For Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, whose death was announced as I wrote this blog (1941–2020)
I first heard Reggae as a child, the rhythms sending me to sleep as a I lay on a camp-bed in Nottingham. My Grandma lived on Berridge Road in Forest Fields. Dad had moved to Norwich, so we used to go and visit her at Easter or over the summer. Her house was an old-school two-up two-down, with interwinding back alleys and a front room only ever used for best. Mum and Dad slept in one bedroom; my sister and I would be on camp-beds in Gran’s. Norwich had no Afro-Caribbean or Black British community at the time. This was the 1970s, so I may have seen a Rasta on TV … maybe. But in Forest Fields, Nottingham’s Black community provided much of the life that enlivened the battered streets and chimney stacks. Pleasing for me, this came with a soundtrack.
Back then, the bass and drums were the main appeal. The space between the sounds. Accompanying the rhythms was a language that, to my ears, sounded both impenetrable and alluring. I’d be lying if I said I was knowingly tuning my pre-teen consciousness into Tappa Zukie’s ‘MPLA’ or The Abyssinians’ ‘Satta Massagana’ . I knew neither the song titles nor the artists. But the drawn-out dubs enveloped my mind and the rhymes of the toasting deejays planted seeds that would flower once I became ever-more obsessed with all things musical and (sub)cultural. In 1979–80, the sounds that drifted down Berridge Road at night or around Hyson Green as my Gran and I wandered to the shops began to make more sense. Two-tone brought punk and ska together, with cover versions played by bands such as The Specials and Selecter helping me trace who-did-what-and-when . I also found punk in 1980, meaning the Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ and Toots’ ‘Pressure Drop’went onto my mental list. In the books I read, Don Letts’ picture appeared regularly – his playing of reggae between punk acts at London’s Roxy club in 1977 making the punky-reggae connection complete; his dreadlocked image part of the iconography. Over the 1980s, I tuned into John Peel and the Ranking Miss P. From Backs Records in Norwich, a Greensleeves 12” would be oft-purchased alongside my favoured post-punk fare. One of my first ever gigs was Burning Spear at the UEA. Reggae music, be it from Jamaica or home-grown in the UK, was part of the cultural tapestry, connecting and communicating and transmitting.
Fast forward to the 2010s and I’m researching and writing about Britain’s post-war cultural history, especially all things youth cultural and/or subcultural. Through our Subcultures Network (http://www.reading.ac.uk/history/research/Subcultures/) I meet Lez Henry, deejay and professor. We collaborate on a special issue of a journal, with Lez exploring the alternative public arenes opened up by Reggae’s sound system culture. Crossing paths regularly thereafter, we plot a book on British Reggae with the objective of bringing together academics, writers, musicians, deejays and poets to trace at least a part of the history and influence. We get Paul Gilroy to write on the ‘vexed history’ of the ‘heart-i-cal’ philosophy. Lez links up with Les Back to psychogeographically map the Reggae beat of southeast London. Martyn Glynn and Tim Wells connect the dub poets with the ranters. Lucy Robinson brings Smiley Culture forward as a hybrid voice for the Commonwealth. The woman’s contribution to sound system culture is demonstrated by Lynda Rosenior-Patten and June Reid , while Kenny Monrose presents lo-fi dancehall cassette-tapes as a vector of cultural transmission. Lisa Palmer discusses pirate radio in Birmingham; Tim Kew excavates the blues parties that soundtracked the Nottingham streets I remember from childhood; Peter Hughes Jachimiak revisits the records shops and labels that produced the sounds; Melissa Chemam celebrates Bristol’s reggae legacies, before Joy White traces Reggae’s bass transmission through all things Grime. The religious belief systems integral to much Reggae are explored by Carl Tracey and Robert Beckford.
As for me, I moved from listening-in to editing – absorbing and appreciating the sounds and words evoked in the chapters. The System is Sound: Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline will be published by Palgrave in late 2020 or early 2021. Where Reggae both infused and invigorated British culture, so may it now help crack open the academy. Personally, I’d tend to choose a Big Youth single over a record by The Beatles most days of the week; I’m more ‘Satan’s Side’ than Their Satanic Majesty’s. As Lez always says, ‘Anything that is learned can be unlearned’. By shifting the focus, we can do more than understand the world. We may also help to change it.