Rude Awakening: 25 Major Moments in White Reggae History
Was there a bigger surprise hit in 2014 than Magic!'s "Rude"? There, tucked into the balmy folds of the Summer of Ass, was a soft and sunny tropical tune sporting a sweet sentiment and just the slightest hint of fake patois. And just like that, White Reggae returned to the zeitgeist. (Yes, Nasri Atweh's of Palestinian heritage; we'll explain.) In an effort to figure out how this happened, we took a deep dive into the annals of the art form — skipping most ska and cover songs, which deserve separate lists, really — and made some wild discoveries about Whitey's island fetish. Call it an appreciation of appropriation if you must; this isn't about judgment. (Mostly.)
1.Rude Awakening: 25 Major Moments in White Reggae History
2.Chris Andrews, "Yesterday Man" (1965)
Behold, the birth of White Reggae. This young, kempt Caucasian was writing songs for the likes of future Moz fave Sandie Shaw and American upstarts the Mamas & the Papas when he composed this number that made his English heart pitter and patter to an island riddim. "Yesterday Man" hit No. 3 in the U.K., despite the confusion written on the faces of all those pale folks above, and their general lack of groove.
3.The Beatles, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" (1968)
Paul McCartney beat the drum for Jamaican music early and often, bringing vinyl imports fresh from the Caribbean. Here, the influence surfaces boldly: The name of the patriarch character "Desmond" is a shout-out to breakthrough Kingstonite Desmond Dekker, and the origin of the jaunty beat is unmistakable. Also, John Lennon hated the sunny song at first, to the point where he famously walked out mid-recording. Then he smoked weed, came back, and, like, totalllllly got it, man. Seriously.
4.Judge Dread, "Big Six" (1972)
At first blush, this one's all kinds of offensive. Fake patois? Uh-huh. Liberal use of the P-word? Uh-huh. Lyrics that aim, but fail, to rise to the low bar of the limerick? Uh-huh. Topless dancers just because? Uh-huh. All from a hammy, grubby Englishman whose last gig was "professional wrestler"? Yeah! But consider this: Thanks to "Big Six," Judge Dread became the first White Reggae artist to have a hit in Jamaica.
5.Paul Simon, "Mother & Child Reunion" (1972)
White Reggae comes to America. With the massive success of his last lil' project in the rear view, Paul Simon planted his solo flag firmly in island soil with this, his debut solo single. "Mother & Child Reunion" was actually recorded in Kingston, with Jimmy Cliff's band and members of the Maytals backing. It quickly hit No. 4 on the Hot 100, while "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" wasn't serviced to U.S. radio until 1976.
6.Led Zeppelin, "D'yer Maker" (1973)
Truly a foundational moment in the history of hesher culture — the aural introduction of marijuana to hard rock. But the critics tore the song to shreds, Led Zeppelin never bothered to perform it live, and John Paul Jones claimed "D'yer Mak'er" was simply a poorly executed joke. Page and Plant would disagree, though the title is based on a cockney gag. Person A: "My wife's gone to the West Indies." Person B: "Jamaica?" Person A: "No, she went of her own accord."
7.Elvis Costello, "Watching the Detectives" (1977)
This sneering beast of an Elvis Costello masterpiece sports a hefty dub influence, one well captured in the German performance above. Napoleon Dynamite himself later explained he'd written "Watching the Detectives" after staying up all night listening to the Clash's self-titled debut, which he found "terrible" at first. On the umpteenth go-around, he realized it was actually quite great — and inspiring too, evidently.
8.The Clash, "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" (1978)
The Clash were already noted aficionados of the form — peep their cover of the Junior Murvin classic "Police and Thieves." But "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" not only introduced a slower side of the punk progenitors; it's also the first example of snobbery entering the White Reggae canon. Here, Joe Strummer details the disappointment felt when he went to a London reggae showcase only to discover pop pageantry and pandering instead of the "roots rock rebel" he'd hoped for.
9.10cc, "Dreadlock Holiday" (1978)
The liberal reference to piña coladas and the goofy chorus of 10cc's final hit could make this one seem like novelty, but it's not. These art-rock oddballs were recounting the real-life story of a Jamaican vacation gone weird. In order to appease a would-be chain-snatching thief, our narrator nervously declares, "I don't like reggae... I love it!" Listen to that Top of the Pops host reference their "post-modern ironic style."
