UK Reggae

In the mid-20th century, a wave of Jamaican immigrants moved to England, settling in significant numbers in South London, Birmingham, and Bristol. They brought with them various aspects of Caribbean culture, including foodways and a distinctive patois – and, perhaps most impactfully from a cultural perspective, their music. In the 1950s this meant calypso and mento, but back in Jamaica a fusion of local musical styles and American R&B would soon result in a new style of dance music called ska, which would eventually slow into rock steady, and then slow and deepen further to become reggae. By the late 1960s reggae had become the predominant popular music style in Jamaica – and in Britain’s Jamaican diaspora. 

In the West Indian enclaves of Brixton in South London, the Handsworth area of Birmingham, and the Black neighborhoods of Bristol, reggae took hold quickly and bands began to spring up. By the mid-1970s, artists like Steel Pulse, Aswad, Matumbi, and Misty in Roots were established and were soon playing to large audiences of expatriate Jamaicans.

When punk rock erupted in England a few years later, the country’s various reggae scenes were already well established – and found an enthusiastic audience among the young punks who were smashing up the musical conventions of rock and pop music. It was an odd marriage: punk was an overwhelmingly White phenomenon, one characterized by calls for anarchy and predictions of “no future,” while the reggae music of the period was dominated by themes of “roots and culture” – invocations of millenarian Rastafarian religion and calls for political reform. But the countercultural messages and the racial pride and defiance of British reggae artists struck a chord with young punk rockers, and soon bands like the Clash and the Ruts were incorporating reggae beats and even covering roots reggae songs (the Clash included a version of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” on their debut album, reportedly to the original artist’s consternation).

At the same time that political and spiritual reggae was growing in popularity in the UK, another subgenre was taking root as well. A smoother, more romantic reggae style that would come to be called “lovers rock” emerged in London, championed by star producer (and Matumbi bassist) Dennis Bovell and up-and-comer Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser. Fraser, especially, would be a major figure in both defining and refining the lovers rock genre, releasing groundbreaking albums by smooth crooners like Sandra Cross and Kofi in the 1980s. While lovers rock, as its name suggests, tended to focus on romantic lyrics, the songs were not always apolitical; the trio Brown Sugar had a major hit with the defiant “I’m in Love with a Dreadlocks,” for example, and their “Black Pride” took a similarly bold social stance.

In the years since the roots and lovers period, British reggae has continued to spread and develop; the London-based Fashion Records label brought dancehall reggae to the island in the 1990s; the emergence of jungle and drum’n’bass in London’s 1990s underground dance clubs was a direct outgrowth of the country’s fertile reggae culture. Kingston-style open-air sound system dances continue to be popular in England’s Black population centers, and even as Jamaica itself seems to have left roots-and-culture reggae behind in favor of the harder dancehall and bashment styles, the music continues to thrive in the major cities of Jamaica’s former colonial ruler.

I'm in Love With a Dreadlocks: Brown Sugar and the Birth of Lovers Rock, 1977-80 cover

They never released an album, but the female vocal trio Brown Sugar (which included Caron Wheeler, who would go on to mainstream fame with Soul II Soul) were among the most important contributors to the development of the British lovers rock sound. Unlike most others in this genre, they blended the typical romantic lovers fare with more conscious messages — notably the title track of this collection, as well as the deceptively sweet and gentle-sounding “Black Pride.” This album is a compilation that brings together all of the singles from the trio’s all-too-brief career.

Amigo cover

Black Slate never had any major hits either in England or the US, but they served as the backing band for several major Jamaican artists when they toured the UK during the heyday of reggae’s popularity there, including Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson, and Ken Boothe. And the albums they made in the late 1970s and early 1980s make it clear why they were a first-call backing ensemble: listen to this, their debut album, and notice how solidly they play in a variety of roots-reggae styles. The writing is well above average, as well.

Mad Professor Recaptures Pato Banton cover

In the 1990s, Birmingham singjay Pato Banton rode high on the UK charts with covers of “Baby Come Back” and “Groovin’” — but earlier in his career he recorded more interesting (though less commercially successful) original material, notably with the producer Mad Professor. Their first collaborative effort was Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton, and this one revisits the recordings from that album but offers them in extended mixes that include dub versions of the original songs. Banton’s singing and chatty are both witty and engaging, and the Professor’s production style is as wild and crazy as always.

I-Surrection cover

When the topic of British roots reggae comes up, the London and Birmingham reggae scenes tend to get all the attention. Easy to overlook is the incredibly fertile and productive Bristol reggae community, which produced Talisman. The band only made one album in the 1980s, but re-formed in the 2000s and has put out several outstanding releases since then. I-Surrection is a gentle blast of refreshing old-school UK reggae, delivering classic messages of both uplift and lamentation in a heavyweight roots style — highlight tracks include “Greetings and Salutations” and the Nyabinghi-flavored “Praise Jah.”

Handsworth Revolution cover

In the 1970s, England’s reggae scene was second only to Kingston’s in its richness and depth. And at the very top of the heap of UK reggae bands was Steel Pulse, a Birmingham-based outfit with an unusual depth of musical and songwriting virtuosity. Frontman David Hinds had a jazzy delivery and a deep well of righteous anger, and he drew on all of those elements to produce sharp protest songs like the title track and the classic “Ku Klux Klan.” Handsworth Revolution was melodically rather dry compared to Steel Pulse’s later work, but it remains a classic of the UK roots genre.

