Informer: A Brief History of Canadian Reggae - Rolling Stone
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Informer: A Brief History of Canadian Reggae

From Jackie Mittto’s Studio One Sound to Bryan Adams’ “Reggae Christmas” and Magic!’s new “Rude”

Canadian Reggae

Johnny Nunez/WireImage; Toronto Public Library

Magic!’s debut single “Rude” isn’t just the first Canadian track to top the U.S. Hot 100 since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” — it’s the biggest Canadian reggae hit since Snow’s 1994 “Informer.” To someone outside the country, this combination of place and genre might seem oxymoronic, but as it turns out, Canadian reggae goes back nearly a half-century. With respect to those artists who didn’t make the list – Bonjay, the Sattalites and Earth, Roots and Water are all notable omissions – and side-eyes in the direction of some of those who did, here’s a brief history of its first 50 years.

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The Origins

A shift in Canadian immigration policy seeking a cheap labor and single female domestic workers fueled a 1950s influx of Jamaicans and other West Indian migrants. The inception of Toronto bands like the Rivals, the Sheiks, the Cougars and the Cavaliers was predicated on the relative success of a handful of calypso afterhours that served mixed crowds and the West Indies Federation social club, which provided a more family-oriented meeting space. This fledging community of reggae-soul bands (some documented on the 2006 compilation, Jamaica to Toronto) would often open for visiting black American R&B artists like Diana Ross and Solomon Burke, performing in bars around southern Ontario while cutting LPs. Unfortunately, lack of distribution meant that sales stayed low. ANUPA MISTRY

Jackie Mittoo

By the mid-to-late Seventies, Toronto and Jamaica had developed a musical exchange, some of which was documented by photographer Beth Lesser in the short-lived zine Reggae Quarterly. Jackie Mittoo, a founding member of the Skatalites and the musical director for venerated Jamaican label Studio One, played a key role in this: In addition to recording three albums in Toronto, setting up a label and working with local and Jamaican rocksteady and reggae artists, Mittoo ran a small record store in the Bathurst Street and Vaughan Road neighborhood. His 1979 single, “Armagideon Rock,” a rocksteady-meets-synthesizer funk trip-out was a reworking of his own “Ina Armagideon”; it would later be covered by the Clash. A.M.

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Formerly cool Canadian moms and dads of all ethnicities have fond memories of Messenjah. Back in the 1980s, Bob Marley had left an indelible impression on popular music and the band behind tunes like "Arrested" and "Cool Operator" found widespread success with tours that focused on a burgeoning reggae stronghold: college campuses. Not long after releasing their debut album, Rock You High, Messenjah became the first Canadian reggae band to be picked up by a major music label, Warner Music Canada, and even scored a minor hit in Jamaica, 1984's "Jam Session." A.M.

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Bryan Adams

With his clean-cut heartland rock image, this Eighties hitmaker isn't likely high on anyone's list of artists most likely to record a reggae song. Ah, but such are life's wondrous surprises! 1985's bouncy "Reggae Christmas," a paean to celebrating the holiday in warmer climes, was the B-side to Adams' single "Christmas Time." Make sure to check out the video, which prominently features Pee-wee Herman. DAVID MARCHESE

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Cindy Breakspeare

A descendant Nicholas Breakspear – stage name: Pope Adrian IV – Cindy was born in Toronto but moved to Jamaica at age four. At age 22, she was named Miss World, and at 23, she gave birth to Damian Marley, the youngest son of Bob and the hitmaker behind records like "Welcome to Jamrock" and Nas collab "Road to Zion." NICK MURRAY

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Lillian Allen

In Lillian Allen's 2009 piece, "pOetic gEsture," the Jamaica-born dub poet writes heart-swelling verse about her adopted hometown:

"A three million sided heart is this land
We are Toronto
          an experiment gone grand."

Working since the late-Seventies, Allen hasn't just been an advocate for the validity of her form – performance poetry with deliberately conscious leanings, set to a riddim track – but for female musicians of color across Canada. Her first dub poetry collection Revolutionary Tea Party won the 1986 Juno Award for Best Reggae/Calypso performance and features more pointed commentary on that Toronto experiment in a track called "Rub A Dub Style Inna Regent Park." A.M.

