Roots and Culture: Canada's Reggae Scene Flexes Its Influence on the World Stage

"Reggae music is the biggest thing right now — and you see it influencing artists like Drake, Rihanna, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Beyoncé — and everyone is breaking a piece off," says Spexdaboss
Roots and Culture: Canada's Reggae Scene Flexes Its Influence on the World Stage
Photo courtesy of Spexdaboss

Give the man named Spexdaboss his flowers: for over a quarter-century, the Canadian DJ has been a constant on the reggae music scene. Dubbed "Canada's Reggae Ambassador," the award-winning Toronto club and radio personality has presided over the many highlights of the genre in this country.

Name a moment in the last 25 years where reggae got its shine in Canada and Spexdaboss — Spex for short — was either present or connected in some way. He was around when more commercially global names such as Sean Paul or Shaggy hit the scene, and he was in the studio or on stage with these artists when they came to Canada.

There's no denying reggae's global impact and reach, whether the touchpoint is the legacy of Bob Marley or the modern-day reggae and dancehall energy ever-present in mainstream music. The 'riddim' sounds of the genre have been infused in modern sounds of pop, rock, hip-hop and EDM — whether it's called reggae or not (think labels such as "tropical house").

Spexdaboss is the actual DJ you saw spinning in Director X's video for Rihanna and Drake's smash single "Work" — a testament to how modern reggae has served as a foundation for pop, R&B and hip-hop. "With that whole 'Rihanna featuring Drake' video, that was all about the dancehall vibe," he says.

"A lot of people think that that video was shot for the song. It wasn't. That video was shot to me DJing other people's songs at the video shoot," remembers Spex, adding that this is a testament to the worldwide power of the genre.

Canada has long been leading the way in pushing reggae culture forward, seen through the many Canadian recording artists — Black or otherwise — who have incorporated reggae sounds or the mindset in their music, whether it's pop, rock, country or soul. When you listen closely, artists like Justin Bieber, the Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR have dabbled with the dub, leveraging the genre's touchstones to create global hits. 

"That's the energy that reggae brings — with the bassline, the kicks, the dancing and the fashion," Spex says. "When the Rihanna video got released, the amount of phone calls I personally got that morning was crazy. That alone showed me the evolution of the music and how it's allowed me to be a part of it."

For reggae music in Canada, it's been a long journey to mainstream exposure. Though the genre and its players are known commodities, the scene still fights for recognition in this country. It started from the underground and, in many ways, it's still there, despite all the success, notes Spexdaboss.

The longstanding history of reggae music in Canada is a golden legacy of names, including — but not limited to — Jackie Mittoo, Jay Douglas, Leroy Brown, Jimmy Wisdom, Sonia Collymore and Tanya Mullings.

Starting in the 1950s and '60s, a wave of Black Jamaican and Caribbean immigrants to Toronto fueled early bands such as the Sheiks, the Cavaliers and the Cougars, who played local nightclubs at the time. It was largely underground, but reggae-soul artists such as Messenjah, the Sattalites and 20th Century Rebels shone when and where they could. A lack of infrastructure and distribution made lasting success hard to come by, though the scene had several early triumphs, such as when UK punk rockers the Clash covered "Armagideon Rock" by Toronto's Jackie Mittoo, who had served as music director at the legendary Jamaican recording studio Studio One before coming to Canada in the '70s.

The glory days of this era were revisited in the mid-2000s when American record label Light in the Attic curated the Jamaica-Toronto series of reissues and compilations, commemorating many Canadian reggae acts from the late '60s and early '70s, including Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, Noel Ellis and Johnny Osbourne.

Spexdaboss got his start playing in high school dances in the east Toronto suburb Scarborough in the early '90s. "Back then, there were maybe four or five songs that I could play in the high school dance. It was hard to just play Black music, much less reggae, dancehall and soca. It's come a long way. Before, it was just community radio, but now you can hear it more in commercial radio scenes," he says.

"I originally came from a hip-hop background. I was playing basketball and attended Scarborough's West Hill Collegiate which was a hub for young Black people at the time in terms of music and fashion. When I started in the reggae and dancehall scene, no one initially thought I was a reggae DJ — they thought I was the hip-hop guy because of how I talked and dressed. But I think that all played into my game over how to present reggae music and make it more 'acceptable' for wider audiences," he says.

But then, just like now, there were people who were determined to see the music flourish in Canada. Karl Mullings — who came to Canada as the manager of the Sheiks — might not be a household name, but for Canadian reggae, he proved to be foundational for the rise of the scene. Tanya Mullings, his daughter, would know; she's had her own success, including JUNO nominations.

