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Reggae and ska music is greatly associated with the culture of the country it was born in, Jamaica, but the popular styles of music have also made a home away from home in Britain. Over the decades the British Isles has produced its own artists greatly influenced by Jamaican music which have had a significant impact on culture and popular music. But what is that impact? Let’s take a look at the history of reggae and ska music in Britain.

Bob Marley

The story of British reggae began in the 1960’s when the British public first got a taste for Jamaican popular music. Island Records, a music label based in the UK, had connections to the recently independent  Jamaica and began bringing reggae music across the Atlantic, with the first ever Jamaican hit song being ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small in 1963. Soon the radio began to play music from ska, dub and reggae artists such as Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and the Aces and Toots and Maytals.

This music was not only welcomed by Britain’s community of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, but favoured by many sectors of society and other labels like Trojan began importing more of the music to British shores.

By the end of the 60’s, skinhead culture had been born, with young Caribbean immigrants and those of mod culture coming together for a truly multicultural scene. Skinhead youths listened to reggae and Jamaican ska as well as wearing clothes fashionable within the mod scene such as combat boots, polo shirts and trilby hats. It was quite a revolutionary moment for British culture and for music.

By the 1970’s, reggae received its first internationally recognised defining star in the form of Bob Marley. Marley’s influence was massive and he inspired not only the Jamaican music scene but also fans abroad, particularly young fans in Britain. Reggae had become a fully-fledged mainstream force in music which even had an effect on rock music. There was a crossover between punk and reggae down to both genre’s inherent rebelliousness, and artists like The Clash implemented their own take on Jamaican music in songs like ‘Guns Of Brixton’.

As the 70’s wore on and the 80’s began, the seeds planted by the early reggae artists, Britain’s growing multiculturalism and the influence of Marley on pop culture began to bear fruit. The country started producing its own brand of reggae and ska music. British reggae and ska was similar in musical style to Jamaica’s except the vocalists sung about their own troubles in life. A popular topic was the disgruntlement with Margaret Thatcher’s politics by the working classes which coincided with a skinhead culture revival.

British Ska Revival Band The Specials

A whole record label dedicated to British ska music emerged in the form of 2 Tone, a multicultural label that represented the revival of skinhead culture in the late 70s. Its star band was The Specials, a group that had both white and black members and had hit songs such as ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ which spoke about young people’s life in the Thatcher era. Other British ska bands, both white and black, arose amongst the skinhead revival including The Beat and Madness, which would go on to have big hits such as ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ and ‘Baggy Trousers’, respectively.

Ska not only found its own British voice though, as reggae music began to be made within the UK. Aswad and Steel Pulse were amongst several British bands that stayed true to their Jamaican origins, whilst also offering a distinctly British tone in what was known as roots reggae. Other groups like the hugely popular UB40 from Birmingham had a mixed race makeup and made R&B style gentle reggae with a very British style that differed from Jamaica.

Britain even spawned its own sub-genre of Jamaican music known as Lovers Rock. Lovers Rock was more soulful and gentle than the usually rebellious reggae and was slow danced to by young couples in clubs.

Jamaican dancehall also made its way to British shores when played at traditional sound clashes, whereby DJ’s would play both tracks from Jamaican and British artists. British dub would eventually morph into and become a part of the jungle and dance music scenes as rave began to take over as the exciting new force in youth culture in the 90’s. British reggae even seeped into trip-hop groups like Massive Attack.

British reggae today is not as prevalent as it once was, but it still has some influence on modern music. Jamaican music is still being played in the underground and occasionally its influences pop up in chart topping dance songs and indie bands. The music is gone but it’s not forgotten, as the classics still get played regularly. British reggae is inspirational for the revolutionary and multicultural lessons it can teach us so it should never ignored.

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License: Creative Commons

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License: Creative Commons

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Zach Mitchells is a music blogger and has been a huge reggae fan ever since he first heard it as a child played by his parents.