UK MC Culture's influence on modern dance music

A piece I did for The Independent newspaper around An England Story compilation on Soul Jazz Records which came out months ago. Unfortunately The Independent commissioned me and never published it however, The Heatwave - aficionados of all sounds bashy and dancehall - have posted it on their blog. And I have to say it reads rather well. The Heatwave launch a new night focusing on dancehall influenced by rave this Saturday. Check their site for specifics. Link below.

An England Story, Soul Jazz Records' compilation charting the evolution of the MC in Britain over the last 25 years, couldn't be better timed: grime MC Wiley's conquered the Top 10 with electro- charged, hip-house-rave anthem Wearing My Rolex, while Estelle, who cut her teeth as a rapper, is the toast of Britain and America's urban music scenes thanks to acclaimed LP Shine and chart topping single, American Boy.

The 21-track, double CD (four part vinyl) release not only traces how UK dancehall and reggae's fusion with hip hop forged a distinct voice and style for homegrown rap, but also how the music of Jamaica - via Britain's Caribbean community - filtered into acid house, spawning jungle, drum'n'bass, UK garage, dubstep, and grime.

Although it's not immediately obvious, contemporary British urban stars such as Roots Manuva, Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Estelle and Ms Dynamite owe a large debt to Jamaican Londoners' dancehall and reggae soundsystems, mirroring those back home. Equally, so do late 80s/early 90s success stories such as Soul II Soul - led by 'funki dread' Jazzie B who now lives between London and Antigua - and Massive Attack with their soundsystem, or loose collective, ethos.

Roots Manuva (Rodney Hylton Smith)'s mix of cockney and patois rap – with references to bitter and cheese on toast – over rumbling dub, encapsulates the hybrid of dancehall/reggae MCing and US rap with an English slant. "I grew up seeing soundsystems at weddings, parties and local government-funded festivals, and my experience of dancehall came from 'soundtapes'. The recordings of reggae dances with MCs and deejays chatting over dub instrumentals were like gold dust at school; people traded the Saxon Soundsystem soundtapes round the playground," recalls Smith.

These crackly audio cassettes were the catalyst for Smith, now 35, to begin rapping: "I started by rapping other people's lyrics from the soundtapes - we would take their lyrics and put our own little twist on them. I was doing that in the playground from the age of eight through to 15. I never appeared on a soundsystem of note, but I had my own little soundsystem. It wasn't well known - it was nowhere near the status of a Saxon or Unity - but I did a few parties and tapes,"he says.

When Rappers' Delight, featuring the Sugar Hill Gang rapping over Chic's disco hit Good Times, catapulted hip hop from the Bronx across the 'Black Atlantic' in 1979, for Smith it wasn't so far removed from the soundtapes. "Between the ages of eight and ten, I was strictly into reggae and the first time I heard rapping was Rappers' Delight. That was a massive tune - people used to sing that around school but it totally went past me. To me it was a 'soul talking' - a soul tune with people talking. It wasn't until four years later and the film Beat Street that I got into rap and hip hop. I was listening to soundtapes, early electro and rap, but didn't see them as that far apart."

Gabriel Myddelton, who compiled An England Story with Gervase de Wilde, believes dancehall and reggae's MC culture is part of hip hop's DNA: "Viewing dancehall as separate from hip hop or as a Jamaican variant of hip hop is crazy. They all come from the same place in the long term, which is African music. Reggae is implicated in the birth of hip hop, as Kool DJ Herc [cited as one of hip hop's founders; pictured below] was Jamaican and brought the soundsystem to the Bronx with the block parties." Smith concurs: "Kool Herc was originally Jamaican. He went to America with his sound, dressed down his patois and flipped it into hip hop".

What inspired Myddelton and de Wilde (dancehall DJs, producers and bloggers as part of The Heatwave collecctive) to conceive An England Story? "Unsung dancehall and reggae artists like the Ragga Twins and what they were doing with the Unity Soundsystem, or Papa Levi and Tippa Irie on the Saxon soundsystem in the 1980s were almost completely under the radar in London and the UK. We wanted to highlight their influence on the here and now and try to understand English MCs in terms of their Englishness and Caribbean background," says Myddelton.

South London's dancehall MCs proved commercially successful with Smiley Culture's top 20 hit Police Officer securing him two Top Of The Pops appearances in 1984. In the same year, Saxon MC Papa Levi's My God My King, incredibly, went to No. 1 in the motherland, Jamaica. Unity, although popular for its dances, hardly recorded or released any material.

By the late 1980s acid house and rave had supplanted rare groove, soul and reggae as the soundtrack of inner city Britain, and Unity's leading MCs Deman Rockers and his brother Flinty Badman took their hosting, toasting, chatting and entertaining skills, honed over a decade on reggae soundsystem, to raves, as the Ragga Twins. "We made more money in the first six months on the rave scene than in 15 years doing reggae," says Rockers.

In 1989 Tottenham's Rebel MC combined sped-up breakbeat with patois chat and reggae effects to compelling effect on the top five hit Street Tuff, laying the foundation for jungle. The Prodigy's 1992 rave anthem Out Of Space, sampling Max Romeo's Chase The Devil (produced by Lee Scratch Perry), continued the fusion of reggae/dancehall with rave, before General Levy (pictured) broadcast jungle to the nation by performing Incredible on Top Of The Pops in 1994.

Ever since the Ragga Twins, MCs have been omnipresent in the genres that followed jungle - drum'n'bass, UK garage and dubstep - and fulfilled the same role, acting as a link between audience and music and keeping the dancefloor "bubbling'. It wasn't until So Solid Crew that MCs become dominant in UK garage and took centre stage over the music, which has continued with grime.

Soundsystem culture has reverberated through pop too, whether in the dancehall-flecked house of Basement Jaxx and Groove Armada, or The Streets' and Lily Allen's 'chat rap'. Smith is staggered by how far this English rap patter has travelled: "It's amazing this school of thinking has translated so far today. Pop stars have been influenced by it, like Robbie Williams having a chat and a rap in a few tunes."

Warrior Queen (pictured) and The Heatwave's 2008 single Things Change, charting the Jamaican born dancehall queen's adaptation to life in Britain, and Tippa Irie's Complain Neighbour, about a neighbour griping about 'reggy' music, might be separated by 25 years but both feature a vital component of MC culture – social commentary.

"It's always been topical - Smiley Culture's Cockney Translation translated cockney for Jamaicans and Police Officer was about being stopped and searched. It's the tradition of the African griot and the English town cryer. It's the same thing: storytelling, a combination of stand up entertainment telling a joke, telling a story, motivating the crowd, and getting a response," explains Smith.

More than 25 years after Smith was mimicking soundtapes at school, Dizzee Rascal (18 when he won 2003's Mercury Music Prize) and the next wave of grime MCs like teenagers Chipmunk and Griminal, are evidence that MC culture is alive and kicking in school playgrounds.

Smith sees grime as the next stage of British MC culture: "You get beautiful moments with grime MCs. Some of them don't even know where the culture comes from but it's a beautiful thing how they've taken it on and the influence is reaching from different generations and age groups and to people from different backgrounds - not just Jamaican kids."

Read it here:


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