He’s Back Across the Pond, but $cotland Yard is Still Edifying Cypher League on UK MC Culture
It’s self-evident that UK hip hop is a derivative of US hip hop yet there are also important nuances to their relationship, such as those discussed in Part 1, which emerge on closer inspection. The bulk of the iceberg that is UK urban music, however, is a strange and multi-faceted creature whose origins can be traced back not only to Afro-Caribbean roots but also the boom of popular electronic sounds coming out of the House and Techno music scenes of Chicago and Detroit in the late 80s and early 90s. Before broaching the electronic evolution of these sounds post-1990, it is important to bridge the cultural gap between the West Indies and England, detailing the historical context of these developments.
The influence of sound system culture and its prevalence in British music takes a bearing from as far back as the 1950s, when Ska had emerged in Jamaica as the island’s popular musical evolution of its native carnival sounds of Calypso. Ska combined its predecessor’s Mento foundations with the Rhythm n Blues coming from America to create a similarly exciting craze which filled the dancehalls of its time. The onomatopoeic name is rumoured to have come from the syncopated scat guitar; the other characteristics being a 4/4 drum beat with a snare on the 3rd beat (lending to the ‘step’ effect) which is accompanied by trumpets and a prominent bass line, all found in much of Jamaica’s music and passed on to the genres which will be discussed herein.
The dancing in the video below aptly anticipates the Skank, already emphasising the movement of the upper body and the stepping movement of the feet, so characteristic of future genres in the legacy of Jamaican and later urban UK music.
Short of having a live band on call to play the dancehall, as was often the case in the ghettos of Jamaican towns, a Sound System was used. In fact, by the mid-50s street parties were more commonly assembled around a system than a live band. A system party was a hugely enjoyable and inexpensive way to spend an evening. Dancing proved a competitive way for young people to build reputation amongst their peers and catch the attention of the opposite sex. The selector turned a decent profit for the facility provided and would gain popularity relative to his competitors by playing the freshest material, much the same dynamic evident in today’s selection circles. As tastes moved toward locally recorded sounds and self-produced ‘exclusives’ or ‘dub plates’, supply lines grew stronger and the competition between DJs to dominate the scene more frantic with frequent sound clashes between systems and their MC hype men in order to determine the champion. These MCs were called Toasters and they provided a commentary for the tunes being run – this might be considered the first example in musical history of spoken word complimenting an instrumental.
Given that these parties were often the only way for poorer communities to hear new musics, there was arguably a lot at stake for all involved, be you behind the decks or skanking out in the dance. This sense of opportunity attracted young provocateurs, nicknamed Rude Boys, and soundmen would oftentimes have a group of them on the payroll to undermine the efforts of their competitors by crashing their set. These chaps took their image from the Trilby and sharp suits of the rock n roll scene and had a profound stylistic influence on British counterculture some ten years later. The term ‘rude boy’ is now applied to a slightly different demographic.
Some of the great pioneers of the System were Count Machuki (the OG Jamaican toaster), King ‘The Ugly One’ Stitt and Duke Reid. With time, systems got larger in both power and physical size through customisation and soon wattage could be as much as 30,000W across frequencies although the bass was always paramount. All this was capitalised on in future years when production, both analogue and digital, came to prominence – the impact of the Sound System in England will be detailed later in the article but it is worth mentioning its forerunners Dennis Bovell (Barbadian) and Duke Vin who immediately appealed to the London West Indian communities with their club nights in Ladbroke Grove and the famous Roaring Twenties in the West End, since ultimately there was nowhere else to hear these genres in the UK.
