Bass Culture: Reclaiming Black Britain

In the month of October we will be marking Black History Month by sharing a series of short essays written by four recent graduates of the History Department at the University of Manchester. These students were part of Kerry Pimblott’s third year seminar on the Black Freedom Movement and were tasked with putting their new historical skills to work by performing original research on the transnational links between movements for racial justice in the US and UK. We would like to extend our thanks to the many archivists and librarians who assisted the students in developing these important profiles in Black British History.

Our third blog post on Bass Culture is from Hannah Iqbal, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester History Department.

‘Bass Culture’ was first established as a term by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s album of the same name (1980) and has since come to mean much more. The term hopes to reclaim the impact of Jamaican musical culture on the socio-cultural makeup of a Britain. It is a grassroots culture, the voice of the Jamaican peasantry and a cultural lifeline for generations of young Black people in Britain.[1] Bass culture embraces the multifaceted scions of Jamaican music including “sound systems, ska, roots reggae, dub, pop reggae, jungle, drum and bass, trip-hop, garage, 2 step, grime, dubstep and a host of other genres and sub-genres.[2]  It cannot be limited to any individual style but is a continually evolving ethos that revives and redefines the creative influence of Black music in Britain.

Re-centring the Black British experience is a crucial in contemporary discourse. Histories of music and Black culture more broadly have been spearheaded by the African American experience, de-valuing and disregarding the unique development of Black identity and resistance in Britain. The popular image of Black culture emanating from a single place, the United States, erases and marginalises the diaspora consciousness. It implies that Black diaspora obediently follow an African American vanguard of cultural heritage. This is a double-edged sword that not only reduces the distinct character of the community but also reifies a parochial British history. The scarcity of literature on Black music in Britain has much to do with the way Black British people are perceived. Viewed as outsiders, as migrants, even after three generations reproduces an ‘island history’. The idea that the archipelago has always been self-contained. As such, Britain is a country of white people, and British popular music is made by white people. Bass culture is not only deprived of its influence but is reduced to a bastard tradition of minority interest made by people who do not belong.

Figure 1: Normski, Five men on the street of Notting Hill, ca. 1980s.

Racism and Resilience

“It gave us a sense of identity. It gave us the basis for an independent cultural identity. Which was important because you were living in a racially hostile environment.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson on the music of his teens[3]

Bass culture and particularly reggae emerged as a creative force in the 1970s. As the heavy basslines from Caribbean rung across the Atlantic they were received and broadcasted throughout the British Afro-Caribbean community. This informal infrastructure was built throughout the 1950s and 60s. Nascent sound systems, blues parties, underground clubs, shanty record shops and backstreet labels formed around the peoples that had travelled from the Caribbean in search of better prospects. The response was hostile as racism and coloniality permeated British society.  It was an “occupational hazard being a young black man, we were genie pigs of nonsense at the hands of racist police”.[4] Yet the beat of ska, rocksteady and reggae transcended structural racism.

The frequencies and changing styles of bass culture permeated both the urban and cultural landscapes of post-war cities, sound tracking the experience of everyday life for Black Britons. By the 1970s, reggae had entranced the nation, reflecting the political climate as the fractures of the post-war ‘consensus’ yielded to the doctrines of Thatcherism.

For many joining a sound system (a group of musicians, producers and DJs, creating and playing music) was often the only opportunity that offered a form of employment and escape. Sound-system culture in Britain triumphed, despite the dominance of funk, soul and disco on the radio. It was self-contained with its own pressing plants, distribution networks, touring circuit, and marketing devices. In the 70s, if you lived near any of the major cities, reggae became tantamount with the local Jamaican community and its sound systems.[5]

So, when the space between the band and the audience was crossed by jars of ale, flying bodies and racist abuse, we had to make a stand. Massively outnumbered, we were fortunate that the music, the performance and sometimes even wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods, always won through. We were subverting the culture. It was as though the venue provided a neutral space for cultural exchange.”

– Mykaell Riley of Steel Pluse[6]

Poetry in the People’s Language

Bass culture has a deeply political rhythm. Its innovative and distinctive basslines are intrinsically rooted in the linguistic traditions of the Caribbean. Dub poetry rose out of British bass culture, most prominently the captivating hybrid of Dennis Bovell’s dub rhythms and the Jamaican dialectic verse of Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ). LKJ’s poetry was intrinsically Jamaican long before roots DJs embraced the authentic Caribbean sound.[7]

Figure 3: ‘Brixton’s Poet’, Westindian Digest, 1985 (Courtesy of African Diaspora, 1860-Present)

Dialectic poetry was a means for Jamaicans to establish cultural identity under colonial rule. As Edward Brathwaite explains in relation to his poem, It’s not Enough to Be Free (1969),  “We were told and taught that our culture was nothing, we had created nothing, we had come from nowhere, we had just sprouted like love vine out of the plantation.”[8] These poems were read in pure syntax and slang conveying the sentiment of the working people.

