Reggae In The U.K.: A Steady Force : The Record As long as there has been reggae, there has been U.K. reggae. But the way the Jamaican sound has filtered into the British pop mainstream hasn't always favored the black musicians who created or imported the style.
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Reggae In The U.K.: A Steady Force

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Reggae In The U.K.: A Steady Force

Reggae In The U.K.: A Steady Force

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In music, credit isn't always given where credit is due. Artists borrow styles and sounds and make them their own. One panel at last week's South by Southwest Music Festival tackled that issue by exploring a range of British music - songs that all found their roots in a single source, Jamaican music. Baz Dreisinger traces that musical genealogy.

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: You could hear it on mainstream radio in 1978, courtesy of The Police.


DREISINGER: And you can hear it on British airwaves today, in the music of Birmingham-born MC Lady Leshurr.


DREISINGER: It's reggae's influence on British music, something lately known as bass culture. Producer and DJ Ras Kwame, who's worked on BBC Radio for over a decade, sums it up.

RAS KWAME: As long as there's been reggae, more or less, there's been reggae in the U.K., and that influence played a massive role.

DREISINGER: As massive a role as R&B and blues played in Britain a half century ago. Mykaell Riley sings lead for U.K. reggae band Steel Pulse.

MYKAELL RILEY: We look at the impact of it. We look at how it's changed production. We look at the story of the remix and remix culture. We look at rave culture and the relationship to sound systems. We look at current youth and what they use as a key reference when making popular music in the U.K. And we'll see that the resonance of the black community has a major contribution that has never been fully recognized.

DREISINGER: The contribution began in the 1950s when Jamaican immigration to the U.K. spiked. By the early '60s, British sound systems flourished and British ska music topped the Billboard charts.


DREISINGER: West Indian immigrants to America could be absorbed into existing African-American communities. But in Britain, where there was no real black community to speak of, Caribbean people found themselves isolated. Mykaell Riley says that reggae became a potent way of dealing with that alienation.

RILEY: Disenfranchised working class youth identified through this music, which was rebellious. It was anti-state, anti-government, it was very politically charged and it was very militant. So, the black youth were very motivated and socially aware at the time. And all of this came through reggae 'cause it was not present in the schools, it was not present on television, it was not present in the books, it was not present on radio.


DREISINGER: In the '70s, reggae exploded in the U.K. Bob Marley lived in London, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones recorded reggae songs, and a soulful British genre known as lover's rock was born. But when U.K. reggae bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad hit the scene, they struggled to be accepted by black audiences who deemed them less authentic than Jamaican-born acts. Instead, these new bands found an unlikely fan base: punks.

RILEY: We didn't care what they looked like as long as they identified with the music at the time. It meant that we had a chance to grow - we had support.

DREISINGER: But it was a strange kind of support.

RILEY: We'd be on the way to the gig and we'd see members of what I call our core audience - these punks - walking down the road with a bunch of skinheads, kind of fascists. We'd see them later and they'd go, yeah, mate, if you see us in that crowd, you know, don't acknowledge us. And basically what they were saying was, look, we like the music, and when we're on the street, we're on the street. So, there's a level of duality within our audience.

DREISINGER: Punks ended up taking reggae into the mainstream.


DREISINGER: The Clash famously recorded a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves."


DREISINGER: By the '80s, though, U.K. reggae suddenly had a white face. Labels opted to sign bands like The Police, Culture Club and Madness over black British bands. And just as in America, where R&B turned to rock and roll as its performers grew whiter, these blue-eyed reggae bands in the U.K., says Riley, were suddenly reclassified.

RILEY: One of the things that happens in the U.K. with what we might call independent or underground music is that the point at which it's recognized as crossing over or becoming commercial or it starts to enter the popular charts, is it's rebranded. And in that rebranding, there is generally a disconnect with the source or the origins. With regards to reggae, we find that the instance it's popular in the U.K., enters the charts, it's normally called pop.

DREISINGER: During the '90s, reggae influenced a younger generation of British artists coming out of the rave scene.


DREISINGER: Jungle music was essentially rave music with Jamaican dancehall-style vocals.


DREISINGER: The musical hybrids kept coming, all influenced, to one extent or another, by Jamaican-style bass: U.K. garage, drum and bass, dubstep. Now, there's a new mashup, dubbed electro-bashy.


DREISINGER: Producer Ras Kwame says the U.K. music scene generates innovative hybrids because it's less confined by genre than the U.S.

KWAME: Being a smaller place, we don't have this big 52-state view of what we're doing. Artists and musicians are just doing it in their neighborhood and we have means and systems of getting it out – i.e. the pirate station network of getting these new forms heard. And because we're coming from a culture where radio in the main has not been really receptive to black music or new forms of black music, we've had to find our own ways and our own means of doing things. And that's just led to the creativity being really at street level.

DREISINGER: That creativity is bass culture in a nutshell: creating new music from old-school roots. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.



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