Rock & Radio: In search of new roots

Reggae's heyday is long gone, and dance music has taken over the world. So is dub dead?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sunsplash was supposed to be a celebration, but at times it felt more like a wake. The world's foremost reggae festival returned to London last Sunday after more than a decade away - but while the weather was tropical, the mood was nostalgic.

Children and their grandparents swayed and sang along with the motherly Marcia Griffiths, and members of Aswad and UB40 paid tribute to Dennis Brown, who died in July. A blissed-out Rastaman lay on the grass soaking up the rootsy music of Kymani Marley, and for a moment it could have been his legendary father Bob who was singing in Victoria Park.

But all the while, a group of younger men in fake Moschino suits were glancing at the dusty and dreadlocked Rasta as though he were a curious relic - not exactly disapproving but keeping their distance, impatient for the meaner, harder, ragga sound of Mr Vegas or Glamma Kid, one of the very few homegrown acts.

"Young black British teenagers see reggae as the music of their forefathers, not as their own," says the Kiss FM DJ David Rodigan, who compered Sunsplash. "They have never been to Kingston and they can't speak Jamaican patois even if they try. They are more interested in garage, and drum & bass - styles of music that are their own, not copies of what is going on elsewhere."

His fellow DJ Daddy Ernie of Choice FM agrees. "British reggae is at an all-time low. There are no new acts coming through."

Rhythm & blues is now the global black music, he says, with artists such as Puff Daddy groomed and promoted by multinational labels. It has become ubiquitous, as reggae promised to do 20 years ago when Island Records packaged Bob Marley like a rock singer and turned him into the first Third World superstar.

"No Woman No Cry" was a massive hit in 1975, and a series of impressive recordings followed, including "Exodus", which spent 56 weeks in the UK album charts. Marley's legend and his sales grew after an early death in May 1981, just as they had for Presley and Lennon. Reggae artists such as Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown looked set to inherit his kingdom, but they never broke through in the same way. The annual Jamaican festival of Sunsplash was imported to Britain and proved so popular that in 1987 an estimated quarter of a million people turned up on Clapham Common - but it couldn't find another suitable venue and stopped, for 12 years.

So where did it all go wrong? There are clues in social history, as the fortunes of reggae have always been tied to politics. Its forerunner, ska, was the sound of Jamaican independence in 1961, a fusion of black American pop and mento, the calypso-like folk music of the island. In 1968 "Do The Reggay" by the Maytals was the first single to use the word, which some say comes from the patois rege-rege meaning quarrel.

Roots reggae, as sung by Bob Marley, was inspired by the Rastafarian faith. Its lyrics were (and are) about the suffering of the people, and their hopes of redemption. Roots dominated Jamaican music during the Seventies, as Michael Manley's government pursued socialist ideals.

In this country punk bands such as the Clash and the Stranglers seized on it as the authentic sound of black Britain at a time of riots and racial tension. Steel Pulse, from Handsworth in Birmingham, made their debut with the song "Ku Klux Klan" and became heavily associated with the Rock Against Racism movement, as did Misty In Roots, from Southall.

The mood in Jamaica soured when the Manley government began to fail and the general election of 1980 was tainted with hundreds of shootings. Unemployment continued to rise and wages fell after a right-wing victory, and, in reaction to this and the loss of its figurehead, reggae turned inward. A stripped-down sound called dancehall developed as people concentrated on having a good time. Consciousness-raising lyrics gave way to macho posturing, bragging about sexual prowess, and noisy rivalry between sound systems.

DJs who chatted over rhythms became the stars, and with computerised instruments and samplers they made an energetic, eclectic music called ragga. The world-wide growth of dance culture made possible crossover hits by the likes of Chaka Demus & Pliers and Shabba Ranks, but ragga's uncompromising language and attitude meant it was highly unlikely to emulate the cultural impact of tuneful roots reggae.

Meanwhile Mrs Thatcher had won the ideological war here, and angry punks and socially aware Rude Boys were replaced by the more complacent New Romantics. Some of those white record buyers who had been introduced to black sounds through reggae or ska went on to explore World music from Africa and elsewhere, much of which was more accessible and had a sunnier disposition than anything coming out of Jamaica.

Other British artists had developed their own distinct reggae sound, the smooth and seductive Lovers Rock, whose first and biggest crossover hit was Janet Kay's "Silly Games" in 1979. The London band Aswad were typical of the times, softening their roots sound, most successfully with "Don't Turn Around" in 1988. After that, reggae as Bob Marley's fans would recognise it all but disappeared from the mainstream in Britain.

Hundreds of records are produced by the chaotic Jamaican studio system every month, but not many of them sell more than a few thousand copies. David Rodigan believes the bigger record companies are too afraid to get involved. "There is something uncontrollable about reggae, which is essentially a cottage industry. An artist in Jamaica might record a song for Tom in the morning, another for Dick in the afternoon and a third for Harry in the evening. He'll get paid on the spot for each session and that's usually the end of it. There's no signing to a label, no career development and no promotion."

The most notable exceptions are the sons and daughters of Bob Marley, whose name earns them the support of major labels, and UB40, the multi- cultural band from Birmingham who have sold 40 million records. Astro, the band's master of ceremonies, says: "In this city alone there were 500 bands at one stage. I couldn't point you to more than five now."

He believes changes in the law have killed reggae culture. "It was never on the radio, so as kids the only place we could hear the new music was at blues parties - but throw a party in your house now and you'll have 47 police at the front door."

Everyone entering Sunsplash was frisked and security guards paraded huge dogs, unmuzzled. It was trouble-free, but the recent association of dancehall concerts with violence must have put many people off. UB40 have so far refused to play in Jamaica for fear of violence, although the singer Ali Campbell has established a studio and record label on the island. He protests that reggae is not dead; it has just diversified into a huge range of styles - including his own recent discovery, speedhall, the result of a Birmingham speed-garage band working with the dancehall act Mr Vegas.

Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, co-authors of the Rough Guide to Reggae, believe no genre other than blues has had more influence on pop over the past few decades. "Major features of Jamaican dancehall cultures - the megawatt sound system, the exclusive `one-off' recordings, the foregroundings of drum and bass and the practice of rapping over rhythm tracks - have been appropriated by rave and dance culture."

Wyclef Jean of the Fugees acknowledged this debt when he headlined Sunsplash and played dub plates exclusively recorded for the event with Whitney Houston. Also on the bill were Asian Dub Foundation. "Dub is an experimental music by and for the people, as opposed to a high-brow, avant-garde approach which is for the exclusive few," says Dr Das, the group's spokesman. "That's why it is in our name. We share dub and reggae attitudes."

The first gig he went to was by Aswad in Slough. "In the early Eighties a lot of Asian youth identified with reggae. It may have been coming from a different culture but we could identify with the issues that people were singing about, such as racism and what it was like living in Britain."

Young black and Asian performers may not be making roots reggae, but almost everything they do is influenced by it in some way, he says. "Never mind Britpop; acts like Misty In Roots are true British pop music. Linton Kwesi Johnson, the dub poet, has made serious and consistent commentaries about the state of the country over the years - far more than Oasis. He's the one who should be invited to Downing Street."