Exploring genres: Black British Music History 101

Black British Music History 101

The other day, someone asked me this question on Twitter: ‘What’s the most influential/important black British music genre in your opinion?’. Since this came at the very moment I was thinking about what I could write for the SOAS blog about black British music for Black History Month, I thought I’d take the opportunity to think aloud about how I might answer this question. I think there are a number of possible answers, so I’m going to propose a couple of possibilities before I tell you what I think the answer is.

But first some history:

As the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy argues in The Black Atlantic (1993), the musical culture of Black Britain reflects the history of journeys back and forth across the Atlantic, of people, ideas and culture; journeys which have been taking place for centuries which are a consequence of the Atlantic slave trade which distributed African people – against their will and in the form of chattel – across the ‘New World’ and, eventually, into urban Western Europe.

Though these populations were deliberately dispersed to make them more pliable and less disruptive to the economic system of slavery, a system under which ties of language, nation, and family were deliberately and callously sundered to render slaves culture-less and bereft of support, slave and post-slave societies across the Americas and the Caribbean did manage to stay connected, build community and foster a culture of their own.

Music (because of its portability, relative cheapness and huge emotional power) became the most important artform of this emergent ‘Black Atlantic’ culture and enabled communication between far-flung parts of the Black Atlantic world. This included those elements of African musical culture which slaves were able to hold on to even under bondage in certain territories – the so-called ‘African retentions’, including drum patterns, dances and particular African approaches to composition and performance, but it also included any other musical influence encountered in the New World: Scottish and Irish folk, European military marches, Portuguese fado, all were pulled into the orbit of Black Atlantic musical culture.

Slave populations found ways to express their culture through whatever means were available, hence the emergence of work songs, church spirituals which developed into gospel, and the rich syncretic traditions of the Caribbean and Latin America – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil – which fused African drum philosophy with European musical form. This is the legacy that has bequeathed us rumba, samba, Bossa Nova, Blues, Jazz, soul, hip hop, techno, house, Afrobeat and Afrobeats.

When thinking about the development of black music in Britain, the two most potent musical forms – at least in the 1970s and 1980s, which were the crucial decades in the early development of a distinctive British sound – were reggae, from Jamaica, and American soul. This draws our attention to two different kinds of journeys. The first is the journey made by half a million migrants from the British Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and the 1970s, usually referred to as The Windrush Generation; the arrival of whom in the UK transformed the British city, opened up a market for Jamaican music in the UK and led to the development of the network of reggae sound systems on which to play the Jamaican records.

The second is the journey of American music, in the form of touring artists and revues, but also in the form of records, both domestic release and imports, and the development radio stations (many of them illegal, the so-called pirates) which broadcast this music – jazz, swing, blues, then funk, soul and jazzfunk then house and hip hop – around the British city.  

Here’s what Black British musicians and producers did with these influences:

In 1975 the Barbados-born British reggae musician and producer Dennis Bovell – working with a cadre of reggae luminaries including guitarist John Kpiaye, sound system operator Lloyd Coxsone and entrepreneur Dennis Harris – invented Lovers Rock. In contrast to the deep dreadness of the golden age Jamaican reggae performers like Burning Spear and Augustus Pablo Lovers Rock had a lighter, more metropolitan, more soulful sound, epitomised by the first Lover’s Rock single ‘Caught You In A lie’ featuring the young singer Louisa Marks, recorded at Harris studio in Brockley, South East London.

Lovers Rock went on to produce a new generation of Black British singing stars – Caroll Thompson, Jean Abebambo, Peter Hunnigale, Caron Wheeler. This largely underground sound system-focused form of black British pop reached its apogee in 1979 when the Bovell-produced ‘Silly Games’ by Janet Kay reached number 2 in the British chart and Kay appeared twice on the TV pop show Top of the Pops. Although clearly Jamaican in origin, Lover’s Rock put a distinctive British stamp on Afro-Caribbean music.

Fast forward to the end of the 1990s. UK garage, a distinctly UK take on American Garage, a two-step variant of house music, had flourished briefly as a slinky, sexy, groove-led dance culture making a star out of Craig David, then it receded. In its place, a new sound emerged, rougher, confrontational, basic, with a new emphasis on the British voice a million miles away from Janet kay’s high Cs or Craig David’s boy-next-door crooning. This was grime, born on the tough East London estates of Bow and Forest Gate.

Grime marked the long belated moment when the UK finally figured out how to adapt hip hop to local circumstances. After plenty of false starts in the 80s and 90s – where UK rappers struggled vainly to step out of the shadow of Biggie, Rakim, Nas and Cube and find a voice of their own – grime, in the form of young upstarts like D Double E, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Chip and the rest, invented a new language by which to voice the black British urban experience, over the shuddering beats and arcade game bleeps of cracked digital programmes like Fruity Loops. You’ve heard of Stormzy and Skepta, right? It all started there, then.

But I’ve left one genre out, and this is because I think it’s the most significant genre of black British music, so I’ve kept it ‘til last. This is jungle, also known by its more respectable moniker drum and bass. This is the missing link between reggae and Lovers Rock, soul and hip hop, rave and techno, garage and grime. This strange thing happened at the end of the 1980s in the UK; first it was called Acid house and then it was called rave. You know the sort of thing – kids waving their hands around in fields, high on ecstasy, listening to spacefunk made by machines out of Chicago and Detroit.

After a few years of this shambolic madness (which was great fun but like all drug highs had a bit of a steep come down) new music emerged in the UK in the early 1990s which combined the techno-punk aesthetics of Acid House with (hello again) reggae soul, hip hop and even jazz. The pioneers of this new sound were black British DJs and producers – Goldie, Jumpin’ jack Frost, Fabio and Grooverider, A Guy Called Gerald, Roni Size, Dillinger, Shy FX – who had deep roots in reggae, soul and jazz, knew their funk and didn’t mind a bit of punk attitude, and were also hardcore ravers.

They took these Black Atlantic threads – and the rather British punky ‘radio rental’ ethos of rave – and braided it into a new thing: combing deep organic basslines with hyper fast hip hop and funk breaks, topped off with the vocal ejaculations of a generation of cockney-reggae chatters who toasted over the mic at jungle raves – Stevie Hyper D, MC Det, Navigator, Conrad, the Ragga Twins, and dozens more. Jungle rapidly split off into subgenres, drum and bass, jump up, intelligent, tech-step, neuro-funk, it fed into Garage and dubstep, and lyrically it provided the template for grime.

In the way jungle folded everything into the mix; the way it innovated a new rhythmic template which both drew on and exceeded the influence of all the rhythms of the Black Atlantic; the way it built a bridge between the dreadest sound system and the most ‘mad for it’ tweaky raver; the way it paid it forward to garage, dubstep and grime and the sheer cheeky ebullience and pre-millennial tension of its musical output, means it stands as the most important and influential Black British musical genre. Full stop… (or at least until the next one comes along).

Dr Caspar Melville convenes the MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries at SOAS and is the author of It’s A London Thing; How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City (2020, Manchester University Press)

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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