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Feel it in the One-Drop

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“Feel it in the One-drop”   -Bob Marley  

Somewhere in a conversation recently I said to Seth, “I am so happy that our lives revolve around the one-drop”.  I was listening to the Rootfire 004 mix tape and loving how all of the tunes were historically linked to some other part of reggae history that has influenced my life.  Reggae has had a worldly journey since its inception in early 60’s Jamaica.  Everywhere I turn I am astounded at how reggae has influenced me. My love for the music has been an antenna that has brought me the best friends, the best education, the best music (even my wife!). It has taken me to all of the best spots I’ve ever been to that I would never have thought to go otherwise. I try not to take the history of this music, or my love of it for granted. The history of reggae music is powerful. I am not an expert, but I am deeply interested and invested in it. I was thrilled that Seth asked me to write a few things about reggae, how it found me, and what I have discovered from it. I love to think about it and I love to write about it. My experience is only my own. I am sure many of you will relate and have similar experiences to share.

Personally, the most interesting part of the story is that I hail from the suburbs of Rochester NY, and reggae as we know it originated on the small island of Jamaica in the Caribbean.  Rochester is a tough, cold, industrial city in upstate NY. Inside the warehouses and the snowed in homes live people who survive off of the music that they love. This is not unique. This is a reality in cities across the world.  In the cold months we stay inside and give thanks for the music that makes our souls thrive. In the summer we blast it out of speakers in the garage. The frequency that reggae traveled through the world and came to influence my city is magical to me. Rochester has had a strong reggae history since the early 70’s and has been home to a plethora of reggae influenced bands.  I know that we are not alone.  In every nook and cranny of the world reggae has taken over. It is the folk music of the future. It permeates through everything and speaks to everyone who hears it. It does not discriminate, which is ironic, because discrimination is at the very core of how reggae came to be. Reggae is the music of the one-drop. I am proud to discuss its history inside and outside of my life. I am interested in meditating on the ways that it inspires and changes as it blossoms through time.  I appreciate and am humbled to be able to share on such a forum. Thank you rootfire.



One drop of blood is all it takes. The one-drop rule was a colloquial term in the US used to rationalize the institutionalized discrimination of black people all over the western world. It was said that one drop of African blood made you black, and a worthy victim of inhumane treatment that would last for several generations of discrimination. The one-drop rule was just one of the facts dropped on us in middle school as they taught us about this past-time that our present day reality crept out of.

Of course, to the mind of a 7th grader, just two years ago is ancient history. The details of the previous 400 years of colonization and its effects on our own little (mostly) white lives were somewhat lost on us. Slavery was an institution that we as twelve year olds felt little connection to.  Despite the efforts of my suburban middle school, I did not feel too appalled by all of the gory details shared with us. It was schoolwork. We did our homework to pass the class. We knew that: Yes, in an ancient time, caucasians traveled to Africa and purchased African people. Yes, they put them in shackles and chains. Yes, they separated families.  Yes, they brought them on ships where people were packed in so tight that they were shitting and pissing and dying on each other through the Middle Passage to places like Jamaica, Brazil, and the Carolinas. Yes, they threw those dead Africans overboard frequently enough for sharks to know to follow the trail the slave ships travelled. We learned that the few who survived the ride were abused further when they disembarked the ship. They were sold as slaves, and put to work on plantations all over the Western Hemisphere, cultivating crops that would produce a profit for the budding nations of the Americas. They were whipped. They were raped. They were treated worse than the animals raised for meat. They toiled and died far away from their homes, away from their families. They were denied dignity and psychologically terrorized in an effort to forget who they were, the kingdoms they came from, and everything that would remind them of a sense of self and normalcy. It is a nauseating and painful history to review.

It just didn’t really hit me though. I have often wondered why it did not seem as dramatic as it was. It was history. Dinosaurs once roamed the earth once and cavemen fought to kill woolly mammoths. There was a lot of history to learn, and slavery was just a part of it.

On my eleventh birthday, an older and cooler guy named Jason Saner gave me Bob Marley: Legend. He prophesized, “this album will change your life”. I had no idea what he meant, and to this day, I am almost positive that he didn’t either. I think he just said it to make his gift seem special and important. I listened to that album everyday for years. It was happy and fun music to listen to in the shuffle of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica and Green Day.

