25 Riddims That Defined Jamaican Music

This year’s Grammys have a chance to make history, albeit in a way that might get missed by most TV viewers watching music’s biggest night at home. For the first time in its 39-year existence, the award for Best Reggae Album might go to a “one rhythm” album — or, as they say in Jamaica, “one riddim.” A one-riddim album is an LP with multiple artists singing or deejaying over the same beat. The nominated LP is Cali Roots Riddim 2023, produced by New Orleans born, Bermuda-raised singjay Collie Buddz, and featuring a stellar cast of Jamaican and American reggae artists. Cali Roots Riddim 2023 has some stiff competition, including releases by stars like Beenie Man and Buju Banton, but if it were to win, the victory would be a meaningful acknowledgement of a uniquely Jamaican style of music making. “The Cali Roots riddim started with the idea of showcasing talent from all over the world who share a passion and a love for reggae music,” says Collie Buddz, who will attend the Grammy ceremony. “It’s weird to see my name with all the reggae legends, but I’ll take it.”

The nom for the Cali Roots Riddim 2023 represents the far-reaching influence of what has been standard practice within the Jamaican music industry for the past 50 years. A single riddim can accommodate disparate ideas and vocal approaches; it can also yield simultaneous hits for several artists when it is initially released and again when it’s remade years, or even decades, after its creation. 

The roots of riddims go back to the 1960s, when Leroy Sibbles, lead singer and songwriter for celebrated vocal trio the Heptones and house bass player at the iconic Studio One, created bass lines that became anchors for many of Jamaican music’s most recycled riddims. “Other producers would just copy our rhythms because they sounded good,” Sibbles says. “They’d pick a track, rerecord it, and get their artists to write and record on it. They would try their own rearrangements, but they couldn’t mess with the bass lines much,” Sibbles says, laughing, “because the bass lines are what the music was recognized from.”

The first one-riddim album, 1974’s Yamaha Skank, was helmed by prolific singer-producer Rupie Edwards and featured artists deejaying and musicians soloing over the beat from the Uniques’ “My Conversation.” (The song’s riddim was originally produced by Bunny Lee.) Ever since, multiple artists voicing on the same riddim (or “juggling,” in reggae parlance) has been a mainstay in Jamaican music. The concept proliferated with the explosion of digitized beats in 1985. Economics plays a role too: Producers’ chances of creating hit songs increases when multiple artists are recorded on the same beat, and it’s less expensive to recycle music that already exists than it is to hire musicians to come up with something new.

So, in appreciation of the one-riddim production style’s rich history and Grammy moment, we’ve compiled a list of 25 essential reggae and dancehall riddims, recognizing the most important songs associated with each, as well as the producers and musicians who made them happen.

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