Friday, November 11, 2022

Chant Down Babylon: The Disappearing and Reappearing Voice of Jamaican Roots Reggae


published as 'Chant Down Babylon', The Wire, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Where better to open a meditation on the white romance with Jamaican music than with a record guaranteed to induce cringing from a higher percentage of reggae connoisseurs (and probably a hefty proportion of the Wire readership too) than any other? I'm talking about "White Man In Hammersmith Palais". Whatever you think of its rabble-rousing punky-reggae, The Clash's 1977 single is interesting because lyrically it's actually about the projections and misrecognitions that inevitably occur when white folks "engage" with black music (as opposed to simply consuming it). Joe Strummer attends an All Nighter featuring such "first time from Jamaica" stars as Dillinger and Delroy Wilson. But the performances--"showbizzy, very Vegas," Strummer recalled years later--frustrate his expectations: instead of "roots rock rebel" fighting talk, "it was Four Tops all night/with encores from stage right". The transracial identification felt by punk rockers towards roots rockers---captured earlier in "White Riot", with its admiration and envy towards the black rioters at 1976's over-policed Notting Hill Carnival--collides with a different reality of Jamaican pop culture, leaving Strummer demoralised and confused.

Roots reggae is now almost exclusively valued for dub's legacy of disorientating studio techniques. Which makes it disorientating in itself to go back to the mid-Seventies roots heyday and discover that reggae fans, black and white, actually looked to the music for "a solid foundation" (as The Congos sang it), for certainty and truth, for militancy and motivation. "Roots rock rebel" neatly condenses how Jamaican music was seen both by rock and by reggae itself. Reggae was anti-imperialist: Rasta's Pan-Africanism connected with the period's post-colonial struggles, from the communist MPLA in Angola resisting a South African invasion that was covertly backed by the USA, to the Patriotic Front liberation forces in white-controlled Rhodesia (Bob Marley later headlined Zimbabwe's 1980 Independence Celebrations). Reggae was anti-capitalist: Rasta's rhetoric of downpressed sufferers and judgement day for Babylon's plutocrats  was co-opted by Michael Manley's socialist government, whose warm relations with neighbouring Cuba led the USA to try to destabilize Jamaica via an IMF money-squeeze and other dirty tricks. And reggae was anti-fascist, providing the between-band soundtrack to Rock Against Racism concerts and bringing radical chic to a thousand student bedrooms with its poster iconography: Pete Tosh, a Che Guevera with natty dreads and black beret;  Medusa-headed spiritual warriors Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Culture; Steel Pulse preaching about "Handsworth Revolution".

Even before punk, rock culture had seized on reggae as the "rebel beat" of the Seventies, a much needed dose of authenticity at a time of post-countercultural burn-out: critics like Greil Marcus lionized Bob Marley  as a Caribbean Dylan and the Wailers as Jamaica's own Rolling Stones ("Street Fighting Men," but this time for real). Punk itself has been interpreted (by subcultural theorist Dick Hebdige) as partly based in the yearning for a "white ethnicity" equivalent to Rastafarianism: U.K. punks as exiles on every High Street, stranded in a Babylon burning with boredom. During the half-decade from 1977-81, reggae vied for supremacy with funk as the musical template for progressive post-punk groups. After the Pistols's break-up, Richard Branson wooed Lydon by flying him to Jamaica as A&R consultant for Virgin reggae imprint The Front Line, whose logo (black power fist clenched around barbed wire) conflated militancy and martyrdom; PiL's own dread vision rode the basslines of a blue-eyed Londoner who'd reinvented himself as Jah Wobble. In Scritti Politti's early Gramsci-influenced DIY phase, "Skank Bloc Bologna" linked the Notting Hill riots with Italy's 1977 anarcho-syndicalist uprisings; even after Green lost his Marxist faith and went post-structuralist, his deconstructions of the lover's discourse ("The 'Sweetest Girl'" et al) swayed to a lover's rock lilt. Pop Group and The Slits worked with UK dubmeister Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell; Ari Up eventually became a full-blown Rasta. The Specials fused social realism with the sulphate-twitchy rhythms of ska, and the mixed-race UB40 hymned the integrationist Martin Luther King (rather than separatist Marcus Garvey) over dole queue skank. And always, always, The Clash: getting Lee Perry to produce "Complete Control", covering "Armagideon Time" and "Police and Thieves," pulling off a convincing roots facsimile with "Bankrobber" (Mikey Dread at the controls). Former colony Jamaica responded to all this sincere flattery from the British Empire's bastard children with songs like Marley's "Punky Reggae Party": "The Wailers will be there/the Slits, the Feelgoods and the Clash." Not quite sure why pub rockers Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson's were on Bob's guest list, but clearly it was a time of strange alliances.

