Cockney Translation: Smiley Culture, Fast Chat and its effect on UK Hip-Hop

To quote Kool Herc, ‘hip-hop and reggae are cousins’. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with the origins of hip-hop. A young Jamaican expat who moved to New York with his family and wanted to recreate the sound systems he’d seen as a child in Jamaica in his new surroundings. The fact that those at the famous party in July 1973 reacted to the soul and funk records more than the reggae ones influenced hip-hop’s sound, but the connection with reggae and sound systems has always been there since the beginning. When it comes to the history of hip-hop, the two genres are intrinsically linked and I believe that it is in Britain where this explicitly becomes the case. Due to the colonial history between the two countries and the steady immigration from Jamaica during the twentieth century, the culture of the Caribbean island has gradually seeped into culture in the UK especially amongst younger generations. With second and third generation migrants there developed a need to find their own identity in Britain, the country they considered home. Over the course of the 1980’s for a number of youths this was played out in the progression from reggae to hip-hop, as hip-hop became the music for them to ‘document their own history’ (Back, 1996: 193) and helped to develop a hip-hop scene in London different from that in America. Hip-Hop in the UK has often, and unfairly so in my opinion, been derided as a cheap imitation of its American counterpart when it is this cross-cultural collaboration that has helped create music that is distinctly British in sound. The music’s hybridity has helped develop a number of styles utilising its aural sensibilities to create unique soundscapes. Consequently, reggae has a deep and strong connection to the hip-hop that grew out of London and has been vital as a means to voice identity politics in this multicultural city. As a result, reggae sound systems and the youths involved within them have had a lasting impact on the foundation and development of hip-hop in London during the 1980’s.

Specifically though I want to look at a short-lived style of music that emerged out of South London in the early 1980s. It is known by a number of names fast style, fast talk, fast chat and ended up leaving a mark on UK hip-hop that can still be heard today. So what is fast chat reggae? Fast chat originated on the Saxon International Sound System, a reggae sound system set up in 1976 by Lloyd Francis and Dennis Rowe and based in Lewisham. It would be in the 1980s, however, that the system garnered its reputation as one of the best in the UK. Much of this popularity was gained not so much by the selectors or the music being played, as it was by the array of vocalists they had at their disposal. Such was the talent that came out of this system in the 1980s that they had a dedicated record label, UK Bubblers, to distribute their records. The fast chat style was initially developed by Peter King in 1982, but there were a whole host of other MCs such as Daddy Colonel, Sister C and Asher Senator. The most successful, however, were Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie and Papa Levi who all achieved relative chart success with top 40 singles between 1983 and 1985. Fast chat involved a change in sound with the traditional foundation of reggae with its booming bass and as Hebdige puts it ‘spacey drum work’ (Hebdige, 1987: 142) replaced by a much more quantised synthesiser and drum machine combo. This in itself was not particularly groundbreaking. There were a number of reggae and dancehall acts in Jamaica experimenting with drum machines in the early 80s, Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng is a prime example. What was more unique about fast chat was the vocals. The reason for this was that they involved more complex pre-written lyrics spoken at a faster pace than what was common at other sound systems where many toasters relied on feel and divine inspiration for their words. This move towards more complex lyrics could be attributed to the influence of American hip-hop, Rapper’s Delight had been an international hit in 1979 and many others had crossed the Atlantic since, however it could also easily be linked to dancehall artists like Yellowman. What was different was that the lyrics would draw more on the everyday experiences of black youths in Britain as opposed to looking back towards Jamaica with the rasta themes of many roots systems falling away. This focus on life in Britain also encouraged what I consider to be the most important aspect of fast chat in that the MCs chatted in a combination of cockney and patois. Now before I explain why I think this was significant, I feel its worth playing a couple of examples. The first song I’m going to play is Complain Neighbour by Tippa Irie and I will follow that up with the song that gave the title to this presentation Cockney Translation by Smiley Culture both were released in 1985. Neither of these songs were the first fast chat record, that accolade goes to Papa Levi’s Mi God Mi King released two years earlier and would go on to become the first song by a British artist to top the reggae charts in both Britain and Jamaica. I have picked these two songs, however, because I feel they are the best examples of the use of language that I want to touch on next.

