What is Rocksteady

Rocksteady is the direct predecessor of Jamaican Reggae. Rocksteady has sparse rhythmic accompaniment and a relaxed feel allowing the vocalist more expressive musical phrasing and greater lyrical freedom. All these elements were retained in Reggae.

The History of Rocksteady
Around the mid 1960, while Ska was still very popular in Jamaica, there was a change in the rhythm, with a new dance step to match. Singer Hopeton Lewis explained that Rocksteady came about mostly by accident. In 1966, during a recording session of “Take It Easy,” Hopeton Lewis was finding it difficult to keep pace with the fast moving Ska. Studio personnel like bassist Jackie Jackson, pianist Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson as well as one of the major pioneers of the music, guitarist Lyn Taitt, were present. This is how Lewis tells the story: “The song was written to the popular beat of the time, Ska. But I could not follow the Ska beat - it was too fast. I asked Gladdy to slow it down. Gladdy said ‘This boy here is a Rocksteady.’ The word stuck. The song caught on so fast I couldn’t believe it.

Everyone in Jamaica was singing “Take it Easy.” Recorded at Federal Records, "Take It Easy" was an instant hit. It was followed by "Rocka Shacka," "Sounds and Pressure" and "Cool Cool Collie." Whereas the filmmakers of Rocksteady:The Roots of Reggae believe “Take it Easy” was the first Rocksteady song, other sources claim that "Get Ready to Rocksteady" performed by Alton Ellis was the first. The major switch was from Ska’s profusion of percussive instruments, catchy guitar riffs and the abundance of horns, to Rocksteady’s bold bass lines, conveyed in a laid back fashion. Along with this change came a contraction in the size of orchestras, with an increase in the number of solo and group performers. The Gaylads, Desmond Dekker & The Aces, The Paragons, The Techniques emerged and then the Uniques, The Maytals and the Wailers. Bob Andy, Roy Shirley, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson and Alton Ellis were the hit makers of the day, as well as newcomer Hopeton Lewis, who maintained his popularity.

Alton Ellis, Under Duke Reid’s production, made a great contribution to this era with the classic "Girl I’ve Got a Date," "Breaking Up" and "I'm Still in Love with You." The Paragons scored with a string of hits like "Memories by the Score," "On the Beach" and "Wear You to the Ball," indicating the significance attached to vocal groups at this stage. Slim Smith and the Techniques also crafted Curtis Mayfield hits in songs like "Little Did You Know."

Rocksteady music also saw the increase in social comment/message type songs. "Rudie" songs were recorded which were actual comments on the ghetto realities of the day. “Rudies” were unruly gangs, also called rude boys. In the 1960s, young people from the Jamaican countryside had flooded into the urban ghettos of Kingston such as Riverton City, Greenwich Town and Trenchtown. Though much of the country was optimistic in the immediate post-independence (1962) climate, these poverty-stricken youths found no work in Kingston. Many of them joined other delinquents who exuded a certain coolness and style. People called them “Rudies.”

The rude boy phenomenon had existed in the Ska period of the early 1960s, but was expressed more obviously during the Rocksteady era in songs such as "Rude Boy Gone a Jail" by the Clarendonians, '"No Good Rudie" by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, "Don't Be a Rude Boy" by The Rulers and "Tougher Than Tough" by Derrick Morgan. Desmond Dekker and The Aces were leaders in this genre and had one of the finest international hits in "Poor Me Israelites."

Rocksteady singers wrote songs whose lyrics observed or commented on Jamaican society. One of the finest most poignant examples is 1968’s "Everything Crash" by The Ethiopians. The song called attention to the spate of strikes being experienced in the country. The song earned the distinction of being one of the earliest Jamaican recordings to be restricted from airplay, and not because of immoral or suggestive lyrics. The major music producers at the time were directly in touch with the true originators of the music. The most successful was C.S. "Coxsone" Dodd. In 1963, Dodd opened the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica on Brentford Road in Kingston. Officially called the Jamaican Recording and Publishing Studio, it came to be known as Studio One, which also served as the name of Dodd's signature label from then on. With the Skatalites serving as the house band (and cutting plenty of instrumental hits of their own), Studio One turned out some of the era's best and biggest hits, with records by Delroy Wilson, Toots & the Maytals, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Andy and - perhaps most importantly –Bob Marley & the Wailers, including their chart-topping debut smash, "Simmer Down." In the process, Studio One became an invaluable training ground for an entire generation of Jamaican musical talent. Dodd was constantly scouting for new talent, holding weekly auditions, and often provided vocal training for talented but raw singers. The studio's prolific recording pace kept its stable of arrangers, producers, and musicians heavily occupied. It gave them the practical know-how that would help some set up their own operations in the years to come, and provided a strong foundation for the continued development of the country's recording industry.

