Nothing had such a profound and lasting impact on the last 50 years of British music as the half a million people who emigrated from the Caribbean in the years after the Second World War.
The Windrush generation brought with them the sound systems, DJs and pulsing bass bins that have been fundamental to at least three generations of British youth culture – from skinheads and punks to ravers, junglists and beyond. To mark the fourth Windrush Day, we asked Lloyd Bradley, author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, to pick eight tracks that could only have been made in the musical melting pot he calls home.
Rock Fort RockThe Skatalites
This is music that could only have happened in London, simply because London – from about 100 years ago – became a crucible of different Black music from the Commonwealth. [It was about] arriving here, taking little bits from each other and creating something that was uniquely British – well, uniquely London – actually.
Roots reggae came over here from Jamaica – it was imported. Rico Rodriguez moved here in the early 60s. This was an old Skatalites song that Rico probably played on with the Skatalites before he left Jamaica, and it was redone in a London studio using a lot of London-based session players. It’s more of a roots reggae than a ska sound, but it’s got a bounciness that the London roots players wanted at the time. That would have been recorded [for] a London audience rather than a Jamaican audience. It wasn’t pop music, it went into universities – and it had a huge white rock audience that was kind of post-Bob Marley and that sort of stuff. Rico also worked with Jools Holland and he worked with some of the Two Tone acts, so he would have been well aware of that – it had more of a rock feel to it.
Like Rico, Sade was essentially a jazz musician. This was the mid-80s and people had just discovered cocktails in Covent Garden. It was all about being smooth and cool. People would go out wearing suits. Sade was the ideal soundtrack for that.
There was always a fierce debate about whether this was Black music or music made by a Black woman, but it was a really good example of smooth jazz. It was absolutely perfect for the time – the way she looked, the way she sounded, everything, and it brought another aspect to London Black music. This wouldn’t have been made anywhere else. The real trouble was that after the first album, nobody knew what to do with Sade. I think it was largely down to the fact that major record companies at the time didn’t have a clue what to do with British Black music. If it wasn’t American or Jamaican, then what was it? It was like, “Well, this isn’t authentic.” They didn’t know what to do with British Black artists and clearly didn’t trust them enough to let them get on with it by themselves. Sade fell into that. Because she’d had such a huge hit she was viewed as a pop artist, but she really needed to move more into the jazz world.
Hopelessly in LoveCarol Thompson
Jamaican reggae in the 70s and into the 80s was getting rootsier and rootsier, and for a lot of Black kids in London this was meaningless. They weren’t Jamaican. Sitting in a gully bank in Kingston was meaningless to someone who’s living in Hornsey, it didn’t make any sense. And young kids essentially wanted pop music. There was a real desire for pop music that reflected them, and lovers rock reggae brought in bits of Motown, Philly soul, pop – because we all listened to everything. Everybody watched Top of the Pops and all this stuff was on there.
So lovers rock was as soulful as it was reggae-fied; smooth, tuneful pop music. It was all about love, and that’s what teenagers did – you went out on Saturday night hoping to get laid. It was probably the first Black pop music that had been produced in Britain and it was massive. Records sold tens, hundreds of thousands, but they rarely made the charts because they didn’t sell in chart return shops. They sold in independent record shops, hairdressers, travel agents. Lovers rock sound system dances were all over London at that time; it was a genuine underground scene.
It was so popular in London that naturally it went back to Jamaica, and Jamaicans loved the sound. So this music would go back [to Jamaica], but because Jamaicans fiercely guarded their music, it would almost be scoffed at because it had been recorded in London. Dennis Bovell, who co-founded the Lovers Rock label and was one of its architects, told me that he would meet artists off the plane from Jamaica in the morning and take them to his studio, where the band was ready. They’d record about 12 songs, he’d give them the tapes and the next day he’d take them to the airport. They’d never tell anybody that these tracks were recorded in London. It was quite a little cottage industry.
Jazzie’s GrooveSoul II Soul
Soul II Soul were the bridge between the underground and the overground. They came from the same world as lovers rock and Rico’s roots reggae – they came from the sound system world, where they were used to adapting things to suit the audience, making their own music and selling it themselves. It’s a direct result of what the audience wants, not what a major record label thinks an audience wants.
Jazzie understood that perfectly, having a sound system background, and he worked in a studio as a recording engineer so he understood how to record as well. He knew that the records he was recording were brilliant on his sound system, and his sound system dances encouraged all of London to come – so it wasn’t a Black thing or a white thing, this was a London thing. His audiences were pretty much 50/50. He knew that crowd was there. Funnily enough it was the style press – The Face, i-D and stuff like that – that picked up on Soul II Soul first, because they were actually out in the clubs rather than sitting about like the NME writers. I know this because I was one!