No one embodies political lyricism more than LKJ. His work was raw, fuelled by ‘patois’ and an unadulterated base realism that resonated within and beyond the Black community. Born in Clarendon, Jamaica in August 1952, moving to Brixton in 1963, and joining the Black Panther Youth League in 1970, his story is symbolic of what it meant to be young, Black and British.

Bass culture and politics were symbiotic. It was within this milieu where LKJ fused activism, poetry and roots reggae. His first collection of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead (1975) cemented his reputation as ‘Poet’.[9] A collaboration with Bovell, paired his poems with dub to produce Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978), leading to the classic albums Forces of Victory (1979) and Bass Culture (1980) for Island Records memorialising him in popular culture.

“It’s a culture that lives underground and it comes up every so often and people get infected by it. Then it goes back down and before you know it there’s reggae in nearly every pop tune.”


– Dennis Bovell discusses the word ‘bass’[10]

Darcus Beese OBE, President of Island Records and son of prominent British Black Panther activists, Barbara Beese and Darcus Howe, explains why music was crucial to this movement and shares a collection of tracks that reflect this. LKJ is just one of the many prominent voices to feature on this playlist. This compilation as a whole demonstrates the political and cultural importance of British bass culture to the Black Power movement as a whole.

I was lucky to grow up in a home where the politics of the Black struggle was discussed morning noon and night and as a result I am very politically aware. At Island Records we have always sought out artists who share that commitment to truth in art, to an understanding of the struggle, not just in the political sense, but in our everyday lives. I believe music and politics can combine to become a powerful force for change and for good. Like my dad always said ‘I’m not a member of Renegades, I am a Renegade‘.”[11]

Island Records is a Jamaican-British label. Founded in Kingston 1959 and relocated to London in 1962 after the unprecedented success of local sound systems. Its six-decade long success has immortalised bass culture and Black music in popular culture.

Sonic Spaces

Bass culture not only communicates a message but cultivates a physical space and presence for the Afro-Caribbean community Britain. The arrival of the Jamaican sound system was a crucial to the socio-cultural fabric of Black Britain. Sound systems were synergetic with ska, rocksteady and eventually rap. Innovations combined of three tower speakers and hi-frequency amplification to project sound inwards onto the audience, created a microcosm in which the revellers are immersed.[12] Sound is thus distinct from music, it imbibes and configures the embodiment the listeners. Sound systems create an ‘acoustic space’, a multi-sensory and non-homogeneous environment.[13] Here, Henrique’s understanding of ‘sounding’ is particularly useful. It is a kinetic activity that creates a reciprocal relationship between sociocultural forces. It mixes and circulates diasporic energies, while also creating and claiming space through the activities carried out by and through and for the making of sound.[14]

This sonic space is emblematic of much more. Vanley Burke’s portrayals of Handsworth musical culture demonstrate a space of cultural continuity connecting Birmingham to Kingston and helped to galvanize political consciousness.[15] Music created spaces of peaceful protest frequently involved in an informal network of antiracist campaigns, such as Rock Against Racism.[16]

Burke’s photograph of the Siffa Soundsystem, playing the Carnival at Handsworth Park, 1983, conveys a synthesis of innovation and skill. It demonstrates the teamwork of the selector, DJ and MC or toaster, seen in the foreground, with a wheelman, engineer and casually hired box boys, likely in the background, in charge of transporting and rigging the various amplifies and speakers.[17] The snapshot encapsulates the mobility of sound systems that generated space everywhere they went. The plainly Rastafarian appearance and the plain disaffection with conventional labour emphasizes their counterculture. Their vocation intervenes in lived space, spawning provisional zones of immanent hierophany and sounding. Sound systems served as deliverers of bass culture. Further, the actual mobility of the rig was itself vital. Recent oral histories reveal that the more situated Black raves were frequent victims of police raids, and throughout the 1970s, mass political gatherings by Black Britons were essentially banned by the Sus laws. [18] Sound systems like Siffa were instead able to cultivate itinerant counter public spaces where the political narrative of bass culture embodied defiance and resilience.