She says that her late father was the connecting force in the early days of the scene. "I'm the first Canadian female reggae artist to be recognized at that level, but it meant more to me because of what my dad did for the Canadian industry," says Mullings, who was inducted into the Brampton Arts Walk of Fame in 2015.

"My father Karl is the one who showed Canada that reggae music can be elevated to these levels. He was in the industry in the '60s, came to Canada, and then he was touring still with bands, but he got out of the music [industry] because my mom didn't like him traveling. But he helped bring reggae music to Canada."

Adds Tanya, "My father supported Canadian talent because he lived here, but he also supported international artists. He supported reggae music worldwide. He was basically promoting artists out of his own pocket because he wanted to grow an industry."

While Canadian reggae has had many successes, she says it still must fight for recognition, even today. "Hip-hop is still getting more recognition than reggae on mainstream radio. But it's still a fight. We fought for years for the reggae category JUNOS to be televised on the TV and we are still fighting. It's like we're constantly knocking on doors."

But there's a new wave of new reggae artists who are seeking to bust those doors down.

Kirk Diamond is a JUNO Award-winning reggae artist, producer and social activist based in Brampton, just outside of Toronto. His conscious reggae vibes draw on the philosophies of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and Jamaican National Hero Marcus Garvey. Diamond notes that winning the award for reggae served as validation, both for himself and the genre at large: "Just being in the room with Alanis Morissette, Kardinal Offishall or Michael Bublé makes it seem real. You're seeing them as co-workers more than people you see on TV."

Ammoye is an artist whose name also comes up in JUNO Award conversations. "The JUNOS here is like the Canadian version of the Grammys. That gives you the confirmation that you are on the right path, for me, personally," she says, adding that, despite the success reggae has had in Canada, things still aren't easy. "We all know that, in Canada, with the mainstream radio, they like to play their pop, hip-hop, rap music, rock music artists. But we don't get the play," she says.

Making the sound his own has been part of Lexxicon's early start. The artist dubs his sound a mix of hip-hop and reggae vibes. "It's a fusion of dancehall and hip-hop. It's not fully reggae but not hip-hop either. It's just reflective of how the music is evolving," he says.

STORRY isn't of Black descent, but the singer-songwriter has been nominated for a JUNO Award for "Another Man," under the category of Best Reggae Recording. The track, produced in Jamaica by the legendary production team of Sly and Robbie, carries reggae, soul and pop elements that she defines as "eclectic." That said, she notes that those who aren't Jamaican or of a Caribbean background should always understand where the music originated.

"I've dabbled in so many different genres of music. But I would say that reggae and dancehall have very greatly influenced much of the pop and R&B and indie music that has come out in the past decade."

Indeed, there is a fine line to tread in terms of cultural appreciation. Historically, elements of reggae have been used by Canadian artists — including Rush ("Vital Signs"), Justin Bieber ("Sorry"), Big Sugar ("Turn the Lights On") and Bryan Adams ("Reggae Christmas").

Appreciation doesn't veer into appropriation so long as the music is respected, says Spexdaboss. "Everything has to evolve. I don't really have a problem with the music expanding like that, because, as I said, when I started there were only three or four reggae records that I would play in the club. You can go to a club here in Toronto, New York, Miami, Germany, wherever, there's full reggae dance clubs now," he says. "If it wasn't for reggae, there'd be no reggaeton. There wouldn't be a lot of other genres that came off of reggae. The genre has to expand if we really want to grow the global brand that is Jamaican music. The only issue is when the genre isn't given credit."

For Canadian-Ghanaian recording artist Slim Flex, blending dancehall reggae sounds with Afrobeat music has been key to his musical success. "There is a fusion in the sound that I call Afro-dancehall. Even when you listen to dancehall, there are elements of African sounds in there. It's about dancehall sounds but pushing an Afrobeat agenda," he says.

Ultimately, reggae in Canada is in a good place, says Spexdaboss, who's been expanding his brand — and the genre in Canada by extension — by performing live sets on Twitch and establishing a clothing line.

"I can turn around and say that [reggae] reaches everywhere. Whether you're white, Indian, Black, Chinese — it doesn't matter because they all love reggae and dancehall," he says.

The Rihanna "Work" video has over a billion YouTube views. It's a nod to how powerful the genre is and can be. 

"Reggae music is the biggest thing right now — and you see it influencing artists like Drake, Rihanna, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Beyoncé — and everyone is breaking a piece off," he says. "But at the same time, the genre still needs more outlets in the country to continue to grow."