June 22, 2019, marked the first Windrush Day on the anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush bringing Caribbean migrants from Jamaica to Great Britain. Passengers on the first voyage to the “mother country” included a few notable people. Sam King—a Jamaican ex-serviceman and first black Mayor of Southwark—helped Claudia Jones organise Notting Hill Carnival, and Alwyn Roberts, the calypso legend from Trinidad (also known as Lord Kitchener) sang “London Is The Place For Me” upon arrival at Tilbury Docks, Essex, in 1948.
Of the reported 492 Caribbeans aboard Empire Windrush, more than half were from Jamaica with the rest mostly from Trinidad and Bermuda. Optimistic Caribbean migrants were met with unwarranted hostility and harassment from English men and women. White homeowners with “room to rent” signs in windows often refused blacks, the Irish, and people with dogs. Likewise, few nightclubs were available to black folk. As a result, the blues dance, or shebeens, were usually held in the basements of their homes, or “captured houses”/derelict houses. Despite all of this, the descendants of the Windrush Generation would go on to build legacies that would change this country forever.
Music played a pivotal role in reuniting the community on new shores. 50 years ago, Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” became the first reggae song to enter the UK singles chart, at No. 9, and in the summer of ‘78, Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” was the first deejay song to reach number one. The deejay style, popularised by U-Roy and his chanting over riddims, had now crossed over. Other early adopters, such as Tapper Zukie and Dennis Alcapone (Stefflon Don’s uncle), soon relocated to the UK.
The only good system, is a sound system.
Saxon Sound are arguably the most innovative British sound system. The sound, from Lewisham, boasted global chart-topping singer Maxi Priest, and culture-shifting deejays Smiley Culture, Peter King, Tippa Irie and Papa Levi. And together, Saxon drew the blueprint for British mic controllers. “We wanted to have our own identity,” Tippa Irie tells Complex. Peter King introduced the “fast-chat” style, while the first UK deejay to top the Jamaican charts was Papa Levi with “Mi God, Mi King”. “We made Jamaica start to follow what we were doing,” adds Irie on the impact of cassette tape recordings of Saxon’s dances.
Tippa went from sneaking into his father’s basement blues parties, to picking up the mic, inspired by Jamaican icons Brigadier Jerry and Josey Wales (rapper J Spades’ dad). Prior to being scouted by Saxon’s owners, Musclehead and Dennis Row, the son of a green grocer raised in a pre-gentrified Brixton in the 1980s almost became a plasterer. Eventually, his path would lead him to perform on the famous Reggae Sunsplash stage. (Tippa, who featured on Black Eyed Peas’ dancehall-touched global hit, “Hey Mama”, still tours the world). Saxon MCs were also the first to share their British experiences in cockney and Jamaican patois. “When you’re at home with your parents, you speak patois. But when you’re on the road with Tom, and Tom comes from Stratford or East Ham, you speak like Tom,” Irie explains. The late Smiley Culture was first to perform it in a dance, most notably on “Cockney Translation”, and most successfully on his Top 20 hit “Police Officer” (Tippa himself used it on “Complain Neighbour”).
From UK hip-hop pioneers Rodney P and Roots Manuva to jungle/drum & bass MC Skibadee (and many others in between) cite Saxon Sound as inspirations. But before acts like Apache Indian, Pato Banton and Bitty McLean scored Top 10 singles in the ‘90s, they learnt their trade on sound systems outside of the big city, like Birmingham’s Wassifa and Quaker City. At the peak of the competitive 1980s, Clapham-based Sir Coxsone Outernational Sound played host to top-ranking deejays Super Cat and Nicodemus. World record-holder Daddy Freddy, Reggae Reggae Sauce’s Levi Roots and producer/shop owner Blacker Dread worked on the sound too—the latter of whom produced Jah Screechy’s “Walk & Skank”, which was famously sampled for SL2’s hardcore classic “On A Ragga Tip”. The track peaked at No. 2 in ‘92 via XL Recordings.
What happened exclusively in blues parties was now accessible to wider audiences through the clubs and pirate radio. A cassette tape recording of a Unity Sound dance led to Deman Rocker being sampled for the hardcore cut “Lamborghini”, which dropped on Shut Up and Dance Records in 1990. Deman also wrote the socially-aware “Ragga Trip” following the overdose death of schoolgirl Leah Betts. Formed with his brother, Flinty Badman (both born to Montserratian and Dominican parents), The Ragga Twins entered a UK dance music landscape without MCs, gun-fingers and wheel-ups. “They didn’t know what a reload was when we came over there,” says Flinty. “The few black people that were going, they understood what was going on. The rest of the crowd would be like, ‘What the fuck’s going on here? Why’s he stopped the tune?’”
Flinty and Deman were also early witnesses to the rise of jungle. “The more the reggae samples came in, the more that people who were going to reggae dances and hearing these things were like, ‘Yeah, mate, I can go to them dances ‘cos I know that tune from the reggae days,’ and that’s how it built up,” Flinty remembers.
Veteran junglist General Levy, born and raised in northwest London to Trinidadian parents, spent much of his youth raving to Jah Shaka, Sir Coxsone, Saxon and Unity Sound. Those formative years observing greats before him helped when honing his skills. The key to winning sound clashes were simple: good MCing and money-can’t-buy dubplates. “Incredible”, possibly the biggest jungle tune ever, came to be as a result of his sound-boy roots. “I did ‘Incredible’ as a dubplate,” admits General Levy of the formidable jungle anthem. In short, it wasn’t made for general release. “I went into the scene as an established reggae artist who had won reggae awards; when I looked at jungle, I was just giving a strength to the scene—not knowing it was gonna overwhelm the whole of my reggae career.”
It didn’t come without naysayers, though: some reggae fans found it too weird and electronic, while some dance music fans didn’t appreciate MCs. “People aren’t used to change,” says The General. “They’re used to what they wanna hear, so when they hear something different they’re disappointed.” Jungle made a little splash back in Jamaica with Dave Kelly’s “Backyard Riddim”, but nothing more than that.