Cockney & Yardie: Heatwave on How Dancehall Birthed UK Raving

June 7, 2011

Words by Gabriel Heatwave

General Levy

Over the last few months, Cockney & Yardie has kept you up to date with what’s going on in today’s UK dancehall scene, charting the recent resurgence in the interest and popularity of Jamaican-influenced music in Britain. This month we’re taking a step back and illuminating the ways in which Jamaica has influenced the UK rave scene over the last 30 years. Before dubstep and before jungle, the blueprint for UK dance music came directly from Jamaican soundsystems.

Here at The Heatwave, we view everything through dancehall-tinted lenses. When we hear R&B that sounds like reggae or an Adele remix that sounds like dancehall, we can’t help but add Jamaican vocals and flip the tunes into bashment bombs. In our eyes, rappers as diverse as Nicki Minaj and Wiley are bashment artists because of the way they attack riddims, their use of patois and how they carry themselves onstage. If you ask us about MCs in the UK we’ll tell you they all owe a debt to Jamaica and British Jamaicans like Smiley Culture, Papa Levi and General Levy. When people talk about the London slang popularized by grime artists like Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, we’ll invariably point out how the words and phrases can be traced back to the streets and studios of Kingston.

When it comes to the UK rave scene, the official Heatwave line is that “everything comes from Jamaica.” Obviously there are other influences at play, and the way that Britons borrow, interpret and build on these influences is unique and important. We can happily chat over a pint about Chicago or ecstasy or disco or whatever. But when it gets to closing time, I hope we would all merrily agree that UK rave would not exist without Jamaica. The house that UK ravers have built rests on foundations laid in large part by Jamaican selectors, deejays, soundsystem operators, mixing engineers, producers, dub cutters, dance promoters, blues keepers and so on. Seeing as we are on the internet and not in a pub, let’s use good old YouTube to have a look at some examples that illustrate this nicely, starting out with the London soundsystem that dominated 1980s dancehalls and helped to establish some of the fundamental principles of raving in the UK.

Saxon Studio International in London (1980s)

Check the guy with the whistle at 0:41, the cacophony of whistles prompted by Levi’s fast chat at 1:45, or the hands-in-the-air shot at 4:30. Iconic 90s raving imagery and sounds, all from a dancehall video in the early 80s. And if anyone doubts that UK dancehall MCs set the template for grime artists, watch the way Tippa Irie, Colonel, Rusty and Sandy crowd round the mic from 2:31. It could have been filmed at Sidewinder.

Mastermind Roadshow in Moss Side (Manchester) 1986

Moss Side has long been home to a majority of Manchester’s Jamaican community and is where Manchester carnival is held. This must be one of the earliest videos of people raving to house music in the UK. Watch it with the sound off and it could be a Kingston dance in the mid 80s. Listen to the huge forwards at 0:31 and 0:41. Check the speaker stacks and the turntable set up. Despite occasionally sounding American, at 2:10 the host’s Jamaican accent is clear.

Ratpack at Glastonbury Festival (2010)

Fast forward a few years. Ratpack are icons of the early 90s rave scene and their sets define the ‘hardcore’ sound of that era. Today, if there are ravers with their hands in the air and big piano breakdowns then ‘Ratpack’ is never far from anyone’s lips. Of course, their MC Evenson Allen has a soundsystem background. Obviously. He used to play reggae, soul, rare groove and hip-hop with Locomotion Soul Sound in the 80s. And many of the Ratpack rave anthems borrowed heavily from Jamaican music. Witness their No. 1 hit “Searching For My Rizla”: Vocal intro from an early dancehall deejay. Sampled reggae beat. Sirens. A hook about making a spliff. Yeah, it’s basically a dancehall track.

Labrynth at Four Aces (1995)

So crowd reactions, samples, MCs, subject matter and speaker boxes all link back to Jamaica so far. What about the clubs where raves were held? Dalston’s Four Aces is a great example. Founded in 1966, it was “the first club in Britain to feature West Indian sound systems” according to this review of a documentary about the club. The reviewer goes on to write that, “such humble beginnings would spawn…the West Indian subculture of London which was to become hugely influential in the capital, throughout Britain and far beyond.” Four Aces played host to everyone from Desmond Dekker to Jah Shaka and then, “in 1988 we initiated the first acid house scene with an outfit called Tears,” says owner Newton Dunbar. “It was something new and different.” The club went on to become the home of legendary hardcore/jungle rave Labyrinth. Do we need to talk about jungle’s relationship to dancehall reggae, or do you just need to hear the bassline drop 20 seconds into this video?

General Levy – Incredible (1994)

Developing from the hardcore/rave tunes played by the likes of Ratpack, jungle also had a habit of sampling old reggae and contemporary dancehall records. Then British MCs like General Levy, Top Cat and Tenor Fly began voicing tunes and in many ways the ‘ragga jungle’ sound eclipsed their popularity as dancehall artists. General Levy’s huge hit “Incredible” was rejected by many in the jungle scene because he was viewed as an outsider. But ironically, its international success led to him touring the world and playing an instrumental part in spreading jungle/drum’n’bass outside of the UK. “Incredible” remains an all time UK club classic and a brilliant example of the creativity and originality of British dancehall MCs.

Pay As U Go, Heartless Crew and So Solid Crew in London (2001)

Drum’n’bass MCs with a dancehall sound have rocked raves all around the world since the mid 90s: people like Skibadee, Det, Navigator, Ragga Twins, Dynamite MC, Foxy, Trigga, Bassman and many more. But MCs never dominated in the way they did with garage. This north London garage event is less of a rave and more a stageshow–how many MCs can you count on the stage? Roughly a million. And how many vocal tunes are getting played? None. Pure instrumentals and MCs passing the mic. Big forwards from the crowd. This definitely has the structure of a dancehall soundsystem show.

Best of Eskimo Dance: Top 30 Reloads (2000s)

The dominance of MCs in the UK rave scene became even more established as garage developed into grime. Wiley’s Eskimo dances were explicitly based on dancehall stageshows like Sting, with clashes between artists a key part of the experience. And let’s not forget that even something as fundamental and taken for granted as a reload is a concept gifted to UK rave by Jamaica.

Doctor – Funky Dancehall

But dancehall is not just about MCs, clashing and reloads. And raving has got to be about dancing too. So when the UK rave scene mutated once again a few years ago, the stageshow vibe of grime was complemented by the strict raving ethos of funky house. Like Chicago house in Manchester back in 1986, the music didn’t come from Jamaica– but much of the dancing definitely did. Moves like Migraine Skank, Tribal Skank and Heads Shoulders Knees & Toes were inspired in part by Jamaican dances like Willie Bounce and Pon Di River. One tune, “Bring It Back,” even called for the return of 90s dances such as the Bogle and Butterfly.

So there you have it: UK rave according to The Heatwave. But we’re not content with only looking backwards, and we don’t just like to show that dancehall is at the root of everything. We also like to bring the branches back to their roots in order to develop something totally brand new and exciting. And why not have a cheeky party while we’re at it? This month in London we’re bringing together some of the biggest names in the UK rave scene over the years for a huge bashment stageshow. Artists who learndc their craft in dancehall but went on to make their names in raves will be sharing a stage and riding classic Jamaican riddims. We’ve got it all covered: 80s dancehall (Asher Senator), jungle/drum’n’bass (General Levy and Skibadee), garage (Glamma Kid and Stush), grime (Wiley, Riko Dan and Lady Leshurr), funky (Lady Chann and Rubi Dan) and contemporary dancehall/bashment (YT, Mr Williamz, Stylo G and Serocee). The cameras will be rolling and the stage will be lit…