Secret History: The British Pop Establishment Has Shown a Long-Standing Resistance to Black Musical Influence, Writes Daniel Trilling
Trilling, Daniel, New Statesman (1996)
"Reggae is vile," the former Smiths singer Morrissey once infamously declared. The principal character in Tippa Irie's 1985 song "Complain Neighbour", now re-released on the compilation An England Story, would have agreed. Tippa Irie, one of the UK's first home-grown reggae MCs, recounts the experience of a young black family living next door to a man who hates them and their bass-heavy music.
Over a backing track that sits somewhere between Jamaican dancehall and the old theme tune to Grange Hill, Tippa Irie switches from patois to a cockney twang as he parodies the man who sits at home "watching Coronation Street and da East-end-ah" after throwing a brick through his neighbours' window. Not only is it furious, funny and celebratory, it's a sharp metaphor for the resistance white mainstream pop has shown to black music in the UK.
The fast-talking ragga MCs, loud-mouthed rappers and teenage grime upstarts featured on An England Story, which traces the influence of Caribbean MC culture through the past 25 years, have been a driving musical force over the past few decades. From the late Seventies, British-based musicians like Tippa Irie and Papa Levi, whose 1984 "My God My King" features on the album, began developing their own take on Jamaican sound-system culture, in which DJs would improvise lyrics, or "toast", over records they were playing. Its development was similar to, but separate from, that of hip-hop in the US. The British MCs developed their own "fast chat" rapping style and wrote lyrics that reflected the experience of "English upbringing, background Caribbean", as'the rapper Tricky once put it.
The tracks from this early period don't sound all that different from Jamaican reggae, but by the end of the Eighties, a wholly unique style had developed. The dancehall genre known as ragga, composed on cheap electronic synthesisers, was quick and easy to produce, which meant that British MCs and producers soon exploded in numbers and made it their own. General Levy's "Champagne Body" is an exhilarating example, his rapid-fire vocals skipping over a basic but infectious rhythm. And if "bling" is everywhere in today's pop culture, it's got nothing on Glamma Kid, who took self-aggrandisement to surreal levels on tracks such as 1995's "Fashion Magazine".
MC culture in the UK was an outward-looking movement that took on influences from and inspired other cultures. The vocal inflections of ragga found their way into rave music via jungle and drum'n'bass. General Levy later had a number-one hit in 1994 with the jungle act M-Beat, and the Birmingham-born Apache Indian mixed ragga with Indian bhangra music (there are nods to these styles on An England Story in "Ruffneck" by Navigator and the Freestylers and in Ty and Roots Manuva's "So U Want More? …