People in the streets protesting racism. A feeling that black lives are regarded as worthless. A lack of prospects and deep division.
While this scene describes the United States in the summer of 2020, it was also England 40 years earlier, emerging from the 70s in a fractured, fretful state. Young people marched across London, taking a stand against fascism. Unemployment was soaring. The annual celebration of Caribbean culture that was the Notting Hill Carnival collapsed into rioting in 1976. The following year a right wing rally was met with 4,000 counter-demonstrators at the Battle Of Lewisham, and two years later, an anti-Nazi riot erupted in the London suburb of Southall.
While punk rock attempted to capture the sense of chaos and disenfranchisement, another artist, one who was walking an uncharted route in music, was arguably far better at expressing it. That artist was Linton Kwesi Johnson. Bass Culture, his third album, released in 1980, not only seized the moment; it laid down a marker that still resonates.
Linton Kwesi Johnson didn’t sing. He didn’t DJ, the pioneering Jamaican rapping style that was a precursor to hip-hop. On record, Johnson simply spoke his verses over a deep, heavy rhythmic backing, a style that became known as dub poetry.
While Johnson was keenly aware of the role of the spoken word in reggae, his art was a little different. Most of the Jamaican talking artists (AKA toasters, MCs, or DJs), spat lyrics in a permanent freestyle honed by years of working as masters of ceremonies on reggae sound systems. They focused primarily on entertaining, although some had a remarkable lyrical facility, including I Roy, a major 70s reggae star who gets a mention on Bass Culture. Two celebrated poets of Jamaica – Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka – were active around the same time, but despite the latter’s stanzas being occasionally adapted by reggae vocalists, they didn’t make it to vinyl until after LKJ’s 1977 debut. The term dub poetry, attached to all who worked in this style, is attributed to Johnson.
LKJ’s words often seemed provocative to outsiders, covering topics alien to the mainstream media. His first album, 1978’s Dread Beat & Blood (as Poet & The Roots) spoke of fighting the police’s Riot Squad. Another track explained that racism went to the top of British society. “Independent Intavenshan,” from his second album, Forces Of Victory insisted that Britain’s political establishment, however well-meaning, could not presume to speak for black people. Even LKJ’s spelling was radical: the Jamaican-born Londoner had no interest in conforming to the oppressor’s norms.
Bass Culture, LKJ’s third album, featured an iron-clad set of rhythm tracks delivered, as always, by a sizzling session group from the UK underground, corralled by Johnson’s production and the heavyweight mixing and arranging skills of Dennis Bovell. On “Reggae Sounds,” Johnson examined the music as a confirmation of identity, and saw it as a signpost towards an inevitable uprising, a cultural expression of people fighting to be free.
“Two Sides Of Silence” found LKJ within a wired free jazz mindscape, explaining why a quiet soul and peace were unattainable in the face of injustice. “Street 66” told of a raid on a house party where revelers were ready to meet violence with violence. This was no fantasy: reggae dances were frequently broken up by police, batons drawn. After one such invasion, Dennis Bovell suffered a spell in jail on charges later dismissed on appeal.
By way of light relief, though delivered without a smirk, “Loraine” offered a tale of unrequited love with the smitten narrator torn to shreds by a girl’s sarcastic tongue. “Inglan Is A Bitch” casts Johnson as a 55-year-old who came to Britain to work but never felt accepted or secure. “Di Black Petty Booshwah” slammed a “rich and switch” mentality, and “Reggae Fi Peach” noted the creeping fascism Jonson saw embodied in the death of New Zealander Blair Peach, killed by the police at the Southall uprising.
LKJ In Dub
The rhythms of the album, deep and deadly, further came into their own on LKJ In Dub, a mesmerizing instrumental remix album of tracks from Bass Culture and Forces Of Victory. The militant march of “Victorious Dub”; the dreamy drift of “Reality Dub” with its ringing, detuned guitar and percussion vanishing into space; the clarion call horns of “Peach Dub”; the mournful harmonica of “Iron Bar Dub” with its haunting snippet of LKJ’s voice… Dennis Bovell’s mixing is infinitely subtle yet drops like thunder. It is the original British dub sound distilled.
Upon its release, the title Bass Culture became something of a catchphrase to express reggae’s spirit and soul. Lloyd Bradley borrowed it for his exploration of the reggae experience in the book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King; it also became the name for an academic project at the University Of London, and donated its name to tracks in several genres, and a record label.
It’s clear that decades on, Bass Culture still throbs, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s words still resonate. A landmark pair which have had a huge influence but are still overlooked by the mainstream, Bass Culture and LKJ In Dub remain relevant and moving. The battle for freedom and justice goes on, and this music stands with it, pure and true.