They attached themselves to the big established sound systems of the time - but they'd also moved on from the Rasta-influenced roots reggae of their elders. Their lyrics were sharper, still socially conscious, more directly relevant to life on the streets and in the estates of inner-city London. These lyricists were often witty, often challenging, and nearly always in competition with rival sound-systems.
A handful of these homegrown proto-rappers broke through to become mainstream pop stars. Among them were Lewisham's Maxi Priest, Papa Levi and Tippa Irie from Brixton – and Smiley Culture and his constant friend, co-conspirator, and sparring partner Asher Senator, both from the Stockwell-Clapham area.
One of the top lyricists of that era's musical innovation, Asher Senator was recently at the Clapham Library to talk (and rap) about his new book, which tells the story of his enduring friendship and musical partnership with Smiley.
The book, Smiley and Me, tells Asher's version of the fascinating, exciting, hilarious and finally tragic story of the Stockwell school kid, David Emmanuel, who became Smiley Culture, tasted international fame and stardom with his two hit records, Cockney Translation and Police Officer, but then ran out of luck in a big and painful way. It's a handsome, nearly 400-page, well illustrated book published by Vitow (Voice in the Open Wilderness) Media - which is, aptly, also based on the Clapham-Stockwell borders.
I say "talk" - this was Asher Senator, the man famous for fast chatting in a continuous rhyming style. As you might expect, he'd brought a big 2016 version of a ghetto blaster with him, and told at least half the story on his mic, in exactly the style of those early-80s tracks he and Smiley used to light up London's dancehall nights with.
The book is truly thrilling memoir, the pace is quick and the stories come thick and fast. It's written from the point of view of a gifted lyricist and performer who was a sort of Boswell to Smiley's Dr Johnson, or maybe Dr Watson to some skanking Sherlock. Asher, although a star MC in his own right, was always slightly in the shadows cast by his more fame-and-fortune-seeking friend.
As the blurb says, it pulls no punches, describing in some fairly grisly detail the downward spiral that seemed to set in after Smiley got mixed up with some heavy-duty gangsters - initially, it seemed, to frighten off local rivals who resented his success. But that decline went on right up to Smiley's mysterious death in March 2011, during a police investigation at his final home - a house in Warlingham, which is a semi-rural village on the far southern edge of south London. A single stab wound to the heart, which a jury later decided was self-inflicted: what a sad, hideous end for such a talented man.
But this night, Asher concentrated more on the upward years, giving great readings from some of the earlier chapters of his book. There's a lot of poetry in his writing. The chapter on their first sound system, Buchanan, based at "Lansdowne in Stockwell, Just behind the station" - begins with a eulogy for "Miss Coarsey".
No, she was not some inspirational school teacher. "Miss Coarsey" was the name they gave to their battered old van, which was an essential bit of equipment for any London sound system at the time, used to transport the huge speaker cabinets and amps around the clubs and party venues, along with the crew of DJs, MCs, rappers, techies and hangers-on. Despite needing push starting, Miss Coarsey did not let them down until a vengeful ex-girlfriend set her on fire.
Get a taste of Asher and Smiley on Buchanon here, dating right back to the beginning of their musical careers.
These passages, this music, reminds me strongly of Franco Rosso's 1980 film, Babylon, covering much of the same territory, just a little earlier. Only 35 years ago, yet it seems like a different century....well of course it was a different century, a different millennium, a totally different world.
|Smiley Culture's 'Police Officer', the top-selling 12inch 45rpm single of that|
year, released on Battersea-based Fashion Records. Looks like
the cover was shot outside Brixton(?) police station, 1984
The early chapters paint a vivid picture of South London street life in those bleak late 70s winters, through to the 1981 and 85 Brixton riots and beyond.
It's a strange read for anyone like me who lived in the same area at the same time, actually a few streets away from some of their favoured locales.
How often I lay awake a night, hearing the police sirens and helicopters, and wondering what the youth were up to now. As a sort of low-rent yuppie, weaned on a lot of jazz and blues, a little punk and then tons of roots reggae, I was deeply attracted to that scene, even though I might as well have been a million miles away.
The nearest I got was a few nervy trips down Coldharbour Lane, a few evenings in the Atlantic pub, where with a few other white-boy thrill-seekers and dub-addicts, I payed my local taxes and got to see the young Courtney Pine coming on like a reborn Coltrane.
Meanwhile Asher and Smiley were signed up to Fashion Records, which operated out of the same building (and had the same management) as Dub Vendor, the legendary record shop at the Clapham Junction end of Lavender Hill. As this blog noted previously, Dub Vendor eventually went out of business after it was affected by the fire started during the riots of August 2011.
|There is Smiley, and there are the lyrics to Police Officer, helpfully|
printed on the back of the cover of the 1984 Fashion Records 12in
single - which became Smiley's biggest -selling hit.
One story I can't resist mentioning happens while they're on tour in Jamaica, taking their London coals back to Kingston's reggae Newcastle.
First night in a hotel, they get a visitor who offers to show them round the sights and nightspots. It's none other than the best of all the new wave of Kingston based dancehall reggae singers and MCs, Barrington Levy - the guy whose carnival anthem, Under Mi Sensi, is a Kingston-style cousin of Police Officer, what with its chat and its dialogue. But which track came first?
Barrington, however, never get the kudos that Smiley has received in the UK for more or less defining a new London dialect. Teachers and academics and top children's writers have all quoted the lyrics of Cockney Translation as being the record which took this form of speech out of the ghetto and into youth culture nationwide. Children's author, poet and teacher Michael Rosen even included Cockney Translation as one of his eight most precious bits of music for the BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs programme.
There's immortality for you!
Asher, always the more level headed one, despite having plenty of his own troubles, was the survivor. He's gone on to launch a charity, Code 7 which helps kids in the estates get into the same sort of music business he and Smiley excelled at. Better to clash with sounds than with guns and knives.
On the night he was a total charmer, and gave his all to the performance of many lyrics, even though it was a ridiculously small but very responsive audience. Also at the event was his publisher, Rickardo Quintyne-Wright of Vitow Media, who is also involved in film production. Read this book and you will soon be thinking, when are they going to make a big-budget movie of this? It has all the elements and more. Let's hope it happens.
Details and where to buy your copy:
Smiley and Me, author Asher Senator, edied by John Masouri, illustrated by Peter King, published by Voice in the Open Wilderness (ViTow) Publishing; 1st edition (15 Dec. 2015). 0993511007