There are singers, guitarists and even entire bands who will say that if not for so and so—if not for the music and classic albums of this artist or that artist—they wouldn’t exist. In the case of the Aggrolites, that’s not just hyperbole.
If not for the great Jamaica ska singer Derrick Morgan, the Aggrolites would quite honestly not exist. The band was borne out of a small collective of Southern Californian reggae and ska artists who, after backing the singer in a local concert, came together about four years ago to record music for a new Derrick Morgan disc.
While that project never ended up seeing daylight, the various recording sessions gave rise to the Aggrolites, an amalgamation of two area bands, the Vessels and the Rhythm Doctors, a band that originally came together purely by accident, says lead guitarist/vocalist Jesse Wagner. “We were having fun in the studio, so we just said, ‘Hey, why don’t we book some shows and do our own thing.’ We were just five guys enjoyed playing music together.”
Beyond having a good time, while cutting the Morgan tracks the band—Wagner, bassist J Bonner, rhythm guitarist Brian Dixon, piano/organist Roger Rivas and then-drummer Korey Horn (who has since been replaced by ex-Hepcat skinsman Scott Abels)—knew they were onto something.
Reflecting the deep love for rocksteady, ska and reggae in Southern California, this new fusion of two bands was hitting on something that sounded truly authentic: from the classic, keyboard riffing recalling the great Jamaican keyboardist Jackie Mittoo to the swinging, horn-filled rhythms of Morgan himself.
They decided to run with it, booking shows throughout L.A. and Orange County, during which they were mixing originals with Mitto and Upsetters covers. The band took its name from the 1960s British slang term “aggro,” meaning “tough.” During that era, aggro was a term used to describe the tough reggae sound getting more and more popular in the U.K. It was a perfect fit for the Aggrolites: a tough name for a tough band.
In between gigs, they reentered the studio and began cutting tracks that eventually became their first record, Dirty Reggae. “We were recording the album without even knowing it,” says Wagner. “Before we knew it we had an album done, before we had even really honed our sound. Released on the tiny Axe label, Dirty Reggae is a collection of one-take tracks cut “within a matter of hours, instead of weeks or days,” Wagner laughs, noting that most of the lyrics came right off the top of his head.
Recorded in L.A. at Signet Studios, the former relocated, West Coast home of Motown, the tracks were cut using some of the same instruments employed by the likes of The Jackson Five and Smokey Robinson, some of the very records that Wagner and his bandmates grew up on: While their love for Caribbean rhythms is deep—they share a particular affection for the likes the Upsetters, Delroy Wilson, Toots, Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis—the band’s sound and style was informed by everything from the Clash, WAR and James Brown to Tower of Power, Wilson Pickett and the Meters.
Finding Dixon, a sound engineer at Signet, sculpting the sound—using older microphones and tinkering with retro recording techniques—Dirty Reggae laid the bedrock for their The Aggrolites, the band’s Hellcat Records debut.
Taking Dixon’s retro approach one-step further, The Aggrolites is a 19-track mix of sing-a-longs and instrumentals that not only sounds straight out of Kingston, circa 1967, but one that with great respect and style recalls such pillars of island music as Toots & the Maytals, the Ethiopians, Mittoo and the early Wailers.
It’s that rare kind of album that really, truly sounds like a bona fide homage, a disc that sounds like a group of guys genuinely in love with the great, late ‘60s music of Jamaica, guys who are interested in reviving rather ripping off those classic records.
Indeed, if the band members had a collective goal, it would be to increase awareness of reggae music—to show Americans especially that there’s a whole lot more to Jamaican music than Bob Marley, ganja and growing dreadlocks, says Wagner. “We’d love to help put it more on the map.”
“With The Aggrolites,” he says, “We tried to get serious.” While the music was created spontaneously, a little more sculpted were the melodies and lyrics, which can be quite playful, and intentionally have an almost child-friendly, nursery rhyme-like vibe in songs like “Work to Do.” In the great story-song “Countryman Fiddle,” Wagner and the gang sing: “I need more soul in my music/I got to have reggae, reggae music/I don’t need no countryman fiddle/I need a real cool sound.”
“A lot of the songs are about fun, while other can get somewhat serious, like when we talk about poverty, things that we were going through at the time,” Wagner laughs. “Being broke and trying to make it in a band… But every single song is about something completely different.”
En route to the release of The Aggrolites have had plenty of time to hone that “real cool” sound, having gigged across the States, in Canada and Mexico and overseas. The band’s appeared on several tiny international releases, and experienced a boon in its career when Hellcat chiefs Chris LaSalle and Tim Armstrong of Rancid placed the band’s “Dirty Reggae,” the title track of their first album, on the fourth volume of the popular Give ‘Em the Boot compilation.
It was a perfect introduction to a bigger audience, says Wagner. Dirty Reggae has essentially come to define what they do onstage and what they are, he says: White boys faithfully playing Jamaican music but with grit. It’s reggae, but it’s a bit dirtied up by a group of guys who range in age from mid-20s to mid-30s and informed by all sorts of rock music.
It’s a mix that comes across live: “Watching a ska band, or reggae band,” Wagner says, “if you don’t like the music, you’re gonna be bored out of your mind, because most bands sort of stand onstage with a deer-in-headlights look. We try to do something to catch their eye, because if you think about it, the Specials used to jump around, people like Prince had sex appeal, someone like Otis Redding would get down on his knees—we try to put that energy into the music.”
They’ve done so during opening sets for the likes of Madness, Rancid, Floggin’ Molly, The Selecter and Ozomatli. Perfectly enough, their sound has proven so true that they even ended up serving as the backing band for not only Derrick Morgan, but late Jamaica vocalist Phyllis Dillon, Scotty, Joseph Hill of Culture and Prince Buster, who afterward provided as powerful a testament to the Aggrolites’ authenticity, saying: “It reminded me of the old days, I can’t believe that this young band from America could play my music just as good as the day it was recorded.” Mission accomplished.
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