“Babylon is falling
It was foolish to build It on the sand
Handsworth shall stand, firm, like Jah rock
Fighting back
We once beggars are now choosers
No, no intention to be losers
Striving forward with ambition
And if it takes ammunition

We rebel in Handsworth revolution
Handsworth revolution”

Steel Pulse, Handsworth Revolution, Island Records, 1978

Handsworth Park, Birmingham was a center of Black counterculture. A space of reprieve and autonomy for residents from nearby neighborhoods. This included Burke, who shot there repeatedly. These informal spaces were of vital importance to immigrants in urban Britain. According to Eddie Chambers, neighborhoods such as Handsworth attained a “frontline” status, comprising of direct action, youth unemployment leading to public visibility, provoking police harassment, effecting “Black resistance and fortitude.” [19]  Such action was complemented by bass culture and its sartorial signals and chiliastic attitude demonstrated a disruptive yet productive force. Indeed, Handsworth was already memorialized by Steel Pulse’s 1978 Handsworth Revolution. It was also the site of several race riots across from the 1980s (1981, 1985, 1991) to most recently in 2005.

Legacy

From this article, the multiple meanings of ‘bass’ come through. Not only are the Caribbean basslines and beats significant carriers of culture and identity, but it also represents a ‘base’ groundswell political movement that electrified the British population and Black consciousness globally. Yet, historiography and the music industry remain insensitive to the roots of British popular culture.  The hegemonic narrative acknowledges Britain’s role as integral to the global successes of reggae, ska and more modern genres, like jungle and grime, but views their legacy and heritage as located ‘elsewhere’. What is frequently overlooked is the extent to which this perception has obstructed the legacy of Jamaican music and musicians in Britain. The full truth of these unsung heroes is still to be told.

See the accompanying playlist for this article at: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4sY4nlzcNszlRpsASfMjoU?si=f274d6c0c590434a

[1] BBC, ‘Reggae, Roots, Rebellion’ (2014), Dir. Akala.

[2] Mykaell Riley, ‘Bass Culture: An Alternative Soundtrack to Britishness’, in Stratton, Jon, and Nabeel Zuberi., Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 101-114.

[3] Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Linton Kwesi Johnson, on the music of his teens’. July 30 2018, (University of Westminster– Black Music Research Unit – Sounds).

[4] BBC, ‘Reggae, Roots, Rebellion’ (2014), Dir. Akala.

[5] Riley, Bass Culture.

[6] Riley, Bass Culture.

[7] Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001), p. 436.

[8] ICA, ‘Poet as Historical Witness, Brathwaite and Johnson read from and discuss their work’, 6 December 1981. British Library – ICA Talks – C95/2. Accessed at https://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/ICA-talks/024M-C0095X0002XX-0100V0#embedThisPlayer on 8 March 2021.

[9] Kenneth Campbell, ‘Profile: Brixton’s Poet’,Westindian Digest (London, England, 1985), pp. 12-17. Alexander Street Press – African Diaspora, 1860-Present – No. 118.

[10] Interview with Dennis Bovell, ‘Dennis Bovell on Reggae: I think they’re afraid of loving it’, July 30 2018, (University of Westminster– Black Music Research Unit – Sounds).

[11] Tate, ‘Music of Black Power’, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/music-black-power [Accessed on 8 March 2021].

[12] Joseph Heathcott, ‘Urban Spaces and Working-Class Expressions across the Black Atlantic: Tracing the Routes of Ska’, Radical History Review 87 (2003) (87),183–206.

[13] Henriques, Julian and Beatrice Ferrara, ‘The Sounding of the Notting Hill Carnival: Music as Space, Place and Territory’ in Stratton, Jon, and Nabeel Zuberi., Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 131-152.

[14] Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (London: Continuum, 2011).

[15] Eddie Chambers, Roots and Culture, (London: IB Tauris, 2016), pp. xii-xix.

[16] Mark Sealy, Rock Against Racism: Syd Shelton, (London: Autograph ABP, 2016).

[17] Henriques, Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing; Ian Bourland, ‘Handsworth Song: Working People and Black Radical Photography’, Radical History Review 132 (2018), 181–186.

[18] Lydia Amoabeng, ‘Interview with Darcus Howe’, In Lizzy King, ed., The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An Oral History and Photography Project, (London: Photofusion Educational Trust, 2013), pp. 91–107.

[19] Chambers, Roots and Culture, pp. 94–95.

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