So as you can probably hear, the vocals in both songs use a combination of patois and cockney slang with both artists switching between accents. This method of delivery highlights the dual roles that many black youths had to negotiate in their daily lives when dealing with the likes of police and teachers or friends and family. While a common occurrence on the street, fast chat was one of first real times that this dual identity could be heard on record. This had an impact on those who saw Britain as their home in contrast to older generations who tended to look back to the Caribbean. As Michael La Rose (1999) has said, there was a switch amongst black youths from claiming to be born in the Caribbean to identifying as black and British. Fast chat tended to reflect this change by telling the story of what was going on in Britain in contrast to many sound systems whose role it was to relay news from Jamaica back to the expat populations living in the country. The likes of Smiley Culture made it ‘cool to chat cockney’ (Adebayo, 2011) by producing a light-hearted but also painfully accurate portrayal of the experiences of black youths in Britain such as neighbours complaining or throwing bricks through the window of Tippa Irie’s character or the differences in culture explained in Cockney Translation. This tragi-comic depiction is epitomised in another of Smiley Culture’s songs Police Officer. In this case, a commentary on the police targeting black drivers and demanding a producer, where you have to go to a police station within 24 hours to show your license and registration documents, is ended with the policeman recognising the performer and asking for his autograph before letting him go. The choice of these artists to use cockney rather than standard English is also significant as it continues the tradition of using a resistance vernacular, in the same way patois was used on earlier sound systems, to show that while they see themselves as black and British they are still treated differently by those in positions of power. The accent and language these songs were delivered in has had a lasting impact well beyond the lifetime of fast chat itself and was particularly significant to the development of hip-hop in the UK. The next song I’m about to play will hopefully show what I am talking about. It is Money Mad by London Posse released in 1990, five years after the previous two songs. London Posse came out of South London very near to Saxon and the fast chat MC’s and are hugely important in UK hip-hop as one of the first acts to rap in a British accent.

You might be able to hear a similarity between that song and the two songs I played previously. Aside from the reggae infused beat, there is a clear fusion of accents and language that was also prevalent in the music of fast chat. While there are differences between fast chat and Money Mad, much of which comes from the influence of hip-hop, there is enough of a similarity to show the influence that the likes of Smiley Culture had on London Posse. This is understandable when you consider their proximity and the likelihood that Rodney P and Bionic had seen the fast chat MC’s live when they were younger. Making them aware that it was possible to rap in a non-American accent. Before the emergence of London Posse and Demon Boyz, hip-hop in the UK religiously followed the blueprint of its American counterpart, with almost every rapper using an imitative American accent. As a result London Posse choosing to rap in their London accents had a massive impact. By choosing to use a London vernacular and an accent fusing a lyrical combination of patois and cockney, this grounded the music locally and helped reduce the degree of American influence. It also attracted an audience who saw it as their music because it used the same language they spoke at school or on the street and was light-years away from the novelty raps they had previously heard by the likes of Wham! and Adam Ant. This movement from adoption to adaption, from imitating what is considered the original form of a style to adapting it to the contexts of the artist and audience being represented, is vital to the development of a music scene in helping those involved find their own voice. It is through this that the audience can relate to what is being said on record. It is difficult to explain just how significant this was when almost every British rapper these days performs in their own accent, but that shows just how much of a legacy the likes of London Posse left. However, the influence of fast chat cannot be lost. In his obituary to Smiley Culture, Dotun Adebayo argued that without fast chat, rappers in the UK would still be ‘chatting Yankee’. While this may be a slight exaggeration, in that UK hip-hop may well have found its own voice eventually, there is no denying the significance of fast chat in influencing early UK hip-hop. The vocal style of the likes of Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie has had a lasting effect not just on hip-hop, but also jungle, drum and bass, garage and grime. Not bad for a style of music that only lasted a handful of years.

References

Adebayo, D (2011) “Smiley Culture Made Us Proud to be Black and British”. The Guardian, 15th March

Back, L (1996) New Ethnicities and Urban Cultures: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives. London: UCL Press

Bradley, L (2000) Bass Culture: When Reggae was King. London: Penguin Books Ltd

Chang, J (2005) Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. London: Ebury Press

Gilroy, P (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso

Harris, R & White, S (1999) Changing Britannia: Life Experience with Britain. London: New Beacon Books Ltd.

Hebdige, D (1987) Cut n Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge

Hesmondhalgh, D & Melville, C (2001) “Urban Breakbeat Culture: Repercussions of Hip Hop in the United Kingdom” in T. Mitchell (ed) Global Noise: Rap and Hip Hop Outside the USA. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, p86-110

Hutnyk, J (2006) “The Nation Question: Fun-Da-Mental and the Deathening Silence” in D. Basu & S. Lemelle (eds) The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalisation of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto, p119-136

MCS Records (2004) Saxon Studio International. http://www.mcsrecords.f9.co.uk/Saxon.htm

Potter, R (1995) Spectacular Vernaculars. New York: State University of New York Press

Wood, A (2009) ““Original London Style”: London Posse and the Birth of British Hip Hop”, Atlantic Studies, 6 (2), p175-190

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