Each major city around the world has its unique brand of music culture. In the ‘80s, gangsta rap emerged within the African American community in Los Angeles, giving rise to a form of self-expression for street gangs. Manchester is known for its Britpop scene, which produced some incredibly successful bands like the Bee Gees, Simply Red, and Oasis. But when it comes to London, nothing is as iconic as reggae. To delve into London’s subculture, one must first understand its relationship with reggae.
Reggae’s roots in London began in 1948. Following the post-war labour shortage in Britain, people from Caribbean countries began to arrive, mostly from Jamaica. Over the next 23 years, Britain welcomed 520,000 workers, collectively known as the Windrush generation (referring to HMT Empire Windrush, one of the first ships that brought these workers to the country).
The Jamaicans who set foot on British soil were in for a shock – not only was the climate uninvitingly cold, the capital was also in tatters after the war. However, believing that things would soon improve, they settled down in South London, especially around Lambeth and Notting Hill. Along with their contributions towards the revival of London, the Jamaicans brought their love for music, especially reggae.
THE SOUL OF THE COMMUNITY
Credit: Supertone Records/Museum of London
Record shops became an important stronghold within the Jamaican community, becoming the centre of their social network. Papa Face, a prominent musical figure in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, says that record shops formed the backbone of South London reggae – here, Jamaicans were able to stay connected with their hometowns through an endless supply of their favourite music, providing them with a taste of home in a foreign land.
Many second-generation Jamaicans in London often reminisce about the good old days during their teenage years – the record shop was where you would listen to music, watch performances, eat, and chat with fellow Jamaicans or music lovers. Here, people exchanged gossip, news, trends, and information. Every Friday, they gathered at their neighbourhood record shop to check out the latest music releases, and on Saturdays, their weekly routine involved a visit to the barber before the pre-requisite hangout session at the record shop.
Thanks to these record shops in London, reggae became such a well-loved genre in London that it even surpassed its popularity in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. In 1962, Jamaican-based reggae label Island Records relocated to England in hopes of expanding its reach across shores. Founder Chris Blackwell distributed the records himself, serving the immigrant communities in London. And yet, during this time, radio DJs were unwilling to play reggae on air. In part, the mainstream media’s silence also contributed to the role of record shops, where the Jamaican community could enjoy reggae music without being restricted by the burden of censorship.
It was also at these record shops where one could pick up a thing or two about Jamaican culture and heritage. At the family-owned Peckings Records, customers would get to hear founder George ‘Pecking’ Price’s anecdotes about his experience as an immigrant. While researching the topic of reggae, writer Cedar Lewisohn found himself interviewing Supertone Records owner Wally Bryan a total of ten times, covering his childhood in Jamaica through to his arrival in the UK, and subsequently his pivotal role in the growth of the London reggae scene. “I realised these aren’t just record shops; they’re community hubs, and they keep the community history alive,” said Lewisohn.
THE INFLUENCE OF SOUND SYSTEMS
The sound system is a part of reggae that has shaped the culture into what it is today. First popularised in the 1940s, the sound system concept involves trucks or cars modified with turntables and speakers, which can be set up anywhere and anytime for street parties. Saxon Studio International is a prominent sound system that has been active since the 1970s, and is the first UK sound system to win an international competition. Known for its “fast chat” style pioneered by DJ Peter King, which is similar to a sped-up style of early ‘80s rap, Saxon continues to make waves to this day. Its sound system performance usually consists of an engineer on the turntables, a DJ playing music, and an MC in charge of vocals, as seen at the Notting Hill Carnival in 2017.
In London, the birth of Jamaican sound systems can be credited to Vincent George Forbes (better known as Duke Vin). Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Duke Vin travelled to London as a stowaway on a boat, and found a job as an engine cleaner for British Rail. While in Jamaica, he worked for sound system artist Tom The Great Sebastian as a selector, where he was in charge of the playlist. In 1955, Duke Vin built his first sound system using second-hand equipment bought for a total of £19, and soon started playing reggae at house parties on Saturday nights.
As his popularity grew, Duke Vin began playing at top London clubs like the Marquee and The Flamingo, using music sourced from Peckings Records and Jamaica. He also gained the nickname ‘The Tickler’, from an exclusive record he played of the same name. In 1973, Duke Vin co-founded the Notting Hill Carnival, and went on to perform almost every year for nearly 40 years until he passed away in 2014 at the age of 84.
“Sound system” refers to the equipment setup and its performers, and it can be played solo (like in Duke Vin’s case), or performed as a group, lending an additional sense of camaraderie. In the 1970s, there were more than 500 sound systems around London – families, friends, classmates had their own systems, in addition to the established ones performing in nightclubs such as The Four Aces Club and Hackney Town Hall. This eventually became a running joke among the older generation of reggae musicians.
Count Shelly was considered one of the sound system pioneers in Hackney. Photo Credit: Dennis Morris/Victoria and Albert Museum
British reggae DJ and Saxon Studio MC, Tippa Irie, recalls his childhood memories with his father, who owned a grocery store in Brixton. With the entire family crammed into one living space, the store’s basement became his father’s musical playground, where he’d built an acoustic sound system. Every weekend, neighbours dropped by to party, play cards, and enjoy the music.
While his father’s performances were solely for friends and family, Tippa Irie’s parents encouraged him to pursue his talent by entering competitions. From there, many local sound systems started paying attention and subsequently invited him to perform on their sound systems. With his single “Hello Darling” charting on the UK Top 40 in 1986, Tippa Irie made huge progress for the reggae community. After all, just barely a decade ago, it was almost unheard of for mainstream platforms to shine a spotlight on a minority group.
THE RISE OF THE REBEL GENERATION
As the 1970s came around, reggae music took on a different image, becoming an outlet of rebellion as a new generation struggled to uphold their identity amidst racial discrimination. In an interview with The Guardian, poet Linton Kwesi Johnson said, “We rejected the caution and restraint our parents had in a hostile racial environment. We were the rebel generation – reggae afforded us our own identity.”
More and more reggae musicians started using their music to express who they were. Singer Smiley Culture’s “Cockney Translation” meshed together the Cockney dialect with Jamaican Patois, resulting in a new hybrid accent that he used to sing about life’s trivial matters:
Cockney have names like Terry, Arthur and Delboy
We have name like Winston, Lloyd and Leroy
We bawl out “YOW!” While cockneys say “OI!”
What cockney call a Jack's, we call a Blue Boy
Say cockney have mates, while we have spar
The Cockney live in a drum, while we live in a yard
Many Jamaicans living in London identified with Smiley Culture’s song: all this while, they had been speaking a mixture of different languages – Jamaican with family members, and Cockney with local friends – but it never occurred to present both in the format of a song. Understandably, “Cockney Translation” blew up, and many musicians jumped on the bandwagon and started making similar types of music.
Today, South London’s reggae is no longer an ode to its Jamaican predecessor. Slowly but surely, despite its struggles over the years, it has achieved a unique flair of its own, weaving stories that tell of its people’s everyday emotions and routines. The reggae of London has gone on to influence many other genres and subgenres, like dub, ska, rocksteady, lovers’ rock, groove and hip-hop. Even punk bands like The Clash and The Slits have been known to add some reggae flavour into their music.
Somewhere in London, reggae parties are held almost every week, where heritage, ethnicity and race don’t matter: everyone is here for the same reason, which is to enjoy the music. Passed down from generation to generation, the diversity of reggae is one of the main reasons why it’s so well-loved. To sum it up in one sentence: reggae was born in Jamaica, thrived in London, and has now finally spread across the world.
Cover Credit: Dennis Morris/Victoria and Albert Museum
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.