So they understood and they started giving Jazzie a boost. Suddenly he’s got A&R men from major labels queuing up at his clubs to hear the sound he’s created: which was bits of reggae, hip-hop and soul. Being quite a shrewd businessman, he had the merchandise operation going before he ever made a record. People were wearing Soul II Soul t-shirts all over the place before you could buy Soul II Soul music. It’s because of Jazzie’s influence that you ended up with jungle, dubstep, grime and whatnot. Because the underground is now the mainstream, it’s gone overground. The junglists and the grime kids looked at Jazzie and thought, if he can do it, so can we – and we’re going to do it our way rather than going to a record company. He created a template for the Labrinths, the Jammers, the Tinie Tempahs.
Pete’s CrusadeLight of the World
Jazz-funk was big, but never as big as it should have been. Light of the World were a spiky amalgamation of eight or nine kids who were very good at playing brass instruments because they learned them in the Boys Brigade and these quasi marching divisions that kids used to get sent to back in the 60s to play brass instruments.
Their first album, which they essentially put together themselves, was raw and exciting. There’s bits of reggae in there, bits of calypso and bits of highlife because the kids in the band were from the Commonwealth countries. It was never going to be one thing or the other, but they liked Earth Wind & Fire and Kool & The Gang, and that’s what they had in their heads. As soon as the record companies got hold of it they sent Light of the World to Los Angeles and gave them a vocalist, and they were produced by Augie Johnson, who’s a sort of MOR-ish soul producer. They came back with an album that just wasn’t very exciting. They’d lost their impetus. High Tension, another band from that [scene], had two top 10 hits with tunes that one of the band’s uncles had produced. The success of that got them an album deal and they were put in with a producer who was essentially a pop producer. But where the singles had sold half a million each, the album sold 25,000. It happened a lot in this wave of really great bands that came out in the late 70s, early 80s.
The 37th ChamberCourtney Pine
The 37th Chamber was part of that whole kung fu mysticism that was sloshing around at that time. The Wu Tang Clan were the best at that, and I think it was Courtney’s way of acknowledging the wider world. British jazz gets a bad rep – it’s always been talked down, it’s seen as sub-American. But Courtney Pine was great, in as much as he took on all sorts of the world around him and interpreted it in a jazz fashion – hence the nod to the Wu Tang Clan. Courtney was in the backing band for this London reggae duo Eastwood and Saint, who recorded for Greensleeves in the early 80s. It was part of being a Black session player in London; you got involved in all sorts of things, and Courtney’s jazz always brought that out.
This is a great example of London jazz being adventurous and being of its environment. If there had been more of that then London jazz might have moved forward. I mean, now it’s great. I listen to stuff like Steamdown, which is a brilliant example of what jazz can be in London – it’s exciting, young, spiky. Until Covid there was a pretty good live scene brewing up, and what I love about it is that it’s a pretty small scene. There are these 200-capacity venues where groups can make a reasonable living, and develop, finding out what the audience wants. Which is pretty much how the sound systems worked – finding out what the audience actually want.
EarthquakeLabrinth (ft. Tinie Tempah, Kano, Wretch 32, Busta Rhymes)
I always liked Labrinth because he was rooted in what was happening at the time, but because the bloke was such a musician, it always had a little bit more to it musically. Again, after Soul II Soul and as we went into jungle and grime, the record companies admitted that they were behind the curve and they had to let these guys do what they wanted. Now with guys like Stormzy and Skepta, record companies are more or less just distributors. Labrinth was quite important in this crossover. He was the first non-talent show act that Simon Cowell had signed to Syco [for six years], the first that didn’t come out of X-Factor. When you look at the charts from that time, around 2012, the pop charts were basically either X-Factor or grime. It was incredible. No wonder they stopped doing charts [on TV], they lost control over them.
Jungle is I and ICongo Natty
The last one is Congo Natty because I wanted to make a circle from Rico round to another roots thing. Jungle was massive but you won’t find it written about in Q Magazine, or wherever, because it was anarchic, you know? Those big raves over at Pickett’s Lock [in Edmonton], it was a bit mad, it was out of control. Nobody in the mainstream really had a grip on it. I thought it was great. It was like this London equivalent of dancehall reggae.
I’ve put Congo Natty as the jungle representative because he had a career before that – he was on Top of the Pops as the Rebel MC and Double Trouble, doing bouncy London pop-rap. He had a sort of revelation, I think. One of his friends got killed and he sort of rethought his whole life. He moved to Ethiopia for a while and then reinvented himself as a junglist and was really good at it. He’s a good example of how fluid the London Black music scene is: it shifts, it moves. There’s no reason why you need to be stuck in a rut, or a groove.