A New Box Set Could Turn Casual Reggae Fans Into Obsessives

Jamaican music gets complicated. In the United States, all Jamaican pop music is reggae. Ska, rocksteady, dub, dancehall—if Americans are familiar with those styles, they generally consider them a subset of reggae. And by "reggae," they usually mean Bob Marley. And by Bob Marley, they usually mean the greatest-hits collection Legend, released three years after his death, which is by far the best-selling reggae album ever.

Even the handful of reggae and dub performers and producers who have had widespread international impact—Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Lee "Scratch" Perry, King Tubby—are dwarfed by Marley's legacy. In an ironic twist, the man who did the most to internationalize Jamaican music is probably the reason its history and cultural context are so misunderstood. (It's an open secret that Marley's reputation has been built mostly outside Jamaica.)

There are plenty of resources that correct the record: any number of compilations and reissues from labels like Trojan, Island, and the sadly defunct Blood and Fire, or Lloyd Bradley's Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King (released in the U.S. with the less-awesome title This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music). New York's VP Records presented a new addition to this catalog, Reggae Golden Jubilee: Origins of Jamaican Music, in November. It's not necessarily the best compilation of Jamaican music available, or the best introduction for newcomers. But it is just the thing for casual fans who want to step up to a more serious understanding of ska, rocksteady, dancehall, and all the other genres associated with the island. The four-disc set offers a comprehensive and chronological overview of Jamaican music from the pioneers of ska through contemporary dancehall artists like Shaggy, Damien "Jr. Gong" Marley, and Sean Paul.

Jamaica's indigenous pop didn't start with ska, but that's the starting point here, and in most accounts of Jamaican music history. There are two basic reasons for that. First, mento, the form that immediately preceded ska, was a hybrid of Jamaican folk traditions and calypso, so it's not regarded as fully, uniquely, distinctively Jamaican. (Ska, a mix of jazz, mento, and R&B, is a hybrid, too, but eventually developed into something more substantial than a composite of other forms.) Second, ska, which emerged in the late 1950s and blossomed in the early '60s, is closely associated with Jamaica's independence in 1962, after centuries of British rule. One of the early tracks on Reggae Golden Jubilee is Lord Buster's anthem "Independent Jamaica." Ska's skanking rhythm was smoothed into the R&B-influenced vocal groups of rocksteady, which gave way in the 1970s to the bass-heavy, funky, and socially conscious reggae and eventually to lively, stripped-down dancehall.

More politics: The entire set was selected by former Jamaican prime minister and music executive Edward Seaga. It's essentially a greatest-hits set, some more familiar than others, from the early ska favorites "My Boy Lollipop," by Millie Small, and Justin Hinds' "Carry Go Bring Home" through rocksteady classics (The Paragons' "The Tide Is High," later covered by Blondie), early reggae (Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Trenchtown Rock," Derrick Morgan's "Tougher Than Tough"), the emergence of Rastafarian roots reggae (the Abyssinians' "Satta Massagana"), reggae's '70s international peak (Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey," Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," Culture's "Two Sevens Clash"), and on to dancehall (from Wayne Smith's "Under Mi Sleng Teng" to Sean Paul's "Gimmie Di Light"). Only dub, the radically minimalist studio surgeries of the '70s, seems to be underrepresented.

Almost all of these songs can be found on dozens of economy-priced CDs—I've pieced together a pretty useful collection of them over the years without much conscious effort. Other collections have the benefit of depth, focusing on particular styles, eras, performers, or even studios and producers. But the chronological arrangement and historical scope on Reggae Golen Jubilee—not to mention its bargain price (around $40)—make it a worthwhile investment for anyone with more than a cursory interest in Jamaican music. Bear in mind, though, that this set will likely spur a spending spree—if you don't end up with a pile of Studio One, Trojan, and King Tubby comps and copies of Two Sevens Clash, Heart of the Congos, War Ina Babylon, and King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown within a few months of hearing this set, you're probably not listening right.