The cultural studies/Rock Against Racism approach to reggae didn't ignore dub totally, but it was never really able to integrate dub's topsy-turvy sonic overturnings with its get-up-stand-up conception of reggae's political dissidence. In neo-Marxist academia and SWP activist circles alike, there's a certain uneasiness about drugs (ganja is barely mentioned in Hebdige's 1987 sound system culture book Cut 'N Mix), partly because of an anti-psychedelic premium on clear-minded rationality, and partly because linking black subcultures with drug use was felt to be dodgy, even crypto-racist. But the real stumbling block in the post-punk engagement with reggae was the religiosity of roots culture. It's possible to translate Rastafarian beliefs into Marxist terms, or treat them as allegory, mythic narratives of dispossession and deliverance. Just don't do it in front of a true Rasta believer--when ethnologist John W. Pulis attempted such a dialogue, his Western liberal relativism was swiftly dispatched: "Only one reality.... na views.... I-and-I no deal with kon-sciousness, I deal wit' truth."

Today, a totally different white hip discourse frames reggae, emphasising elements downplayed in the late Seventies but (inevitably) suppressing others. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to shorthand this cluster of ideas as the Afro-Futurist discourse, but it actually has multiple facets: dub as deconstruction (of the song, of the metaphysics of musical presence); the producer as mad scientist, dark magus, shaman, trickster; the Macro Dub Infection notions of dub as postgeographical virus and of dub's sonic instability as an education in "insecurity". The sonic praxis of these notions encompasses New York's illbient scene (We, Sub Dub, DJ Spooky) and Brooklyn's Wordsound massive, Bill Laswell's numerous dub initiatives, post rock outfits like Tortoise, Labradford, Rome, and Him, and quite a few others. Theoretically, the ideas have been largely developed by people associated with the Wire, from John Corbett's seminal essay on the "madness" of Lee Perry (and fellow Afro-Futurists Sun Ra and George Clinton) through David Toop's probing of the origins of modern remixology in reggae's versioning, to Ian Penman's classic meditation on Tricky and "the smoky logic of dub."

What all these strands of dub theory share is the exaltation of producers and engineers over singers and players, and the idea that studio effects and processing are more crucial than the original vocal or instrumental performances. Which is why thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry or Tubby, but very little on reggae vocalisation or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists et al in building kinaesthetic mood-scapes (a/k/a grooves). The mystery of "skank" has failed to provoke a downpour of eloquence--the way different ridims pull you into their flow, entrain your limbs in their gait, tune your cells into their vibration. This is understandable, given the difficulty of writing about rhythm with any specificity (mind you, it's just as tough to go beyond generalities and talk about a specific auteur-producer's signature, to isolate exactly what it is that gives one dub engineer, breakbeat scientist or 303-tweaker his singularity and superior rank).

The really distorting side effect of the Afro-Futurist privileging of the producer, though, is that the fact that reggae actually involved people saying stuff about stuff has almost totally been forgotten. Lyrically, most Seventies roots reggae is as plainspoken and bluntly demagogic as Tom Robinson Band. This is not to say that the shift in how reggae has been conceptualized---from "the sound of politics" in the Seventies to "the politics of sound" today--hasn't opened up exciting ways of thinking about the music; indeed, it was originally a necessary corrective to the exhausted post-punk over-emphasis on messages and meaning. But it has also de-politicized and de-spiritualized a music that was originally "part journalism, part prophecy" (James A. Winders).  At the extreme, Jamaica is effectively erased in all its materiality and knotty cultural contradictions. So Calvin Johnson, founder of Olympia, Washington's K Records and frontman of Dub Narcotic Sound System, can blithely declare: "I never saw dub as a type of music, but as a process. The fact that it originated in reggae is inconsequential."

