Monday, May 7, 2018

Differences Between Ska And Rocksteady Music (with a few YouTube examples)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents information about the differences between Ska and Rocksteady (Rock Steady) music.

A few YouTube examples of these music genres are showcased in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to all the singers and musicians showcased in this post for their musical legacies.
This post serves as an introduction to a two part pancocojams series that showcases the Rocksteady hit song "Rudy, A Message to You" by Dandy Livingstone and the Ska/Two Tone cover of that song by The Specials which is entitled "A Message To You, Rudy".

Click Dandy Livingstone's Classic Rocksteady Song "Rudy, A Message To You" (information, sound file, lyrics, and comments) for Part I of that series. Also, click for Part II of this series. Part II provides information about The Specials and showcases The Specials' Ska/Two Tone version of that song.

Excerpt #1:
"Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966.[1] A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was the dominant style of music in Jamaica for nearly two years, performed by many of the artists who helped establish reggae. For example harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Righteous Flames and The Gaylads; singers such as Delroy Wilson, Phyllis Dillon and Roy Shirley; musicians such as Jackie Mittoo, Tommy McCook and Lynn Taitt. The term rocksteady comes from a popular (slower) dance style mentioned in the Alton Ellis song 'Rocksteady' that matched the new sound. Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.

Outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.

Ska/rocksteady rhythm
The Jamaican musicians and producers who created the rocksteady sound out of ska were well-versed in jazz and readily influenced by other genres, most notably rhythm and blues (R&B), plus African and Latin American drumming. Perhaps the most easily recognizable element and that which could be considered reggae music's gift to the world, as in ska, is an offbeat rhythm; staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure. The perceived tempo became slower with the development of rocksteady than it had been in ska. The guitar and piano players began to experiment with occasional accents around the basic offbeat pattern. This can be heard throughout Jamaican recordings in subsequent years.

Rocksteady, even more so the early reggae that followed, was built around the "one drop" drum beat, characterized by a heavy accent on the third beat of every bar. This differs markedly from the drumming styles in R&B and rock and roll, which put the bass drum on the first beat (the downbeat) and almost never on the second and fourth beats.

The slowing that occurred with rocksteady allowed bass players to explore more broken, syncopated figures, playing a counterpoint to the repetitive rhythm of the guitar and keyboards and this new style eventually largely replaced the walking patterns that had been so characteristic of many ska recordings. These new patterns fit very well with the simpler modal chord progressions often used by Jamaican players. The slower tempo and smaller band sizes in turn led to a much larger focus on the bass line in general, which eventually became one of the most recognizable characteristics of Jamaican music. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the muted picking style created by Lynn Taitt, a technique that continued on into reggae.

Smaller band sizes and slower tempos also led to a number of changes in the way horn parts were written and arranged. Whereas, in ska, the horn section had often spent much of the song playing the offbeats with the guitar and piano, in rocksteady they favored repeated rhythmic patterns or simply sitting out all together until the lead line.

When considering the differences between ska and rocksteady it is worth remembering that the musicians were essentially the same and so were the producers."...

Excerpt #2:
From Rock Steady’s Beginnings: An Introduction to Jamaican Music’s Most Influential Genre
"Forming the bridge between ska and reggae, rock steady is arguably the most influential of Jamaican music’s many sub-genres. Although it lasted only a couple of years, rock steady yielded several of the island’s most immortal rhythm tracks. It is also probably the most contested of reggae formats, the innovations behind its irresistible beat claimed by a range of practitioners.

Rock steady’s innovative qualities are highly distinctive. First, it replaced the big band ska format with stripped-down studio ensembles that put the emphasis on the bass and drum, forever changing the focus of Jamaican music. Widespread use of electric bass came about during rock steady too, its upfront placement thanks partly to the advent of multi-track technology. Compare the frantic pumping of Lloyd Brevett of The Skatatlies, whose acoustic bass was often relegated to the background, with the smooth lines of Jackie Jackson in The Supersonics, and you can hear how rock steady made bass the carrier of the melody line – a constant of the subsequent reggae to follow.

Themes addressing social issues came to the fore in rock steady as well, due in part to the “rude boy” phenomenon then plaguing Jamaica, with disenfranchised street gang members that engaged in acts of wanton violence becoming the focus of many rock steady tunes. And although vocal harmony groups had been an important part of ska, they began to truly dominate in rock steady.

Perhaps most important of all, rock steady had an idiosyncratic beat. The sound that gradually replaced ska was a slower, less cluttered style whose rhythm stressed the third beat of every measure. With a prominent electric bass now playing a readily defined strolling pattern, a new dance style came up that featured shaking shoulders, snapping fingers and a rocking body line, grafted onto the dancers’ stationary grid."...

Example #1: Jamaica Ska - Toots & The Maytals

Diogo Lima, Published on Oct 19, 2009

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, Henry "Raleigh" Gordon e Nathaniel Jerry McCarthy... Essas são as feras jamaicanas! Donos de vozes que muitos chamavam de fortes, com sua levada de Ska que só eles sabiam fazer...

Example #2: Simmer down - The Wailing Wailers

ArtD3sign, Published on Feb 29, 2012

Bob Marley
Peter Tosh
Bunny Livingston
The Wailing Wailers.
El SKA que dio inicio a toda una revolución sociocultural.

Example #3: The Skatalites - Eastern standard time

ehecatl whaza, Published on Jul 14, 2012

(given in chronological order based on their YouTube publishing date with the oldest example given first)

Example #1: George Dekker - You're treating me bad

RevolvermannOnline, Published on Oct 28, 2009

Trojan Rocksteady Rarities Box Set
Notice that this song refers to the record given as Example #2 below.

Example #2: (1967) Prince Buster & Lee Perry: Johnny Cool

Not Yet Upset, Published on May 2, 2010

Example #3: Clarendonians - I Am Sorry

VintageBlackMusicPD, Published on Mar 7, 2011

Aching rocksteady love song by one of the best Jamaican vocal groups originally released in 1969 in the UK on the Bullet label. You can find this track on the compilation «Hot Shot - Finest Rocksteady - vol. 2» (Supersonic Sound, 2010).

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  1. Well thought out and written. Easy to follow and the videos helped. Cleared up any confusion I had.

    1. Thanks for your compliment jonjim1952.

      I'm glad this post helped explain the differences between thee two music genres.