Rewinding a few years, it was with the ‘Windrush’ generation (the initial influx of post-WW2 West-Indian migrants); 492 of them arriving on the ship MV Empire Windrush in 1948 near London, that a Trinidadian calypsonian named Lord Kitchener was caught on film singing a ditty called ‘London is the Place for Me’ as he disembarked for the first time onto British soil – as this footage was circulated in local media it helped establish and was symbolic of a new precedent for Caribbean music in Britain. From this point onward, the relationship between the underground music of parts of English society and the Caribbean (specifically Jamaica) was a close and symbiotic one. Interestingly, the USA had been considered a more desirable destination by Caribbean immigrants, yet the 1952 Mc Warren-Walter Act restricted their opportunities to settle. It begs the question of how this eventuality may have impacted upon the music of America’s black population, and indeed the UK’s also, not forgetting that the toasting of dancehall MCs served in many ways as a precursor to the Hip hop format of spitting over instrumentals.
Music like Kitchener’s (ironically named after the legendary colonial Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener) provided for the Windrush, a soundtrack to their threshold experience of migration, not only harking back to their former lives but romanticising this new home in England, which sadly held for many de facto hardship where they had expected opportunity and prosperity. Indigenous Brits, shell shocked from the horrors of the WW2 and specifically the Blitz, given its impact on available property, lashed back against the notion of sharing their land, employment and livelihood with foreign migrants. Throughout the 1950s new arrivals experienced extreme prejudice, often manifested in violence across the country with attacks by native, disenfranchised post-war youth disillusioned with the apparent disorder of the world left by earlier generations. These perpetrators were teenage gangs who generally identified themselves as Teddy Boys due to their throwback Edwardian style of dress and passion for American rock n roll music.
Amidst serious riots all over the country from London to Birmingham, the now world famous Notting Hill Carnival was established in 1959 as a positive response to the climate of hostility that many Afro-Caribbean migrants fell victim to during the initial stages of their integration, effectively using music as a weapon for peace.
The belle époque of Ska coincided with Jamaica’s independence in 1962, where the triumphant spirit of freedom could be heard in the songs of bands like The Skatalites, who provided the sound track to what appeared to be the dawning of a liberated Jamaica. The details of this misconception will be discussed soon, but first the proliferation of the earlier Caribbean sounds and their context in the UK might be explored. As can be heard in the above song, in times to come the alternative music scene in the UK would adopt the powerful message of the music brought over by Caribbean immigrants into their own sounds – The Clash made great use of the reggae format to create their unique take on Punk in the 70s and 80s.
The 2-tone scene found its cultural counterpart in the Rude Boys of 60s Jamaica who shared aspects of its ethos but itself originated in socially deprived areas of northern England. Its uplifting qualities were designed as an appeal for unity in a country then blighted by unwanted conflict in the Falklands Islands, economic recession and unemployment as the Thatcherite Conservative Government wrested power from the Unions in predominantly industrial areas. Bands like The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and Symarip spearheaded this element of British subculture, often with band members of mixed race synchronising British Punk with Jamaican Ska and Reggae – a sound which similarly served as a sound track to the socio-political context of the time.
Skinhead culture was also intrinsically connected to 2-Tone, being the natural evolution of the tough Teddy Boy aesthetic of working class youth; yet its shaven heads, its boots and braces were non-discriminatory and embraced all persons from that social stratum, although the lifestyle they led was still often one of rebellion and hooliganism. It is noteworthy that in the same region a mere generation earlier, Northern Soul (borrowed from American Motown) was what filled dancehalls, its associated peer group were The Mods in their fitted pin stripes and scooters. The art of British DJing was born in this setting, where crowds were most impressed upon by the jockey’s selection of lesser-known records – this culture of the esoteric fan base can be seen all over the British urban music scene, where it is not unheard of that the most popular tunes are never officially released at all.
Sadly with rising social tensions due to the factors outlines above, the Skinhead sense of identity began to change with more of them becoming affiliated with far-right nationalist organisations, pre-empting the typical perception of White Supremacist Skinheads so widespread today. The trailer below is for Shane Meadow’s film This Is England, a moving and gritty portrayal of this loss of innocence in underprivileged parts of British society.