The totem, touchstone, and discursive bulwark for the Afro-Futurist take on reggae is Lee 'Scratch' Perry. I'm going to take two tacks here: firstly, contesting the reduction of roots culture to this single smoke-wizened figure, and secondly , suggesting that the mad scientist version of Scratch is itself reductive. As the Afro-Futurist consensus about dub has solidified over the last decade, the apotheosis of Perry at the expense of his less flamboyant yet more consistent peers (Tubby, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Tommy Cowan, Joe Gibbs, Scientist, etc) has intensified.

In the Afro-Futurist discourse, Lee Perry and Bob Marley are conceptual twins, linked but opposed. Interestingly, two critics who've contrasted Marley-ism (reggae as text/truth/roots) with Perry-ology (dub as texture/play/deracination) also use the same metaphor to reject the former and big-up the later. Ian Penman, in his Tricky meditation (Wire 133, also in the essay collection Vital Signs) mocks Bob as "an olde worlde flat-earth icon".  Kodwo Eshun, in his brief Perry chapter in More Brilliant Than The Sun, praises Scratch's location "far from Rastafari's flat-earth metaphysics". Apart from the ethnocentrism of the Rasta as flat earth theory analogy (odd, given the Afro-Futurist tendency to valorize voodoo, alchemy, Gnosticism, and other superstitions), it's misleading to imply that dub and roots reggae can be understood separately from that strange Jamaican religion. For starters, Rasta's sacred burru drums--bass, funde, repeater--are embedded deep in reggae's rhythmic matrix. Perry himself is a devout Rasta. He produced and often had an instigating conceptual role in scores of songs with titles like "Psalms 20", "Zion's Blood", "Dread Lion", "Sodom and Gomorrow", "Feast of Passover", plus numerous topical social comment tunes like Max Romeo's "War In A Babylon". Even a seemingly whimsical Perry lyric like "Roast Fish and Cornbread" is actually about ital, the dietary guidelines that are crucial to righteous Rasta living.

Lee Perry's antic personality is enormously enjoyable (even if enjoyed, surprisingly, by people who usually profess contempt for pop's cult of personality), his sonic achievements mighty (if strewn amid much bad-TV-left-on-in-the-background flimsy fare, and tarnished by a post-peak trail of underachieving disgrace as long as George Clinton's. And that gig he did at Dingwalls in 1987 was fucking atrocious). Still, towering if erratic dub genius aside, I can't help suspecting some dubious ulterior factors behind the privileging of Perry. One is his fertility as a text for exegesis: Perry's syncretic cosmology of  superstitions, science fiction, and pulp movies, his is-it-schizophrenia-or-performance-art-that-never-stops eccentricity, his Sun Ra-like wordgames and encryptions, will support a micro-industry of dissertations and seminars for decades to come. The other reason for the Perry Cult is, I reckon, because the tomfoolery and quirked-out levity of  much of his output offers a blessed repreive from the sheer earnestness of roots reggae, which is often literally sermonising, all parables and chapter-and-verse.

