'Using guns. That's nothing to do with any sort of music': A man was hurt in a shooting at a ragga concert. Is violence taking over? Lloyd Bradley looks for some answers

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A GROUP of young people are talking in Daddy Kool, London's most venerable reggae shop. Debbie, 24, says: 'I won't go back to a big ragga club until this has died down. This sort of publicity attracts mad people.'

Wayne, the shop manager, holds up a newspaper with the headline RAGGA: THE MUSIC OF GUNS AND SEX. A shooting at the Champions In Action concert in London last week had 'put reggae back three years,'he said. His feelings of outrage and dismay are shared unanimously by the store's young clientele, ragga's core consumers.

Colin, 22, said: 'It's an embarrassment. People know I like reggae and all week they've been looking at me as if I shot somebody, in fact they're probably looking at all black people the same.'

Kennedy, 24, asked: 'What on earth was that idiot thinking about when he got all dressed up to go out for the evening and put a gun in his pocket? In fact what's he even doing with a gun in the first place? That's nothing to do with any sort of music. If he was into fishing, he'd probably go out and shoot fish]'

There was genuine bewilderment as to why somebody should take a gun to the concert at Le Palais in Hammersmith. Equally, just about everybody in the shop and in the reggae industry in general insisted that the music should not be held responsible. But while reggae fans are angered by the media reports, it is easy for the casual observer not to be too surprised by what happened.

Three days before the show at Le Palais, when the Champions In Action tour played in Bristol, bullets were fired into the ceiling of the packed nightclub and one patron went to hospital with gunshot wounds. A month ago, while on tour in the Cayman Islands, ragga star Buju Banton received a suspended sentence and a fine for discharging a pistol outside a nightclub.

In 1991 shots were fired during a UK concert given by Shabba Ranks, ragga's consistent biggest seller. At an open-air festival in London the summer before, a gang fight culminated in gunplay.

Armed violence is common subject matter for ragga's most popular format, the 12 in single. Last week's reggae Top 10 shows 'Murder Weapon' at No 6, 'Armed & Dangerous' at No 7, and 'Miss, Kill And Bury' at No 10 (the latter actually concerns the style's alternative expression of machismo, ludicrously virile sexual exploits, but the double entendre is intentional). Banton had a huge hit with 'Boom Bye Bye', a record advocating the shooting of homosexuals. Shabba Ranks endorsed the song on Channel 4's The Word.

Gun culture's place in reggae lyrics was established long before ragga. Sixties' ska and early reggae were full of references to gangsters and their weaponry, frequently paying homage to the 'rude boys', the young men of Kingston's poorest ghettos whose self-styled gun law wreaked havoc.

Such was the problem of violence in dance halls in 1962, that Alton Ellis wrote and recorded 'Dance Crasher', with lyrics pleading Oh dance crashers, please don't break it up / Don't make a fuss / Don't use a knife to take another's life'

Even during the roots reggae era of the Seventies, the more spiritual influences of Rastafari were not divorced from the gun. The overall artistic attitude was one of peace in a turbulent society - in 1978, during a Jamaican general election campaign when warring politically affiliated gangsters shot it out in the streets, Bob Marley hosted the One Love Peace Concert and personally persuaded the politically affiliated rival gang leaders Bucky Marshall and Claudie Massop to shake hands on stage.

Yet many prominent reggae artists were murdered during the Seventies and Eighties: Marley himself was injured by bullets; and Peter Tosh and Carlton Barrett, ex-Wailers, were shot to death. The mid- Eighties, though were a watershed for reggae, both musically and culturally. David Rodigan, a long-standing radio reggae DJ, attributes the artistic changes to the onset of computerised studio technique: 'The line was broken. Instead of bass, drums and a rhythm guitar, there was a synthesiser and a drum machine which structured the rhythms completely differently. It became much faster and broken down into a less complicated structure.

'First, in 1984/85, it was called digital reggae, then it speeded up a bit more to become known as dancehall, as it evolved through DJs creating their own rhythms and rapping over them.

'A couple of years later, ragga broke it down even further to drum patterns that created a bouncy, exciting rhythm that didn't have a bassline. The term is an abbreviation of 'raggamuffin', the name for latter-day rude boys. It was a measure of their attitude that their records were all about outrageous sexual lyrics and boasting about how tough they were.

'But the atmosphere had changed. Before the mid-Eighties, the gun records were always balanced by other more socially aware releases and they had a cartoon quality to them.

'It was like a Clint Eastwood western - posing, Saturday morning pictures for grown-ups sorta stuff. Nobody took it seriously. It was fun. Then suddenly, around 1988 and '89, it got very intense. The lyrics took on sinister overtones and guns were being taken to dances; it was a terrible blight on the music.'

Just prior to this, reggae's centre of operations was expanding beyond Jamaica and the UK to New York, Miami and Washington. Rap, computerised reggae's nearest living relative, was then going through a crisis.

After years of devoting itself to the swaggering sagas of machismo that nobody reckoned to take seriously, it had arrived at a point at which serious disturbances at concerts were commonplace, performers sported guns on stage and the rap world murder statistics made horrifying reading. A rapid rise in crack and cocaine abuse fuelled this casual attitude towards violence.

Denis Bovell, producer and musician, has no doubt about the bad influence exerted in the US: 'It was cocaine which messed up reggae. That started on a large scale when it arrived in the US.

'The timing was all wrong too. Reggae performers checked out all that bad man business that was going on in rap and went with it. But that was just about the time hip hop realised what a blind alley it was getting into - all you can do is carry on being badder-

than-thou until people start getting killed.

'Hip hop pulled back. Now it's respected and diverse. I said five years ago that dancehall would kill reggae, and if it doesn't clean up its act I'II be proved right. The reggae industry has to take responsibility for itself.'

On stage at a ragga dance in the Phoenix Club, Luton, Rodigan gestures to the boisterous and totally good-humoured full house and agrees that changes have to come. 'This is what it's all about, people enjoying themselves. It's exciting, but it's not out of control. That incident last Monday was the work of one person, desperate for attention, but it's up to the industry to be extra careful. I won't play gun records, I stopped about 18 months ago when it was really bad, far worse than it is now, and nobody seemed to miss them.'

Likewise, Keith Stone, owner of Daddy Kool, tries to avoid gun titles when he looks through new release schedules and Wayne does not play them in the shop.

Recent publicity is starting to take effect. Shabba Ranks was thrown out of his support spot on the high profile Bobby Brown US tour when his comments on the Buju Banton record were reported to Budweiser, the tour's sponsor. The 12th Annual Reggae Awards, due to be held in May at Le Palais have been cancelled - as has the second part of the Champions in Action tour scheduled at the same venue for 3 May.

In the Phoenix Club it is not easy to raise support for the notion that hard-core ragga might be dead. But the night before, at a similarly sized north London reggae club the queue to get in stretched yards down the road. This is the Dub Club, which advertises itself as 'A Ragga Free Zone'.

Ben Thompson, page 19

(Photograph omitted)