10.The Police, 'Regatta de Blanc' Album (1978)
Say what you will about Sting's highly suspect island inflections and the Police's unflinching wholesale appropriation of another culture's art form. It takes huge pale cojones to be that band and name your sophomore album "White Reggae." "Reggatta de Blanc" is a faux-French translation of that very phrase, and it gifted us such inextricable songs as "Walking on the Moon" and "Message in a Bottle."
11.Blondie, "The Tide Is High" (1980)
We're bending the "no covers" rule to make room for Blondie, mainly because "The Tide Is High" hails from the very same album that gave us "Rapture," the first White Girl Rap moment in history (see SPIN's Kreayshawn-inspired chronology). Debbie Harry here pays her respects to a late-'60s Paragons song and scores a No. 1.
12.Culture Club, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (1982)
Our hero appears in makeup, dreads, time-traveling teashades, and a Hebrew-adorned dress-length crew neck sweatshirt, in order to throw lyrical shade on his boyfriend at the time (Culture Club drummer Jon Moss) while pointing out the absurdity of institutional black/white divisions in English society. That last bit explains the blackface and jazz-hands, if you were wondering. "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" scored No. 1s in ten countries and launched Boy George's career.
13.UB40, "Red Red Wine" (1988)
The final exception to the covers rule, with good reason. Considering their mixed-race lineup and experimental early albums about hot politics, this band could not have qualified for this list heretofore. "Red, Red Wine" is when UB40 turned really, really white. To their credit, they had no idea this was originally a Neil Diamond hit (their source material was a '60s Jamaican version). But the fact that MC Astro's toasting verse was cut from the single tips the scales. The Labour of Love album is, however, a fantastic set of soft reggae remakes that sheds light on worthy artists.
14.Bonnie Raitt, "Have A Heart" (1989)
A lovely song, but this entry isn't really about "Have a Heart": It's about the decade-wide gap in White Reggae history, where a Bonnie Raitt single is the best we can come up with. Here's a theory on that, in two parts: 1) Bob Marley's Legend dropped in 1984, not only sating fair-skinned folk's desire for sweet Caribbean sounds, but driving attention toward the music's originators; and 2) the Police shit the bed. Consequently, the earth was basically salted for Regatta de Blanc for ten years, until...
15.Snow, "Informer" (1993)
Leave it to a blonde Irish-Canadian with a fake accent to turn a dancehall track about killing snitches into a chart-destroying megahit. Darrin Kenneth O'Brien grew up in Toronto public housing, was given his name by Jamaican neighbors, and spent his first few months of fame behind bars for aggravated assault. "Informer" not only got Snow into the Guinness Book — top selling reggae single in U.S. history! — it earned him a place in the Kingston O.G. circle: Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Half Pint, Junior Reid, and others appeared on his 1995 follow-up, Murder Love. We'll let Jim Carrey and In Living Color explain the cons:
16.311, "Ohama Stylee" (1994)
As the incurably wan Nick Hexum himself puts it on the hook: "Omaha stylee? Did not think there was one." And yet, here it is: a fiery and melodic blend of rap, rock, funk, metal, and, yes, reggae that felt wonderfully (and nerdily) reverent to its influences. They'd soon ditch the slap bass and mellow out over dubbier stuff, but 311 were the best of that '90s burst of heavy 4/20-friendly skate music, and they earned their cult.
17.Sublime, "Santeria" (1996)
Enter Long Beach. Sublime were already a huge California concern — 40oz. to Freedom was a ska-punk revelation, and Robbin' the Hood a strange post-modern masterpiece — but Bradley Nowell's death and the band's major-label debut kicks off the current era of White Reggae. Here were three blue-collar bros — big guts and buzz cuts and bad drugs — carving some hard-fought sunshine out of hip-hop beats, reggae groove, and the occasional George Gershwin tune. Unlikely music scholars and rock-solid players, they defined their own sound in the middle of the zeitgeist. And then, after Nowell's tragic overdose at 28, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson had to sit back and watch as their work was placed behind glass and transformed into totem.
18.O.A.R., "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker" (1997)
Welcome to jam-rock, and not the sort envisioned by Damien Marley eight years later. Maryland's Of a Revolution sprung from the family tree planted by Grateful Dead and watered by Phish (one assumes they're revolting against brevity in song). Their casual interpolation of irie vibes into an appropriately feel-good roots-rock mix makes a lot of sense, and the patois-blessed epic "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker" proved to be a smart gamble. Dispatch did a similar thing with "The General."
