The heart of the soundtrack comes from performances by the film's star, reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Only the title track "The Harder They Come" was recorded by Cliff specifically for the soundtrack, with three earlier songs by Cliff added. The remainder of the album is a compilation of singles released in Jamaica from the period of 1967 through 1972, assembled by the The Harder They Come director and co-writer, Perry Henzell, from songs by favored reggae singers. In addition to Cliff, these artists include The Melodians, The Slickers, DJ Scotty, and seminal early reggae stars Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals.
The soundtrack album played a major part in popularizing reggae in the United States and the world beyond, the film itself preventing the genre from remaining an isolated phenomenon in Jamaica. In 2003, the album was ranked number 119 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The album also appears on greatest albums lists from Time and Blender, and was named the 97th best album of the 1970s by Pitchfork Media.
On August 5, 2003, Universal Music Group issued a Deluxe Edition of the album, with the original remastered and reissued on one disc. A bonus disc continued the idea of the original soundtrack itself, compiling additional singles from the early days of reggae, entitled Reggae Hit the Town: Crucial Reggae 1968-1972.