Jesse Wagner grew up in a musical family. Both his father and uncle played in soul bands during the '60s, performing Stax and Motown standards, which became the music of Wagner's youth. When he was a teenager, looking for modern music and his own identity, he still longed to hear horns and gravitated to ska. From there, it was only a matter of time before he discovered reggae.
"When I was a kid, I got way into ska, but I thought ska was all about skanking it up, getting in the pit, and wearing checkered socks," he says. "Then I came across a band called Hepcat based in L.A. I remember bringing that album home going, 'You can't skank to this. It's too damn slow.' Then one day I woke up and played it, and it all made sense to me. I was like, 'Woah, this is ska,' and a whole new world opened up for me."
Wagner's love of reggae and ska led to forming the Aggrolites in Los Angeles in 2002. The lineup came together from a pair of SoCal reggae acts, the Rhythm Doctors and the Vessels. They originally did backing work for reggae artist Derrick Morgan. Though an album never came out, the group's chemistry was readily apparent.
American soul music influenced much of the Aggrolites' original material. They released their debut, Dirty Reggae, in 2003, coining a term to describe their grimy approach that enriches the traditional Jamaican style with American roots and soul.
"American soul is definitely in our nature, our roots, what we grew up listening to," says Wagner. "It's natural for us. As far as playing reggae, the thing I have most in common with is the soul connection. You can never be exactly how they were, or as proper as they were, so we add our touch to it, making it dirty reggae. Soul is a big part of that."
The band have released five albums over the last nine years. They've toured steadily, building a fervid grassroots following.
These days the Aggrolites are supporting Rugged Road, a largely instrumental album that was initially conceived as a series of 7-inches — an idea they scrapped in favor of a full-length release. Yet they kept the style-traversing conceit that drove the idea.
"Each 45 had a different feel, so on one we were going for the Black Ark [Studios]/Lee Perry thing, while on another we'd be going for a Pioneers-sounding song," says Wagner.
Meanwhile the Aggrolites continue their crusade to open America's eyes to the very wide breadth of reggae and its artists, fighting against the form's stereotypes and marginalization in the popular consciousness.
"A lot of people see it as just, 'Let's smoke a doobie and listen to reggae.' It's just stereotypical like anything, but reggae's a tough-ass music. It came straight from the ghetto, straight from Kingston. No tougher thing than that. A lot of power and soul and shit in that music," says Wagner. "But a lot of times it's overlooked to where people go 'Reggae? I got [Bob Marley's] Legend album. Let's go smoke a joint dude,' and that's all they got out of it. But there's a lot more to reggae."
Consider this open enrollment. The Aggrolites' educational program is suitable for any music-lover age six to 80. Irresistible grooves come included.