The Rocksteady period remains the most often sampled portion of Dodd’s extensive catalogue. Helped out by new multi-track recording capabilities, which allowed for richer vocals and leaner, subtler arrangements, Dodd honed a signature sound that was soulful, organic and rootsy. It grew into a sonic blueprint that would endure to the Reggae age. Studio One's most prominent artists of the period included Alton Ellis, the Heptones, the Ethiopians, Jackie Mittoo, Delroy Wilson, Marcia Griffiths and Ken Boothe. Duke Reid, who went from being a police officer to grocery/liquor store owner and dancehall DJ, built a recording studio directly above the Treasure Isle Liquor Store, and began releasing original material starting in 1959. He formed a house band and issued singles by Derrick Morgan and the Jiving Juniors as well as many Ska hits by the Skatalites, Stranger Cole, the Techniques, Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, and others. It was with the beginning of the Rocksteady beat in 1966 that Treasure Isle was able to overtake Dodd’s Studio One. The peak years of Rocksteady (1966-1969) witnessed many of Reid's finest productions. Alton Ellis, Phyllis Dillon, the Melodians, the Paragons, the Ethiopians and the Jamaicans, all recorded for him backed by Reid's new house band, Tommy McCook & the Supersonics.

Reid also had a hand in the new dancehall music: DJs were starting to insert their own rhyming patter, dubbed "chatting" or "toasting," over popular records. U-Roy pioneered in this area. Reid hit upon the idea of simply having the DJ chat over preexisting rhythm tracks from past Treasure Isle hits. The results were wildly popular; at one point, four of U-Roy’s early singles hit the Jamaican Top Five all at once. Reid continued to record U-Roy through the early 1970s, using his back catalogue for material, and also released records by other early DJs, most notably Dennis Alcapone. Music arranger and guitarist Lyn Taitt, who helped to fashion the very sound of Rocksteady, worked between Sonia Pottinger’s High Note Label and Duke’s Treasure Isle. Taitt was at that fateful session at Federal Studios when Hopeton Lewis was not able to keep up with the Ska beat. Other musicians who were crucial in creating the music included keyboard player Jackie Mitto, drummer Winston Grennan, bassist Jackie Jackson and saxophonist Tommy McCook.


Evolution of Rocksteady into Reggae

Several factors contributed to the evolution of Rocksteady into Reggae at the end of the 1960s. The two main factors were the emigration to Canada of key musical arranger Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt, and the upgrading of Jamaican studio technology. The latter had a marked effect on the sound and style of the recordings. Musically, bass patterns became more complex and increasingly dominated the arrangements, and the piano gave way to the electric organ in the mix. Other developments included horns fading farther into the background; a scratchier, more percussive rhythm guitar; the addition of African-style hand drumming, and a more precise and intricate drumming style. The use of a vocal-free or lead instrument-free dub or B-side "version" became popular in Jamaica.

By the late 1960s, as the Rastafarian movement gained in popularity, many Rocksteady songs became focused less on romance and more on black consciousness, politics and protest. Rastafarian chanting, synoptic drumming and spiritual preoccupation influenced both rhythm and lyrical content. The release of the film 'The Harder They Come' and the rise of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley brought Reggae music to an international level that Rocksteady had never been able to reach. Although Rocksteady was a short-lived phase of Jamaican popular music, it was hugely influential to the Reggae, Dub and Dancehall styles that followed. Many bass lines originally created for Rocksteady songs continue to be used in contemporary Jamaican music.