Reggae first appeared in Britain in the sometimes illegal drinking and social clubs, known as the ‘blues-dance’, following the Irish tradition for drinking dens or ‘shebeens’. It is in these early blues-dances that the first reggae sound systems— early mobile discos specializing in black music— sprang up. Much of the music was imported from the Caribbean: labels like Melodisc, Bluebeat, and Sonny Roberts’s Planitone emerged, before evolving into Orbitone. In 1962, Chris Blackwell travelled to England to expand his Island label, which was launched with Millie Small’s pop-ska hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’. By 1968 Trojan records was established.
   The first British independent labels soon grasped the financial implications of releasing their own local productions, as opposed to merely distributing Jamaican records. London was the imperial capital where many early reggae artists came to break into the international market. Artists like Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone and Bob Marley (the original Wailers), Desmond Dekker, Sharon Forrester, The Aces, Errol Dunkley, Gene Rondo and many more followed this route. The first British-based reggae band to emerge was Matumbi, founded in 1972. This was the start of a new-wave of homegrown reggae artists. Because most were born in the UK, the socio-cultural background of this new wave was informed as much by British life as by Jamaican. Soon British reggae started to define itself independently from that of Jamaica. This engendered a sense of pride and independence that gave birth to dozens of homegrown reggae bands during the early to mid-1970s. Names like London’s Matumbi, Aswad and Misty in Roots, Bristol’s Talisman and Black Roots, Nottingham’s Naturalites, Liverpool’s Cross Section and The Players of Instruments, Birmingham’s Steel Pulse and other bands like Black Slate, Dambala, I Jahman Levi, Natrus Roots, Jahdeanko and The Blackstones all became synonymous with a homegrown British ‘roots rock reggae’ sound. The group Aswad were formed in Ladbroke Grove, West London, in 1975. Aswad were at the time one of the youngest homegrown bands to have emerged from the mid-1970s school in terms of age. Aswad’s success also came from their rebelliousness, and records like Concrete Slaveship drew heavily on the experience of life on Britain’s housing estates, while songs like ‘Three Babylon’ were related to the ‘SUS’ (stop on suspicion) laws that plagued the lives of many black youths in Britain. Rebellious at first, by 1980 Aswad had crossed over to the mainstream pop arena by becoming the first British reggae band to have a number one hit in the UK charts.
   Black Slate have been cited as the most overtly British of these bands. Their 1976 hit single ‘Stix Man’ (since released at least four times in Britain alone), was one of the first profound expressions of the black British experience. Steel Pulse, whose record Handsworth Revolution clearly identified them with their Birmingham home, became the most successful on an international level.
   Dennis Bovel, co-founder of Matumbi in 1972, left in the early 1980s and went solo as a producer of dub music. His first album Brain Damage, a double album, featured Bovel as writer, producer, singer and player of most of the music. Bovel always felt hampered by straightforward reggae, and since his break with Matumbi he has become notorious for his eclectic mixes. Bovel invented Britain’s longest standing reggae innovation, ‘lovers rock’, by mixing soul and reggae. Where ‘roots rock reggae’ was primarily a ‘rebel’ music and very male-oriented, the sweeter sounding ‘lovers rock’ was pioneered notably by females. The 1977 carnival in Notting Hill, which was marked by clashes with the police, was also marked by Louisa Mark whose ‘lovers rock’ anthem, ‘Caught You in a Lie’, produced by Bovel, placed ‘lovers rock’ on a par with any of the ‘rebel rock’ music around at that time. It was not long before a host of solo artists and harmony groups emerged: Cassandra, Black Harmony, Marie Pierre, Carol Kalphat, Janet Kay, Caroll Thompson, Jean Adebambo and Mellow Rose, all selling quantities of records unprecedented in black British history. People like the Mad Professor and the Scientist followed Bovel by using the mixing desk as an instrument and a means of expression to create something new and distinctly British in origin. After working on sound systems for most of the 1970s, the Mad Professor started his own label Ariwa in 1979, from which he released some of Britain’s finest dub. Bass player George Oban left the more traditional British reggae scene after five years with Aswad, to create an eclectic mix of a more subtler type than Bovel’s. Oban’s music avoided the headon collision of style favoured by Bovel, and emerged as a multi-layered fusion of reggae using the paradigms of jazz, Latin and funk. Oban was born in Britain, and claims that his musical roots were primarily people like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. With the experimentation of people like Dennis Bovell and George Oban, by the mid-1980s British reggae was becoming an entity in its own right. After the crash of Trojan in 1975, Virgin, an English rock label, attempted to fill the gap. Other labels that sprung up at the time of the Trojan crash were Groove Music, Hawkeye, D-Roy, Klik, Ballistic, Burning Sounds and Greensleeves. British reggae was up and running.
   The reggae sound system played a major role in the development of British reggae because they promoted the music at dances. Most black communities in most major cities had a champion sound: Manchester had President Hi Fi, Liverpool had Jah Crasher (later to become King Struggla Sound), Birmingham had Jungleman, Quaker City and Jah Wasifa, London had Jah Shaka Spiritual Dub Warrior, Frontline from Brixton, Sir Coxsone Outer National and Saxon Sound System. Each ‘sound’ had its own entourage of singers, toasters and DJs, and as their DJs and toasters moved into pirate radio and the recording industry, so did the music. Macka B, a Rasta from Birmingham’s Jah Wasifa Sound, made his name by adding his lyrics and voice to The Mad Professor’s London brand of Reggae. Saxon Sound gave birth to such stars as Tippa Irey, who had a big hit with ‘Hello Darling’, and Smiley Culture’s ‘Cockney Translation’ was another UK chart success that identified itself as both black and cockney. Jah Shaka recorded as a musician-producer in much the same way that Bovel had, but specialized in ‘roots Dub’. His 1990 album Dub Symphony uses a string section, and creates a reference point where dub meets the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 1990s, the raggamuffin style has appropriated the use of hi-tech adding yet another dimension to the ever-changing face of British reggae.
   Further reading
    Broughton, S., Ellingham, M., Muddyman, D. and Trillo, R. (eds) (1994) The Rough Guide to World Music (contains a useful section on British reggae by Gregory Salter).
    Davis, S. and Simon, P. (1983) Reggae International, London: Thames & Hudson (a comprehensive account of reggae up to a point, but has a useful bibliography, and an impressive list of contributors).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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