Grime? UK Garage? Dubstep? It’s Just Calypso With A Different Wardrobe

Lloyd Bradley, the author of ‘Sounds Like London: 100 Years Of Black Music In The Capital’, traces the city’s musical history:

It’s difficult to believe that calypsonian Lord Kitchener could have too much in common with artists like Dizzee Rascal or Skepta. The sharp suited Kitch, well known for delivering the eloquent and breezily optimistic ‘London Is The Place For Me’ as he stepped off the gangplank of Windrush in 1948, seems light years removed from, say, Wiley, trousers hanging off his backside as he spits lyrics about how grim life can be in the capital. Yet, sartorial considerations aside, there’s not much that separates these 21st Century vocalists and the smiling calypsonians who, some sixtyodd years ago were the foundation of the capital’s indigenous black music industry.

Reality lyrics were the stock in trade of Caribbean calypsonians and that didn’t change when they came to London, and there were any amount of recordings telling it like it was for young black men in the capital. While nobody is going to pretend this is ‘Nightbus Dubplate’ or ‘Brand New Day’, records like ‘If You’re Brown’, ‘Curfew Time’, ‘If You’re Not Black You’re White’, ‘Teddy Boy Calypso’ and ‘Black Power’, in the 1950s, were beyond radical. They spoke directly to their primary audience, made their point with as few frills as possible – “If you’re white well everything’s all right/If your skin is dark, no use, you try/You got to suffer until you die …”

Neither did today’s twelve-inch lotharios (fnaar, fnaar) invent vinyl tales of sexual misadventure, OK, so it was always closer to Benny Hill than Cypress Hill, but the slew of London-recorded tunes like ‘Tick Tick’, ‘My Wife’s Nightie’ and ‘The Big Instrument’ were awarded what must be the first manifestation of Parental Advisory labelling – in 1956 the BBC was moved to put stickers stating “Don’t play this record” on a selection of calypsos it had in the library. To give you some idea of how high the British establishment set its Bar of Offensiveness, one of the tunes effectively banned was Kitch’s Saxophone No2, a masterclass in double entendre: “From the time the woman wake/She wouldn’t leave me sax for heaven’s sake/She say she like to play the tune/That remind her of the honeymoon …” Not exactly ’96 Fuckries’, is it?

Even governmental safeguarding of British youth from a tide of lyrical filth, as so concerned the Davids Blunkett and Cameron, has been done before. Two years before the stickers, Marie Bryant’s calypso hit ‘Don’t Touch Me Nylon’ – a song about statically-charged underwear – prompted questions in the House. Brixton’s Labour MP, a Lt Colonel Marcus Lipton, was so enraged that he stood up and spluttered about “gramophone records of an indecent character’, saying that it couldn’t possibly be ‘in the public interest that the wretched things should continue to be publicly sold.” The record company reacted by putting a picture of a famous stripper on the cover of her forthcoming album. The irony here is singers came to the UK for greater creative freedom. In the late-1940s, when Trinidad was a British colony, all recorded calypso had to be officially sanctioned and anything with anti-establishment or overly-sexual content – ie most of it – was banned from release.

These outspoken London-recorded calypsos were the result of a genre being able to develop its approach away from mainstream interference, by concentrating on its own primary marketplace. It could then let the mainstream discover it as fullyformed and with such a swaggering self-confidence it swept away all before it. Again, just like dubstep and grime. But while they honed their style in self-promoted sound system raves and on pirate radio, calypso got it right in the dozens black owned clubs, pubs and ballrooms that were thriving underground aspect of London of the 1940s ad 1950s: the Nest, the Paramount, the Florence Mills Social Club (owned by Marcus Garvey’s ex-wife Amy).

This is the real common thread of London’s black music and what properly joins the bookends of Kitch and Kano: when it’s left alone to nurture itself, away from mainstream interference and corporate fear of failure, it blossoms into some of the greatest music every produced, anywhere in the world. Osibisa’s afro funk; lover’s rock reggae; Soul II Soul; jazz/funk; The Equals; jungle; Sade; dub poetry; Caribbean-style swing; Brotherhood of Breath; Cymande’s rasta jazz … All these quirky styles that, like grime and calypso, seem completely removed from one another, but in fact all join up to provide a unique soundtrack to a city.

Listen – Lloyd’s ‘Sounds Like London’ playlist:

Pick up this week’s NME for a review of ‘Sounds Like London: 100 Years Of Black Music In The Capital’.