First up this month is the tragic news that Smiley Culture, UK dancehall icon and a key inspiration for this column, has died, aged 48. In fact, we’re dedicating the whole of this month’s update to his memory and legacy. The circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat mysterious, with some debate over how his fatal stab wound was inflicted during a police raid on his home just outside London. An investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission is underway and there have been calls for a full public inquiry into his death.
The Cockney Translator
Smiley Culture was a hugely significant and inspirational figure, not just within dancehall reggae but with wider implications for music, social politics and language in the UK. Smiley was a brilliant storyteller with funny, engaging and intelligent lyrics. His 1980s hits “Cockney Translation” and “Police Officer” helped define the distinctly British dancehall sound of the era and laid the foundations upon which all MCs in this country have subsequently built. From jungle to garage and UK hiphop to grime, English rappers and MCs owe a massive debt to Smiley Culture and his peers. We were among the first to highlight these links in the 2006 Heatwave mix, An England Story, offering a lineage of British artists that leads from Papa Levi and Smiley Culture to Dizzee Rascal and Wiley.
At a moving press conference this week, Smiley’s nephew Merlin Emmanuel described him as “the first to integrate lyrically the British dialect into modern secular music.” Emmanuel went on to say that his uncle “was a British icon, not a black icon. He was bigger than just us. He was British and he was a worldwide celebrity.” In his book There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack, black British academic Paul Gilroy writes that “Cockney Translation” contains “a veiled but none the less visible statement that the rising generation of blacks, gathering in the darkened dancehalls, were gradually finding a means to acknowledge their relationship to England and Englishness… They were able to express their reluctant affiliation to it in the same breath as their ties to the African diaspora.”
British writer and educator Michael Rosen commented this week that Smiley Culture, “was an inspiration for those of us working in schools trying to talk about language and how it does so many different things in different ways, how we confront each other with our differences and yet at the same time absorb differences.” Rest in peace Smiley Culture, you will never be forgotten.
Although it is deeply sad when a pioneer like Smiley Culture passes away, it is worth noting with optimism that his legacy lives on. Where he and his peers paved the way, other talented and inspirational British MCs have followed. There are many working hard in 2011 and keeping alive the fertile UK/JA musical and linguistic connections that his music embodied.
The return of Dominic
Before we move on to those artists, let’s touch on another key inspiration for this column: veteran West London dancehall MC, Dominic. We took our name from his 1980s hit “Cockney & Yardie” with Peter Metro which, like “Cockney Translation”, flipped between London and Jamaican slang. Dominic has been absent from the dancehall world for a number of years: the only glimpses I’ve caught of him recently have been a 2007 interview and a “where are they now” feature in Dancehall Mobi last year. He’s about to make a return to live performance though, appearing at East London dancehall night Mudd Up this Saturday, the 26th.
Saxon in session
Last month we promised a full rundown of the Saxon Studio International session for BBC featuring original Saxon veterans alongside new school London MCs. It was broadcast on BBC 1Xtra just a few days before Smiley Culture’s death, and it’s fitting that a sound he used to MC on teamed up with some of the artists whose work continues his legacy.
One of the standout moments came from young London dancehall artist Stylo G, whose “Banger” lyrics, about an old, clapped out car, reflect the humor and storytelling evident in Smiley’s lyrics:
For some reason Stylo’s segment was cut from the version that was broadcast on 1Xtra, which you can listen to here:
The session kicked off with the 1980s Saxon team of Tippa Irie, Rusty, Sandy, Colonel and Papa Levi before bringing in Mr Williamz, Stush, Skibadee, Wretch 32, Scru Fizzer, Stylo G. and Jon Pecos. Legendary singer Dawn Penn was even called to perform: her voice is still amazing and she bust out some wicked and unusual skanks as well! Colonel introduced his “Roll Your Tongue” fast chat by explicitly outlining the influence of Saxon MCs: “What we started in 1984, in 2010/2011 every MC – whether garage, whether deejay from yard, whether rapper – still a gwaan with this fast style.”
Jungle/drum’n’bass legend Skibadee’s fast chat prompted Colonel himself to say, “Colonel a di fastest MC in England. I glad seh somebody has come tek di mantle offa mi back!” Stush, known for spitting on uptempo garage and house beats like “Dollar Sign” and “Sirens,” she showed she can hold her own on classic riddims like Stalag and Answer. Other highlights included Tippa Irie’s anti-badman tune on the Sleng Teng riddim and the finale where all the MCs passed around the mic on the Come Down and Punaany riddims.
Grime’s debt to dancehall reggae
Smiley Culture’s influence is also alive in grime, a uniquely English music born out of UK garage, rave, dancehall and hiphop. Producer/artist/promoter Wiley was one of the scene’s key founding fathers (and has long been my favourite grime MC). Like most artists in the genre, he doesn’t chat in patois but, from the way he spits bars, holds the mic and constructs songs, it’s clear dancehall has been a big influence for him. Last week he spent a few hours on Twitter talking about the importance of reggae and dancehall in his musical upbringing, bigging up Yellowman, Papa San and Super Cat to Tiger, Hawkeye and Beenie Man. Check “Which Bumbahole Want Fe Test,” a recent track where Wiley does switch up his accent:
Fellow grime star Kano has also been talking about about his dancehall influences recently: “From before grime was invented, before I started making music, dancehall was the music I was listening to.” Kano also talks about sampling Sanchez, Buju Banton and Junior Murvin plus working with Vybz Kartel and Aidonia in this BBC 1Xtra interview broadcast during BBC 1Xtra’s “dancehall day” March 10, which also included the aforementioned Saxon session, brilliant mixes from Seani B and Young Lion, and an appearance from Lea-Anna on Tim Westwood’s show.
New UK dancehall releases
Lea-Anna counted down Westwood’s current top six, leading up to her new tune “Kitty Kat,” a followup to hit single “Kisses” also produced by Wundah. Lea-Anna shows off her songwriting skills with a well-constructed vocal that isn’t short of cheeky innuendo.
Lady Chann and Sticky are a deadly combination, as they’ve proved already with hits like “Eye Too Fast” and “Sticky Situation.” Here they team up with London dancehall legend Glamma Kid for “Informer,” a funky bashment monster:
’80s dancehall veteran-turned-’90s-jungle-legend Navigator teams up with reggae/hip hop don Serocee and all-rounder Illaman to drop conscious lyrics on a grimey bashment production by RackNRuin. Check their “Righteous” here. “My Queen,” meanwhile, an anthem for Fresharda’s queen and empress, is the standout cut on the feelgood, summery Perfect Harmony riddim:
Big tunes from Jamaica
We round off this month’s update with tunes from JA that are running things over here. Vybz Kartel has been showing off his lyrical side and recent singles like “The Lyricist” and “Sick Head” are getting a lot of love. But when it comes to the dancehalls, Mavado is looking good again, with “All Dem A Talk” and “Star Bwoy” getting huge forwards at recent events. His combination with Jah Cure and Rick Ross, “Like I See It”, completely flattened our Hot Wuk party last week. Another huge track at the moment is the Busta Rhymes remix of Beenie Man and Future Fambo’s “Rum & Red Bull”, which looks set for massive crossover success this summer. If you’re in London and want to hear these tunes in a dance, get down to Silverstar’s new weekly night, Jam 1 Wednesdays in Camden.