Brother Culture: Setting the record straight
The London-based MC Brother Culture is one of the most active MCs on the reggae circuit. Regularly travelling to work with new and established sound crews, he has watched the styles and fashions of reggae change over the years, from his early days with the Twelve Tribes organisation to the fusion styles now popular in reggae. While he is best known as an MC rooted in the UK steppers style, he’s also recorded with grime, hip-hop, jungle, drum and bass and dubstep producers. Recently, he sat down with IRIE UP magazine to set the record straight.
BC, tell us a little about how you came to be a reggae MC.
I was born in London, I’m 45 years old and I grew up most of my younger life in and around Brixton. That’s where I first started to encounter sound systems. The first sounds I encountered were soundsystems like Young Enchanter from Brockley, Prince Rising from Brockley, that was one of the first sounds I MC’d on. There was Jah Revelation, Sir Cosxone, Highteous, Dread Diamond, Taurus, Frontline International. Java from west London, Fatman from north London, Abba Salam from east side, sounds like that were influential when I was young, in the late 70s and early 80s.
Who you work with first?
I started to work on the microphone with a guy called Billy Joseph, a Twelve Tribes member from Coventry, we used to chat on a sound called Prince Rising from Brockley in southwest london. My sister used to MC on a sound called Jah Revelation music, which was the official Twelves Tribes sound of the time. So I started to go to Jah Revelation dances when she was MC-ing. I would also get the odd guest spot on Sir Coxsone, Taurus, Dread Diamond, at that time there was lots of MCs around who were my idols; Papa Levi, Ricky Ranking, Champion Dread from Jamdown Rockers who works now with Tighten Up crew, Horseman from Brixton, these people were influential to me, also the Twelve Tribes MCs like Ambassador; and internationally with people like Brigadier Jerry, Big Youth, Lone Ranger, Clint Eastwood and General Saint. That was part of my early influences and inspirations to become an MC, a lifetime MC.
Where did you travel?
I travelled all over the UK with Jah Revelation Music, we played a lot of famous dances, with all of the soundsystems, Unity, Coxsone, Jah Shaka, all of them. Jah Revelation carried a physical sound, played primarily for Twelve Tribes but we played private shows as well. From 1982 to 1985 I travelled almost every week to different parts of the UK, we carried the sound to Bedford, Luton, Wales, Scotland, all over.
What is the Twelves Tribes?
Twelves Tribes is a Rasta organisation that was founded in Jamaica in 1968 by Vernon Carrington, better known as Prophet Gad. I was a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and part of the mission was to spread the word around the homeland of the organisation. The idea was to carry a meeting and a dance to every county in England. The organisation was set up internationally, it was in 14 countries at that time. That’s how I started to travel out. In 1985 I went to Jamaica as part of a Twelve Tribe group representing England, and MC’d at a special dance called Khaki Dance, which was kept in Kingston over three days, it was a historical dance with all the Twelves Tribes coming together. You had to wear khaki to get in, you had to be a card-carrying member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So I MC’d with Brigadier General, Jah Love.
That was a next step in my development as Brother Culture, I got to meet lots of people from America, and that’s where I went next, from 1986 to 1993. I was back and forth a lot. I did my first album at Wackie’s studio in New Jersey, with a band called Chinafrica, which was a guy from Jamaica called Wayne Chin, who used to be a DJ with RJR in Jamaica. I toured with Major Mackeral, Frankie Paul and U Brown all over the east coast of America. I was also MC-ing with Twelve Tribes of Israel in New York and Canada. So everything up to this point was in the context of the Twelve Tribes. When I came back from America in 1992, the scene had changed. Twelve Tribes had changed, Jah Revelation wasn’t the officical sound any more, it was more like every man for himself.
Then I started going to a club in London called the Dub Club, which was held at that time in Tufnell Park. It was a good club because it gave a forum to more roots and dub soundsystems, which in the early 90s were kind of on the decline. The Jamaican wave of new dancehall had taken over, soundsystems like Stone Love, and that whole kind of emphasis was more in vogue.
I MC’d the first time at the Dub Club with Cecil Ruben, who was the old manager of Jah Revelation, and from there I started to work with a lot of dub producers and selecters, such as Manasseh and so on. That led to me touring with Manasseh. That’s kind of condensing everything up to 1999! Manasseh is probably one of the most important UK producers of the last 15 years. A lot of his productions were responsible for the upsurgence of UK roots and dub in the 1990s.
I hadn’t had much experience outside of UK, JA and the US, but Manasseh opened that gate for a lot of European countries, going to Portugal, France, Germany, which are subsequently places that I get a lot of work, because nowadays, I work primarily on my own, I have a good book of contacts.
So in a year, there will be a regular cycle, there’ll be five or six times in France, same in Italy, Germany. So those are regular gigs and then there’s stuff connected with music. People that connect me through the internet and want to do stuff.
