dinsdag 1 november 2016

Rocksteady : a crucial transition

2016 marks the 50 year anniversary of the Jamaican music genre Rocksteady. This musical style appeared in Jamaica in 1966, following on the Ska period (that started around 1960), and gradual musical changes in Ska. Later changes in Rocksteady would of course result in Reggae music, appearing as separate genre in 1968.

This implies that Rocksteady did not have a long period or heyday: from 1966 to 1968; at most three years, as several sources/works on Jamaican musical history state. This short period of a few years – however – in this case says nothing about its relative importance in Jamaican musical history. This importance in fact cannot be underestimated. Limiting Rocksteady to just being a “station on the way” or transitional phase, toward Reggae is doing it no justice. It was a transitional phase, yes, but an influential, “shaping” one with regards to following Reggae. Its influence is still present in current Reggae. This raises, by the way, the interesting existential and philosophical question as to what degree the type of transition defines the eventual type of change.

In this post I would like to focus on Rocksteady, and its importance to Jamaican music up to now, despite its few years of dominance.


On a personal note, as the writer, I think it is good to give my opinions on Rocksteady. I consider myself a Reggae fan, and have first started to really get into Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s. This started around 1984, when I was about 10 years old. My taste soon expanded, and Studio One records came more to the fore, also from the 1960s, including both Ska and Rocksteady. I went a bit back in time, one can say.

As a preceding and related genre, Ska had a bit of my interest, though I personally did not take to it so much as to, say, 1970s Reggae. It appealed to me overall less, depending on songs. I liked several slower Ska songs, but found much Ska songs a bit too fast and frenetic to my taste. A bit too simple too at times, though I noted the lively feel. Remarkably, my body danced/swayed automatically to Reggae (without a “manual”), but moving to the faster Ska was somewhat more difficult for me (and yes I “do” have rhythm and can dance on the beat, haha). A matter of taste and habit.

Rocksteady, now, I liked a bit more than most Ska. The first Rocksteady songs I really heard were by the Ethiopians, followed a bit later by Alton Ellis.

Its slower groove attracted me more than Ska, and I liked the increased attention to vocals and harmonies in Rocksteady, with many qualitatively good songs, at least in my opinion.

Also great songs by Alton Ellis in the Rocksteady mode appealed to me at once, although Ellis' great singing played of course a role too.


I noted the similarities to Reggae, but also became aware of the differences in some aspects. The bass guitar became electric and more prominent in Jamaica by 1966, with since then “repeated patterns” in Rocksteady (in Ska the bass was “walking”): clearly a forebode to Reggae. There were however still some differences with Reggae in musical characteristics: in drum and other patterns, or instrument use. Interestingly, yet typically, newer technology also drove changes, starting with the said electric bass guitar becoming used more in Jamaica since the Rocksteady period began (around 1966): Ska tended to have an upright, acoustic bass, with walking patterns on every beat. Also, Rocksteady tended to use pianos, whereas following Reggae used more modern keyboards, somehow causing changes musically, along with new studio technology.

Beyond such technical and musical differences explained in text, there’s – I find – a difference you can also “feel”, and that’s in dancing. I am aware that in European culture, it is not that self-evident that “music is best experienced danced to”, as is more prominent in other cultures (African or African-derived ones for instance).


In the work ‘Reggae and Caribbean music’ by Dave Thompson (Backbeat Books, 2002) the difference between Ska and Rocksteady (that followed on Ska around 1966) is described poignantly as such:

The rock steady was taking over, slower, more considered, more cool (than ska). Instead of honking horns and skipping rhythms, the bass now drove the song, and the heavier the better”.

It was not just about changed (slower) tempo, also drum and other differences arose, as Leonard Dillon (of the Ethiopians) pointed out: Ska and Rocksteady could both be slower or faster: that’s not the main distinction. It is “how” it is played that made them different genres.


General changes from Ska to Rocksteady further included less of a "big band" focus (smaller orchestras when compared to Ska.. the Skatalites disbanded also in 1965), a decreased role of the horns (becoming more supportive than leading), and a different bass pattern (more melodic and spacious, when compared to the walking, continuous acoustic bass patterns in Ska). The drum changed along with this too, in Rocksteady accentuating stronger the third beat (of 4/4), known as the One Drop. This continued in Reggae.

Interestingly, Michael E. Veal in his work 'Dub : soundscapes and shattered songs in Jamaican reggae' (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) also adds to this that the new electric bass lines in Rocksteady (he uses two words as some other athors "rock steady") "composed of a mixture of rests and syncopations opening up spaces for other instruments to insert counterrhythms". This is an African retention.

