Shaking The Foundations: Reggae soundsystem meets ‘Big Ben British values’ downtown
In October 2008 Ed Balls (the UK government’s Schools Secretary) announced an initiative to encourage teachers to spy on their pupils. This was of course done under the banner of “anti-terrorism” and “opposing extremism” . For example identifying children with “radical” ideas. And presumably grassing them up. Essentially there is nothing new there (as with most New Labour initiatives). The opposition was sluggish and predictably along the lines of civil liberties.
In fact the main comment in the media was from Anthony Glees (Professor of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham). Glees complained that the initiative didn’t go far enough, and that it failed to make a statement about “Big Ben British Values” thus allowing children’s identities to stem from a number of sources. Therefore, he went on, the ‘toolkit’ provided to teachers allowed religion to remain a legitimate source of identity, which “ultimately presents us with a security risk”.
This brings us back to the thorny question of national identity – something which has been problematic for most countries, but especially for the UK and Germany. “Big Ben British Values” shows us that the very concept of national identity is rooted in the language of the ruling class. Big Ben is attached to the Houses of Parliament in London. It’s like talking about “Reichstag Values” in Berlin.
In the UK we now have several hundred years worth of immigration to look back on. So it is worth interrogating this to see if the we can propose other identities, or perhaps oppose the very idea of one fixed national identity. Let’s look at music, class and race. I should say here I am very much putting a positive spin on the story. I do not want to deny or downplay the hideous legacy of slavery, colonialism or racism. But it seems to me that those stories are well documented, whereas the one I am telling today is not.
The major influx of people from the Caribbean took place in the 40s and 50s because labour was needed to help rebuild the UK after the war. British colonial subjects were encouraged to come to the UK to work, notably through adverts which appeared in Jamaican newspapers. The presence of these immigrants created a whole swathe of tensions, but ultimately these have by and large diminished and been replaced by a shift in the perception of what is “British”. Oh, and provided some significant innovations to our culture along the way.
The Empire Windrush  arrived in the UK on June 22nd 1948. The ship docked at Tilbury, Essex, just outside of London. 492 people from Jamaica were on board.
Windrush passengers also included Trinidadian Aldwyn Robers, better known as the calypso artist Lord Kitchener. He composed the song “London is the Place for Me”  during the voyage. It is a song full of hope and promise:
“To live in London you’re rarely comfortable
Because the English people are very much sociable
They take you here and they take you there
And they make you feel like a millionaire
So London, that’s the place for me…”
Many of the 1950s immigrants intended to stay in the UK for a couple of years and earn some money before returning to Jamaica, but it didn’t always work out like that.
Instead of Kitchener’s vision of a promised land, black people in London faced basic jobs (often with responsibilities far below what they were qualified for), cramped housing and racism. On a social level, the new arrivals were excluded from much of the “British Way of Life” by being made to feel uncomfortable (at best) in pubs and nightclubs.
Lord Kitchener’s follow up tune to his London debut was “Sweet Jamaica” – a song about how life in the city was cold and harsh and that he had nearly starved to death and wanted to go home.
As a result of these difficult conditions an informal social network built up around people’s houses. It was quite common for Jamaicans in London to buy record players if they managed to save some money. These were the large wooden cabinet gramophones favoured by your grandparents, which have become the stuff of legend for subsequent generations. Black British comedian Lenny Henry has a whole sketch about the rather brutal nature of these record players (comparing the needles to nine inch nails) and soundsystem operator Mark Iration remembers his parents allowing him to stand on a milk crate so he could reach up and select the records which would be played at parties in their house.
