Friday, June 02, 2006

From Soundbwoy to B-Boy and Back Again

For the most part, the UK Reggae scene has lived in the shadow of it's yardie daddy. No mystery there - the music originated in JA and, to a great extent, all we were doing over here was mimicking what they were doing much better over there anyway. The emergence of militant UK Roots outfits like Steel Pulse and Aswad and, in particular, the Lover's Rock revolution of the late 70's began to turn the tide for the first time. But what really seemed to change the way we thought about our Reggae scene was the rise to prominence of Soundsystem culture. Although usually set up and run by transplanted Jamaicans - the younger Soundsystem Selectors and moreover the MCs (or "Deejays" as we used to call 'em) were usually British born or at least raised in the UK.

When two rival "Sounds" clashed in a dance, the Selector's job was to win the crowd over by dropping a tougher "selection" of choons than the other guy. What the Selector did with vinyl and acetate - the MC did with a unique mix of verbal skill, social comment and observational comedy. A good MC won his or her crowd over by being part of it. Whether focusing on social issues or their own social lives, they were relating to the audience through shared experience. Moreover, in chatting about unemployment, police harassment, riots in Brixton or tragedy in New Cross, or in simply bigging up the areas where they'd grown up and name-checking the clubs where they hung out, the MCs were talking about the lives of young black people in Britain in our own language for the first time.

It didn't matter where your parents hailed from originally (Mine came over from Antigua), as youths, Reggae was our music and these cool, brash, rebellious spokesmen and women reflected the hopes, concerns, aspirations and disappointments of a generation looking to establish it's own identity in the neither green nor especially pleasant land of inner-city Britain. Competition amongst the MCs was often fierce and verbal "battles" could spill over into real life vendettas - a precedent thankfully not emulated much on the UK Rap scene, but gleefully taken to new heights of self-destruction in the US! Usually though, matters were settled in the dance by the crowd simply siding with the MC who rocked the mic right on the night. The "fast-chatting" style of emceeing, originated by Saxon's Peter King and brought to fore on Philip Levi's "Mi God, Mi King", evolved directly out of this culture of rivalry and one-upmanship and became the British Reggae MC's trademark - no JA-based Deejay could touch this style for love nor money!

For the first time, the UK scene began to eclipse Jamaica. MCs like King, Levi, Asher Senator, Smiley Culture and Tipper Irie, many of whom went on to chart nationally, as well as equally talented but perhaps lesser known figures such as The Tighten Up Crew's very own Champion MC, were not just an essential part of the UK Soundsystem scene, but of Black British culture itself. These guys were our original "Ghetto Superstars"! It came as no real surprise that the mainstream's flirtation with this genre was over quicker than a Smiley Culture tongue-twister.

For the majority of MCs there'd never really been much in the way of financial reward for their art - it had always been much more of a status thing. Status however doesn't put food on the table or pay your light bill so as time and youth passed, the pressure to "grow up and get proper jobs" put paid to many potentially brilliant careers. As the Soundsystem's crown slipped, it seemed the mantle of the MC would be taken up by a vibrant, upcoming UK Hip-Hop scene. Like BDP in mid-80's New York, UK crew's like The London Posse ("Money Mad"), The Demon Boys ("Dett"), Katch 22 ("Bad Nuh Bumbo") and NSO Force ("Chains") all made clear reference to their reggae roots from day #1. Rebel MC even took a corny Pop/Rap/Reggae hybrid into the Top Ten! Though "Street Tough" was (is and always will be!) deserving of mockery, there's no denying that his "Black Meaning Good" and "Word, Sound, Power" sets were clear and positive affirmations of the ongoing link between British beats-based music and Reggae - particularly on choons like the Stalag-sampling "Culture" or "African Descendents" where Johnny Clarke is used to stunning effect.

The thing was, Rebel MC wasn't a Hip-Hop or Reggae artist in the traditional sense. A whole new thing was happening by the early 90's and when the UK MC really broke through again - it wasn't Rap or Reggae, but Jungle that carried the swing. Although Ragga-style chatting was prominent on most early Jungle/D&B tunes, with a few notable exceptions, this was a shaky, shortlived marriage of convenience. Most often a vocal would be sampled and looped over beats with little acknowledgement of it's original context.

It's worth noting also that once the Dancehall element disappeared altogether, the music declared itself "Intelligent" - a fairly clear implication of how the JA influence was perceived by many in the first place. It may well be that D&B needed to grow and find it's own separate identity but for me the best stuff from that era retained a Reggae sensibility at it's core. Similarly, the UK Rap that's best stood the test of time looked to JA rather than the US for inspiration. London Posse's outspokenly pro-British (and heavily Reggae influenced) "Gangster Chronicle" got a re-release a couple years back to rave reviews and strong sales - how many US-wannabe Hip-Hop LP's from the same era would stand up now???

In recent years, the re-emergence of Reggae as a commercially viable, mainstream concern has seen the re-emergence of it's influence on other music forms. There's bootleg (and official!) Dancehall remixes everywhere you look (Kylie goes Ragga anyone!?!) and dull R&B/Thug-Hip-Hop choons are regularly tarted up with guest appearances from Jamaican Dancehall stars. More positively, we've seen the rise of a new (and not so new) generation of reggae influenced artists coming out of the UK: Rodney P, (from London Posse - wha'appen to Bionic???), Roots Manuva, Keith Lawrence, Seanie T, Black Twang and plenty more, all come from a tradition rooted in the UK's Dancehall / Soundsystem culture and wear it's influence with pride.

Hi-jacking the title of KRS-One's seminal Hip-Hop/Reggae set from the early 90's, "Return Of The Boom-Bap" is an ongoing monthly Sunday session over at The Vibe Bar, tracing the lineage of the new(er) wave of British Hip-Hop MCs back to the original masters of the game. Resident "Lyrical Pugilist" and Jamdown Rockers veteran, Champion MC has been doing a fine job of lining up a roster of legendary foundation Deejays that reads like a UK Soundsystem "Who's Who"! We've had the likes of Ricky Ranking (Taurus/Nasty Rockers), General T (Jamdown Rockers), Daddy Horseman (Dread Diamonds), the mighty Asher Senator and fast-style originator Peter King (Both from Saxon Outernational) representing the old-skool, Seanie T (Dark Horizon) and soon-to-come Thunda (57th Dynasty) bringing the legacy of the MC bang up to date inna Hip-Hop stylee!

With DJ/Producer/Hardest working man in Britain, Keith Lawrence (Muzik-Ed) now on board as regular selector alongside The Tighten Up Crew - this session is set to go from strength to strength. Keep watchin' this space 'cos (as Rodney P might say) “BIG TINGS GWIDARN DIS YEAR! “

One love,Mistah Brown - The Tighten Up Crew

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