Dirty reggae originators
By John Jordan
Open Your History Books
The Aggrolites call it “dirty reggae” but their rootsy sound, driven by striding bass lines, groovy keyboards and soulful vocals over a spectrum of island backbeats, owes just as much to ska and rocksteady. From out of the glass and steel of Los Angeles, this quintet of young toughs produce a sound that begs a history lesson in the evolution of Jamaican music—a history The Aggrolites are definitely making a mark on.
The Aggrolites’ singer Jesse Wagner cites Toots Hibbert, Delroy Wilson, and Ken Boothe as the icons he first latched onto as a fifteen-year-old punk getting his feet wet with the 60s Jamaican sound. “What a great time to be into music; going through the record bins and checking out all those Trojan compilations, all of that Studio One stuff. There was just so much new music to listen to, it was just like, Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t heard this yet, what’s this?”
American military presence during and after the Second World War brought both American technology and music—particularly American rhythm and blues—to Jamaica. A fusion of jazz and R&B with the local African and Caribbean musical traditions gave birth to the sound of ska, so named for the Ska! Ska! Ska!” of the ever-present offbeat guitar. The sound’s debut coincided with the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. Early ska figures included Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Toots and the Maytals, instrumental masters The Skatalites, and even Bob Marley’s Wailers.
From out of the glass and steel of Los Angeles, this quintet of young toughs produce a sound that begs a history lesson in the evolution of Jamaican music.
As ska evolved it became less busy, slower, cooler. By 1966 the new term for the sound on the streets of Kingston was “rocksteady” after the title of an Alton Ellis hit. Horns fell out of favour and were replaced with pianos and organs. The musicians stayed the same but the sound changed into something different. Lyrically, the songs told tales not only of love but also of the rebel “rude boy” life, while decrying social injustice and poverty.
A summer heat wave in 1968 drastically affected the pace of life in Jamaica. Things slowed to a crawl in the blistering heat, and the music followed suit. With the release of Toots and the Maytals’ Do the Reggay, the definitive term was born. Enter Rastafarianism and the worldwide phenomenon of Bob Marley and the rest is history.
Dawning of a New Era
Most of The Aggrolites got their start in the punk scene—Wagner himself was a drummer in a punk band. Strangely, the punk community can largely be held responsible for sustaining the sounds of ska, rocksteady and early reggae. “A lot of those UK 77 punk bands had a lot in common with what the reggae songs were saying,” says Wagner. “I think it was in that Don Lett’s documentary, Punk Attitude… someone said that reggae was the soundtrack to the punk movement in England.”
In the late 1970s, DJs at British punk concerts began playing early reggae records between sets. Quickly groups like The Clash and The Slits began incorporating reggae into punk rock. A subculture of snappily dressed punk malcontents took the sound even further and a new wave of ska was born with the appearance of bands such as the Specials, Madness (with whom The Aggrolites toured in the UK), The Selecter, The English Beat, and Bad Manners. Americans quickly jumped on the bandwagon and still boast an active ska scene to this day, with groups like New York City’s The Slackers and The Toasters, the latter going on their 25th anniversary tour. Even pop mega starlet Gwen Stefani owes her fame to a background in ska and rocksteady (have a good listen to No Doubt’s hit Underneath it All, for example).
In the late 1970s, DJs at British punk concerts began playing early reggae records between sets. Quickly groups like The Clash and The Slits began incorporating reggae into punk rock.
But whereas the American “third wave” of ska and rocksteady is more often than not infused with the speed and frantic nature of post-pop punk rock, The Aggrolites produce a sound that is pure 60s reggae, as evidenced by the calibre of the musicians that sought them out and were the original inspiration for their coming together.
Banding Together to Back the Greats
“Derrick Morgan can take a lot of credit for the birth of The Aggrolites,” says Wagner, en route to show number one of a very long new tour. “In 2002, Korey Horn (drums), Brian Dixon (guitar), and I were in a reggae band called The Rhythm Doctors, signed to TKO. We had one release. The day after the CD release party the band broke up.”
“Another reggae band, The Vessels, broke up at the same time. Derrick Morgan called Brian who put the two bands together (recruiting keyboardist Roger Rivas and bassist J. Bonner) and we backed him in the studio and live.”
“We went on to back up Phyllis Dillon, Scotty, Joseph Hill of Culture, and Prince Buster at the World Music Festival in Sierra Nevada. It’s kind of funny because Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan were musical rivals back in the day, and Buster had a song about Derrick called Black Head Shining Man, and Derrick Morgan came back with a song called Blazing Fire. We backed them up on both those songs—we were traitors to both of them! But it’s cool between them these days… they’re both great guys, both living in Florida.”
The Aggrolites, for their part, are doing their utmost to leave the greatest mark possible in whatever time they have. They tour relentlessly, but still manage to be prolific recording artists, and thanks to their chops, their creativity, and their commando attitude, they’ve managed to release an impressive number of recordings in their five years together. Sadly, the Derrick Morgan sessions are still unreleased, but the band appears on 2004’s Dirty Reggae, their 2006 self-titled Hellcat debut, and Reggae Hit L.A., also on Hellcat. And if that’s not enough Aggro action for you, the band appears supporting Hellcat impresario and Rancid front man Tim Armstrong on A Poet’s Life, some of which is available to download for free on the Hellcat website.
The Aggrolites are as solid and soulful in the studio as Booker T. & The MG’s, and most of their songs are put down in one take.
“We’re getting a lot of strange reaction to Tim’s album—kids in Germany were asking me ‘How do you feel that Tim Armstrong steals your band?’ I’m just like, Dude, I get to sing and play guitar on this record with one of my buddies, what are you talking about?”
This busy band wastes no time in the studio—the tracks for all four recordings took no more than ten days in total to record. “Brian was the sound engineer at Signet Studios in L.A.; it used to be the old Motown Studios, Mo West,” recalls Wagner. “So whenever we get a few days, we go in and do all the recording ourselves. Reggae Hit L.A. was recorded in three days, and with the exception of Free Time (the first single) we didn’t have a single song written when we went in. We do a lot of jamming at sound checks, you know, when we’re on tour and there’s fifteen minutes we can get here and there to try stuff out. Then we get to the studio and it’s like, Hey, remember that rhythm we came up with at sound check in Spain? And away we go. Within two days we had written about 18, maybe 20 songs. We picked the best 15 and did the whole album in a day.”
The Aggrolites are as solid and soulful in the studio as Booker T. & The MG’s, and most of their songs are put down in one take. They don’t skimp on material either—their last two albums combined boast over 30 extremely tight tracks. And should anyone doubt the band’s musical prowess, an ample amount of live material is spreading like viral wildfire on video sharing sites.
In their five years together, the band hasn’t strayed from their trademark sound by one note. Evocative of equal parts Toots and the Maytals and James Brown, their raw, soulful blend of hard-working, blue-collar American know-how with dirty Caribbean street music has found a welcome home with a diverse audience, from Rastafarian and neo-hippy reggae purists, to punk rockers and fraternity boys. Fans and neophytes alike around the world will have ample opportunity to catch their blistering live set, as they embark on yet another extensive international tour. Wherever The Aggrolites roam, they wear their hometown colours proudly. “There’s a great reggae scene in L.A.,” says Wagner, “and that’s what we want to get across with this record and our shows. It’s a great scene and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
For tour dates and more info www.aggroreggae.com
This article first appeared in Heads Vol.7 Issue 08 - May 2007