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After a decade of increasingly complex and fantastical prog-rock, Rush entered the Eighties looking for new influences. "The Spirit of the Radio," from 1980's Permanent Waves, found the Toronto trio dabbling in reggae rhythms. 1981's Moving Pictures took things even further, as the album-closing "Vital Signs" is built on Alex Lifeson's off-beat guitar skanking and Neil Peart's percolating drum part, both heavily indebted to traditional reggae patterns. The result is not far from the Police's work of the era. D.M.

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1993 was the year blue-eyed reggae broke: Where UB40's cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" ruled the summer, Snow's original "Informer" carried the spring, spending all of April and most of March at Number One on the U.S. pop charts. "People hated on this because Snow is a white guy from Toronto," Major Lazer producer Diplo, a white guy from Florida, recently told Rolling Stone. "But he was huge in Jamaica."

In fact, Snow's harshest critic turned out to be fellow Canadian Jim Carrey. In an In Living Color song parody more cutting than anything from Weird Al, the future movie star dropped lines as clever as "My single's Number One and Shabba don't rank" and as critical as "Pretending I was a Rasta since I was in jammies/I should paint my face and start belting out 'Mammie.'" N.M.

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Kardinal Offishall

Listen to Kardi slip in and out of patois on 1996's "Naughty Dread," his first pre-label single, and he's still the same bluster-filled, charismatic rapper most people know from pop singles like "Tide Is High" or "Dangerous." A driving force in Toronto's bubbling Nineties rap scene, Kardi was able to bridge his effusive personality and double-dipping flow to help put Toronto – and its diversity – on the musical map. On his breakout single, "Bakardi Slang," he shared Toronto's immigrant patois (familiar, even, to the city's mayor) with the world; on 2000's "Money Jane," he patented his club-ready flow; and in­ 2002, he earned his Mr. International moniker accompanying Sean Paul and Bless on the selector remix of the best-loved Clipse single, "Grindin.'" A.M.

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Big Sugar

Led by singer-guitarist Gordie Johnson, Big Sugar was a leading Canadian blues-rock band of the Nineties and reunited in 2010 after having dissolved a few years prior. Typically brawny in a Black Crowes-y kinda way, the band scored its biggest hit with this 1999 single, which marries a traditional reggae vibe with stabs of guitar fuzz. The naggingly catchy result is deeply reminiscent of the many reggae moves made by the Rolling Stones ("Cherry Oh Baby," "Too Rude"). D.M.

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South Rakkas Crew

Working under the spell of Wayne Smith's electro-dancehall sleng teng, South Rakkas Crew made their debut with 2003's "Clappas Riddim," the uptempo base for tunes by Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man, Mr. Vegas and Sizzla. Comprised of Dennis Shaw, a DJ who moved to Toronto when he was young, and Alex Gregg, a producer who left Toronto to work on records by 95 South and 'N Sync, the duo has spent the decade since creating more big riddims, releasing two albums (both on Mad Decent) and remixing records for everyone from M.I.A. to Fall Out Boy. N.M.

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Exco Levi

Every year, Canadian reggae gets its moment in the mainstream sun when the Juno Awards give out their Reggae Recording of the Year trophy. This March, Exco Levi, a Jamaican-born Rasta who moved north of the border – then north of a few more borders – back in 2005, won his third in a row, beating out artists like Dru and Dubmatix with his Kabaka Pyramid collaboration "Strive." In 2012, many thought that his first winner, "Bleaching Shop," an ode to dark skin, was directed at Vybz Kartel, but Levi rejected this interpretation. N.M.

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Loved by radio programmers in search of light-hearted summer fare and hated by critics in need of a risk-free opinion, Magic!'s "Rude" is a three-minute-and-45-second roots reggae jam written by the same evil geniuses – Nasri Atweh and Adam Messinger – who once got us to hum along to a Chris Brown single called "Don't Judge Me." It goes like this: Nasri plays a cutie but "a leather jacket and long-hair" kind of cutie, the guy that the Shangri-Las' parents warned them about only trapped in a song that your own parents are guaranteed to love. He's thinking about getting serious, though, so he shows up at his girlfriend's dad's door and asks for her hand in marriage. Dad says no, Nasri says (don't judge him) "Why you gotta be so rude?" and just like that, the couple elopes – away from their suburb and into the annals of Canadian reggae history. N.M.

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