Similarly UK MC Tippa Irie recalls his parents renting out the basement of their family home as a venue for parties and band rehearsals. These “blues parties” were a focal point for the transmission of Jamaican working class culture, with food, dominoes and simply gathering together to gossip and reminisce. Or dance…
Blues parties were a safe space and an expression of black autonomy. They were also an important node in an informal economy. Food, alcohol and marijuana could be sold as a way of raising money to pay the rent. Of course sales of all three of these commodities were strictly controlled by legislation (or rather, completely prohibited by legislation in the case of the latter). This lead to inevitable clashes with the forces of law and order…
In Jamaica, soundsystem dances were outdoor events with massive speakers to ensure massive basslines. It was inevitable that this culture of soundsystem would also migrate to the UK. Gradually some enterprising people moved on from home gramophones and built up soundsystems of their own – sometimes with a direct connection to systems in JA. For example Duke Vin arrived in London in 1954 allegedly by stowing away on a ship. He then worked as an engine cleaner for British Rail. But Vin had larger plans – he’d selected tunes for the Tom the Great Sebastian sound in Kingston and soon set up the first proper soundsystem in the UK – first playing at Brixton Town Hall in 1955 (still a venue for soundsystem dances today).
Translating JA soundsystem culture to London did not prove all that straightforward. Lloyd the Matador asked an electronics man named Fred to build him a modest 600 watt amp for Brixton’s Sir Coxsone Outernational sound. Fred became exasperated: “You must be fucking crazy. Do you know how much power it takes to drive a cinema? Ten watts!”
Soundsystems became a symbol of righteous rebellion or abject nuisance depending on your proximity to them and your feeling about thumping basslines. The racist fears and stereotypes of the era revolved around Jamaican men playing loud music, smoking illegal substances, and dancing with white women. All of which confirms that an enormous amount of fun was being had and that Britain owes Jamaica a huge debt for showing people a good time.
Of course there were inevitable conflicts with the (almost exclusively white) forces of the state. The threat associated with soundsystems is perfectly encapsulated by the development of the Notting Hill Carnival. Carnival began in 1964 as an assertion of black people’s presence in London – a refusal to accept racism by getting out on the streets and partying.
In 1975 there were just 60 policemen at Carnival. Up until this point the event had been a relatively small scale community affair with a parade, calypso bands, and food. That would all change in 1976 with the arrival of the reggae soundsystems. And with them, 15,000 cops.
The seventies also saw the emergence of some inter-generational conflicts amongst Jamaican immigrants. Whereas the older generation had been used to a certain amount of conforming with colonial rule, the children they brought to the UK (or conceived here) would grow up in a very different environment, not least by experiencing racism on a daily basis on the streets and in school. Black youths became more combative, much to the horror of their parents.
Dennis Bovell  formed his band Matumbi whilst still at school. He went on to become a towering figure in UK reggae, producing roots, lovers rock and the occasional foray into the pop charts. His work was often dismissed as inferior to “authentic” reggae which supposedly had to originate in Jamaica. Needless to say, this is utter bollocks. Bovell was also a soundsystem operator – his Sufferer Hi-Fi played out across London.
In the mid-seventies Sufferer Hi-Fi took part in a soundclash in Cricklewood, North West London against rival sound Lord Koos. Several policemen entered the dance and attempted to apprehend one of the male attendees. A group of people tried to “de-arrest” their friend. People were assaulted by the cops and arrested when they left the venue.
Bovell was arrested and charged with causing an affray. Police evidence suggested that he had got on the mic and caused trouble. In court he suggested that what had been heard might be the vocal of an MC on a toasting record. Needless to say this provided another example of reggae culture’s difficulty in translating across the ocean. The judge responded: “do you expect me to believe that people TALK over records?” Bovell was sentenced to 3 years, serving 6 months before being released on appeal.
By 1981 there were approximately 106 reggae soundsystems playing in London alone. This period also saw the emergence of tunes that directly dealt with life in the UK rather than imitating (or paying homage to) issues being raised by Jamaican artists “back a yard”.
For example Pablo Gad’s “Hard Times” is a message to UK youth about how their tribulations pale into insignificance compared to his experiences as a child in Jamaica. “Inglan is a Bitch” by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson deals with the grueling manual labour faced by immigrants – and the racist stereotype of them all being lazy.
