This weekend, Jamaicans across the world will celebrate 50 years of independence.
Jamaica finally shrugged off the heavy hand of British rule in 1962, but our culture still owes a considerable debt to the population of that Caribbean Island. Decades of migration have meant that Britain is tinged, fundamentally and beautifully, with Jamaican patois, style, and, above all, music. To mark five decades of Jamaican self-determination, and to honour the country’s contribution to the sound of contemporary Britain, BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music are hosting a weekend of Jamaican-themed programming. Fresh from his Olympic Opening Ceremony commentary duties, i-D online caught up with Trevor Nelson to find out more about the Jamaican strands in Britain’s musical DNA.
Radio 1 and 1Xtra rarely cover intrinsically political events in this way. What is it about Jamaican independence that makes it so important for British music? Outside of America, if you’re a black music fan, Jamaica is probably the second place that we’ve been most influenced by musically. Obviously Bob Marley has been number one, but it’s a chance to go into the archives and play a lot of songs and musicians that have influenced today. 1Xtra is ten years old, and there’s a very strong dancehall association. We’ve always pushed and promoted dancehall music; we’re one of the few stations that playlist dancehall music. I think it’s a natural thing.
Bob Marley and reggae are obviously the first things that come to mind when most people think about Jamaican music. What else is there that’s had a particularly acute impact on British music? Bob Marley started off with ska. We all know about the impact that ska had; there was a whole ska revival over here in the ‘80s, with bands like The Specials. And I think the soundsystem thing is so important. I started DJing on a soundsystem in Hackney. Pirate radio was born of soundsystems, and that’s all Jamaica. Black music in this country, urban music in this country, most of its influences in terms of fashion and style, and even speech, have been American and Jamaican. They’re the dominant cultures, and there are still traces of it. Even some of the dubstep tunes we make now, the jungle, the drum‘n’bass – there’s a huge Jamaican and reggae influence. We’ve just been very clever; we’re the best in the world at doing that – at fragmenting a genre and turning it into a different thing.
Is there a contemporary sound that you would identify as having its roots particularly firmly in Jamaican culture? Grime is as closely linked to Jamaican music as it is to American hip-hop. The MC’ing, the toasting [the spoken word element of dancehall, widely considered to be a precursor to rapping] aspect of it, that goes back to Yellowman and people like that. That’s had a massive influence on grime. But there are tunes that we’re playing on the radio like Skrillex, for example – he’s got a very dancehall, ragga feel. I don’t think there are any rules. But I think the saddest thing about Jamaican music is that not all of the artists have been paid properly over the years. That still gets my goat.
Is that a problem that’s particularly acute with Jamaican artists? It’s just the structure of the labels back in the day, and the studio system. You got paid to do a track and that was your lot. They’d pay you a certain amount of dollars and all your rights were gone. You sung the song, left the studio, and that was it. You’d watch your tune go up the chart, and royalties weren’t always coming your way. Invariably most of the dancehall tunes never charted back in the day because of the structure of the reggae industry, which is a shame because I think there would be more household names from reggae music. That’s the downside of having one guy who dominates the industry so much. People think that if you take Bob Marley away, that’s reggae music gone. It’s not the same with Elvis; you take Elvis away and rock ‘n’ roll’s not gone.
So it’s a chance for us to showcase more artists. The majority of reggae artists, recent legends like Sizzla – in Jamaica they’re superstars, in parts of America they’re superstars, but they’re not globally. I’m just glad that I’m on a station that does play this music. Being a BBC station, it’s our job to do that, because commercial stations won’t push it as much as we will. That’s why we should be playing these artists; that’s why we do play them – because we have the opportunity to play them.
Listen to Trevor Nelson, weekdays, 10am-1pm on BBC Radio 1Xtra. Radio 1Xtra will be celebrating 50 years of Jamaican Independence from Sunday 5th- Friday 10th August.