Time to probe the peculiarities of Rastafarianism a little deeper. Dub's tricknology is sometimes linked to the trickster gods of West African animism (spirit-worship). But Rasta itself is not pagan. It has little in common with Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria, or the other Africanized remixes of Catholicism. Instead of a panoply of spirits disguised as Catholic saints, Rasta has just the one God, the stern patriarch of the Old Testament---not someone with whom you can cut deals, as you can with voodoo's loa. If anything, Rasta is Afro-Protestant, sharing with mainland America's fundamentalists an emphasis on close reading of the Scriptures and a millenarian belief in an End of Time whereupon the righteous get transported to the promised land. Rasta resembles some of the revolutionary heresies of the Middle Ages documented in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium. The belief in Haile Selassie, His Imperial Majesty of Ethiopia, as the Messiah recalls those Medieval sects whose utopian hopes involved the resurrection of a king or Emperor who would be saviour of the poor and scourge of the corrupt (false kings, the clergy).  Historically, as much revolutionary energy has been mobilized by the idea of going back as going forward. Rastafarianism also owes a lot to Judaism---the kosher-like ital laws, the taboos about menstruation, and above all the Exodus saga of a people uprooted and enslaved (first by the Egyptians, then by the Babylonians) but struggling to return to their homeland. (Rasta's own version of racial envy goes: "Black Zion! We want a Zion of our own"). Transmitted via reggae, this mythic narrative resonates with dispossessed peoples across the world, from aboriginal Australians to Native Americans (roots reggae is hugely popular on the reservations, and rivaled only by death metal!).

Because of its anti-institutional bias and trust-in-Jah fatalism, Rasta has never had the will-to-power to actually create the theocratic society it basically proposes. To grasp how weird it is that such an anti-modern creed has been so influential over Western youth culture, imagine the following alternative history scenario:  the parallel universe where post-revolutionary Iran generated a form of popular music so globally inspirational it spawns its own Ayatollah-friendly Polices, UB40s, Ace of Bases. Both Rasta and Islamic fundamentalism are anti-imperalist, anti-America, and opposed to ungodly Western liberalism--from women's reproductive rights (Rasta decries birth control and abortion) to homosexuality.

Which brings me to what prompted this piece in the first place: the gap between my intense pleasure in and (for want of a better word) "identification" with roots reggae, and the glaring fact that my experiential framework and worldview are utterly remote from the Rastafarian's. For instance, one of my absolute favorite pieces of dubbed-out roots vocalisation is Linval Thompson on the King Tubby mixed "Straight To Babylon Boy's Head" (compiled on King Tubby's Special 1973-1976). Thompson sings: "From I was born in this world/My mama always tell me/That Babylon is a-wicked... Babylon drink rum/Babylon eat pork/Ride on dreadlocks... If you don't believe me, just look in the Bible... Babylon have to face/the Judgement Day." Now, I had a bit of bacon only the other day, and although I think "Babylon" is a handy nickname for the multi-tentacled malevolence of globalizing capital, the Good Book is just another book for me, not God's truth. Listening, rapt and swoony to roots songs like this one, I feel a bit like Morrissey: twisting the words of "Panic" slightly, "The music that I constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life"--yet I love it to death anyway. How can it happen, such violent cathexis, this flooding intimacy of pleasure, this beckoning? It's surely mediated by all the cross-cultural baggage of projections and preconceptions, but it doesn't feel like it --- it feels like an instantaneous spark of connection, almost pre-cognitive. It's tempting to woffle about inarticulate speech of the heart, about pure spirit cutting across all barriers. Morrissey, who once declared "all reggae is vile," actually provides my only clue. There's an uncanny vocal resemblance between Thompson and the Smiths frontman--the fey flutter and lambent grain, the mixture of rejoicing in the fallen-ness of the world and confidence in the singer's elect righteousness. Mozzer sang about his Mum a lot too.

I feel a similar inexplicable soul-bond with The Congos shimmering falsetto harmonies as they beseech "open up the Gates of Zion," plead "send us another Moses", and promise "repatriation is at hand." Probably the pinnacle of the roots era in terms of vocal groups, Heart of the Congos is prime evidence for the case that Lee Perry's best work was his productions of superlative singers rather than his own talkover dub. On the Congos's album, there's none of the mixing-board buffoonery that sometimes makes Perry resemble Jamaica's own Gong; even his favorite sonic effect, the moo-ing cow, can't deflate the devotional trance of "Children Crying." Instead, the famous Black Ark 4-track sound--a numinous haze of will-o'-the-wispy susurration that actually stems from the "degradation effect" (Steve Barrow) caused by Perry's having to dump multiple tracks onto one track to free them for further overdubbing----enshrouds the Congos's harmonies like the nimbus of light around God's head.