Tabby Cat Kelly’s “Don’t Call Us Immigrants” is a lyrical refusal of an imposed identity, as is Audrey’s “[Don’t Call Me No] English Girl”. It seems that many black kids of this era suffered from a feeling of displacement – not fully Jamaican (as they may never have been there) and often not accepted as “British” either. Instead of opting for one or the other, a third option was opened up via the lyrics of militant reggae. What was being promoted was a global black-consciousness and afro-centrism. Rastafari – a religion and visible symbol of rebellion.
The onset of Thatcherite “law and order” policies lead to an intensification of strife on the streets with the SUS laws, Special Patrol Group and racism of the police leading to daily aggravation on top of the hardships of an economic recession.
The early 80s also saw a bifurcation of UK soundsystem culture. Reggae being produced in Jamaica was changing from the roots sounds of the 70s into the rawer dancehall.
London soundsystems such as Jah Shaka stuck fervently to rasta and roots music. This “message music” (and its dubwise counterparts) had appealed to white kids since the “punky reggae party” of the mid 70s and continued to attract clapped out old ravers, former punks and even drop outs from industrial music. The UK dub scene blossomed from the mid eighties onwards, with an increasing number of white producers.
Alongside this were the contemporary soundsystems playing dancehall to almost exclusively black audiences. This strand saw the beginning of a genuinely UK based lyrics and style. Saxon Studio International’s MC’s were all kids who had grown up in London. Around 1983 they stopped chatting about M16 machine guns, craven “A” cigarettes and Kingston, and started talking about London in patois. Saxon’s “squadron leader” Papa Levi had a number one hit in Jamaica with “Mi God Mi King” – a tune which rhymes UK comedian Kenny Everett with reggae vocalist Sugar Minnott.
Tunes about police oppression, life on the dole and the hardships of work (as well as girl trouble) abounded. Saxon MCs like Tippa Irie and Smiley Culture became household names after having tunes in the national charts and appearing on Top of the Pops.
Black and white kids begin to mingle more at school and socially. True integration worked itself out at street level with young men and women coming together to produce “mixed race” offspring. All of these ingredients would fuse together in the cultural crucible of rave. Whilst the reaction to acid house in the reggae community had been muted at best, soundsystem culture had a huge influence on early 90s crews such as Shut Up and Dance (who nicked most of their vocalists from the Unity reggae soundsystem). Jungle provided easy access to the reggae community with its emphasis on weed and basslines, and sure enough labels like Greensleeves and Fashion rushed out some releases to get some of the action. (Fashion also released “Jungle Bungle” by Starky Banton – a ragga tune criticising the new music for being “one bag a noise and a whole heap a sample” as well as thieving vocal samples from reggae).
The evolution continued from there into Garage and then to Grime, where race is celebrated but not the most significant factor. MCs in multiracial crews like Roll Deep are more likely to chat about which estate or postcode they’re from than black consciousness. If Jamaica or Trinidad get a look in, they will usually be in the context of where someone’s parents were from. In fact the grime generation is very much a product of parents who were out at soundsystems in the eighties. Jammer, Skepta, JME and Trim have all boasted about being descended from reggae Dads.
Soundsystem culture continues in 2009 with MCs chatting over fierce beats on the pirates (or the back seat on the bus), girls and boys dancing to UK funky, old gits and new recruits (black, white and brown) going to see Jah Shaka, and that telltale thunderous rattle as a car heads down Kingsland High Street.
Sixty years after Windrush a (white) friend of mine is about to emigrate. We are standing in a trendy Shoreditch nightclub listening to a serious sonic history lesson being laid down by David Rodigan. My mate tells me he will miss access to reggae, exotic ingredients for cooking, talking about music over a pint, and what we are doing right at that moment. He doesn’t mention any of the old signifiers like village greens, cricket, or Big Ben.
National identity always serves the interests of the ruling class. But it is always countered by other identities. Brit Pop’s Union Jack and tea with the Prime Minister happened at the same time jungle’s racial and cultural mash up.
