Smiley Culture: Reggae MC who blended Jamaican patois and East End argot in his 1980s crossover hits
Thursday 17 March 2011
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.
David Victor Emmanuel (Smiley Culture), rapper and songwriter: born London 1962; died Warlingham, Surrey 15 March 2011.
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