19.No Doubt feat. Lady Saw, "Underneath It All" (2001)
Producers Sly & Robbie return in order to properly usher No Doubt into the White Reggae winners' circle. Gwen Stefani and Co. always paid homage to ska, of course, but for the aptly titled Rock Steady album, they traveled to Jamaica in order to pin down a new direction. A couple of real-deal toasters got involved too: Lady Saw, who can't actually be seen in the video above, and Bounty Killer for "Hey Baby."
20.Devendra Banhart, "White Reggae Troll" (2005)
Freak-folk pied piper Devendra Banhart hid this gem on Cripple Crow, his fifth full-length and the first to feature such extravagant splurges as full-band arrangements and a dog named Gus (he's credited). Though it's unclear who's trolling what with "White Reggae Troll," our dreadlocked shaman scores some beautiful backing vocals and digs a deep groove in the tradition of the wonderful Congos cut, "Fisherman". This indie-psych iteration is later heard in the likes of White Flight and Sun Araw.
21.Matisyahu, "King Without A Crown" (2005)
We'll say this: As shocking as it was to meet a patois-slinging, yarmulke-hatted Hasidic rapper, Matisyahu is the first artist on this long list who doesn't conveniently ignore reggae music's often intense religiosity. "King Without a Crown" is worship music of the aggressively upbeat variety, spilling from the mind of a serious devotee of Phish, Bob Marley, and the Singing Rabbi. Coming straight outta West Chester, Pennsylvania. Via White Plains, New York. Via Bend, Oregon.
22.Vampire Weekend, "A-Punk" (2008)
Where hasn't White Reggae been at this point, now 40-odd years in? Ah, yes, to the Ivy League we go. Like the smarty-pants ofays who preceded them (word to Talking Heads), Vampire Weekend's primary interest in Afro-sourced audio is highlife, but "A-Punk" sports an undeniable Jamaican jauntiness to it, and more overt reggae references follow, like the Nyabinghi drums on 2013's "Obvious Bicycle."
23.Alborosie, "Kingston Town" (2008)
It's probably ignorant to assume that Alborosie is the only Jah-worshipping Sicilian dancehall artist that's ever lived, but... is it, though? "Kingston Town" has racked up over 10 million views and not for novelty's sake. Alberto D'Ascola moved from Italy to reggae's capitol in 2001 and soon met his German equivalent — Gentleman, who is also really freaking successful. This'd be a good time to mention a couple other breddas-in-arms from around the globe: Collie Buddz, a NOLA-born toaster raised in Bermuda; and Mishka, a Nova Scotian singer who grew up on a boat in the Caribbean and got signed by Matthew McConaughey. What.
24.The Dirty Heads feat. Rome, "Lay Me Down" (2010)
Here's where White Reggae kinda eats itself and almost — almost — approaches a post-racial paradigm. If you don't know, Rome Ramirez is the 26-year-old Mexican-American frontman of a new version of Sublime that features original bassist Eric Wilson and, at the time, original drummer Bud Gaugh. The Dirty Heads are one of the most popular young bands whose entire existence is predicated on the Bradley Nowell songbook. That's not to say they don't put their own spin on it; merely that we are now achieving meta status, so, you know, smoke 'em if you got 'em.
25.Major Lazer, "Get Free" (2012)
Diplo may yet prove to be the touchstone for this — dare we say? — movement's next mutation. The man's an ace curator of international sounds and he's built the perfect vehicle for further excursions. Major Lazer is a producer project first and foremost, meaning the pasty guy in the middle never has to ask himself that vital question: to patois, or not to patois? Secondly, regardless of the guest vocalist, Major Lazer is embodied by a super-tough, impossibly cool cartoon Jamaican commando. It wasn't until the eleventh hour that "his" inclusion here even occurred to us (just look at him up there). But "Get Free" qualifies. It's a truly beautiful reggae song sung expertly by Dirty Projectors siren Amber Coffman who, yes, is quite Caucasian.
26.Magic!, "Rude" (2014)
Canadian though he may be, Nasri Atweh is not a white man. This is true. But he freely admits his goal in starting Magic! was to create a "modern-day Police." And "Rude," even stacked up against "Informer," is a paler shade of White Reggae. When the song went absolutely atomic this summer, the return of that island riddim felt a bit left-field. Now, after compiling this exhaustive list (which we cut down by at least half in order to spare you), it's clear Jamaica's influence never left. Rather, no one had the nuts to ape Sting until now. It's good pop. Let's see what Whitey does with it next.