Black British music today has an unmistakable style – one that instantly separates it from the output of the two countries that have historically shaped the scene – Jamaica and the US.
Turn on an “urban music” radio station and you are as likely to be confronted by someone rapping in a London accent as one from New York.
British MCs like Wiley, Kano, Dizzee Rascal and Riko Dan are finding success on both sides of the Atlantic, with a mass of sub-genres that have emerged from the fusions of reggae, hip-hop and dance music.
But the part played by a host of pioneers to create music that paid tribute to its roots, but which was distinctively British, is largely forgotten.
This compilation, which attempts to rectify that injustice, takes reggae as its starting point.
In the early 1980s, British reggae was just beginning to establish itself. The sound systems that dominated the scene were still predominantly playing Jamaican records, and the MCs that rapped over them were adopting Caribbean styles and inflections.
That began to change with the “fast chat” style pioneered by Papa Levi and the Saxon sound system in south London. For the first time British MCs were teaching new techniques to Jamaica.
According to MC Tippa Irie it was not only the style that was changing, it was the content too. “We were chatting about things that we saw everyday,” he says.
“Things we were going through at the time as black people living in Britain – like the Brixton riots. It was like opening a newspaper, coming to one of our dances.”
Tippa’s 1985 classic “Complain Neighbour” is on this CD. It recounts a true story of a racist neighbour whose hatred of reggae is a thin mask for hatred of black people.
The development of British dancehall reggae styles was to have a profound influence on the later evolution of British hip-hop – with many artists gravitating from one scene to the other and back again.
The London Posse’s “Money Mad” is a prime example of this hybrid sound.
Rather than rapping in American accents, the London Posse sound like what they were – black cockneys.
The compilation brings us up to date with some contemporary grime and hip-hop tracks that reveal the extent to which today’s sound owes its existence to those early “fast chat” experiments.
An England Story – From dancehall to grime: 25 years of the MC in the UK
£12.99, CD out now