John Peel once described the sound of Misty In Roots, his favorite UK reggae group, as "Medieval". Rasta's liberation theology is a disconcerting weave of revolutionary and reactionary, and its paradoxes are intrinsic to dub's own double-feel of pre-modern and postmodern. Could it be that dub only works because it is simultaneously about "a solid foundation," absolute bedrock certainty, and yet offers an adventure playground for the perceptions?   It is Jamaican psychedelia, but it is also Jamaican gospel. Therein resides this music's abiding mystery: the intermingling, the warp'n'weft co-existence, of two different modes of consciousness. Because reggae has penetrated British culture so deeply and feels so familiar, it's easy to forget that Jamaica is still part of the undeveloped Third World. Reggae is a membrane between pre-industrial antiquity and hi-tech futurism. Hence Perry's own magick-meets-sci-fi imagery of "vampires" and "bionic rats."

There's another gap that inspired this piece--between the Afro-Futurist version of dub as headwrecking delirium and my personal pleasure in the music, which is less a sensation of being hurled into an alien, chaotic soundscape and more like coming home, being returned to my true element. The notion of dub as apocalypse, ambush, assault course, seems more like a response to a non-Jamaican lineage (a continuum that runs from On U Sound and Mark Stewart through Massive and Tricky, and many others) that sensed and amplified a potential for mindfuck in Seventies reggae.  Listening to the original roots era dubs, though, there seems be different stuff going on.  There's a kind of impressionistic pictorialism, like Ethiopianist program music--the golden horizons and mirage shimmer of an Abyssinia of the stoned mind's eye; patient processional rhythms suggesting freedom trains, the stoic trek of exodus and homecoming. The other aspect is an erotics of sound: dub's teasing drop-outs, its dapplings and tingles, flickers and fluctuations, correspond to Roland Barthes's notion of eroticism as "intermittance", as glimpses "where the garment gapes."  Dub's polymorphous perversity is why its techniques migrated so well into disco's endless foreplay, its caresses without climax.

The trajectory of dub & roots after its late Seventies peak corresponds to a familiar syndrome: the black popular music (social, designed for dancing) that gradually turns into highbrow art, its past cherished and conserved by white curators and archivists, its present sustained by a mostly white vanguard who rarify the music and place it firmly on the cerebral side of the mind/body dualism it once so successfully dissolved. You can see this syndrome recurring through the histories of jazz, soul, funk, old skool hip hop. Often running in parallel to the avant-garde abstraction option, there's a purely antiquarian approach--the pointless fidelity of trad jazz or digi-dub.

The first casualty of the bohemianisation of dub wasn't the usual one (danceablity), it was the voice. Dub and dub-influenced music in the Nineties almost always consists of instrumentals. At best, you got love songs to dub reggae, rather than love songs to Jah. At worst, you got a music that is all effects and no affect.  The symbiosis and synergy between roots and dub, it's a bit like Swiss Cheese. Without the holes, the cheese is less eye-grabbing but it still works on a basic nutritional and flava level. But the holes, on their own (i.e. tricknology abstracted and decontextualized) are nearly nothing. For sure, Tubby's dubs of singers like Linval Thompson are more thrilling than the originals: hole-some is better than wholesome. But Tubbs needed material to go dub crazy with in the first place. The same applies to more recent tricknologies like breakbeat science---the science needs something to manifest itself through, the flesh and sweat and "feel" of the "Amen" or "Think" break.

The present moment is an odd time to be re-thinking dub. Its profile on the Hipster Influences Shares Index peaked around 1995-96, when you could hear its spectral presence everywhere from Tricky to Chain Reaction to Tortoise to Spooky. But with the roots reissue programmes of labels like Blood & Fire increasingly scraping barrel-bottoms and left-field music culture's attention drifting to other exoticisms (like Tropicalia) there seems to be a certain exhaustion of interest in dub. Things like the Grand Royal issue devoted to Lee Perry's every last curry-goat fart seal the sense of overdocumentation, of terra cognita. 