The decreased prominence of horns is said to be due to their costliness, although Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen, in their work 'Reggae Routes : the story of Jamaican music' (Temple University Press, 1998), found this explanation only partly convincing, relating it also to a preference among some of the musicians for a shift to "pure rhythm" or bass. They point out that in a poorer country like Haiti, folk and popular music still uses quite some horns, contradicting their inherent costliness. O'Brien Chang and Chen further point at a variety of reasons for the changes, reasons I will address later on..

The very educational and recommendable online article by the knowledgeable "reggae expert" David Katz addresses this too, pointing also at the shift to the drum emphasis on the third beat (of 4/4), the "One Drop", remaining as said in following Reggae.

The readable and informative work ‘The rough guide to reggae’, by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, in turn, dating from 2001 (published by Rough Guides), devotes a chapter called ‘Rude boys and Rocksteady’ to the genre, stating in this chapter:

The brief flowering of rocksteady – between the autumn of 1966 and the summer of 1968 – was the most important episode in Jamaican musical history, exerting an influence on almost every subsequent development history. The shift of rhythmic focus onto the bass and drums has remained a feature of all later stages of Jamaican music.”

In the work is further explained: early remixes or “proto-dubs” were made in 1967, while the first dee-jay/toaster to record songs in studios, the “originator” U Roy, did this first on largely instrumental versions of Rocksteady songs. So, also for Dub and for Dee-jaying – as current accepted subgenres within Reggae -, the Rocksteady period was crucial.


Several songs contest for the title for “first Rocksteady song” (all from 1966) in Jamaican history. This kind of anecdotal history recurs throughout different works on Jamaican music. Most sources agree on a few songs that could be the very first ones, but do not know which one for sure. Even Jamaicans themselves of the time are/were not entirely sure.

These four songs recorded in 1966 all could be the first Rocksteady songs:

  • Alton Ellis-Girl I’ve Got A Date

  • Hopeton Lewis-Take It easy

  • Derrick Morgan-Tougher Than Tough

  • Roy Shirley-Hold Them


The use of the electric bass and other technology – as I wrote before – played a role in the musical change. Yet, beyond this there were other factors influencing the change, also mentioned in standard works on Jamaican music and its history, such as the one mentioned above by Dave Thompson, but also in other works.

The increased attention to singing and vocals might, according to the 2002 work ‘Reggae : the story of Jamaican music’ by Lloyd Bradley (accompanying a BBC series), be a cause rather than a consequence of Rocksteady’s rise. This because the slower genre, and less “big bands with virtuoso instrumentalists (as in Ska)”, made it more accessible for aspiring singers from Jamaica’s ghettos to be vocally active in music, but with no money or opportunities for learning to play (or owning) instruments.

Other practical reasons are also anecdotical, such as the known studio story relating how when Hopeton Lewis was recording ‘Take It Easy’ (in October 1966), he found the Ska rhythm accompanying it too fast for his vocals, asking to slow the rhythm down, signalling a first stylistic move toward Rocksteady among the musicians present (according to many).

Other explanations for Rocksteady’s rise relate to Jamaica’s social context. Ska was there when Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1964, when optimism was for a few years strong among the population, with hopes for a better future for Jamaicans. This prosperous future did not come after 1964, especially not for the poorer population. Seemingly only politicians/elite groups among Jamaicans profited from independence. In fact, poverty and inequalities increased in Jamaica after 1964.

This, according to several works, changed the mood among the Jamaican ghetto population attending the dancehalls, away from the jumpy, fast pace of Ska, toward a slower, heavier genre, namely Rocksteady. So-called “Rude Boys”, who also often were involved in crime in response to increased poverty, seemed to favour this Rocksteady over Ska.

In Jamaican music the audience was and is justly influential on what is played at the dancehall (and not the other way around: that big companies decide what is played, for instance, as in Europe and the US). Therefore the audience also influenced changes in Jamaican music’s direction around 1966.

Another influence, as several works on Jamaican music point at, is the influence of Soul music from the US, of bands like the Impressions, whose somewhat “smooth” harmonies were a period popular among many Jamaicans, in turn influencing a change toward “smoother” and slower Rocksteady, also allowing more vocal harmonies.

All these factors mentioned here were I think to different degrees influential in the change from Ska toward Rocksteady, as part of a multifaceted, yet organic process. The music industry, technology, musicians’ studio input, aesthetic/musical/artistic choices, international influences, social changes, and audience expectations.


