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The Jamaican system of recording and performance, from the 1950s to the present, constitutes a distinctive approach to notions of composition, originality and ownership. Emerging from a tradition of live performance practice mediated by (and informing) sound recordings, the relative autonomy of riddims and voicings in the Jamaican system challenges conventional ideas about the integrity of a song and the degree to which international copyright law applies to local conceptions, as enshrined in decades of practice, of musical materials as public domain. With the spread of the ‘riddim method’ to the sites of Jamaican mass migration, as evidenced by similar approaches in hip hop, reggaeton, drum'n'bass and bhangra, reggae's aesthetic system has found adherents among artists and audiences outside of Jamaica. This paper maps out, through historical description, ethnographic data, and musical analysis, the Jamaican system as a unique and increasingly influential approach to music-making in the digital age.


This article was originally published in Popular Music, available at



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