When I was 13, my friends family took me to Jamaica. We stayed in a little town called Duncans which is a settlement in-between Montego Bay and Negril. It was really nice.  My first time in a foreign country. We had our own cook. Her name was Miss Joyce. We complained about the Ackee and Salt-fish she cooked us for breakfast.  We bought mini boxes of Corn Pops at exorbitant prices from a shop that had barely anything on the shelves. One afternoon Miss Joyce yelled at a Rasta that hopped the fence to our private cottage to take a shower from our outdoor spicket. She ran outside and started beating him with a broom. We thought it was hilarious. I knew the Rasta. His name was Anthony. Pronounced “An-Tony”. He had previously sold me two pipes made of ironwood. They had long, Jamaican faces on them with the mouth as the bowl. Despite the promise i had made to my best friend who took me on the trip to not smoke any pot, I was excited about these sweet Rasta pipes I had to take home and show off to my friends.

My Bob Marley: Legend CD broke in Jamaica the first time I tried to play it.  All of the salt in the air seemed to have scratched the surface. I thought it was ironic, that in all places, it broke in the country where Bob Marley’s birthday is a national holiday.  Before we left for Jamaica, I had considered not bringing the CD. I was concerned that Jamaicans might think I was a poseur, and that Bob Marley was really no big deal in Jamaica and just a touristy thing. I was concerned that strangers in a strange land might not think I was cool because I liked Bob Marley. Not true. Bob Marley’s face, songs, shirts, and legacy were absolutely everywhere in Jamaica. He was genuinely celebrated by everybody everywhere that we went.

Everyday that we stayed in this little town, there was a bass player and drummer somewhere in audible distance learning Bob Marley songs. All day long, we would hear the attempt to form the bass lines of popular songs such as “No Woman No Cry”, “Is This Love”, and “Jammin” , over and over again. Each time he got it wrong, he would start again. I would lie in bed drifting in and out of afternoon naps smiling that this guy couldn’t  seem to play these simple songs correctly.  Looking back now, I realize that knew those tunes really well. I could sing those bass lines front to back in my head. I had barely ever played the bass, but they baselines were the melodies. They were catchy. I didn’t know what reggae was. I knew the name, but at the time it was all just Bob Marley to me.

Jamaica was fun. We went swimming in the awe inspiring Caribbean Ocean. We hiked up the falls in Ocho Rios and saw Jamaicans jump into the water from insanely high treetops. We ate and complained about foreign foods in small restaurants where the service took FOR-EVER. We dreamed about getting back home in a few days and eating Taco Bell. We got frustrated that kids our age were trying to hustle us into buying bracelets that we would never wear. We got cornrows. I drank a Strawberry Daiquiri at the hotel. I snuck the pipes into my backpack, bought my parents a handmade ironwood placement, and drank so many Pepsi’s on the plane that I puked.

I never thought too much about Jamaica after that. It was a tourist destination. A place where you go for vacation.

When I was in 8th grade,  I hung out with a few kids from the city. I say the city, meaning the city of Rochester, NY. They went to city schools. They were on a faster speed of figuring out what was cool than i was. They used more slang. Pantera was “dope”. Vandalism was encouraged. The bass guitar was the cool instrument to play. Often after playing heavy metal and getting stoned and eating McDonalds, we would retreat to my buddies bunk beds where I would get on the top bunk, and he would lie on the bottom bunk and turn his stereo on. We listened to the album Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On. It was somewhat of a follow up to Legend. It was obviously cooler because I had never heard of it and my friend from the city had. I noticed that these songs were different. They seemed darker and more mysterious then the all good vibes on Legend. They had songs about “Crazy Baldheads” and “So Much Trouble In the World” and “War”. “Pimpers Paradise” and “Who the Cap Fit” were dark tunes about subjects I had not yet encountered in my world. I didn’t understand them, but I knew that they were heavy. I knew that they reminded me of the Rage Against the Machine album that I had connected with so much two years earlier.  This was a different Bob Marley then the one I knew from Legend.  The bass lines seemed more backwards. They were harder to remember and much heavier. I remember my cooler friend one night said something like, “man, I want to play bass in a reggae band someday”.  I didn’t understand why. I was learning a lot at that time in my life, but I didn’t think much of it.

I have been in a band since I was eleven years old. I started out playing guitar and quickly moved to the bass. Even though one of the first tunes I ever learned to play was “Stir it up,” I didn’t ever think about playing reggae. I remember discussing with my drummer friend Matthew O’Brian of THUNDER BODY about if we should play some reggae when we were about 15, but we both agreed that it was physically impossible because we were not Jamaican. I don’t know why we would have thought that exactly, but we did.  I had played hardcore music, then I saw Phish and got really into improvisation. I had been familiar with Ska. In fact, every kid who played a brass instrument in my high school had started a horrible ska band at one point or another. My hardcore band would make fun of them in their silly dork getups, glasses, funny hats and suspenders. One of the first concerts I ever attended was a Mighty Mighty Bosstones show (03/01/1996 – Rochester, NY @ Water Street Music Hall).

I was a huge Sublime fan, but they just played this slower kind of ska. Never once did I connect any of that music to Bob Marley, or reggae, or Jamaica. There was no real link that I had seen. Sometimes you don’t get the references in the music until you know the history of the music that influenced that music.

I landed on wanting to play reggae after seeing the Wailers play at U of R for free on April 28, 2001. Family Man Aston Barrett and Drummie Zeb were the rhythm section. I was in line getting a hot dog when the familiar bass line to “Natural Mystic” began pumping. My body took over. I left the line and watched this band play all of my favorite songs, one after another, as if Bob Marley was live in concert in front of me. It was a life changer. A great drummer I was in a band with at the time, Max Goldman, saw the show with me and was equally mystified by the beats as I was with the baselines. There was something special that was happening with the groove. Was it backwards? It seemed like there was something different happening. Some massive space that made your body react like no other groove did.  It was naturally mystical. We went to his house and began getting after this reggae music. Musically we knew we had come across something profound. It was just musical though. I didn’t think about why reggae music sounded the way it did.  I didn’t think about the connection to Africa. I didn’t know what political economy meant.

I don’t remember specifically listening to track number 12 on Natural Mystic back in the day. I  do remember the songs that I mentioned previously and “One Drop” was not among them. It wasn’t until I was in college that I came across the tune that could explain most everything  to know about reggae in 3:52.  I was a political science major.  A professor I had taken one class with, Naeem Inayatullah was offering a course titled The Political Economy of African Diaspora Music. I recognized six words out of seven in the title but had no idea what they all meant when put together. The description of the course outlined that we would be studying how  “Political Economy” shaped the conditions of the African diaspora, creating the space for musical styles such as Jazz, Blues, Reggae, Afrobeat, and Afro-Cuban reflect and emerge. We listened to the music and learned about the musicians lives, and the realities that they were living in. We learned about how to talk and write about music. We learned about Marcus Garvy and post-colonial Jamaican realities. The United Fruit company, the  CIA, and Bob Marley. There was the constant questions: Why do I like the music that I like? Why do I dislike other kinds of music? Do I like music?In my life, I have never come across a greater teacher. The ability to highlight the heavy truths that music reflects about the history of humanity is one of Professor Inayatullah’s many gifts. Check him out.  It was in this class that my mind was truly cracked open. I have a hard time remembering what it was like to think before I had the luxury of taking this course.

At the time I was living in Ithaca and I had been listening to a lot of John Brown’s Body. My neighbor in my freshman dorm listened to them constantly. I would always ask, “what is this Bob Marley music? I’ve never heard it before” and he would respond enthusiastically “THIS IS JOHN BROWN’S BODY! THESE GUYS LIVE DOWNTOWN!” Something about that just didn’t compute. It sounded to me, exactly like Bob Marley. Other people made music that sounded like this?”

I returned to Rochester to finally see John Brown’s Body in concert shortly after the course had begun.  The show was at Milestones on 9/13/01. It had been rescheduled from two days before because of obvious reasons. The music spoke to me. It had heavy, heavy grooves like hardcore music with beautiful melodies and a psychedelic soundscape. It connected to my backbone and allowed my body to move in motion without thinking. PANDA! drummer Chris O’Brian reminds me that I sold him on coming to the show because I suggested “to wear umbros or something you don’t mind sweating in, because you are going to dance”. They played two sets. At one point a Jamaican woman got up from the crowd and started dancing on the stage like a freak.  It was a great space to be in. I was hooked.

This class was co-taught by a music student name Andrew Battle who I was also studying bass with at the time. In one of the classes that Andrew Battle taught, he introduced us to the concept of the reggae beat which is called the one-drop. Andrew claimed that the reason the beat seems backwards, is because the beat emphasizes the second beat and the forth beat rather than the first and the third beats. He said that typically European music and even most rock and roll emphasize the first and the third beat of a four note measure, and African derived music emphasizes the second and forth beat. The incredibly unique aspect of this type of Jamaican music, he noted, was that they completely drop out for the first beat, and land heavily on the second.  The one is silent. The one is the space. It is the negative space. The one drop is what makes your pelvis thrust and your spine contort.

Andrew stated that not only was it musically powerful, it was philosophically representing something even more symbolic.  The one drop is signifying the silence of the unheard screams of millions of Africans being taken on slave ships.  It represents the heaviness that we don’t see or hear, but affects the world in profound ways by the space it creates. The one-drop rhythm is in direct opposition to colonial power. It is backwards and difficult for Eurocentric musical circles to comprehend. It is connecting generations of displaced Africans with their culture back to the continent. It is a way to teach those born in the Diaspora about the greatness from which they were taken from and musically it represents an effort to strengthen ties to identity that have been attempted to be systematically erased from history.

I am pretty sure that Andrew Battle was inspired by a text that we were given to read for the class. Natural Mysticism: Towards A New Reggae Aesthetic by Kwame Dawes is one of the best book about reggae out there. The book itself is an extension of the music. It is a subjective book of reference about music, cultural analysis, and more. If you are reading this, you should probably pick up that book and thank yourself for making the effort. At the time it was only available in the UK.  Anyways, I learned a lot about the depth of reggae music through the writings of Kwame Dawes. Forgive me for not remembering exactly where I got this information, but I believe that after Andy Battle described to us the musical, and philosophical significance of the one drop beat, he passed out the lyrics to the “One Drop” song, by Bob Marley. He played the song. That familiar bassline started to roll through the classroom.  Aesthetically it was pleasant. Lyrically it is triumphant.

Feel it in the one drop;

And we’ll still find time to rap;

We’re makin’ the one stop,

The generation gap;

Now feel this drumbeat

As it beats within,

Playin’ a riddim,

Resisting against the system

In this opening line, Marley explains that reggae musicians are connecting back to their ancestors and families in Africa by playing an African derived rhythm. Reggae historians and ethnomusicologists will support that the reggae aesthetic is very African indeed. They were African rhythms being played on modern instruments made in the United States and Europe. By connecting back to Africa they were fighting the generation gap created by slavery. Jamaicans, through the creation of a new kind of pop music, were resisting against the system of  brutal psychological oppression that had assaulted all Africans for the past 400 years. I remember Andy Battle having a huge smile as the hook of the song played over and over again.

give us the teachings of His Majesty,

A we no want no devil philosophy

Bob Marley’s claim was clear. He demanded the teachings of His Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, the only uncolonized African country, a land mentioned in psalm 87 of the King James bible as being the birth place of man. Rastafarianism developed in Jamaica in the early 20th century after a poor man named Leonard Howell heard Marcus Garvey‘s  farewell speech where he said “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer”. Shortly after the speech one of the first international news stories hit Jamaica. It was the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1927. Poor Jamaicans had seen little international news stories. To say that the images of an African king being saluted by European heads of state was shocking to the African diaspora would be an understatement. This was the opposite of most everything these decedents of slaves had been told about their homeland. Howell saw the pictures in the newspapers and deemed Selassie “the messiah returned to earth”.  In fact Selassie was a great leader, celebrated speaker and author, and a champion of African liberation and the concept of a United States of Africa. His teachings and practices sought to modernize and unite African countries that had suffered under the hands of colonialism. He is a remarkable figure of history to study.

These teaching of Selassie combined with the developing ethos of Rastafarianism influenced many musicians in Jamaica, including Bob Marley. The one-drop rhythm itself is a rhythmic resistance to the colonial institutions philosophy that kept Africans and Africa held down economically and socially. This is the devil philosophy Marley speaks of.  Reggae music became the vehicle for the teachings of Rastafarianism. Rastafarianism sheds light on a half of history, politics, and economics that was systematically covered up by all those who profited off of the economy of colonialism. Indeed those 400 years shaped everything up to the present. It is a history worthy of study by anybody living in the world today. Your place in the struggle has been set up by the history that preceded you.

The year after the class, I took a semester abroad in Ghana, West Africa. I went because a musician friend of mine was going. I was interested in learning how to play the bass like a talking drum. When I stepped off of the plane, the song “One Drop” was playing in the airport. Then I heard it playing near my hotel. Then the second night I was there I went to a Bob Marley birthday party where a band covered the tune. Bob Marley, Reggae music, and the teachings of Rastafarianism were dominant in Ghana. Reggae was everywhere. Reggae was pop. Bob Marley was everywhere. It is an incredible feat to realize that Bob Marley, who was brought up in a house without electricity or running water in the country on the island of Jamaica has succeeded in closing the generation gap. Through music, he had connected himself and all Africans of the diaspora to their estranged relatives. Now was there a connection. the music was influencing Africans to become more aware of the history that had separated and plagued them for centuries. I cannot express how moved I was by the triumph of these musicians. I changed everything that I was doing in Ghana to study reggae and Rastafarianism, its influence on the public, and its development on the continent of Africa.

Africans of the diaspora, through music, arts, cultural communication and more, have begun to reclaim and reverse the evils of colonialism. It took me years to remember where I had first heard the term one-drop. I had forgotten my seventh grade social studies class. It had been changed to the name of the rhythm that I love so much, that resists against a system that harms all of us. It is a powerful reclamation.  Reggae music gives the best history lessons. I find it important to be aware of the past that shaped the present. Reggae music brought me the truth. I thank bands like Sublime, and John Brown’s Body, for bringing me to the dance. There is an endless supply of reggae to immerse yourself in.  It is constantly changing and developing, but the rhythm of the one-drop is always implied. It is the new heavy.

There is a lot more to tell. I spent the time writing this because, despite where I am from, my life revolves around the one drop.  History and musical influence have put me where I am. Many suffered and sacrificed to get us all to where we are. There is much to learn. I will forever be a student. Reggae music can reveal many things to you. There is depth beyond to dive into. In fact, the Marley family is now selling beverages. One of their selections is “Marley’s One Drop” coffee. I saw it in a gas station recently. Problematic? That is up for discussion.

In fact reggae was spread through the very commercial means that were created by the track marks of colonialism. Commercial co-option of reggae is a huge issue worth talking about. Recently I walked into a Starbucks and heard one of my favorite Burning Spear songs “Slavery Days”. “DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAYS OF SLAVERY?” Winston Rodney asks over a heavy one-drop rhythm. Well, do you? “I will have a trenta iced coffee with a splash of half-and-half and three pumps of classic please” I said to the Starbucks barista. “Oh I can flash my DROID smartphone to redeem my Starbucks gift certificate?”. Thank you….yes I would love more plastic garbage please. I get our band van, fill up on diesel fuel, and drive through the night to the next gig to play one-drop rhythms with my best friends to engaged reggae music enthusiasts at festivals thrown by clear-channel, endorsed by coca-cola, and a safe-zone for people who can afford it to live in freedom. Feel it in the one-drop.

Conversation is welcome. Thanks for reading

-Semaj Surreal
searljam (at)

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Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.

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scott kranzberg
10 years ago

Semaj, i have been struggling the last few weeks with my place in reggae, or rather, reggae’s place in me. I am not having any luck playing reggae with musicians who would relate to this article in any way. I feel stuck in my collaborative efforts and flow as a creative and spiritual musician. this article you wrote gave me chills multiple times, hit me deep, and brought clarity to my struggle. I relate heavily to the one drop in every aspect you wrote about. I am going to pick up kwame’s book. I am also going to share this… Read more »

10 years ago

Great read! Just found out about these reggae tuesday posts and I’ve been reading through them all. I’ve been following Panda for a while now and it’s great to hear your story James. You have great insight on Reggae music, very inspiring. Keep up the good work!

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