Not everyone knows the origin of the name Rocksteady, not even those somehow into Reggae. Of course it means something in English, along the lines of very “tight” or “fixed”. Several sources point out that this name refers to the changes in playing/recording the music. It is said that when the music for Hopeton Lewis’ 1966 tune ‘Take It Easy’ was played slower, one of the musicians present (pianist Gladstone Anderson) called the new, slower rhythm “rock steady”, thereby according to some “christening” the new genre’s name, there and then.

This could well be true, but other sources, instead, relate the name more to the differences in dancing between Ska and Rocksteady in Jamaica. Ska was commonly danced to in a faster, more “moving about” and twisting way, while Rocksteady, with its repeated basslines driving the rhythm, seemed to call more for a “stationary grid”. Thus: steady as a rock. Rocking the shoulders and body to the music, while staying put more or less on one spot. “Rent-a-tile” was a characteristic expression appearing at that “Rocksteady” time at the Jamaican dancehalls (either for a single dancer, or a couple romancing and dancing).

The classic Rocksteady tune ‘Rocksteady’ (1966) by Alton Ellis, refers with its title to a specific dance, different from the Ska dancing.

The added advantage of the Rocksteady dance – especially when it’s busy and crowded in a place – is that when dancing you take up less space as a person, thereby allowing enough space for others as well. This does then end up to be well-mannered, without much effort, haha.

With the importance of the “dancehall” in actually shaping Jamaican music, the influence of dancing as such on Rocksteady’s development should not be underestimated. Indeed, the intricate relationship between music and dance is clear, even (if indirectly) in studio recording.

Trinidad-born author Sebastian Clarke of the work ‘Jah music : the evolution of popular Jamaican music’ (Heinemann, 1980) recognized as much, stating in the book (in a section on Rocksteady in Jamaican music):

Throughout the changes that the music made, dance was a primary element. Without dance there would be no music. The music was played almost exclusively for dancing from its inception via the sound systems to live performances..”

He further describes the differences of dancing to Ska and to Rocksteady, as it developed, describing how on “fast and pacy” Ska the accent was on the feet (“shuffle and split”), whereas dancing on Rocksteady, slower yet with more “tension” in it, the body responded to an inner rhythmic drive. Shoulders tended to be shaken, while the arms and hands made pounding motions (to an invisible enemy or force), while staying on one spot. Clarke concludes from this, interestingly, that “the tension of the external society was internalized by the dancer and expressed physically”..


Rocksteady was not “just” transitional, as I said. The “repeated patterns” of the bass, and its leading role along with the drums, turned out to be –as mentioned - a recurring, lasting trait of all subsequent Jamaican music, notably Reggae, and derived Dancehall. Rocksteady and Ska (and Reggae) shared the “afterbeat” as general rhythmic focus of own Jamaican genres, but had further different accents in instrumentation, vocally, musical choices etcetera.


Those leading, repeated bass patterns started in Rocksteady, and consisted thus of a crucial transition. The whole idea of “riddims”, now sung over by several artists, in fact was made possible by this; different leading bass lines made these Riddims recognizable as distinct. Many “riddims”, or instrumental versions, of Rocksteady songs, therefore recur in current Reggae and even Dancehall. One should only listen to old Rocksteady songs by Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, the Melodians, or the Heptones to “recognize” music still vocalized over today by current artists like Half Pint, Junior Kelly, Sizzla, Capleton, Bushman, Luciano, Anthony B, and Lutan Fyah. Many of whom started their music careers well after Rocksteady’s heyday. These Rocksteady “riddims” thus recur.

Examples abound, but I can name the Slow Down/Love Won’t Come Easy Riddim: this one is based on an instrumental called ‘Frozen Soul’ by the Soul Vendors at Studio One, on which the Heptones recorded their 1968 Rocksteady tune “Love Won’t Come Easy’ (Lutan Fyah’s ’King’s Son’ from 2008 is e.g. on this Riddim), or the Hypocrites/Mr Landlord Riddim, based on the 1967 Wailers’ tune ‘Hypocrites’ (Bushman’s ‘Fire Bun A Weakheart’ is e.g. on this Riddim), . These originals had the typical Rocksteady characteristics. The Pretty Looks Riddim (from the 1968 tune ‘Pretty Looks Isn’t All’) is another example (Dennis Brown’s ‘Hit & Run’ is e.g. on this Riddim).