Panning back to Jamaica on the dawn of its independence: despite nationwide celebration, in reality the event presupposed a future of economic deficit, poverty and shocking levels of violence due in part to political polarisation, the abundance of illegal firearms and the International War on Drugs. This legacy of national anguish spawned much of the island’s post-independence musical character, with globally treasured icons like Bob Marley leading the chant for peace and love in the world. The ideological vehicle most suited to this rhetoric was the Afrocentric and somewhat militant Rastafari and its mythological battle against the Babylonian oppressor. This music was cultivated in defiance of oppression and given the tainted historical connexion with England – naturally the flourishing heritage of the West Indies in the UK began to appropriate mantras of the Red, Gold and Green.
Alongside the combative essence of the Rasta affiliated genres, formed by the emphasis on the rhythm and bass, the slow tempo and weighty entrancing spell of the two-step is clearly a result of the religion’s enjoyment of cannabis which was allegedly found growing on Soloman’s grave and for some also engenders feelings of happiness and community – emotions central to the composition and experience of the Jamaican music which evolved immediately from Ska: reggae, dub and sometime later, dancehall. Of course the culture growing in England was by no means exempt from this passion for Ganja and nor were the sectors of society in America from which Funk, Soul and hip hop materialised. Setting aside the socio-economic escapist theories about drug-use and its effect on the health, smoking is at best a hilarious and fun activity to partake in which has yielded vast swathes of cultural output. Below is Linval Thompson’s not-so-subtle tribute to the lamb’s bread:
Reggae was created in the late 60’s and succeeded Ska as Jamaica’s national sound, its focus on black consciousness was partly a result of the positive advancement of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the growing struggle of native Jamaicans in their home country, with personalities like Marcus Garvey once bridging the gap and as such becoming icons for Rasta appraisal.
Reggae migrated to the UK first as Lover’s Rock, a watered down version of the Jamaican sound before British bands such as Aswad and Steel Pulse took up the gauntlet of dub and reggae proper in England. British labels such as Trojan and Island Records also emerged with characters such as Chris Blackwell at the forefront; the latter is credited with having forged the career of Bob Marley and thus having brought reggae music to the world. At the age of 21, after a sailing accident which left him unconscious and close to death on a Jamaican beach, Blackwell was rescued by a kindly Rasta and brought back to health – this experience led to his life-long affiliation with the country’s music and culture. It was David ‘Ram Jam’ Rodigan MBE who then picked up the mantle of promoting Jamaican music in England, playing the role of white British aficionado. As a DJ on Capital Radio and Kiss FM and a sound clash champion in his own right, he endorsed these genres with heart and soul and is considered a true hero in the world of reggae; this is evident in the shout outs and references to him in so many songs today not to mention his Order of Chivalry from our glorious Queen. See if you can spot the mad bastard in the video below.
Dub is considered a sub-genre of reggae, yet is more accurately a production style as it was pioneered by the studio technicians of the reggae genre such as the mighty King Tubby, the eccentric Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Scientist or Augustus Pablo. These guys would rework their own dub versions of original songs. This remix process was essentially a matter of removing much of the extraneous audio fills such as the vocals; the instrumental would be stripped to a skeletal fusion of rhythm and bass which would be accentuated with sparse vocal and percussive samples effected under the control of the soundman with reverb and delay. It is this instrumental format, more so than reggae, which provided a platform for synthesis with many of the genres concerned in part 3 of this article. The first track below, “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”, is a dub of Jacob Miller’s “Baby I love You So”, and is considered genre-defining, perfectly balanced in its measures of space and sound to create a dark mystical vibe that is both strange and nurturing – true music of the elements.
The second is Lee Perry’s Blackboard Jungle Dub which, just as seminal as the above could be seen as a retrospective lamentation of the racist backlash exacted by the Teddy Boys in their time, bearing the same name as the Rock n Roll era film Blackboard Jungle, the story of youth rebellion in urban schools which alone sparked much of the rioting in England when it was first screened. In a charming statement of pacification, Perry has ‘dubbed’ the original sentiment around a film that led to the plight of so many Caribbeans in 1960s England.
