The funk and soul that served as background music for barbeques in the Sixties and Seventies has a bastard child. Its name is the Aggrolites.
Comprising Jesse Wagner on vocals and guitar, Brian Dixon playing rhythm guitar, Roger Rivas on keys, Jeff Roffredo plying bass strings, and former Hepcat drummer Scott Abels, the Aggrolites relay a musical message from Jamaica while incorporating a gritty American edge related to the Stax Records stable. This amalgamation has resulted in a popularity unmatched by other groups that work with similar sources. (Well, except for Sublime, but that’s a whole different story.)
Hailing from Los Angeles, the Aggrolites have a sound that reflects the wide breadth of their hometown’s music scene. There’s as much of El Chicano and Bobby Espinosa’s organ smattered across the Aggrolites’ discography as there is Motown Records, which, after all, relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. But in eschewing ska for latter-day Jamaican sounds, the band has also been able to ingratiate itself to the funk scene in Los Angeles, even befriending the Breakestra, which name-checks the quintet on its latest album Dusk Till Dawn.
“I used to DJ a lot and that’s how I met Miles,” Rivas said, referring to the frontman of the Breakestra. “He came to check me out deejaying once and we just hit it off.”
Considering the vast expanse of the Aggrolites’ sound, it would make sense for the band to work with other SoCal artists treading the same musical territory. The ensemble hasn’t served as a backing group to any local rappers or actually performed alongside musicians tied to the funk scene, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
“The opportunity just hasn’t come up,” said Rivas. “But if we could ever make that happen, we totally would.”
Rivas and company see themselves as part of a larger tradition, one that dates back almost fifty years to a time when Jamaica sought to create a sound that defined the new freedom the nation had won. The inspired tones of that music would soon make its way to England, where an emerging skinhead subculture would embrace it.
“People just don’t grasp it when you explain it to them,” Rivas said of Jamaican music’s relationship to the misunderstood skinhead subculture. And while many figure that the Aggrolites truck in skinhead reggae — the genre that came after reggae and before the UK ska revival, which included acts such as Symarip, Clancy Eccles, Judge Dread, and middle-period Prince Buster — the band would never define itself in those terms.
“We’re influenced by skinhead reggae, but we’re not trying to play it,” Rivas explained. “There’s not a band around now that can play it as good as they did back in the day. You can’t re-create that — like two-tone [ska]. Those bands were that and now it’s gone.”
The Aggrolites’ dedication to classic source material, whether it’s from Jamaica, Detroit, or England, comes across clearly on each of the ensemble’s albums. Its latest Hellcat Records-released disc, simply titled IV, opens with a song called “Firecracker,” which could have been a soundtrack to dances parties a few decades back. It’s a curious way to open an album for a band so tied to Jamaican music, but it seems that the group really doesn’t differentiate between genres at this point.
Just as the originators of Jamaican popular music were avid fans of Motown and Stax, the Aggrolites make use of any number of musical disciplines to arrive at its tougher-than-tough reggae-cum-soul style. But Rivas just perceives all music as a series of tributaries to be discovered: “There’s some deep stuff that people don’t really investigate that’s kinda rare.”
The Aggrolites attempt to distill it all and expose their fan base to these unknown groups and artists. The few instrumental numbers that appear on IV work in all the aforementioned genres, but seek to further incorporate esoteric figures from Jamaican music history, such as keyboardist Lloyd Charmers.
“Musically on Top,” another track off of the Aggrolites’ latest album, arrives as a revamping of Lloyd Charmers and the Hippy Boys jamming on “Psychedelic Reggae.” Constant and funky organ solos unite the two songs even as decades separate them. But the nod to a classic, albeit unknown, figure from reggae’s past is part of the Aggrolites’ stated mission.
“Now the world’s all consumed by this fake plastic music,” Rivas said, referring to the dancehall music that dominates Jamaican exports these days. “Shaggy, Sean Paul, and these cats are on the radio. But as far as the mainstream and totally breaking through, it’s still a long ways off.”
Reggae has never been a chart topper here in the States, and only sporadically does Jamaican music impact British charts. Doggedly spreading the gospel, though, is part of what keeps this ensemble forging ahead.
There’s no tremendous payday at the end of the road the Aggrolites are on. Touring Europe and finding appreciative fans along the way are the group’s reward. And in noting the plasticity of the music industry, Rivas pits his own reggae-inflected work against pop. “One thing about reggae is that it’s truly from the heart,” he said. “It’s from the soul.”