The Rocksteady “vibe”, so to speak, can thus be still heard throughout today’s Reggae. All “recycled” today, perhaps a bit modernized or “reggae-fied” but still recognizable as older Rocksteady instrumentals from roughly the period 1966-1968. As said, the driving “repeated patterns” of the bass made each song distinct, unlike the “walking bass lines” (with notes on every beat) of the Ska era before.


Another crucial and lasting change in Jamaican music, due to Rocksteady, I already mentioned: the increased prominence of singing. This included harmony vocals, eventually influencing the rise of great vocal harmony groups in Jamaican music: the Wailers, but also the Abyssinians, the Gladiators, the Viceroys, the Wailing Souls, the Itals, and the Mighty Diamonds. Even those groups releasing their first records after this Rocksteady period, still stood in the new tradition started in the Rocksteady period. Due to the slower tempo and other musical changes, this vocal harmony could develop in Jamaican music during the Rocksteady era. This became of course a crucial element in Roots Reggae, with bands like Culture or Israel Vibration reaching even international audiences since the later 1970s, and helping to increase Reggae’s world wide popularity beyond just Bob Marley.

Besides this, many influential individual singers in Reggae, started in or around the Rocksteady period, or “developed their vocal style” more, after the more instrumental focus of Ska before it, People like Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis started in the Ska era, but came to more prominence in the Rocksteady era, showing indeed how great they were as singers (and songwriters). Ellis making a song under that title (ascribing the name to a dance), while Ken Boothe became known as ‘Mr. Rocksteady’ at one point. Bob Andy and John Holt also made classic Rocksteady tunes, covered afterwards several times (Bob Andy’s ‘Too Experienced’ or ‘My Time’ for example).


Here is also where a playlist I myself compiled some years ago for YouTube comes in handy: the playlist assembles “first single releases” or “debut singles” of many Jamaican reggae artists. Needless to say: some of these debut singles were in the Rocksteady genre (some in Ska a.o.), dependent on the recording year, of course: Jacob Miller (as a child), Horace Hinds (Horace Andy), Earl Lowe (Little Roy), Enos McLeod, Keith Blake (Prince Alla), Junior Soul (Junior Murvin), the Gladiators, the Renegades (early formation of the later Wailing Souls), the Tartans (including the later Congos’ Cedric Myton and Prince Lincoln Thompson), Al Campbell.. are but some examples of known artists starting their career with a Rocksteady tune.


Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, important for the Rastafari community, visited Jamaica in 1966 (so also 50 years ago in 2016), a time when Rocksteady was arising in Jamaican music. The large audience awaiting Selassie at the airport, showed that the Rastafari community had increased by then in Jamaica, since the movement’s beginning in the 1930s.


The social acceptance in society of the Rastafari was, however, at that stage still problematic in Jamaica. Discrimination solely because of dreadlocks (denied jobs, unjust police arrests or incarceration) was all too common In Jamaica, up to well in the 1970s. Not only in elite or conservative Christian circles, but even extending to the music industry this occurred at that time; certain producers, owners or managers refused to employ or book those with a Rastafari appearance. For that reason, it is said, the members of the Skatalites band – most of whom sympathized with Rastafari – did not wear dreadlocks, to not disturb their musical contracts and assure jobs in the industry. Similar stories of initial caution about presenting oneself as Rasta are told by some Rocksteady artists, having noted that it could exclude them from needed income or “gigs”.

In particular, it is said that producer Duke Reid (of Trojan and Treasure Isle records) - who was influential in the Rocksteady period - did not allow Rastafari messages expressed on his records. Also Coxsone Dodd, of Studio One, did initially not want too much Rastafari references in lyrics, but in time became more flexible, especially when it became more popular.

With Bob Marley’s popularity, the anti-Rasta attitude gradually changed in Jamaica in the course of the 1970s, though discrimination against Rastas does still occur even today in Jamaica.

Despite these odds in the later 1960s, Rastafari expressions can here and there be heard in lyrics of Rocksteady songs, such as of the Ethiopians, and even more broader “black consciousness” protest lyrics. With more attention to vocals, logically, the lyrics also became more prominent. Compared to the period before, at least, the Rastafari influence increased in Rocksteady, relatively. Author Sw. Anand Prahlad of the work 'Reggae wisdom : proverbs in Jamaican music' (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) therefore argues that, after Roots Reggae, Rocksteady was also an important period for what can be called 'Roots' in Jamaican music.

