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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?