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Reggae's tropical sound is hotter than ever


In its infancy the Caribbean pop sound known as reggae was the soundtrack of revolution. Inspired by God and the violent political realities of Jamaica circa 1975, reggae pioneers like Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh set prophetic, apocalyptic lyrics against a tropical beat.

Twenty-odd years later reggae is still causing a revolution, but this time it's at the cash register. Reggae's international popularity is booming, as evidenced by Billboard magazine's introduction today of a chart to monitor sales of the music.

As if to herald the arrival of Billboard's chart, reggae acts are experiencing once-unimagined success in the United States. Snow's reggae-tinged "Informer" is one of the biggest hits of the year. Jamaica's Inner Circle recently enjoyed a Top 10 hit with its song "Bad Boys," the tune they recorded years ago for the TV show "Cops." The song toppled from its lofty chart position only to be replaced by UB40's reggae interpretation of Elvis Presley's 1961 chestnut, "Can't Help Falling in Love."

The reggae industry seems thrilled by Billboard's announcement.

"I think it will lend a lot of credibility to the art form," said Inner Circle bassist Ian Lewis. "What reggae lacks is sophisticated marketing, and this will probably help."

"It gives us a forum to get some national exposure," said Alan Kirk, operations manager of RAS Records, a Silver Spring-based record and distribution company. "It costs a lot of money to advertise in Billboard, so the companies that do advertise have lots more money to spend. The chart should give independent labels like ours more visibility."

Timothy White, Billboard editor in chief, says the chart is proof of reggae's commercial viability. Critics could contend that Mr. White is compelled by his own musical passions. An unapologetic reggae enthusiast, Mr. White is author of "Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley" (Henry Holt, $12.95). But the editor insists it was sales that prompted him to create the chart.

"Over the course of the last two [to] three years, reggae has become a more expansive presence," Mr. White said. "Some contemporary reggae records are selling as briskly as records by new modern rock bands. The Bob Marley collection is selling as well as Led Zeppelin's old records."

Mr. White's effusive comments would seem to be supported by the facts. Indeed, Snow, Inner Circle and UB40 are just the tip of the iceberg.

Caribbean acts like Yellowman, Shabba Ranks and Shaggy have popularized a rapid-fire rap style known as dancehall, and best-selling American hip-hop stars like Ice Cube, Boogie Down Productions and Das EFX are incorporating the sound into their music. Meanwhile, independent reggae labels like Shanachie, RAS and Heartbeat have flourished, even during the recession.

Embraced by Disney

Reggae Sunsplash, a high-concept caravan featuring Caribbean music, food and crafts, has become a bona fide American rite of summer. Sebastian, the reggae-singing cartoon crab from the Walt Disney film "The Little Mermaid" has spawned a number of popular TV specials and CDs.

Still more indications of reggae's increasing popularity: There is now a Grammy category for best reggae recording. Madison Avenue uses reggae to sell everything from beer to automobiles. Reggae culture is even impacting fashion. Dreads, the serpentine locks that were once particular to Jamaica's bohemianlike Rastafarians, seems well on its way to becoming the hairstyle of choice for African-American youth.

Opinions vary as to how reggae became such a powerful influence. Some credit major label involvement (until very recently, reggae was mostly recorded and distributed by independent labels that lacked sizable promotional resources), while others cite the emergence of dancehall as a factor.

C C Smith, editor of the Los Angeles-based reggae publication the Beat, believes reggae's growing popularity has to do with "a growing disillusionment with American music."

"This music has soul and a fascinating culture behind it," Mr. Smith said. "When you first hear reggae you don't understand the words and you're curious to know about terms like 'Jah Rastafar.' It draws you in. I know that's what happened to me."

Reggae legend Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) believes the contemporary reggae industry is simply profiting from the groundwork laidby pioneers like himself.

"We cleaned up the streets and curbs for the youth to come through today," he said. "When I first started in the business there was no pay day. We were doing the work we were called upon to do, and we built the foundation for the DJs and rappers to get paid today."

Today's reggae acts no doubt owe a tremendous debt to trailblazers like Burning Spear, but some fear those early endeavors are being undermined by major label involvement and racy new reggae subgenres like dancehall that are far removed from the music's spiritual traditions.

"I think [major label involvement is] a little dangerous," said the Beat's Mr. Smith. "There's a good possibility that no one will even remember the reggae that is being signed by the majors now. Most of the music is by these flavor-of-the-month dancehall artists. I'll get excited once the majors begin signing artists with more substance."

From the spiritual "conscious reggae" of Bob Marley, to the romantic sounds of Maxi Priest's "lover's rock" to dancehalls' hot-and-bothered rhythms, reggae has always been an evolving music. Pundits say its roots go back to the late 1950s when Jamaicans were introduced to New Orleans rhythm and blues and Cuban pop via radio.

When the New Orleans pop music scene dissipated in the early 1960s Jamaican disc jockeys and musicians began incorporating Louisiana and Cuban influences into their own calypso and mento music. Ska, the jumpy Caribbean pop style that resulted in Millie Small's 1964 hit, "My Boy Lollipop," presaged reggae by almost 10 years.

Its obscure name

By the late 1960s Jamaican musicians had slowed ska's nervy rhythms, instead placing the emphasis on murky bass and choppy, lurching beats. In 1968 Frederick "Toots" Hibbert and his band, the Maytals, released a single titled "Do The Reggay." No one knowns where the word came from -- some contend it comes from the patois "streggae," meaning "rudeness." Nonetheless, the word became a catchall phrase for Jamaican pop.

Reggae's big break came in the early 1970s when the handsome and gifted Bob Marley became its unofficial ambassador. Where American radio listeners had tired of protest music after the turbulent 1960s, Marley and his early partner, Peter Tosh, sang of empowering the disadvantaged and persecuted peoples of the world. Thanks to constant touring in America, Europe and Africa, Marley became reggae's most popular musician.

While Marley and his contemporaries spread the reggae gospel, the music's influence crept into European and American pop: Eric Clapton's 1974 interpretation of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." British bands like the Police and the Clash made reggae part of their sound. In America, the reggae influence could be heard on the Eagles' "Hotel California" and Blondie's "The Tide Is High."

"Reggae has been an underground influence on pop music for years," said Los Angeles DJ and writer Chuck Foster. "It's just that no one ever bothered to tell pop radio listeners where the Police's musical influence was coming from."

"A dozen years ago my partner and I would play artists who would sing about 'too much guns in the streets,' and people would call and complain about the violence in the lyrics," Mr. Foster said. "Now we play the same songs and people can relate, because violence and rights have become big issues in America."

Marley's untimely death from cancer in 1981 seemed like a tremendous setback for reggae. But as sales and cultural trends indicate, reggae has ever-so-quietly become a global influence.

"Reggae has crossed over," said Inner Circle's Mr. Lewis. "Look at us. I've been involved in some big records before, but not in my wildest dreams did I envision we would have a Top 10 hit in America."

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