Smiley Culture: Reggae MC who blended Jamaican patois and East End argot in his 1980s crossover hits

Last month, the BBC 4 documentary Reggae Britannia shone the spotlight on the music made in this country by the descendants of Jamaican immigrants. The 90-minute programme acknowledged the importance of homegrown bands such as Aswad, Steel Pulse and Matumbi, talked to the nearly-forgotten exponents of Lovers' Rock like Janet Kay – whose "Silly Games" soundtracked the summer of 1979 – and ended with the Eighties crossover hits of the Birmingham schoolboy group Musical Youth and the London MC Smiley Culture.

Known for the fast chat style of his two most successful singles, "Cockney Translation" and "Police Officer", Smiley Culture was the first British toaster to talk about everyday experiences and blend East End dialect and Jamaican patois, an approach now commonplace in the music of Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal, The Streets and Plan B. "It's two different cultures and I know both and I feel respect is due to both so I thought I'd do something to complement that," he said in the documentary when asked to explain the thinking behind "Cockney Translation". It's looking at what you have around you and taking it and making it into a lyrical thing. The whole story worked as a story, as opposed to just having a verse here and a little chorus there. Now it's more and more common that way but I think we were really ahead of our time.".

Featured on the cover of the New Musical Express in February 1985, after being voted reggae star by its readers in the previous year's-end poll, Smiley Culture became a mainstream figure of British youth culture for a couple of years. In 1986, he rapped his way through a TV commercial for NatWest Bank, signed a deal with the major label Polydor and presented Club Mix on Channel 4. He also performed a version of the Miles Davis jazz standard "So What?" in Julian Temple's film-folly adaptation of the Colin MacInnes novel Absolute Beginners, which starred Patsy Kensit and David Bowie. Now something of a cult, Absolute Beginners proved a costly flop at the time.

Culture's Tongue In Cheek album and the singles he made for Polydor, "Schooltime Chronicle" and "Mr Kidnapper", exuded the same easy charm and cheek – check the hilarious Margaret Thatcher-referencing "Westland Helicopter" – as his previous releases, but failed to match their sales.

He was born David Victor Emmanuel, the son of a Jamaican father and Grenadan Mother, in 1962 and grew up in Stockwell, South London. He attended Tulse Hill school, where he was nicknamed Smiley because he would habitually chat up girls by asking them for a smile. Like many teenagers of a similar background, in the late 1970s he began emulating the toasters he heard on reggae records. Now known as Smiley Culture, he joined the Lewisham-based Saxon Sound International, the premier sound system in the capital, and rhymed and rapped alongside its other MCs, Tippa Irie, Asher Senator and Papa Levi, as well as the singer Maxi Priest. Under the tutelage of Peter King, they adapted the "fast chat" style of Jamaican deejays like Ranking Joe to the London experience and gave the genre a distinctive British flavour.

A visit to a second-hand car dealership run by a fast-talking salesman planted the seed for "Cockney Translation", a lingo lesson in rhyming and "Yardie" slang delivered over a stark dub rhythm with lines like "Cockneys have names like Terry, Arfur and Del Boy / We have names like Winston, Lloyd and Henry." Having routined the rhyme with Saxon, he recorded it in a four-track studio in the basement of Dub Vendor, the Clapham Junction reggae shop started by John MacGillivray and Chris Lane. The partners had launched Fashion Records and issued "Cockney Translation" to incredible response in 1984, though it sold mostly through specialist shops and didn't enter the Top 75 then.

Smiley Culture always maintained that his follow-up, "Police Officer", was inspired by a real-life incident, when a policeman busted him, but let him go after recognising him, just taking his weed, the "mi ganja" of the lyric. "It was better than being arrested," he admitted. Over Slim Smith's "I'll Never let You Go" rhythm, the track used humour to criticise the way the police treated young black Britons, required to produce proof of car ownership and insurance within a week, the "producer" of the chorus. Playlisted by Radio 1, it sold over 150,000 copies and made No 12 in the British charts, leading to two Top Of The Pops appearances. Following a successful rerelease of "Cockney Translation'", Smiley Culture guested at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Jamaica in 1985.

Alan Edwards, now CEO of the PR agency the Outside Organisation, but then involved in management as well as publicity, helped him get the Polydor deal in 1986. "I had heard 'Cockney Translation', which I thought was a unique slice of the new London culture at the time and tracked him down," he recalled. "The combination of East London slang with Jamaican patois was a first. It reflected what was happening culturally and was the soundtrack of the early days of multicultural Britain as we know it now. The Polydor album did OK, but he was a bit maverick for the label system."

After issuing "Can't Stop The Rap" on SBK in 1990, Culture quit the music business. Last year, he claimed to have become a gold and diamond dealer with concessions in Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, Kenya and the Congo. However, shortly after, he was arrested with four others and charged with conspiracy to supply cocaine. He died of apparently self-inflicted wounds during a police raid on his home.

Pierre Perrone

David Victor Emmanuel (Smiley Culture), rapper and songwriter: born London 1962; died Warlingham, Surrey 15 March 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea