This is a little research I did in 2008 during my studies in Media Technology. People sometimes ask me about it, and that's why I decided to put it online. It is, however, in no way considered to be solid research.In reggae music, it is very common for artists and producers to take an existing instrumental song (a riddim), record a new voicing over it, and re-release it as if it were a completely new song. It is told that this tradition originates from the old days, when poverty prevailed in Jamaica. In this article, I research the correlation between Jamaica's wealth and the number of recycled riddims. As it turns out, the correlation is not as you would expect from the rumours.


What sparked my interest?

The topic of this research stems from my personal experience within the reggae music scene. From the early 1970's, reggae music – whose most popular form since around 1980 has been called dancehall – has relied upon the phenomenon of the riddim, that is, an autonomous accompanimental track. While a dancehall song consists of a deejay singing over a riddim, the riddim is not exclusive to that song, but is typically used in many other songs – a practice which is, for example, uncharacteristic of rap, which also uses sampled pieces of music. Sometimes, the same voicing may be re-released with different riddims. Accordingly, the riddim has its own name, its own producer and owner, and its own musical life independent of particular voicings by deejays. Some of the most popular riddims have been re-released hundreds of times. This system of what we could call riddim-plus-voicing, in which songs are built from separable component parts, is taken for granted by people immersed in dancehall culture, whether as fans, producers, or music journalists.


What I am talking about

Listen to some examples of music to get a better idea of this phenomenon. Below are songs on four different riddims. Some songs, for example the ones on the Confessions riddim, are easily recognizable, because the music is exactly the same - the songs were all produced by the same producer. For some other songs, for example the ones on the Drum Song riddim, it's harder to hear the similarities. It can be the bassline, the drums, the melody, or a combination of features. Listen closely.

Youthman riddim
Welton Irie
Wicked haffi run (1977)
play fragment
Little Kirk
Sound boy (1987)
play fragment
Banana Man
Dancehall murder (1991)
play fragment
Fisherman riddim
The Congos
Fisherman (1977)
play fragment
Michael Rose
Let your love (2006)
play fragment
Gregory Isaacs
Spot and beat the bank (2006)
play fragment
Drum Song riddim
Jackie Mittoo
Drum song (1969)
play fragment
Make it secure (1997)
play fragment
Hot this year (1991)
play fragment
Confessions riddim
Fantan Mojah
Dem can't stop the time (2006)
play fragment
Live it up (2006)
play fragment
Chuck Fender
Gash dem (2006)
play fragment

The question

Rumours dem spreadin'...

Among reggae lovers, it is told that this riddim tradition originates from the old days, when poverty prevailed in Jamaica. This is a plausible assertion, as anyone can understand that it is cheaper to take an existing piece of instrumental music and record a new voice over it, rather than producing a whole new song. Accordingly, one could assume that artists will release more original songs in times of prosperity, while in times of bad economic condition more existing riddims will be re-used.

These stories about poverty and riddims led to my research question: Is there an actual relationship between Jamaica's wealth and the number of riddims used? By 'wealth' I mean economic wealth, and by 'number of riddims' I mean the percentage of songs that use an existing riddim versus the songs that don't.


Diggin' into riddims

There are no exact statistics available of Jamaican reggae record sales in the second half of the 20th century. This is mainly caused by the typical Jamaican system of recording and performance, and especially by the sound system culture that has been around since the early days of dancehall music** Peter Manuel and Wayne Marshall "The riddim method: aesthetics, practice, and ownership in Jamaican dancehall".. A lot of music that was popular in the dancehalls was never officially released. If producers say that a song has been released in Jamaica, they often don't actually mean that it has been pressed. They just mean that it's being played.

Fortunately, there are a few individuals who keep databases of reggae songs and the names of the used riddims. By far the largest collection is the one by Pupa Vlado** Pupa Vlado stopped maintaining the database in 2003. Many riddim databases, like the ones on ReggaeID and Jamrid, are based on Vlado's collection and are occassionally updated by hobbyists.. For my research I used Vlado's database, which is incomplete, but still it's the most extensive source for this kind of data. It contains around 37,000 songs, including around 20,000 songs of which the year of production is known.

The period in time that I looked at for this research is 1960-2003, because that is the range for which the most information is available.


What I found

First of all, these are the total numbers of songs in the database per year.

Second, these are the percentages of songs that use an existing riddim, compared to the songs that don't.

The next graph shows how Jamaica's GDP per capita** A country's Gross Domestic Product is one of the ways of measuring the size of its economy. The GDP is defined as the total market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a year. 'Per capita' means per person, in this case per resident. When I speak of 'GDP' in this article, I mean 'GDP per capita'. The GDP data I used was provided by the International Monetary Fund. developed and which political party ruled at the time. For comparison, I also added a graph representing the Dutch GDP.

As you can see, Jamaica's GDP didn't develop nearly as smoothly as the Dutch GDP. After Jamaica's independence in 1962, its society was often influenced by tensions between supporters of the two political parties. Especially between 1976 and 1980 there was a significant escalation of violence, almost leading to a civil war in 1980. During its period of goverment from 1972 until 1980, the socialist PNP saw a huge economical lag. After the 1980 elections,violence stopped, and the economy started recovering due to IMF loans and free market policies of the new government** Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton. "The rough guide to reggae" (3rd edition). Rough Guides Ltd. London, 2004..

The next graph shows the relation between Jamaica's GDP and the percentage of songs that use an existing riddim.

As you can see, there is a correlation: the higher the GDP, the more riddims are used.
Of course we can also look at the GDP annual growth...

...and compare that to the percentage of riddims.

But it may be clear that there is no correlation between those two variables whatsoever.


What does this mean?

It is immediately clear that there is definitely no correlation between Jamaica's GDP annual growth and the percentage of riddims. There actually is some kind of correlation between Jamaica's GDP and the percentage of riddims. However, this is not quite the expected correlation - it's the opposite: the higher the GDP per capita, the more riddims are used. That means that we could state that poverty is not an excuse for re-using existing music. While the amount of used existing riddims over the years increased, the GDP increased as well, so one could possibly state that music artists became less 'creative', because they produced fewer original songs.


Things to keep in mind

A few things should be taken into account when reading this research. First of all, I don't know how Pupa Vlado exactly maintained his database. It might be the case that his main goal was to collect songs that use an existing riddim, and that original songs were merely a side issue. In that case, the data concerning the percentage of riddims might not be entirely correct. It might also be the case that Vlado collected data more actively in certain years rather than in other years. It's also very likely that his collecting behaviour changed over the years - maybe at first he collected all reggae songs, but later on only collected songs with riddims. Unfortunately, I've been trying in vain to get in contact with Pupa Vlado to ask questions about this matter.

Another important thing is the fact that there is more information available about songs produced in 2000 rather than songs from 1960. These days, everything is simply more well-documented than it was in 1960.

It is also questionable whether a country's GDP exactly represents the overall prosperity of that country. Jamaica's GDP increased steadily in the late 80's, but this was accompanied by significant cutbacks in health provision and other social services and an increase of unemployment.