Many of the systems that were originally established in the UK still exist and given the rise of other system-worthy genres, have settled into Dub continuing the tradition and format of their presentation, travelling the country to spread their sound: Selector, Deejay and box-carriers included. Dennis Bovell, mentioned above, accelerated the demand for UK reggae in the 70s though cunning trickery which he outlines in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy (HYP). There lingered a favouritism for native Jamaican records and the way one could tell between imports and the British variety was whether or not the records themselves were ‘dinked’ – the practice of stamping a hole in the middle of the vinyl. “We were accused of not being able to play reggae like Jamaicans, so I set out to disprove that. I made a set of records in this country without putting on any information about who was on the recording. And when I made my 7-inch pressings, I dinked them!” When selectors, under the impression they were spinning an imported record, inadvertently popularised UK reggae songs, they could no longer maintain this snobbery.
So began the 2nd generation of UK sound systems which departed from a reliance on the Jamaican scene. Among these heavyweight pioneers were Jah Shaka, Channel One, Aba Shanti-I, Iration Steppas and Saxon Studio International, many of which are still on the circuit and often play all over the country – literally shaking the walls of the venues they set up in. On one such occasion recently this year, an open air celebration in the British countryside – Aba Shanti’s dubs could be heard some four miles away from the site, in a neighbouring town. Saxon was the ultimate catalyst in establishing UK reggae in its own right in the 80s developing its own take on the growing dancehall craze in Jamaica.
Before unfolding any sounds which claim to be exclusively British, the rise of Dancehall or Raggae must be taken into account since this is when the function of the MC was first realised. The ‘toast’ is a phenomenon that dates back to the early days of the sound system where the B-side of a record would often be the instrumental or ‘riddim’ without the original vocals. The riddim would be circulated around the community and various toasters would lay down verses, vying for supremacy against their competition. Notable riddims from this period were Bam Bam made famous by one of the most significant female reggae artists Sister Nancy. Other distinguished examples would be Sleng Teng (Wanye Smith) possibly the first ever digitally produced musical material out of Jamaica or Satta Massagana from the original roots songs of the same name by The Abyssinians. The video below nicely showcases the use of these instrumentals and the vibe of a dancehall event which more resembles an early version of the ‘rave’ than it does a concert. The characters passing the mic are but a few of the numerous celebrity toasters that came out of the scene; listen for Sleng Teng riddim in play and admire their dress sense, reviving the rude boy style.
This period also saw many of the celebrated reggae artists adapt their style to the new dancehall format. Barrington Levy is just one example, with his seminal jam Here I Come (Broader than Broadway).
The crowd is as transfixed by the relative charisma of each deejay as they are by the music itself. The parallels with hip hop in this video alone are undeniable. The vocal accompaniment would range from singing, usually in a rapid monotone to toasting in the same vein, with lyrical content moving away from the sentimentality of Rastafari to a visceral and rhythmic patois, an ego-centric commentary on violence, dancing and sexuality. These subject matters have now become the pillars of what modern Jamaican music stands for: from certified gangster and murderer Vybz Kartel to homophobia embodied Buju Banton and his pièce de résistance Boom Bye Bye, to the bastardisation of the whole culture by producers like Diplo and his twerk-crazed fan base worshipping a cartoon of a major with a laser gun for an arm; the production moved resolutely to digital sounds, making good use of that controversial effect auto-tune – all for better or for worse.
British artists consolidated their sound before this homogenisation took hold in Jamaica with Saxon deejays such as Tippa Irie taking the wheel and popularising British reggae and dancehall in the homeland. They established the MC style ‘fast speak’ which itself anticipated the ragga vocal tempo and its further evolution.
At last the relationship between Jamaican and UK music was a truly symbiotic one, the Caribbean sound incubated in the cultural history of 20th century England bore its own fruit, influencing generations of UK urban music to come garage, jungle drum n bass, grime and more which will be discussed in part 3 of UK MC Culture. For now, enjoy a historical show detailing the passage of Caribbean music in England by a white artist aptly named YT, England Story.
If you missed part 1 of this mini-series, catch $cotland Yard Came From Across the Pond To Edify Cypher League on UK MC Culture here.