It is very difficult to compare artists across different periods. The music industry has changed so much in terms of technology and opportunity. Moderate success in the 60s could be seen as an extraordinary achievement compared to success in the 2010s. Every reggae genre could have its own.
Desmond Dekker shone a light on the world that lit up the road to Jamaican music with his international hits in the 60s. He straddled the periods of Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae. His hit ‘The Israelites’ was a major international hit in the UK, topping the charts and reaching the top 10 of the US Billboard charts and made him one of the first Jamaican artists to have such international success. He went on to have other hits such as ‘007 (shanty Town) and ’You Can Get It If You Really Want’ amongst others. He continued performing into the 2000s. He died at his home 25th May 2006. A true trailblazer.
Jimmy Cliff is a trailblazer for reggae music globally. The 1972 movie ‘The Harder They Come’ in which he starred and voiced the title track brought reggae music to the world and gave Jimmy Cliff the platform to be an international star and opened the door for reggae artists that followed. His song ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ has been covered by many international artists of differing genres. As of the time of writing he is still performing.
Dennis Emmanuel Brown had a voice that could melt butter, it’s not surprising that he cited Nat King Cole as one of his early influences. As a young performer, he was dubbed the ‘Boy Wonder’ but later became to be known as the ‘Crown Prince of Reggae’. He was a prolific artist and many artists were influenced by his style and music including Frankie Paul and Luciano. He had international hits like ‘No Man is an Island’, ‘Money in Your Pocket’, and ‘Wolf and Leopard’. The American National Public Radio (NPR) in a 2010 feature included Dennis Brown as one of the ’50 great voices’. He died 1 July 1999.
Winston Rodney a.k.a Burning Spear has been performing for over forty years. An uncompromising conviction reggae artist with messages of injustice and enlightenment. His lyrical style ensures his message stays with his audience like “Do you remember the days of Slavery” and “Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar”. Like many of the legendary reggae artists, his messages are now seen for the truth that they contained. He still tours and his live performances are regarded as one of the best reggae acts you will see.
Toots & The Maytals
Toots and the Maytals were best known for ska and Rock Steady but laid the foundation for the reggae genre. Their 1968 single “Do the Reggay”, is considered the first song to use the word “reggae” and so name the genre. The frontman Toots Hibbert has an instantly recognizable voice. Soulful but at the same time raw and dynamic. They had some of the biggest hits in reggae like ’54-46 (that’s my number), ‘Sweet and Dandy’ and ’Monkey Man. They also benefited from the movie ‘The Harder Them Come’ with the classic ‘Pressure Drop’ being part of the soundtrack. Their songs have influenced artists from many genres.
With the prominence of Dancehall in the 80s came Yellowman a.k.a King Yellow. Real name Winston Foster he was shunned because of his albinism. This did not stop him from honing his natural deejaying talent on sound systems. This caught the attention of producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and they achieved success with Yellowman becoming the first dancehall artist to be signed to a major American label Columbia Records. He had dancehall classics like ‘Them A Mad Over Me’ and ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’.
After suffering and fighting off a serious skin cancer in the 80s, where at one point he was given three years to live, he has re-invented himself but, Yellowman will always be considered the king of dancehall. The first dancehall superstar who took the genre to a new level.
Peter Tosh is a reggae icon. He was a conviction reggae artist and he followed his convictions after leaving the Original Wailers. His songs and lyrics related these values to the world through hits like ‘Equal Rights and ‘Stepping Razor’ which eventually became his moniker. He was an early proponent of the legalization of marijuana and his hit ‘Legalize It’ was an international hit. He was uncompromising and earned respect for his messages and music. He was murdered in 1987 after a break-in at his home.
Black Uhuru (Uhuru is Swahili for ‘freedom’) has had many line-ups but, their greatest period of success was the line-up of Derrick “Duckie” Simpson (founding member), Sandra “Puma” Jones and Michael Rose, while working extensively with Sly and Robbie in the 80s.
They had a look, style and sound that crossed over. They had a string of hits like ’General Penitentiary’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and Shine Eye Gal’ that included Keith Richards (from the Rolling Stones) as the featured guitarist.
They were signed by Island Records in 1980 and they had album hits with Sinsemilla, Red, and Chill Out. The album Red was ranked No. 23 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the ‘100 greatest albums of the 1980s’. But it was their album Anthem that earned them a Grammy. After being released in 1984 it won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1985.
Sly & Robbie
Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are one of the most inventive and prolific rhythm sections in reggae history. Before they teamed up they were already part of now-legendary bands ‘Skin Flesh and Bones’ and ‘The Aggrovators’. They were trendsetters and created a ‘Rub a Dub’ style in the 80s during a time of digital innovation in reggae music. They created styles that then became part of the repertoire of musicians and producers. Their period producing Black Uhuru an example of their innovation.
Their horizons were not restricted by being reggae stalwarts and they worked with and produced acts such as Grace Jones and Gwen Guthrie. Their credits include tracks for Paul McCartney and Britney Spears. They have received numerous Grammy nominations and continue to work with and produce many international artists.
Considered to be one of the most, if not, the most influential reggae artists of all time. Taking reggae music from a niche genre, with its roots in Jamaica, to a worldwide audience. His image and name is recognised around the world and is synonymous with reggae music. If you mention reggae in any distant land the first name that is mentioned is Bob Marley.
Even after his death, he is still one of the top-selling reggae artists. This is a testament to the longevity of his music. In this world of social media, quotes from Bob Marley and lyrics from his songs are constantly being shared.
Well, these are my 10 best reggae artists of all time and I’d be surprised if you agree with all the artists chosen and the order of preference. But, that is not important. There have been and are currently, many great reggae artists and only time will tell what influence they have on the genre and the world. That is my test of being a legend.