Styles & Forms | UK Reggae

Britain has had a thriving reggae scene for as long as there’s been reggae. There were sound systems in London in the 1950s, importing the same American R&B records as their Kingstonian counterparts, and ska was recorded in the UK from the early 1960s.

But while the British sound systems were a carbon copy of Jamaican rigs, the music made in the UK was always slightly different. Starting with Millie Small’s 1964 release ‘My Boy Lollipop’ (which had a slightly faster tempo than regular ska because it was so cold in Britain), reggae recorded in the UK has always adapted to its environment.

In spite of Millie’s success and a subsequent minor hit, ‘King Of Kings’ by UK-based Jamaican group Ezz Reco & The Launchers, the vibrant British ska scene was based almost entirely on Jamaican-originated music. Likewise, the reggae of the late 1960s. Modified to fit the market, only the smoothing strings were grafted on in the UK: the rhythm tracks and vocals were all made in Jamaica. It was only Dandy, Laurel Aitken and Tony Tribe who left a significant impression.

Made In Britain

British reggae came of age in the late 1970s, when it virtually polarized itself between a roots militancy and the most sentimental love songs. The roots’n’culture set consisted of Steel Pulse (‘Handsworth Revolution’), Aswad (‘Hulet’), Misty In Roots (‘Wise And Foolish’), Tradition (‘Moving On’), Black Slate (‘Black Slate’) and Matumbi (‘Seven Seals’), all who focused on black life in Britain and its attendant injustices. They cut dub versions as heavy as anything Jamaican, but were all self-contained groups in the western pop music sense, practically unheard of in Jamaica. As a result, their music involved more inherent musicianship and although their songs had reggae rhythms, they were built around rock structures. Then there was dub poetry, spoken in Jamaican patois. Unlike toasting, in dub poetry the music was composed to fit the words rather than the other way round, and carried a sharper message. Jamaican ex-pat Linton Kwesi Johnson made London the centre for this art form with his beautifully rhymed but biting polemics with no-nonsense titles like ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’, ‘All Wi Is Doin Is Defendin’ ’ and ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’.

Lovers Rock: Indigenous Pop

At the other extreme was lovers rock, a wholly pop style that owed as much to Motown and Philly as it did to Jamaican reggae. The first indigenous British black pop music, it was made by and for born-in-the-UK children of Caribbean immigrants, black youngsters who wanted their own soundtrack but couldn’t identify with the ‘back to Africa’ vibe. As its name suggests, the music was concerned with that pop staple, ‘lurrrrve’, and it made stars out of teenage singers Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson, Louisa Mark, Brown Sugar, Victor Romero Evans, Peter Hunningale and Trevor Walters. With the exception of Janet Kay’s No. 2 hit ‘Silly Games’ in 1979, its popularity went largely unnoticed until the late 1980s, when the sweet-voiced...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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