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Bristol: the ‘riots’ that helped us speak out – and party

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Two new exhibitions chart the underground music scene of the 1980s – and how it built political confidence, writes Eamonn Kelly
Issue 2184
Underground Bristol band the Wild Bunch in 1984 (Pic: Beezer, from Wild Dayz)
Underground Bristol band the Wild Bunch in 1984 (Pic: Beezer, from Wild Dayz)

Britain’s multi-racial music and street style is the subject of two new exhibitions – timely and revealing reminders of the ways society changed during the 1980s.

Urbis gallery in Manchester is hosting “Home Grown”, a collection of photos, flyers, graffiti and music that charts the growth and spread of hip- hop in Britain.

Arriving from the US by a variety of means (mix tape, 12” import, magazine article and rumour) and displaying the same DIY ethos that informed New York’s anti-commercial New Wave movement of the late 1970s, hip-hop has been most accurately described by reggae DJ and film-maker Don Letts as “black punk rock”.

Emerging from neighbourhood “block” parties, existing tunes were remixed, cut up and topped by rapping to create a chopped up and original sound that was very urban – and very, very danceable to.

Existing largely outside the mainstream music industry, this home-made, underground scene was quickly seized upon in Britain.


Here it found a willing and receptive audience of black and white youth who quickly worked to make it their own.

Over at Bristol Museum and Art gallery, “Wild Dayz”, local photographer Beezer’s chronicle of the period develops this theme and looks at the city’s distinctive experiences.

It works effectively to evoke the sounds, the clothes and the thinking that informed Bristol’s underground music scene.

Beezer remembers, “This was England in the 1980s. It was Margaret Thatcher, it was the Miners’ Strike. It was anti-apartheid, CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]… They were pretty difficult times.”

In many ways though it was the resistance to these “difficulties” that influenced and created the space for the music. The late 1970s and early 1980s had seen huge multi-racial mobilisations to stop the rise of the Nazi National Front. Youth unemployment was exceptionally high, and daily police harassment and racism ratcheted up the pressure in working class communities.

Thirty years ago, in April 1980, the pressure exploded into a riot in the St Paul’s district of Bristol.

Forcing the police to withdraw from the area, the uprising was led by black teenagers with the enthusiastic involvement of large numbers of local white youth.

In no way could this be understood as the “race riot” portrayed in the national media.

A year later a similar story was told in many communities across the country, as more riots broke out in Southall, Bradford, Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and Tottenham.

Out of that resistance grew a political confidence to organise, to speak out and, importantly in this case, to open up new spaces to party.

Another influence at the time was the conscious celebration that was championed by Rock Against Racism whose gig activism, magazines and badges identified and celebrated the notion of a multi-racial music scene.

This had been the catalyst for hundreds of integrated punk-reggae gigs across the country in preceding years.

In Bristol the riot was an immense source of pride. The city has long had a sizable black population, as well as a history of resistance.


In the early 1960s, campaigners had overturned the ban on black people working for the local bus company, and the local Irish and West Indian populations joined together to launch St Paul’s carnival.

By the 1980s local social life, with its blues parties, reggae sound systems and “style and fashion”, was well established and celebrated by a multi-racial community. The St Paul’s uprising, far from turning the area into a no go zone that no one dared venture into, made it into a magnet.

Out of this came Massive Attack, Tricky, Smith & Mighty and a host of other acts who would change the face of dance music in this country.

What is distinctive about many of the exhibition photos is the capturing of this mood – a terrific sense of the joy and self-confidence that prevailed.

It is also a record of the improvised nature of the scene – parties took place in church crypts and squats, a million miles away from today’s corporate lock-down and control of pubs, festivals and clubs.

Local producers Smith & Mighty summed up the feeling of many when they famously refused a lucrative record deal from Virgin’s Richard Branson, commenting, “We just don’t like his style, and the way Margaret Thatcher portrayed him as the ideal business mogul.”

Home Grown: The Story of UK Hip Hop. Urbis, Manchester, until 27 February 2010
Wild Dayz. Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery, until Sunday 31 January 2010.
The paperback is available from Tangent Books. Go to »

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