Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Review)
Kelefa Sanneh’s new book explores rock, r&b, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop, not only as art forms, but as identities that emerged from countercultural movements to become the fabric of popular music.
This book felt like a mind-meld from one music nerd to another. Although at first I disagreed with Sanneh’s emphasis on the importance of genre, I came to appreciate his framework for investigating how music cultures form, rise, and are ultimately defined in retrospect.
In fact, he acknowledges throughout, the ways in which genres continually influence and interweave with one another, highlighting numerous rock, r&b, country, punk, hip-hop, and dance tunes that have crossed over into pop for example. He also sheds light on the influences that ’70s country took from r&b and rock, and delves into the more recent fusions of country and hip hop.
He even touches on reggae’s interplay with punk, and more foundational influence on hip hop. Yet this massively influential music emanating from the small Caribbean island of Jamaica feels under-represented in the book overall, even though its impact can be felt across just about all the other genres.
Reggae Could Be the 8th Genre
While Sanneh acknowledges the influential role Jamaican sound-system culture played in hip hop (DJs, MCs, etc.), that same influence is generally missing from the dance music section, which he firmly roots in the New York disco scene. Disco innovations were indeed hugely influential, especially on house and techno, but so too were Jamaican sound-system innovations on genres like jungle and dubstep.
Dub music for example, was a genre created by Jamaican studio engineers who became musicians in their own right when they began using their mixing boards and electronic effect processors as instruments; essentially inventing the remix. Meanwhile, Jamaican DJs (known as selectors) used special “dubplate” records, exclusive to certain DJs, that would set them and their dancehall parties apart. And the sound-system designers, in collaboration with the studio engineers, pushed bass frequencies to new levels of fidelity in their efforts to move bodies in the dancehalls. Dub-influenced remixes, exclusive dubplates, and pushing bass frequencies all became cornerstones across the various sub-genres of dance music.
Reggae’s influence has been massive in pop too, as you can hear in smash ’80s hits by Culture Club, Cindy Lauper, Tina Turner, The Police, and Blondie. Then there are the many more recent examples like the entire reggaeton genre (one of the most popular musical forms in the world today) which is a direct descendant of Jamaican dancehall reggae.
Eighth genre aside, I remained rapt throughout Major Labels as Sanneh revealed fascinating historical nuggets and cultural insights one after another. If you’re a music nerd like me, I have a feeling the mind-meld will make it hard for you to put the book down too.