A group of men dancing in the street at Notting Hill Carnival

Homegrown Roots

Vivien Goldman

25 Jul 2019

Writer, educator, broadcaster and musician Vivien Goldman explores the impact of the Windrush generation on British music culture in the second half of the 20th century.

They came with dreams and, in some cases, collections of vinyl 45s that would spin on to change the sound of pop and the face of Britain’s communities. Garage, grime, warehouse parties, rave, the supremacy of acts like Stormzy, come to that the whole field of music would not exist in its popular form without the extraordinary contribution to British culture made by immigrants from the West Indies and their descendants.

It has grown from the first big Jamaican hit, Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop in 1964 and evolved through reggae’s Steel Pulse in the 1970s to the chart-topping grime of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Dave today. Creators of Caribbean descent have consistently produced a reverse cultural colonialism, changing forever the country whose riches were made possible by unpaid captive labour.

Millie Small, My Boy Lollipop

For many in these communities, music was an active connection to the Caribbean. On and off the islands, music was a sacrament, a club, a lifeblood.

Despite positive British propaganda, intended to induce the boldest and most entrepreneurial West Indians to try their luck in the ‘motherland’, those that made the journey were met with discrimination and struggle. This grim reality gave Brixton’s prototypical dub poet, Jamaican Linton Kwesi Johnson reason to write the track Inglan is a Bitch.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Inglan is a Bitch

Two Jamaicans who were crucial to the post-war scene actually smuggled themselves into England hidden on a boat. The first Duke Vin aka Vincent Forbes, used the compensation he received from a wrongful imprisonment to expand his club and sound system. The second was Wilbert Campbell, aka Count Suckle, who founded Britain’s first Black-owned West End venue, the Cue (later Q) Club. He overcame police harassment and racist attacks, including arson at his club. Their talent and persistence created a platform for Jamaican music that not only helped to define the newly independent country’s identity, but also enlivened and elevated the UK.

They were two among the first post-war Caribbean immigrants, now referred to as the Windrush generation. The music that bonded these communities was also a form of resistance, a diasporic necessity that stubbornly grew into a lineage of Black British music. Over decades, successive waves of new sounds and scenes developed: one-off pub shows became illicit shebeens held in dodgy squats, giving way to warehouses, raves and, eventually, giant arenas.

Sound Dimension - Broken Ribs, from Natural Reggae Vol.II, record cover by Horace Ové

In the 1960s, the first adventurous Afro-Caribbean British bands such as Osibisa and the reggae band The Rudies (later Greyhound), gifted London with a different kind of swing. The following decade, dreadlocked acts like The Cimarons were followed by British reggae bands Capital Letters, Black Slate, Aswad and Steel Pulse. A specifically UK reggae sound developed, marked by a bounce and spring that injected a feel of Steel Pulse’s Handsworth or The Cimarons’ Harlesden into the tropical original. 

In the revolutionary mid-1970s, conscious reggae and the post-colonial Black identity of Rasta, with both its revolutionary and traditional aspects, expressed the ‘rebel soul’ identity of which Aswad sang. They encouraged a loose but sincere connection that sprang up around the anti-Nazi organization of Rock Against Racism. While recording his Exodus LP in west London, Marley and the Wailers cut a song called Punky Reggae Party that captured the link between the two youth tribes, Rastas and punks.

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Punky Reggae Party

The girl harmonies of Lover’s Rock, now recognised as Britain’s first indigenous Black sound, gave us local heroes like Janet Kay, Louisa Mark, Carroll Thompson, Jean Adebambo and the group 15, 16 and 17. The genre was encouraged by Jamaican stars such as Dennis Brown and spearheaded by bass player, producer and sound system operator Dennis Bovell. The multi-talented Bovell was part of the group Matumbi and went on to become bandleader for the oracular Linton Kwesi Johnson, father of dub poetry and the man who identified and named Bass Culture.

Not coincidentally, Bovell also produced punk band The Slits and led Jah Sufferer Sound System. Comprising youthful posses working together in a team or ‘massive’, sound systems were foundational for UK reggae, as they are in Jamaica. In addition, their ‘toasters’ MCing on the microphone were the springboard for British MC culture from drum and bass to grime – it is notable here to mention south London’s Saxon sound system, who in the 1980s brought us international talents like Papa Levi, Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie and Maxi Priest.

Listen to Somerset House Studios resident Nabihah Iqbal’s Windrush themed Lover’s Rock special for NTS Radio

Dub music also had a huge impact, reinventing existing songs via a recording studio remix. Together, hip hop and dub shaped Bristol’s trip hop movement, spearheaded by Massive Attack. But British reggae was an influencer in several directions. The edgy punk-reggae connection extended into the two-tone movement in the 1980s. Known for its black and white graphic imagery, two-tone produced racially-mixed, high speed neo-ska bands like The Specials, The Selecter, led by Pauline Black, and The Beat, featuring front man Ranking Roger. Ska also flirted with jazz, particularly when The Specials played with trombonist Rico Rodriguez, a Kingston ska originator who was one of the earliest Jamaican artists to try his luck in the UK.

The Selecter, On My Radio

It may now seem like material for a TV comedy but in the 1970s it was novel to hear, on illegal pirate underground radio, the Jamaican music which was then all but banned from the BBC. Cheekily-named pirate station DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation) was founded by Leroy Anderson aka DJ Lepke, a half-brother of Rita Marley. In the 1980s, another of Anderson’s sisters, fellow DJ Ranking Miss P, became one of Britain’s first mainstream Black British music broadcasters. Pirate radio continued to launch broadcasters whose rebel arc was ultimately validated by the British establishment. These included DJ Norman Jay MBE, who began in 1980s underground culture, on Kiss FM and at warehouse parties. This tradition continued with Rinse FM’s role as a platform for the innovators of grime and dubstep, leading to it being awarded a community license in 2010.

Grime, drum and bass, UK garage, dubstep, drill and now UK Afrobeats and its offshoots. Giggs, Goldie, Lady Leshurr, Skepta, Mabel. The names are a growing litany of artistry. And it is all a testament to British reggae pioneers such as Count Suckle, Duke Vin and countless others, whose guts and creativity all those decades ago helped create today’s and tomorrow’s Anglo-Caribbean culture.

Vivien Goldman's essay Homegrown Roots is taken from the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition catalogue. Buy your copy online or in the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition shop.