It would be easy, and not especially illuminating, to trace the permeation of dub's techniques through UK dance culture in the last twelve years. Instead I'm going to sketch another path of diffusion, taken by what was originally the raw material that got dubbed up: the roots vocal. From the start, British rave culture has been defined by a compulsion to fuse house with reggae and hip hop: the bass pressure and Yard allusions of bleep outfits like Ital Rockers and Unique 3, Meat Beat Manifesto's "Radio Babylon," Moody Boys's Journey Into Dubland EP with its Hugh Mundell "just got to be free" clarion, the Ragga Twins's fusion of dancehall jabber and hardcore blare. Even the terms "raver" and "rave" were originally Jamaican slang. As breakbeat hardcore evolved into jungle, vocal samples from roots singers and dancehall chatters like Dr. Alimantado, Leroy Sibbles, Eek-A-Mouse, Snaggapuss, Barrington Levy, Cutty Ranks, Anthony Red Rose, Reggie Stepper, Topcat, and many more, became endemic. The Prodigy even got Max Romeo into the charts with their 1992 hit "Out of Space." Imported "yard tapes" of Kingston soundclashes provided a wealth of catchphrases from unidentified MCs--"get ready for dis, for dis, for dis", "special request", "come with it my man", "get mash up," "champion sound a-way"--which were endlessly re-sampled and still crop up in today's underground garage and 2-step, vibe power undiminished.

There's a vast volume of discourse on the role of DJs and producers in dance culture, but hardly any discussion of the MC's crucial role in the hardcore/jungle/garage continuum: the way the mic' controller operates as a kind of membrane or integument between the expressive and the rhythmatic, the social and the technological. The MC vocalizes the intensities of machine-rhythm by transforming himself into a supplement to the drum kit, while simultaneously relaying the massive's will back to the DJ (rewind selecta!). The MC is the most stubbornly ineradicable Jamaican trace persisting in UK rave, permeating the music both as samples from ragga records and as live partner to the DJ. And the MC reveals that the influence of contemporary Jamaican music, dancehall ragga, on UK dance culture is the untold counterpart to the over-told story of dub's  legacy.

Hipsters lost interest in Jamaica during the Eighties, partly because roots fell into a platitudinous rut, but mainly because of dancehall's replacement of Rasta spirituality with slack talk about sex/guns/money and a faithlessness verging on nihilism ("Africa nah go mek me bullet-proof", as one rude boy put it). The white reggae audience withered away, alienated by dancehall's hieroglyphic opacity (its harshly exaggerated patois and Jamaica-specific references) and its jarring machine beats (actually more African than reggae, a digitalized reversion to pre-ska rural folk rhythms like etu, pocomani, and kumina). With Reagan-stooge Edward Seaga ruling the country, Jamaican pop culture looked away from Africa to Black America (gangsta rap) and to Hollywood bad-boy mythologies (cowboy and Mafia movies). Cheap cocaine defined dancehall's brash and braggart vibe, rather than Rasta's meditational sacrament "herb". Even when dancehall underwent its own mid-Nineties "cultural" revival with Rasta singers like Sizzla, Luciano, Anthony B., and bad boys turned conscious like Buju Banton, white hipsters didn't recover their interest in Jamaica.

Meanwhile, though, dancehall was infiltrating UK pop culture via second-and-third generation Caribbean Britons and the white working class youth who'd grown up with them. Intriguingly, that influence is largely on the level of vocals and language rather than rhythm or production. Although jungle's MC element was gradually purged from drum 'n' bass as part of its realignment with techno, it resurfaced in UK underground garage, from the raucous patois boasts of speed garage anthems like Gant's "Sound Bwoy Burial" to the current wave of MC-driven 2-step tunes from artists like M-Dubs, Corrupted Crew, Master Stepz, and DJ Luck & MC Neat (who scored a Top Ten hit early in 2000 with "A Little Bit of A Luck"). From the gruff, burly-chested boom of chatters like Neat to the serpentile ladies man drawl of Richie Dan, garage MCs provide the yang to the 2step divas's yin. But the ghettocentric grain of the patois voice also works as a kind of ideological/textural counterweight to garage's aspirational VIP gloss. Sampled from dancehall tracks or live-and-direct on the mic', the MC voice is a residual trace of non-assimilated Jamaican otherness; it's some "this is where we came from" grit to offset garage's "this is where we're going" slickness. It's roots 'n future, to borrow the title of a '93 hardcore rave anthem by Phuture Assassins.

