Not since Bob Marley passed away in the early ‘80s has reggae really been a force in charts on either side of the Atlantic. Whilst artists such as Shaggy and Sean Paul have had success with reggae fusion down the years, their big singles tend to have more in common with contemporary RnB than the roots music we started with. Now though, in various guises, reggae is slowly fighting its way back into the mainstream.
Spearheading this movement is Major Lazer—a collective helmed by producer Diplo. It should be noted that not all of their output is reggae and their eclectic records hop across every musical style even loosely associated with Jamaica, from dancehall to moombahton. This approach however broadens their popular appeal and helped 2013’s Free The Universe reach #34 in both US and UK album charts.
Major Lazer also oversaw the production of Snoop Lion’s debut reggae LP Reincarnated, as well as releasing it on Diplo’s Mad Decent label. Snoop’s widely publicised (and likely short-lived) conversion to Rastafarianism saw the record hit #16 and #34 in US and UK charts respectively. The issue here is that the sincerity of the material in such a case is dubious and with a genre so deeply rooted in ideas of love, understanding and, fundamentally, religion; is that acceptable?
30 years ago the answer would’ve been a resounding “no”. However, the genre has become so heavily marginalised that compromises need to be made, and doing so might prove the vehicle in getting reggae back into the mainstream.
Take for example ’Jessica’ from the aforementioned Free The Universe. The track has been spun on Radio 1 and playlisted by both 1Xtra and 6Music—no surprises so far. The kicker is that it’s a 4-minute dubbed out reggae track with barely any hooks and no gimmicks. In short, with any other name attached to it, the track wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near this level of airplay. It seems ’Pon De Floor’ has opened some doors.
If it opens the door to the right artists, I’ll grit my teeth when Snoop Lion and Miley Cyrus’ ’Ashtrays and Heartbreaks’ comes on the radio and smile politely when people are amazed to discover that dub and dubstep are different things.