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Top 10 Ten Reggae Artists Of All Time

Photograph of the blog post author, Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

27.12.2022

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I want to cover the best reggae artists in the business and as it is a male dominated genre, I want to also tell you about some of the female reggae artists who were making waves and deserve every word written about them in the article. We will go into what reggae is and what are its roots. Read on to find out more about this style of music.

Reggae – What Is It?

Reggae is a style of popular music that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s and quickly emerged as the country’s dominant music. By the 1970s it had become an international style that was particularly popular in Britain, the United States, and Africa. It takes its style from the jamaican patoi, unlike rocksteady which has the simple, walking bass lines used in ska music. While reggae has complex syncopated basslines, rocksteady songs also tend to take their influence from the motown sound as the singers try to sound more American. Reggae music is recognisable as it is performed at moderate tempos with the accent on the offbeat.

Of the famous reggae artists on our list, there is a mix of reggae and rocksteady and I think it is crucial to compliment both styles as there are examples of overlap. 

There is also ska and the difference between ska and reggae is subtle and nuanced, mostly involving tempo and rhythm. Reggae is slower and more laid-back, while ska is a bit punchier. Bob Marley for example, was a master of all three; rocksteady, ska and reggae, which is why he was such a legend in this genre. 

Bob Marley 

Is it fair to say that Bob Marley is the king of reggae? He had the versatility in terms of his voice and his vibe was and still is talked about to this day. He brought reggae to the masses and made it mainstream. He covered all bases by singing folk music, funk, soul, gospel. You name it, he sung it and got wide world status because of this. He was a black artist making waves in the music industry and in a genre that was relatively untouched in the mainstream music scene. His use of reggae, ska, and rocksteady music was his usp as it were, which made him a very interesting and alluring musician to listen to. The themes of his music could be anything from political to romantic. Up until his untimely death in 1981, at the age of 36 of cancer, he was a global cultural icon, even now and was a supporter of democratic social reforms, the legalization of marujana, and even survived an assassination attempt. 

In 1963, after forming the Teenagers with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, which after several name changes would become the Wailers, they released their debut studio album The Wailing Wailers in 1965, which contained the single One Love, a reworking of People Get Ready. 

Another famous hit is of course No Woman, No Cry, released back in 1975. There is even a west end musical called Get Up Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical in London, which has been given rave reviews. It’s a night you will never forget and they sing all the hits. I would go so far to say that he was the top reggae artist we have ever known.

Janet Kay

The young Janet Kay was born to be a reggae star, more importantly a lovers rock singer. Lovers Rock maintained a clearer focus on more lightweight, romantic topics, taking its cue mainly from Philadelphia and Chicago’s soul and R&B templates. In the 70s at a time when reggae was becoming more popular, how was Janet going to stand out, as a north west London girl, admiring the sounds of Deniece Williams and Margie Joseph. 

Her sweet tones and vocal range was a combination that worked so well and she collaborated with many reggae artists over her career. She got her start by being discovered singing impromptu at a rehearsal studio by Tony “Gad” Robinson, the keyboardist from Aswad, who recommended Kay to Alton Ellis. He needed a female vocalist to record a reggae cover of Minnie Riperton’s song Lovin’ You and the rest is history. Other hits she recorded were; Silly Games, I Do Love You and That’s What Friends Are For. Her track Silly Games led to a performance on Top Of The Pops, and then being part of the UK TV series No Problem!, on which she had success with a hit called Eternally Grateful in 1984.  

Gregory Isaacs

He was a renowned reggae musician and was even quoted by Milo Miles, writing in The New York Times, as “the most exquisite vocalist in reggae”. He was given the nicknames Cool Ruler and Lonely Lover. He got his start in reggae music in talent shows in Jamaica, and he went on in 1968,to release his debut single Another Heartache. He had hits like My Only Lover, All I Have Is Love, Lonely Soldier, Black a Kill Black, Extra Classic and his cover version of Dobby Dobson’s Loving Pauper. In 974, his first No.1 Jamaican single with Love Is Overdue clearly was a success.

He is deemed to be the world’s most recorded reggae artist, as he has released more than 500 albums and it may be more. Either way, he has every right to claim that title. In his 30 year recording career, he had one of the most graceful voices in the reggae world. 

Toots Hibbert

He will be known for his folk, soul, reggae style of music and was a living legend on the scene. His music has everything you would expect from Jamaican music, and a pioneer of reggae, was the lead vocalist for the reggae and ska band Toots and the Maytals alongside Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias. His career lasted 6 decades and in this time, he released singles such as 54-46 That’s My Number, Monkey Man, and Pressure Drop. 

He recorded with the likes of Byron Lee, Ronnie Nasralla, Leslie Kong. In 1971, the group joined Dynamic Sounds and recorded Louie Louie, It Was Written Down and the classic Funky Kingston album.

