It is by turns playful, celebratory and rebellious. But how did Reggae arrive in the UK? A new film tells the storyby Colin Grant / November 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
A decade ago, I sat opposite the BBC World Service commissioning editor pitching another documentary on Jamaican music. I’d made a previous programme two years earlier. The commissioner was aghast. “Surely not,” he said, ushering me to a wall covered in a world map. He pointed to Jamaica, saying “look how tiny that island is. Another documentary? What about the rest of the world?” I pointed to the British Isles and said something similar. “Yes,” said the commissioner, “But Britain had an empire and an extraordinary history.” I argued that he was only reinforcing my point; considering its size, Jamaica’s impact and achievements were astonishing. “Jamaicans,” I reminded him, “were cultural conquistadors; reggae music had been their tool of conquest.”
The history of reggae has been documented many times before; but the makers of the latest iteration, a dramatised documentary film Rudeboy, have fastened on a relatively under-reported aspect: the rise and fall of an independent British record label, Trojan Records, (sometimes called the motown of reggae) which was founded by Lee Gopthal, a Jamaican émigré in London 50 years ago.
The title of the film, which is directed by Nick Davies, refers to the small-time ghetto gangsters of 1960s Jamaica, whose devotion to style offset the poverty of their circumstances and whose rise coincided with that of ska, the precursor to reggae. Rude boys, as spelt out in the lyrics of Derrick Morgan, were “rougher than rough; tougher than tough.”
In Jamaica, Ska quickly became associated with these dangerous youths. In the new film, Morgan recalls how his hit track was commissioned by Buzzbee, a notorious rude boy whose quality of menace was unmatched in west Kingston’s ghettoes, at least until he was killed the day after the song’s release.
The music—by turns playful, celebratory and rebellious—once transplanted to the UK, and sold by Trojan’s fledgling producers from the backs of vans, had an almost overnight appeal for Britain’s record-buying adolescents.
Early on Ska served as a bridge between the indigenous population, especially skinheads (arguably not the fascist but the fashion-kind) and West Indian immigrants. The reggae-inflected film, The Harder They Come, in which Jimmy Cliff played the two-gun gangster and ripped-off musical star, is widely credited with popularising Jamaican music in Britain and elsewhere.
Many of the musicians from that film—Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and others—had already…