Fixed identities serve “community leaders” whether they be Muslim clerics or racial nationalists. The Muslim kids who hang about on my estate seem much more interested in football and smoking weed than they do in “Big Ben British Values” or perhaps (say it quietly) even studying the Koran.
It is trite to say that music alone can break down divisions (although that hasn’t stopped groups in the UK attempting to oppose the far right British National Party with pop concerts). But the last 60 years do show that fluid working class cultures can emerge out of struggle, at street level. People can then participate in these cultures and identify with them. This process cannot be magically activated by a governmental press release. It takes time. It can be hard to pin down. And it never stops.
(originally presented as a paper at the October 2008 Datacide Conference in Berlin)
Thanks to Crofton and Danny.
Lloyd Bradley – Bass Culture (Viking, 2000)
William “Lez” Henry – What The Deejay Said: A Critique From The Street (Nu-Beyond Ltd: Learning By Choice! 2006)
Simon Jones – Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition From JA To UK (Macmillan Education 1988)
Dave Katz – Steel Horns and Bass Bins in Blighty: Sound System Culture in Britain (booklet accompanying “Musically Mad” DVD, 2008)
Stefan Szczelkun – The Conspiracy of Good Taste (Working Press, 1993)
London Is The Place For Me (Honest Jon’s LP/CD)
Don’t Call Us Immigrants (Pressure Sounds LP/CD)
Live At DSYC vols 1-3 (Raiders LPs)
Great British MCs (Fashion LP)
Saxon Studio International – Coughing Up Fire (UK Bubblers LP/CD)
An England Story: The Culture of the MC in the UK 1984-2008 (Soul Jazz LP/CD)
John Eden & Grievous Angel – Grime In the Dancehall mix (Blogariddims mp3)
1 I.e. the spectre of Islamic terrorism, with a nod to white supremacists to keep the liberals happy. For more on New Labour’s relationship with Muslim “community leaders” see the surprisingly worthwhile “Croissants and roses: New Labour, communalism and the rise of muslim Britain” in Aufheben #17.
2 The Windrush was originally a German ship – used in the Nazis’ “Strength Through Joy” programme to reward good work for the 3rd Reich with cruises etc. The ship was then captured by the British Army during the war.
3 “London Is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso In London, 1950-1956” (Honest Jon’s 2003).
5 Mark Iration interviewed by Matt B in Woofah issue 1.
6 Tippa Irie interviewed by John Eden in Woofah issue 2.
7 Katz, p4.
8 New Musical Express “Soundsystem Splashdown” feature 21 February 1981. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/7l3ej
9 Indeed, my Dad remembers going to Carnival in the late 60s to check it out: “It was just a couple of floats and a little bit of music. There wasn’t much happening, so we all went to a pub instead.”
10 Jones, p45.
11 Bradley, ch16.
12 In 1976 if you believe Adrian Sherwood in the liner notes to the Pressure Sounds compilation “Don’t Call Us Immigrants”. Or in 1976 if you believe Lloyd Bradley in “Bass Culture”.
13 Soundsystem Splashdown, (NME Feb 1981). Includes a list of sounds compiled by journalist Penny Reel. Reel simply collected countless flyers for dances from record shops and other sources and transcribed the names of soundsystems for the piece. He still has boxes of flyers stretching back to the 70s, which would form the basis for a fantastic exhibition.
14 John Eden “Police in ‘demanding more powers’ shocker” http://tinyurl.com/lhgy6q
15 Tony Ward “Death and Disorder” (INQUEST, 1985).
16 John Eden “Papa Levi chapter one” http://tinyurl.com/klwo4q
17 “Mixed race” is a problematic term, but it is generally understood. Of course there is only one human race.
18 John Eden “London Acid City: When the Two 8’s Clashed” http://tinyurl.com/r462d3
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This is a really enlighting article on the foundations of jamaican culture in the UK, from immigrants to djs. Amazing research, keep up the good works!
Great article!!!!! Great Research!!!