Winston Rodney

His empowering vocals which evoked feeling and heart were the reason why he was a beloved reggae artist in this trade. His message was clear and true and his voice was pure melody. He was on the lead vocals of Burning Spear. Rodney’s group, named after a military award given by Jomo Kenyatta and they toured extensively, releasing numerous albums Burning Spear Live, Live in Paris, Live in South Africa, Live in Vermont, Peace and Love Live, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival and (A)live 1997.  He is known as one of the most influential reggae artists of the 1970s.   

His songs like Slavery Days, Tradition, Columbus, and The Invasion – to name a few were just some of his hits. 

After retirement in 2016, he came back to perform this year at various venues around the US and UK, including LA and London. 

Bunny “Rugs” Clarke

Bunny was the lead reggae singer of the band Third World, but he didn’t always get the praise he deserved. They released plenty of albums across America which layered roots, disco funk and dub all in one.  Their cover of O’Jays’ Now That We’ve Found Love, Try Jah Love and Cool Meditation, were all examples of this. He was a reggae singer that lived in both New York and Kingston, Jamaica simultaneously and he stayed true to the roots of reggae through his work in Third World, even though he could have been an even bigger star, especially if he had taken a turn at a solo career. He may not have been well known, but within this particular genre and amongst his peers, he was revered and people heard his smooth vocal sounds. 

Dawn Penn

In this male dominated genre as I have said before, I am glad to mention another powerhouse female reggae artist. Between 1967 and 1969, she had some success in the rocksteady era, but it was the single You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No) in 1984 which made her a household name in the reggae circuit.It was a version of a Willie Cobb blues record that became her biggest hit of the period. It was actually re-recorded version of You Don’t Love Me for the tribute album Steely & Clevie Play Studio One Vintage.

For all her efforts, it felt like she had to work twice as hard as a woman in the music industry – what has changed here? She also appeared with Lee Thompson and backing singer Darren Fordham on Jools Holland’s 2013/14 Hootenanny and again at the Glastonbury Festival in 2014. I would say she is one of the best female reggae artists to grace us with her talent. 

Delroy Wilson

Now Delroy has to be one reggae artist on this list who started extremely young, at the age of 13. He was in the studio in 1963 recording songs like Oppression and I’ll Change My Style which actually didn’t get the appreciation they deserved. But in 1966, things changed and he was taken more seriously with singles like Dancing Mood and Impossible. He was a ska, reggae and rocksteady musician. Therefore his career spanned the rocksteady era all the way up into the 1970s and with other hits like Cool Operator, There Will Be No Escape, but also the cover of Bob Marley’s I’m Still Waiting are all evidence that he was one of the best reggae artists of his time.

Dennis Brown

He was crowned the Crown Prince Of Reggae for good reason. We have someone who started his career even younger than Delroy Wilson and that is breaking some records. Dennis began in the late 1960s when he was aged eleven. He had a passion for lovers rock, a sub-genre of reggae and he recorded more than 75 albums and Bob Marley cited Brown as his favourite singer. He became one of the most influential reggae artists on the scene to the younger generations of reggae. 

He cited Delroy Wilson as an inspiration and released singles such as No Man Is An Island, Easy Take It Easy, Perhaps, If I Follow My Heart. Jamaica’s reggae superstar was Dennis Brown and they knew it. He began to get more traction in the 70s, with albums that are now deemed to be classics; Visions Of Dennis Brown, Words Of Wisdom, Just Dennis and Wolf And Leopards. He remade Money In My Pocket in 1978 and it made the charts. He was dedicated to his craft to the point that he refused to decrease his workload. His fans adored him, and were devastated when they learned of his death in 1999 after contracting pneumonia and suffering a collapsed lung. 

Shaggy

You would be forgiven if you think that the single that Shaggy is most well known for is It Wasn’t Me and what a great song, but what you don’t know is that Shaggy is also a Jamaican-American reggae rapper, bringing the genre into the 21st century. He has been nominated for seven Grammy Awards, winning twice for Best Reggae Album with Boombastic in 1996. In 2007, he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction with the rank of Commander. He is part of the reggae fusion dancehall genre and he also become a champion for the Bustamante Children’s Hospital through his Shaggy Make a Difference Foundation.

Closing Thoughts

So do you agree with our list and are there plenty that we have missed? One thing that is undisputed however, is that all of the above created music that showcased propulsive percussion and hypnotic bass lines, and a positive, heartfelt message was a constant theme throughout. I am certainly going to listen to more reggae today and so should you. Let’s be jamming! As Bob Marley said, ‘Live for yourself and you will live in vain; Live for others, and you will live again.’ I wholeheartedly agree!


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