It must also be said, though, that “love and romance” lyrics were a bit more common in Rocksteady songs, although “social comment” was quite common as well, such as about “Rude Boys”, violence, about poverty and inequality, the ghetto, and Black Consciousness.

After all, popular music mainly developed among the poor people of the Jamaican ghettos, thus expressing their grievances and "sufferation" also in lyrics. Political or social protest lyrics increased too, with the Ethiopians' 'Everything Crash' (1968) having the odd distinction of being the first song censored from airplay in Jamaica that was not sexually explicit. Instead, its lyrics apparently criticized the political caste too much, by describing social problems.

This all pointed toward another crucial change, foreboded by Rocksteady, that would become important in Reggae: social comment or protest lyrics, with an increased Rastafari influence, especially after 1969. The Rastafari influence, but also other musical and social factors, influenced the change from Rocksteady to Reggae.

Some authors, distinguish another "period" of what is called Skinhead Reggae or Rudeboy Reggae, placed somewhat vaguely by some authors "between Rocksteady and Early Reggae". Early Reggae and Ska were both fast genres that appealed to some groups of White Skinhead youths in Britain. They say also some Rocksteady songs. Though skinheads themselves speak of "different subgroups" among themselves, their association with racism and pro-White stances make their affinity for black Jamaican music ironic. There were, however, also Black British skinheads and racially mixed skinhead groups. Some say, furthermore, that skinheads' xenophobia or racism targeted overall more Pakistani and other Asians, not adapting to British society and ways, not so much Caribbean-Britons.


In fact, the reasons for this change (to Reggae around 1968) were multifaceted, like the earlier one from Ska to Rocksteady, pointing at the interesting dynamics within both the Jamaican music industry and society.

Included among these factors were increased rural influences, including Afro-folk music that rural migrants to Kingston city brought with them, increasing percussion and drum use, from strongly African-focussed traditions as Burru or Kumina, also embraced by many Rastafari musicians. By contrast, Rocksteady – while of course still exhibiting indirect African musical values, as all Black music genres – was seen as a more “refined” and “urban” (Kingston) genre, influenced by US Soul, reaching the city more than rural areas.

Then there is a matter of certain individuals, actually creating and making the music. Lynn Taitt, an influential guitar player, helped to shape Rocksteady (under steeldrum influence in his playing, is said), and the keyboard player Jackie Mittoo (at Studio One) was equally influential on Rocksteady. Both however migrated away from Jamaica by the late 1960s, leaving a vacuum of sorts in studios, resulting in change.

Also in the shift to Reggae around 1968, technology played a role, along with individual choices by certain musicians in studios. From the piano to the modern, electronic keyboard is one such change. Rocksteady tended to use the piano more, in Reggae, the electronic keyboard became more common, shaping musical characteristics (including a kind of “shuffle” groove around the snare drum accent).

Other changes, already set in motion during Rocksteady, continued or were expanded in reggae: the role of the bass guitar increased even more after 1968. Reggae at first was somewhat faster than Rocksteady (listen to some Toots & the Maytals tunes from around 1969, for instance, like ‘Reggae Got Soul’), but later slowed down, especially since about 1971.


Several sources, such as the informative ‘The rough guide to reggae’ (Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, 2001) I already mentioned, point at increased experimentation (mixing, in studios) in Reggae, pioneered by influential producers (Lee Perry for instance) that differentiated Reggae from Rocksteady. Reggae became also less “smooth” or “refined” than Rocksteady was, due also to the increased experimentation. There were other influences too. The authors point out that Reggae was in spirit more like James Brown, while preceding Rocksteady had more the smoothness of bands like the Impressions. Initially Reggae was faster than most Rocksteady tunes, though not always. Reggae came to include more diversity within itself, when compared to earlier genres Ska and Rocksteady.

Also in Rocksteady there was variety, with artists or groups adding their own touch and preferences, such as the rural folk (Mento) influence in a band like the Ethiopians, mixing it with “urban” Rocksteady in several songs. Some were influenced more by the Jamaican “country” style (the Ethiopians, but also the Gladiators), whereas other Rocksteady artists seemed more influenced by US Soul artists or Gospel.

Within Reggae, however, much more experimentation and diversity indeed developed. In that sense Reggae can be seen as a fuller being, a “coming of age”, or a final stage, absorbing what came before and expanding on it. Indeed, aspects of Rocksteady but also Ska or Mento returned in Reggae, expanded with other (African a.o.) influences and newer influences. Recently, hip-hop is such an influence, especially on Dancehall, an influence that Jamaican artists absorb and work out in their own creative way. As occurred before...