In the mid-1980s, hip-hop was still an underground phenomenon in Britain, mostly heard on pirate radio stations and the occasional specialist show. Before Hip-Hop Connection magazine, before MTV Base, before 1Xtra, Derek B, who has died of a heart attack, was a pioneer of British hip-hop, the first homegrown rapper to score a Top 20 pop hit, with "Good Groove" in February 1988, the first to appear on Top of the Pops, and the first to have an album – Bullet from a Gun, with a guest appearance from Public Enemy – on the UK charts for over two months.
In an impressive series of firsts, Derek B also became the first British rapper to feature in the teen bible Smash Hits, the first to appear at Wembley Stadium – after Salt-N-Pepa and before Stevie Wonder, at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert in June 1988 – and the first to secure a management deal with a US company, Rush Artist Management, run by the rap mogul Russell Simmons of Def Jam fame.
Hip-hop was very much seen as a novelty genre at the time, and, despite supporting West Ham, Derek B co-wrote "Anfield Rap (Red Machine in Full Effect)", released by Liverpool FC before the FA Cup final they lost to Wimbledon in May 1988. Co-written by Craig Johnston, the Top 3 single featured John Aldridge and Steve McMahon, the only two Scousers, making fun of the accents of team-mates Jim Beglin, Bruce Grobelaar and Alan Hansen as well as John Barnes, who seemed to benefit the most from Derek B's coaching, since he rapped again on the chart-topping "World in Motion", the official England team song for the 1990 World Cup, recorded with New Order.
Born Derek Boland in 1965, Derek B was the son of Jenny Boland, a Trinidadian nurse who became a nurse tutor. He grew up in Woodford, north-east London. The Bolands went back to the West Indies for a couple of years but returned to Britain in 1978. At the time, the young Derek loved rock groups like The Who as much as the soul music of Al Green and Aretha Franklin and the reggae of Bob Marley. By the early 1980s he was a mobile DJ, learning to mix with DJ Froggy (who died in 2008), making regular appearances at Bentleys in Canning Town, the Wag in Soho and on the pirate radio station Kiss FM, where he played soul, funk and rap on his Good Groove show, before running his own makeshift station, WBLS.
Such was his knowledge and feel for American hip-hop that in 1986 he was hired by Simon Harris to help license US material and compile the Def Beats 1 collection for the Music of Life label. Short of one track, Boland – combining the personas of Derek B, his DJ alias, and EZQ, his MC alter ego –made "Rock the Beat" with Harris and kicked off British hip-hop. Issued as a 12in single in 1987, "Rock the Beat" was championed by Dave Pearce on BBC Radio London and Tim Westwood on Capital Radio, and Derek B developed a following as a rapper and for his productions and remixes, most notably for Erik B. & Rakim, Curiosity Killed the Cat and Was/Not Was.
He recorded more tracks for Music of Life, including "Get Down", and eventually made the Top 20 with "Good Groove". He was offered a deal by Phonogram, one of the Polygram companies, and the major gave him his own Tuff Audio label for "Bad Young Brother" – his second Top 20 single – and "We've Got The Juice2" – his third chart entry – and the Bullet from a Gun album. "Never take on something you ain't got the shoulders for," he said at the time.
Following his appearance at the Mandela concert in 1988, Boland and his mother served as the leitmotiv in a World in Action television documentary looking at the challenges the British-born children of black immigrants faced. The revelation that police in London regularly stopped Boland at the wheel of his Porsche demonstrated how little attitudes had changed. Indeed, the rapper said he had sold the car rather than deal with the hassle on an almost daily basis. He came across as articulate, and convincingly argued the need for positive role models within the black British community.
"We're black people in a white society that can see no way of getting on," he said. "No one is there to speak for us. The importance of political rap music is that is gives pride to kids that have no other medium to give it to them. They need to get positive messages about their race, their colour, their creed."
Thanks to the tie-up with Simmons, Derek B toured the world with Public Enemy and Run DMC in the autumn of 1988, and saw his album released on Profile in the US. He could fall back on the same clichés as his US counterparts, boasting in "Get Down":
"We kept on goin' for hours and hours,
Straight after to the bathroom for a shower,
Just after leaving she held me close and said,
I think you're the greatest thing in bed... "
But despite piling on the references to the King's Road, Norman Jay, Westwood, The Prisoner and James Bond on the album, he was criticised for his American-style delivery and failed to develop enough of a British identity to sustain interest. Indeed, "You've Got to Look Up", his last single for Tuff Audio, issued in 1990, failed to make even the lower reaches of the charts.
He subsequently concentrated on production work with the British girl rappers The Cookie Crew and blue-eyed soul duo Bell Curtis but had seldom been in the public eye in recent years. However, it is undeniable that Derek B, the She Rockers featuring Betty Boo and Wee Papa Girl Rappers paved the way for the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Sway, Wiley, Estelle and Ty.
Derek Boland (Derek B), rapper, producer, songwriter: born London 15 January 1965; died London 15 November 2009.Reuse content