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By Lauren Wise
Reggae originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s — an integration of numerous musical styles dating back to 1930s swing bands. Over the years, new beats regularly had infiltrated the Jamaican music scene and been altered and adapted to prevalent styles.
The R&B music drifting over the radio from Miami, or brought to Jamaica by "sound system" DJs, spoke of love, pain, and anguish. It was emotional and expressive — and it was strikingly relevant to the bleak situation of ghetto life. These rhythms were manipulated into the island beat and brought an important change to a shifting musical landscape, first ushering in ska and then, with a little more tweaking, reggae.
But many believe the idioms never came out quite right. The accents were on the first and third beats of a 4/4 time signature rather than the second and fourth beats like most other music. It was often considered the "wrong" rhythm, yet somehow it stuck.
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The music adopted a happy, carefree style, yet the soulful underpinnings remained. By the late '70s, punk rockers became passionate fans of ska and reggae music, typically piping the music out to audiences during concert set breaks.
Punk rock is still the reggae portal for bands today and is the jumping off point for Los Angeles' high-energy Aggrolites. All the band members attended punk concerts or played in punk bands and were taken with "skinhead reggae," the ska-driven reggae from the late '60s.
"There was a whole scene with all that skinhead reggae and instrumental reggae from 1969 that was really popular. But nobody was playing it," Aggrolites lead singer and guitarist Jesse Wagner explains by phone from a Seattle tour stop. "Everyone was spinning it on turntables. We kind of wanted to [play that]."
The Aggrolites formed from the ashes of a 2002 recording session for reggae artist Derrick Morgan that "kind of fell apart" but inspired Wagner to find musicians dedicated to playing this vintage reggae form. However, his band has one difference.
"Instead of a horn section, we have an organ player up front," says Wagner, who has dubbed the sound "dirty reggae," also the title of The Aggrolites' debut album.
"Stax is known for sounding gritty, and Motown is known for sounding pretty. And as far as how we heard skinhead reggae, it just sounded dirty," he says. "It was raw, alive. If you listen to an Upsetters track, you can hear it was being recorded on the spot. There's that rawness to it, that dirtiness, the grit. It wasn't clean and overproduced. It was natural and organic. And I think 'dirty reggae' sounds better than 'organic reggae.'"
With four albums released — including the recent live recording Rugged Road, which deftly captures the Aggrolites' powerful performance energy — Wagner, organist Roger Rivas, bassist Jeff Roffredo, guitarist Brian Dixon, and drummer Alex McKenzie have taken advantage of a three-month layoff ("the longest break we've had in 10 years of being a band") to work up new material.
Wagner's goal is to release something by summer. First, the band needs someone to release it, having completed its contract with Epitaph offshoot Hellcat Records. Rugged Road was handled by Young Cub, which released the album as a collection of 45s, something Wagner would like to do again.
"We always felt that vinyl — especially 45s — is a very crucial thing for reggae fans. We never had that opportunity since [signing to Hellcat] to release any 45s. Right now, we're kind of free of any label."
Wagner added that some of the new songs may materialize during this tour.
"We're messing around with stuff right now at soundchecks, so you never know."