One of my all-time favorite reggae album is Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Bass Culture. At the time I listened to it a lot, oftentimes while enjoying some intoxicating substances. I still love the album and later bought the preceding albums as well.
Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ)
Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on August 24th, 1952, in Jamaica. He received his second name “Kwesi”, because he was born on a Sunday (following Ghana’s customs). In 1963 the family moved to Brixton, London. During his senior years at junior high school he joined the British Black Panther Movement and wrote his first poems with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers.
In 1973 he graduated and started to get noticed for his poems and stories. He wrote for music magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Black Music. He also wrote biographies on reggae artists who recorded for the Island label.
Because of his connection to Island, LKJ was able to release his debut album Dread Beat An’ Blood on the label in 1978, which was followed by Forces Of Victory in 1979. Both albums were received very favorably. He singlehandedly founded a new reggae style, called dub poetry, Jamaican rap, based on poems, put to reggae music. His lyrics were political, realistic, grim and told tales of deprivation, racism and violence many immigrants were confronted with in England, that by then was ruled by the conservative Tory party, led by Margaret Thatcher. Around the same time punk was on the rise. The cooperation between both movements was largely based on a common aversion to Thatcher and everything she represented.
LKJ proclaimed his lyrics over a jazzy reggae background. The music was performed (and produced) by Dennis Bovell (see a short biography in the next paragraph) and his Dub Band. Against all expectations (most certainly those of himself), LKJ became a star (in England).
Bovell was born in 1953 in Saint Peter, Barbados and grew out to be one of the most important figures in the London reggae scene at the end of the 1970s/early 1980s. He not only was an artist in his own right, but he was also known for his productions. Mid 1970s he was the co-founder of Matumbi, one of the first English reggae bands. Using the moniker Blackbeard, he recorded a number of solo albums.
Bovell was primarily known for his work with Linton Kwesi Johnson, a cooperation which would last until to this day. He became a sought after producer in the 1980s and worked with artists like I-Roy, The Thompson Twins, Sharon Shannon, Alpha Blondy, Bananarama, The Pop Group, Fela Kuti, The Slits, Orange Juice and Madness. He made remixes for Marvin Gaye, Wet Wet Wet and The Boomtown Rats. He also worked with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Edwin Collins and Pablo Moses.
On May 9th, 1980 the fantastic Bass Culture was released. Bass Culture was my introduction to LKJ. Highlights abound on this dub poet reggae album, that sounds great and is diverse and thrilling musically.
The album is inspired by the riots at a protest by the Anti Nazi League in 1979. Apparently, the SPG (Special Patrol Group of the London police force) were permitted to act provocatively and use excessive force to manage the crowd. It led to the death of Blair Peach, a special needs teacher.
In the album’s title song Bass Culture LKJ talks about the role reggae music plays in his life.
It is followed by the phenomenal Street 66, with its harmonica riff introducing impending catastrophe. A house party is interrupted by the arrival of the police: “Bam, bam, bam, a knocking ‘pon the door”. The police really has to be at house number 66. Weston, the organizer of the party, says “Step right in and take some licks”, which are the song’s last words. What happens after the police enters the house is left to the listener’s imagination, but it doesn’t forebode anything good. Just for this song alone, this album has to be acquired. It’s one of the finest examples of reggae, dub poetry and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Next up is Reggae Fi Peach, that explicitly addresses the Blair Peach murder by the hands of the SPG: “Everywhere you go it’s the talk of the day, everywhere you go you hear people say that the special patrol them a murderer, we can’t mek them get no furtherer”. The next Inglan Is A Bitch brings the message home even more. Despite all hope for a better life, all England seems to offer is hate and discrimination.
Lorraine is a proclamation of love, which seems out of place upon first listen. Its aberration is the reason it fits perfectly. It contributes to the album’s variety and surprises, time and time again.
Both closing songs show LKJ experimenting with minimal musical contribution. Is Reggae Sounds accompanied by a reggae beat and guitar, Two Sides Of Silence isn’t. Rather, the song is a recitation of a poem, accompanied by experimental abstract music.
The beautiful cover was designed and made by photographer Dennis Morris, who had worked with LKJ before.
I can’t stress enough how impressive this album is. The music is stunning, the lyrics deeply moving and, unfortunately, still relevant today. Listen and quiver!
All songs written by Linton Kwesi Johnson.
- Bass Culture
- Street 66
- Reggae Fi Peach
- Di Black Petty Booshwah
- Inglan Is A Bitch
- Reggae Sounds
- Two Sides Of Silence
- Linton Kwesi Johnson – vocals
- Vivian Weathers – bass (except Bass Culture and Loraine)
- Floyd Lawson – bass on Bass Culture and Loraine
- Lloyd “Jah Bunny” Donaldson – drums, percussion (except Street 66)
- Winston Curniffe – drums, percussion on Street 66
- John Kpiaye – guitar
- Dennis Bovell, Webster Johnson – keyboards
- Dick Cuthell, Henry “Buttons” Tenyue – flugelhorn, trumpet
- Julio Finn – harmonica
- Clinton Bailey, Everald “Fari” Forrest – percussion
- James Danton – alto saxophone
- Henry “Buttons” Tenyue – tenor saxophone
- Rico – trombone
After Bass Culture
The same year (1980) LKJ In Dub would be released, consisting of dub versions of songs on the Forces Of Victory and Bass Culture albums. Once again essential listening. LKJ’s star was still on the rise, but he decided to say goodbye to Island after his next album. In 1981 he founded his own label LKJ Records. It would take quite some time for the next album to be released, 1984’s Making History. A year later the first live album would be released, LKJ Live In Concert With The Dub Band. Seven years passed before the first new LKJ music would appear, Tings An’ Times, which was followed by LKJ in Dub: Volume Two the following year. After 1996’s LKJ Presents and A Capella Live, the first release containing new music since 1991, was released in 1999: More Time. In 2002 LKJ in Dub: Volume 3 was released, in 2004 followed by the live album Live In Paris, his last release date.
1998 saw the release of the compilation Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology, a double cd, consisting of the first four Island albums, supplemented with 12″ singles. This set is essential listening for everybody with even the slightest interest in reggae and the history of minorities in England around the turn of the decade into the 1980s.
Many of LKJ’s have been published as books as well. In 1974 Voices of the Living and the Dead was published in Race Today, a British political magazine. In 1975 Dread Beat An’ Blood was published. In 1985 he was named ‘Associate Fellow’ of the Warwick University, in 1987 an ‘Honorary Fellow’ of Wolverhampton Polytechnic. In 2002 Linton Kwesi Johnson became only the second poet still alive, and the very first black poet, to publish his work as part of the prestigious Penguin’s Modern Classics series, titled Mi Revalueshanary Fren.
In 2004 he was honored as ‘Honorary Visiting Professor’ of the London Middlesex University. In 2005 he received a silver Musgrave medal from the Institute Of Jamaica for his contribution to poetry.
What do you think of Bass Culture? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s masterpiece Bass Culture. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Paradiso Amsterdam, January 1980 image: redef.com
Dennis Bovell image: twitter.com
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Bass Culture & Linton Kwesi Johnson – Independant Intavenshan images: allmusic.com
Linton Kwesi Johnson image: spotify.com
Other images: reggaediscography.blogspot.com