Who knew that such a tiny island could have such huge influence on the whole world? Go back in time and you’ll see there has always seemed to be a Jamaican star pushing the musical pop landscape forward – whether that’s through samples, their outrageous lyrics or simply by opening doors for fresh talent after them. There’s a multitude of iconic Jamaican records that could appear on this list, of course, but here are 10 that have helped to push the boundaries of today’s musical stylings.
Desmond Dekker, ‘Intensified’ (1970)
The late Desmond Dekker’s legacy lives on, given that he’s widely held as the first international reggae star, though he’s perhaps somewhat overshadowed by Bob Marley’s colossal success. However, officially released in 1970, ‘Intensified’ featured the internationally celebrated tracks ‘Israelites’ (which made it into the US Billboard top 10 chart and to the top of the UK singles chart in 1968) and ‘It Mek’, another UK smash. These are the first recorded international reggae hits. Dekker helped to open doors for fellow Jamaican talent across the world, even if his contribution isn’t always rightly celebrated by the history books.
Bob Marley and The Wailers, ‘Exodus’ (1977)
There are no questions when it comes to this iconic classic’s immense contribution to the world of music. A potent activist, using his talent to fight for racial and social cohesion, Bob Marley is still renowned for his laidback, Rastafarian ways and raspy voice, which brought together the world. ‘Exodus’ came out in 1977; reggae was still relatively young at the time and Marley became its biggest face due to the 1973 smash ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. With his most popular songs to date — ‘One Love’ and ‘Three Little Birds’ — ‘Exodus’ is the perfect proof of the free-spirited ethos of the world’s most famous reggae fave.
Gregory Isaacs, ‘Night Nurse’ (1982)
Gregory Isaacs is a legend when it comes to Jamaican music. He’s mostly known as the guy who started lover rock, recording the romantic reggae subgenre’s first credited tune, ‘My Only Lover’ in 1978. In 1982, though, the huge hit ‘Night Nurse’ put his name in flashing lights. With his smooth croon, Isaacs navigated the same emotional terrain as many reggae stars of the time, but he also explored slow-down, jazzier sounds. The chart-topping ‘Night Nurse’ remains one of the biggest reggae songs ever (‘90s kids will forever associate it with that TV advert) and for good reason: try not to crack your widest smile as you listen.
Lady Saw, ’Passion’ (1997)
Marion Hall, formerly known as Lady Saw, has been a huge contributor to music in many ways. Standing out in the crowd of prominently male deejays, she was one of the frontrunners when it came to ‘toasting’, an early form of rapping. With her music often criticised for its ‘slackness’ — or vulgarity — before her conversion to Christianity, Lady Saw has always been a trendsetter. But many forget that Hall’s reign as the Queen of Dancehall made her a success in the States. She’s the first ever female deejay to ever receive a Grammy Award thanks to her feature on ‘Understand It All’ with notorious ‘00s pop-punk band No Doubt, and the first to go triple-Platinum with a discography that spans across 20 years.
‘Passion’ boasts tracks that have withstood the test of time. The Billboard Top 10 reggae album – Hall’s first to chart, and less vulgar than 1996 predecessor ‘Give me The Reason’ – featured classics such as ‘Sycamore Tree’, which many generations of eager dancehall fans will remember her for.
Janet Kay, ‘Making History’ (1998)
True to its namesake, Janet Kay’s ‘Making History’ was monumental in proving that Jamaican music isn’t only made in the tiny island. Following the Windrush generation, first-gen Black Britons made a new home for the Caribbean art, a place for cultural exports including ska and other forms of reggae. Now dubbed the ‘Queen of Lovers Rock’, Janet Kay has immortalised the place of British Jamaican art with her record-breaking single 1979 ‘Silly Games’, a Number Two hit that made her the first ever Black British female artist with a chart smash.
