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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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Snow

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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Magic!

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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