Friday, 18 March 2011

Rest in peace: Smiley Culture (1963-2011)

Like many I was shocked by the death of Smiley Culture. Only last month I was watching him on BBC4’s Reggae Britannia talking about his influences and legacy. It’s possible that Smiley was actually the first MC I was ever aware of. Growing up in rural Gloucestershire in the early 80’s I wasn’t really in the core market for rap or hip hop as it became known but I do specifically remember seeing Smiley on Top of the Pops performing his second hit Cockney Translation. I’d be lying if I said it changed my life but I remember being charmed by its jaunty melody and humorous lyrics.

It’s clear to me now that Smiley’s legacy is far greater than I gave him credit for as a youngster. For many years it was accepted wisdom for UK urban artists that if they wanted to make it they had to ape the American stars of the day. Smiley took a completely different route. David Emmanuel (for that is he) took the tradition of ‘toasting’(or chatting) over the soundsystems of Jamaica (having come through the legendary Saxon soundsystem himself) and transplanted the ethos to South London. He struck chart gold with Police Officer and a re-release of Translation, scaling the upper reaches of the charts. Perceived wisdom was immediately challenged and young MCs increasingly had the self belief to embrace their Britishness. Its not too grand a statement to claim that the likes of Roots Manuva, The Streets, Dizzee Rascal and Tiny Tempah have all benefited from Smiley’s breaking down of doors as well as countless MCs from the worlds of reggae, hip hop, grime and drum and bass. Its also fair to say that Smiley was years ahead of his time and one can only begin to wonder what sort of career he might have had if he was a young artist now.

The other key element of Smiley’s influence was that he brought black politics to the heart of the pop charts in such a way that people (both black and white) could laugh together at the absurdity of the treatment of the black community. 'Cockney have names like Terry, Arthur and Del Boy...we have names like Winston, Lloyd and Leroy' he reflected on the black experience of not being regarded as ‘true’ Londoners in Cockney translation while Police Officer talked about a scenario where Smiley was arrested for drug possession and then let off because of his celebrity status. It’s important to remember that this was a time when relations between the Metropolitan Police and the Black Community were at an all time low following the Brixton Riots and the police’s hardline stop and search tactics. He brought home the reality of London's streetlife while being completely accepted by the mainstream - he even met the Queen as part of a Commonwealth musical event!

It would be wrong to regard Smiley’s career as solely about these two records although his other music didn't have the same commercial success. He produced a wealth of excellent material closer to the heart of the reggae movement and worked with other stalwarts of the British reggae scene including Maxie Priest and Tippa Irie. It’s fair to say that he didn’t have the strongest voice but his talent was on finding humour in the everyday and articulating the absurdity of modern urban life. There is little doubt that Smiley was an inspirational figure for many – particularly black kids - who could see one of their own able to articulate his experience to the public at large and for that alone he deserves significant recognition.

Questions clearly need to be asked about Smiley’s death during a police raid but for now let’s celebrate a man who undoubtedly helped change the face of British music for ever.

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