Aswad cover

Before they became darlings of 1980s pop reggae (notably with the massive hit “Don’t Turn Around”), London-based Aswad were hardcore roots-and-culture reggae artists in the same general mode as their countrymen Steel Pulse and Matumbi. Their debut album is filled with repatriation anthems, songs of sufferation, and heavy one-drop rhythms — and while it may not be as hooky as their subsequent work, it remains one of the best examples of the 1970s UK roots style.

A New Chapter of Dub cover

This is the dubwise companion to Aswad’s third album, New Chapter. It features dubbed-up remixes of those songs produced by Michael “Reuben” Campbell (not to be confused with Michael George Campbell, the dub producer known as Mikey Dread). Campbell takes the original tracks and drops instruments in and out, adding spacey echo and reverb effects and letting shreds of vocal float through from time to time. Those who like the original album should definitely consider adding this one to the shelf alongside it.

The Bristol Reggae Explosion: Best of the 70's and 80's cover

If you’re a fan of British reggae, then you need to make sure you’re aware of the criminally overlooked Bristol scene, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. This outstanding compilation (the first of several in a series on the Bristol Archive label) brings together 17 tracks by artists that you’ve almost certainly never heard of, but will be glad to have encountered here — including Talisman (with an alternate mix of “Takin’ the Strain”), Zion Band (“Twelve Tribes”), and the magnificent Joshua Moses (a.k.a. Jashwah Moses).

Empire Road: The Best of Matumbi cover

Matumbi never made quite the international impact that other UK roots bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad did, but they were actually on the scene earlier than most of their competitors, and made a solid contribution to the scene’s development in the 1970s and early 1980s (and also served as the springboard for bassist/producer Dennis Bovell’s stellar solo career). This retrospective brings together some of their best work from that period, some of it in extended “showcase” mixes than append dub versions to the original vocal recordings.

Beyond the Realms of Dub cover

Neil Fraser, a.k.a. Mad Professor, is one of the most important figures in the British reggae scene. He’s also one of the few producers who has simultaneously forged successful careers as a producer of other artists’ work and as an original artist himself. He’s noted for being one of the architects of the lovers rock style, but also for his highly creative and experimental approach to dub, which is documented on dozens of albums — many in the Dub Me Crazy series, of which Beyond the Realms of Dub is the second volume. It finds him just starting out on the sonic adventures that would come throughout the following decades.

True Democracy cover

Steel Pulse came out of the gate with three albums of steadily-increasing depth and quality, and then they made their masterpiece. True Democracy finds the band striking the perfect balance of pop production (courtesy of Karl Pitterson) and dread messaging: singer David Hinds calls out promiscuous women, alcoholic men, the police, and Babylon generally, with a brief foray into meta-reggae (“Ravers”); percussionist Alphonso Martin makes a brief appearance on one of the album’s finest songs, the sweet lovers rock anthem “Your House.” True Democracy marked a high point for this prolific and highly influential band.

A Slice of English Toast cover

In the 1980s, UK roots reggae was really coming into its own. However, female artists were still being left largely on the sidelines. One who fought through the barriers was an outstanding young MC named Ranking Ann, who came to the Mad Professor’s Ariwa studio and delivered a solid set of tunes that hit all the standard topics: feminism, respect, romance, and the importance of being called by one’s proper name. Mad Professor provides his trademarked heavyweight, digitally crisp rhythms, and appends dub versions onto the ends of most tracks.

New Chapter cover

There are lots of great pop reggae bands, and lots of great roots reggae bands. But very few have succeeded at being simultaneously great as both. Aswad came up in London just as UK reggae was really coming into its own, and their blend of a slick and tight ensemble sound with songs that veered from romantic come-ons to deep spiritual exhortation brought them quick success. On New Chapter you hear their sound in its full flower for the first time, and songs like “African Children” and “I Will Keep on Loving You” constitute a template that would define their work for years to come.

Black​.​.​.​With Sugar cover

Carol Simms, known professionally as Kofi, came on to the London reggae scene while still in her teens, and while the lovers rock sound was in the ascendant. With her light, supple voice she was a natural for that style, and in 1989 she went into the Ariwa studio (where producer Mad Professor had been forging and perfecting the smooth and digital lovers rock sound) to make this fine collection of love songs — plus the conscious “Black Pride,” which leads off the program. Kofi’s debut is one of the finest examples of a very important subgenre of British reggae.

Tribute to the Martyrs cover

Steel Pulse’s sophomore effort found the band continuing its exploration of “truth and rights” themes and of musically ambitious song arrangements. This was also the album on which David Hinds’ winning way with a melodic hook started really coming to the fore: “Jah Pickney - R.A.R.” is a soaring hymn of defiance, while “Babylon Makes the Rules” is an irresistibly tuneful sufferer’s anthem. Brief interstitial musical transitions bring in a somewhat arty element to what is otherwise a gritty but deeply well-crafted album of UK roots reggae.

Country Life cover

One of the pillars of 1980s lovers rock (the British reggae subgenre characterized by smooth, romantic songs), Sandra Cross did some of her best work at the Ariwa studio with producer Mad Professor on the board. Country Life is perhaps the strongest album from this period of her career; accompanied by session players including the great Steelie & Clevie bass/keyboards duo, Cross croons her way through classic material like the title track, “Break Up to Make Up,” and “I Hope” — while Mad Professor provides gentle production during the vocal tracks and then extends them with his trademark wild dub mixes.

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