named Chronixx, stepping onstage with a backpack over his shoulders and a knit cap covering his dreads. The year was 2012, and the 20-year-old Rasta vocalist was performing at his first Sting, the legendary annual stage show that had become a rite of passage for new Jamaican artists hoping to “buss,” or blow up. “Left some a dem down at the bus stop,” Chronixx added, and the crowd went wild.
The song he sang, “Odd Ras,” was a bold declaration of independence. “Me nah follow nobody,” Chronixx stated in the song’s chorus, making it plain that he was much more interested in leading. Calling himself “the only man with pants ’pon waist,” Chronixx insisted he would not follow trends, even when “the whole Jamaica bleach them face.” The line was an obvious reference to Vybz Kartel, the dancehall superstar who stirred widespread outrage with songs like “Cake Soap,” which was blamed for popularizing the practice of skin lightening. Kartel did not hide the fact that he bleached his own skin, and even marketed a brand of cake soap, both poking fun at and cashing in on the controversy.
Kartel’s clashes at Sting were the stuff of legend — in previous years he’d gone to war with Mavado, bringing their Gaza vs. Gully rivalry to the stage — but following his arrest in late 2011, Kartel was unable to perform. Chronixx’s appearance at Sting would be his first and his last; nevertheless, he’d seized the opportunity to lead the music in a new direction. “The earth is my stage,” he stated after the show, “and Sting is a small stage on a big stage, but we still give thanks.”
For over three decades, Sting had been known for having the toughest crowd in dancehall. Explaining that he saw music as therapy, Chronixx said he was “humbled” by the opportunity to perform at the time-honored event, even as he looked to the future. “I hope us young artists take this opportunity as well,” he said. “There is no denying we young artists are the future of the music.” After 2015 the show’s promoters called it quits. Jamaica’s music culture had shifted, and part of that shift had to do with the rise of a new movement known as the “reggae revival.”
Jamaican music has long been seen as divided territory, with reggae on one side and dancehall on the other — and like oil and water, the two don’t usually mix. The roots of this division stretch back more than half a century. Starting in the 1960s, the word “dancehall” referred to a space where people could hear all of their favorite music — blues, R&B, soul, jazz, ska, mento, rock steady, reggae and dub — played on a booming sound system and accompanied by a deejay talking jive on the mic. These exciting sounds weren’t available on the radio, and the dancehall soon became a cultural institution.
By 1969 the great Daddy U-Roy had begun recording his jive talk over well-known records to make new records, and this school of deejay music soon topped the Jamaican charts. During the 1970s Kingston-born Kool Herc would bring this practice to the Bronx, leading to the creation of hip-hop. The 1970s was also the decade when Bob Marley brought roots rock reggae to the world. Infusing his music with Rastafarian faith and universal messages of redemption, the King of Reggae toured the globe backed by some of Jamaica’s greatest musicians.
In 1985, four years after Marley’s untimely passing, King Jammy’s “Sleng Teng” riddim sparked a digital revolution in the studios of Kingston. Producers were compelled to make computerized tracks or risk falling behind the times. Deejays started becoming more prominent than singers, and many session musicians had a hard time finding work. From the late ’80s forward, dancehall came to be understood as a musical genre unto itself, related to but distinct from reggae.
A lot of this division comes down to a choice of lifestyle and personality, roots reggae being seen as the more conscious lyrical genre, characterized by songs of spiritual uplift. Though dancehall music can be every bit as conscious and uplifting, iconic deejays like Shabba Ranks and Super Cat were full of style, swagger, sex appeal and an ineffable quality known as “boasiness.” The next wave of dancehall stars — Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, Buju Banton — were every bit as boasy, and expanded the genre by collaborating with American hip-hop and pop stars.
The first decade of the new millennium belonged to Vybz Kartel and Mavado, but their epic rivalry left many international fans puzzled. After almost a decade behind bars, Kartel remains dancehall’s undisputed champion, and his former protégé Popcaan has become one of Jamaica’s biggest international stars. But while dancehall remains a major force, the reggae revival has no doubt helped define the past decade in Jamaican music.
Astute observers questioned the term, asking how reggae could be revived if it never died? It’s true that the movement had its precursors. Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, along with his elder brother Stephen “Ragga” Marley, led the way in fusing modern dancehall with their father’s classic roots reggae. Artists like Tarrus Riley were seasoning their traditional roots reggae with a touch of dancehall flavor in the late 2000s.
Still, there’s no denying that in the last 10 years a close-knit wave of artists — including Chronixx, Protoje, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid and Jesse Royal — have raised the international profile of Jamaican music by returning to the foundations of reggae and Rasta doctrine. At the same time, they’ve developed social-media savvy and paid attention to the latest musical trends to reach new audiences. In 2012 Chronixx released Start a Fyah, his breakout mixtape produced by Walshy Fire of Major Lazer; tapping into Major Lazer’s EDM/pop fan base was key to the new movement’s global aspirations. Jesse Royal would release his own Walshy mixtape, Royally Speaking, in 2014, and Kabaka followed suit in 2016 with Accurate. Ancient Future, the title of Protoje’s Grammy-nominated 2015 album, neatly sums up the vision.
When Protoje made his debut on the Reggae Sumfest stage in 2010, Jah9 was there to witness the moment. “I couldn’t have missed it,” she said afterward. “It’s important because he’s going to do some big things in Jamaican music. He’s trying to maintain a particular level of consciousness.” She admitted that his messages might take listeners some time to absorb. “It’s not just jump up and hear the beat,” she said. “It’s ‘Hmmmm … Listen to what he says.’”
Chronixx and Protoje connected the following year. “He hit me up online as a young producer,” Protoje recalled in 2014. “Him and his boy Teflon from Zinc Fence wanted to produce something for me.” At the time, Protoje was working on a project with Kabaka, who was also celebrating his birthday. Protoje invited Chronixx over and the vibes began to flow. “He started to sing his own songs and I was blown away,” Protoje remembered. “I was like, ‘Oh, my Lord, this youth is going to be crazy.’ And from that first night he’s been like, ‘Yo, we should do some music together.’” Their collaboration “Who Knows” became a worldwide smash.
The year after his Sting performance, Chronixx would drop a series of signature hits: “Here Comes Trouble,” “Smile Jamaica” and “Mi Alright” featuring Kabaka. Suddenly it was clear to everyone that the sound of Jamaican music was changing. As he sang on record, “Chronixx can’t do it alone.” But he didn’t have to. Such likeminded artists as Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, Jah9 and Protoje were helping push the new sound.
Ten years later, Chronixx and Protoje each have Grammy-nominated albums. Both have performed at major festivals like Coachella and on national television in the U.S. What’s more, they’ve championed new artists including Lila Ike and Koffee, who recently earned a Grammy nomination for her debut project, Rapture. The movement shows no signs of stopping.
Reshma B is a music journalist and filmmaker who specializes in reggae and dancehall. Her work appears on the BBC, Complex, Pigeons & Planes, Billboard and VIBE, and she is TIDAL’s reggae and dancehall curator.
Image: Chronixx performs in London in 2014. Credit: Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images.
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