It's not just dancehall, though, that lives large in UK underground garage: dub and roots have a more vital presence here than almost anywhere else in contemporary music, bar the new Pole album. Dub ideas originally infiltrated Eighties postdisco music via the B-side remixes of tracks on New York labels like Prelude, West End, and Sleeping Bag, and then blossomed with the spatiality of Strictly Rhythm's early garage tracks and productions by Mood II Swing. Over the last few years UK garage outfit New Horizons have picked up on the latent Jamaican element in New York house imports with their B-side dubs, and developed a strange and wondrous micro-genre of reggaematic house---the churchical organ vamps and Gregory Isaacs-on-helium falsetto froth of "Find The Path", the bassbin-crushing low-end and "slam down ya body gal" slackness of their "Scrap Iron Dubs EP," the skanking dips and afterbeats woven into the four-to-the-floor pump of "Cool Tha Menta". Even stranger hybridity came with last year's spate of R&B bootlegs like Large Joints "Dubplate" and the perpetrator-unknown illegal remix of  smash ballad "Swing My Way"---both bootlegs set the diva's gaseously timestretched vocal adrift in a dubby echo-chamber, over a groove built from a rootical organ vamp and a chugging house beat. Abducting unsuspecting R&B goddesses into a Jamaican soundworld, these tracks offer typical only-in-London recontextualizations of  non-UK sources.

2-step garage is really a four-way collision between gay American house, homophobic Jamaican ragga, Hackney council estate junglism and uptown New York R&B. It's the sonic embodiment of a British identity in flux, under the  triple attrition of American pop culture, European unity, and colonial chickens coming home to roost. Hence the "reverse assimilation" effect caused by the Caribbean population in the UK; diasporic peoples unsettle wherever they settle. Fulfilling the promise of Smiley Culture's "Cockney Translation", reggae patois has other-ized the "true" Britons, seducing the young into speaking a creole tongue and making them unfamiliar and alarming to the parent generation. Hence such anxiety symptoms as Ali G.'s popularity and the articles last year in the quality newspapers arguing that rap radio DJ/bishop's son Tim Westwood deserved to get shot because he speaks with a Jamaican accent. (Which he doesn't--it's Bronx B-boys he strives to be down with, not yardies). The subtext is pernicious, though: not so much "to your own self be true" authenticity but "stick with your own kind" apartheid.

In this undeclared kulturkampf, UK garage fights back with ridim and song. Artful Dodger's "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say 'Bo! Selector')" took dancehall slanguage to Number 2 in the Pop Charts. On the recent "Warm Up" EP, MCs Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinvent the Englishness of canonical literature and period drama in the form of "Millenium Twist"---Dickensian dancehall starring an updated Fagin from the musical Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. The chorus goes "L.O.N.D.O.N, London Town/That's where we're coming from". The paradox of London dance culture is the way it combines a fierce sense of local identity with total open-ness to external influence: the one-way, amazingly still unreciprocated alliance with American R&B; the enduring ties with Jamaica; the import culture around US house 'n' garage. London's endless permutational flux also illustrates something that offers a partial solution to my quandary about how I could possibly love Rastafarian roots reggae so much. Somehow music, even when targeted at a very specific community and tailored to a precise and rather inflexible worldview, drifts out of the hands of those who "own" it and gets under the skin of those it was not intended for and whose world it does not "describe". It still may not "belong" to you, but strangely you can belong to it.


Grievous Angel said...

Great piece and still relevant. Dub, dancehall, and roots vocal styles still permeate uk dance music.



So you think Jamaica is still a strong force in the UK mix? I was wondering if the African influence had eclipsed it. Even on the level of accents - like when you hear a Black British person speak, and often a young white person, the vowel sounds have this fluting quality that seems more African-influenced. I guess musically and otherwise there's probably a jumbling of continued Caribbean influence with the West African flavours.