But because reggae so embraced the political and spiritual messages of Rastafarianism in the 1970s and '80s, many casual listeners might assume that's all there is to the music.
Brian Dixon, rhythm guitarist and co-founder of the Los Angeles reggae band The Aggrolites, sees Rastafarianism as but one rung in reggae's evolutionary ladder.
"The whole Rasta trend was a social backlash to what was going on in Jamaica at the time--political unrest, poverty and violence--and that was a positive thing. But we want to try to get away from what most Americans think of as reggae--the whole hippiefied, ganja-smoking, Rasta thing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there's more to Jamaican music than that. It goes a lot deeper."
Dixon spoke during a recent phone interview as The Aggrolites prepared to embark on a concert tour that will bring them to Tucson for a gig Wednesday night, Aug. 9, at Club Congress.
He said The Aggrolites play a pre-Rasta style of reggae, popular in the late 1960s and early '70s that owed as much to hard-edged American R&B as it did to Caribbean rhythms.
Talking to Dixon is not unlike speaking to an encyclopedia dedicated to reggae. Without getting too esoteric, he broke it down thusly.
"Basically, Jamaican music is best defined not in styles but in eras. You had your ska from around 1963 to '65, and the early reggae era was roughly from 1969 to '71, and then came roots reggae, rocksteady and dancehall. We love it all. And we have all played in bands that play all that kind of stuff for years.
"The early reggae era, from '69 to about '71, is a huge influence on us. What was interesting in that time was that Jamaicans were influenced by American soul and funk. We all grew up on that stuff, too--James Brown, War, Tower of Power and the Meters, that sort of thing. So we employ our American influences, and give it a more gritty sound. That's why we call our music dirty reggae."
Which also happens to be the title of the band's 2003 debut CD, a tough-to-find diamond in the rough released on the independent label Axe Records. Nowadays, The Aggrolites are hitting listeners full-on with their powerful second disc, simply titled The Aggrolites, which was issued in May on the Hellcat imprint of independent juggernaut Epitaph Records.
The group came together about four years ago--a combination of members from like-minded Southern California bands the Vessels and the Rhythm Doctors--to back up legendary ska singer Derrick Morgan on some L.A. recording sessions that unfortunately never saw the light of day.
Morgan returned to Jamaica, but the five American guys, most of whom also are veterans of the punk-rock scene, decided they worked well together and began lining up gigs. Along the way, The Aggrolites have backed up other top reggae artists, most notably Joseph Hill (of the band Culture) and Prince Buster.
Reggae buffs with a sense of history will hear in The Aggrolites' sound elements from such pivotal acts such as Jackie Mittoo, the Ethiopians, the Upsetters, Toots and the Maytals and the early Wailers.
The band members--who also include singer and lead guitarist Jesse Wagner, bassist J. Bonner, drummer Scott Abels and keyboard player Roger Rivas--range in age from their mid-20s to mid-30s. The members chose the band's name as a tribute to two seminal late-'60s reggae studio bands: the Aggrovators and the Crystalites.
Dixon is also an active sound engineer in L.A., and he has tried to coax the band in directions that pay homage to the great Jamaican studios of the 1970s. And a large part of that has to do with nailing the accurate organ sounds played by Rivas.
"We don't try to copy Jamaican bands; we try more to copy Jamaican studios, if you will. If we are trying to go for the same sound, we bring that same organ they used in. So we try to re-create the sound of Studio One or Treasure Island studios."
The Aggrolites also strive to replicate the immediacy of vintage Jamaican music, Dixon said.
"Originally, Jamaican music was made not for record sales and not for the radio; it was made to be played in the dancehalls every night. They literally would record an acetate, or dub plate--a record master, basically--and they'd record straight to it. At the end of the day, they would have 30 new records that they would take to the dancehall. If they had a song the crowd went wild for, they would play it like mad, and then they would maybe release that record.
"But there were literally thousands of records that they made no more copies than that original dub plate. And there were thousands others that maybe only had a short run of 100 copies."
The content was timely as well. "The singers were singing about what was going on that day, like one of their friends said something that day outside the studio. It was all really spontaneous, and it made it really soulful. It wasn't premeditated; it was just kind of off the cuff, what was going on in the lives of the people at that moment. It was very much like the town crier."
The Aggrolites, therefore, try to remain true to that tradition while adding their own spin, he said.
"We are not trying to rip off old reggae artists. We are singing about what is in this moment, our experiences, how friends of ours might behave."
Most of all, The Aggrolites' collective goal is to demonstrate the breadth of Jamaican music. "We're trying to get the public to see another facet of the music. The deeper you get into it, the more fascinating and magical the music becomes."