The first precursor of reggae, ska originated in Jamaica in the early 1960s. Its sound, which began as a development of American rhythm and blues, is characterized by a steady up-tempo rhythm, with strongly accented off beats. Repeated tuneful basslines and insistent, catchy brass parts are also important, and the main melody is often carried by an organ.
   Ska quickly reached Britain, and its first peak of popularity came as early as 1964, with Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ reaching number two in the charts. This record was seen as something of a novelty hit, however, and for the remainder of the 1960s, ska in Britain remained the preserve of the West Indian community. Many of the records at this time were instrumental, save for wordless vocalizations which added to the general rhythmic feel of the songs, but several of those which did contain lyrics formed an important sub-group: ‘rude’ songs, packed with sexual innuendo. A classic example of this subgenre was Lloydie and the Lowbites’ ‘Birth Control’. Songs such as this helped promote the concept of the ‘rude boy’, a macho young follower of the ska sound.
   Around 1969–70, ska found a new audience amongst the urban, white working class in the form of skinheads, who embraced it as their music of choice. It seems likely that the macho image of the rude boys played a role in this adoption. Whatever the cause, however, the result was a resurgence in the popularity of ska, with artists such as the Upsetters and the Pioneers releasing singles that reached the charts, and Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’ became the first ska record to reach number one (although by this time the sound was growing less urgent, and the change to reggae was underway).
   Ska was now recognized as more than a musical novelty, but with the growth of reggae it all but disappeared until a new generation of urban youth rediscovered the sound around 1979–80. This latest resurgence of ska proved to be its most successful to date. Groups such as the Specials, the Selector and Madness reached levels of popularity which far outstripped that of the acts which had influenced them. Central to this revival was the Coventry based record label Two-Tone. After this boom was over, ska once again took a back seat to reggae and dub, but its legacy as a groundbreaking force for West Indian music in Britain is assured.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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