Shaggy, ‘Hot Shot’ (2000)
When it came to rap in the early ‘90s and ‘00s, few voices could arrest mainstream attention like an American one. This all changed with Shaggy’s 2000 Number One UK chart hit ‘It Wasn’t Me’. He was already gaining notoriety for his reggae pop sound, but after he was dropped from Virgin, pressure mounted for the bubbling reggae bad boy to capture the ears of the world again. But his huge fifth studio album, which also featured the fellow Number One single ‘Angel’, catapulted Shaggy to a whole new level of stardom. ‘Hot Shot’ commercialised the reggae sound so it could be the pop of its day.
Sean Paul, ‘Dutty Rock’ (2002)
Speaking of the pop of its day: after Shaggy made reggae cool again in the ‘00s, Sean Paul sent the sound stratospheric. ‘Dutty Rock’ features all the classic pop reggae songs – which, true, also veered towards dancehall – that remain favourites: ‘Like Glue’, the Beyoncé collaboration ‘Baby Boy’ and everyone’s go-to party anthem ‘Gimme The Light’. All of these popularised the lively genre and, just like that, reggae was the new ‘it’ thing. Everyone wanted a feature from Paul – brand-new solo star Beyoncé was still exploring her sound at the time, and ‘Baby Boy’ arguably helped her to find her footing; ‘Break It Off’ similarly helped Rihanna to establish herself when she was the bright-eyed Bajan newcomer.
Without ‘Dutty Rock’, blended sounds of all types of reggae and Jamaican music wouldn’t have been blasted on such an international level. There’d not be the lovers rock-inspired ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ teaching you about the sickly side of love, and no dance section on ‘Like Glue’, which showed off Jamaica’s wild partying side.
Sizzla, ‘The Overstanding’ (2006)
To a legion of reggae fans, Sizzla is a staple artist, but he’s perhaps not as well-known outside of Jamaica and its diaspora. Yet everyone has heard ‘The Overstanding’ – you just didn’t know it until now. The Kingston star’s 31st album (yes – you read correctly; Sizzla has released more than 56 to date) has been interpolated and sampled by a plethora of mainstream stars. From billionaire rap mogul Jay-Z (see: 2013’s ‘Crown’) to grime’s golden boy Kano (2019’s ‘Teardrops’), countless stars have borrowed from this record. With his hoarse, crackling vocals and stellar production pushing forward the musicality in the popular Caribbean island, Sizzla doesn’t get the same deserved recognition as his peers, but realise this: he is one of the country’s most integral artists of the ‘00s.
Vybz Kartel, ‘Pon Di Gaza 2.0’ (2010)
You can’t talk about Jamaica’s influence and not talk about Kartel, one the country’s most prolific stars – though the convicted murderer is polarising, to say the least. ‘Pon Di Gaza 2.0’ features iconic songs: ‘Virginity’, ‘Clarks’ and ‘One Man’. Although he is the king of slackness, this album is levels above your average MC. Between all the gun talk, schmaltz and then all the salaciousness after that, this album is what today’s dancehall fans deem a classic party record, certain to liven up a crowd regardless of where they’re from.
The aforementioned ‘Virginity’ has been sampled numerous times – even UK rap’s biggest duo, Krept and Konan, referenced it on ‘First Times’ from their second album ‘Revenge is Sweet’ last year. He’s still making music today, remixing some of the world’s most viral songs (see his remix of ‘WAP’, which Cardi B herself reposted), and Vybz Kartel’s influence is hefty.
Koffee, ‘Rapture’ (2019)
Having reached the big time, Koffee is a modern torch bearer of reggae success; 2019 was her breakout year thanks to the sunny, feel-good hit ‘Toast’. The 20-year-old, who hails from the island’s Spanish Town, rightfully won the Best Reggae Grammy at the 62nd Grammy Awards for her EP ‘Rapture’, making her the youngest recipient of the award – and the first lady too. ‘Toast’ entered the Top 40 of the Billboard Mainstream R&B/Hip-hop chart and received huge airtime from DJs across the world. Koffee is now the pinnacle of new Jamaican talent.