So there was a new wave of producers in UK around 2000?
Yeah. I started working with Mungos round 2000, we did an album called Brother Culture meets Mungos in 2002. I did a tune called ‘Wickedness’, that was the first tune I did with them, and that tune was relased on Dub Head, but for one reason or another, Mungos didn’t like the way they dealt with it, so they started their own label after that and and re-released ‘Wickedness’ a few years ago.
Then after Mungos, I worked with Twilight Circus, he’s a producer from Canada who lives in Holland, he’s famous for this authentic Jammys sound that he produces, a very analogue sound, I collaborated with him after Mungos. Within that period I was starting to tour a lot in Europe, with Manasseh. Then it kinda spiralled from there. I made other music too, that was not reggae. I made an album in 2002 called East of the River Ganges, which was released by a producer called Youth, who is quite a famous rock and pop producer, but he has a love for reggae and roots too.
From 2002 to 2003, I started to record for a lot of people, quite diverse, from Aswad to Adrian Sherwood. The more I voiced and recorded, the more I built up a momentum. I’ve worked with people like Prodigy, which people might think is far from reggae, but it’s not really. Now I make tunes over the internet with people I haven’t even met! I’ve been to about 30 countries in the last five years, from Brazil to Mexico to Moscow, all over Eastern Europe. What I try to do is record something with the local producers wherever I am, so what happens is, I end up having lots of tunes in different countries.
My thing is being an MC doing live gigs, so in order to get live gigs, I have to have lots of material in circulation and a buzz about the stuff. Even reggae music has become quite industrial, when it comes to the promotion. People book you because they think you are going to fill their venue, not because they particularly like you! Though there are some conscientious promoters still around. I often get invites to places I’ve never been, but most people who are bringing me, those are people they’ve done their research, they know the music I make. You have to have these things going to have the live work, that’s what I was talking about.
Then Eastern Europe started to open up? How well did people know the music?
Well, Eastern Europe opened up to rock and also to reggae. My first time in the east was with Manasseh, to Serbia. Their knowledge of the music wasn’t massive, but they still had a love for the feel of the music. They were very enthusiastic about it. It was good for reggae cos it’s kind of lagging in England.
What type of reggae were they into in Eastern Europe?
Well, I’m a person I don’t like to break it down. I call all music that has some origin in Jamaica “reggae” because to break it down is divisive. It’s just that in places like Poland, they embrace it and promote it is on a bigger level than in England, because in England it’s still seen as a fringe music, outside of the mainstream. So there’s not really reggae festivals in the UK, it more like there’s reggae inside other music festivals.
Wheras in Poland, they promote it like they promote rock. So it’s a different level. Places like Czech Republic, it’s a good example of where dancehall has been taken on another level, a bit like Japan. They treat it with more respect than in the UK.
Now it’s places like Germany and Italy that are carrying the swing, there’s massive movements going on in Italy, building sound systems, wheras this culture is kind of dead in the UK. You have University of Dub, which is like a kind of a pastiche of what dances used to be. It’s kept as a kind of exhibition, for people that didn’t know about that in real time, to come and say, ‘Oh, that’s what it was like!’
When I was a teenager, it was before Xbox and Playstation. The thing that interested us was soundsystem. It was common for people as young as school age to be building sounds. It was more organic. You had many different sounds. There were the big sounds like Coxsone, Jah Shaka, Quaker City, Revelation and so on. Then there was a middle division, they were probably smaller sounds that played more locally, like from Leicester, Sir Skull, or a sound from Bedford called Fitta Warrior, and then you had sounds like non-league teams, or youthman sounds, a group of friends who didn’t really play out but they had a garage with some equipment and a peaker. Many of these would go on to be greats, like Tenor Fly from Congo Natty.
Tenor Fly started on a schoolboy sound called Stereophonic. In those days, his name was Satta Banton. And ‘cos he was such an outstanding MC, other sounds would hear him, and pretty much the way football teams would come in and pick a player, they would ask him to come and sing on their sound. Lloydie Coxsone had a tradition of re-naming anyone who came into his sound, so he re-named him Tenor Fly, cos at the time Tenor Saw was the big singer, and Coxsone was mainly responsible for introducing Tenor Saw to the UK, they played Tenor Saw before anyone else, and the first time he came to the UK, it was at Acton Hall, it was Tenor Saw on the main bill, on the underscore was Earl 16, and Coxsone were in the hall playing with their sound.
So that just shows you that system, of kinda coming through the youth system, has dissipated, it’s finished now. The beginning of the end was the rise of a lot of pirate radio stations, like a lot, I’m talking about Galaxy FM, Vibes FM, pumping out reggae music 24/7. This kind of led to the demise of the soundsystems, in one way. It was a three-pronged attack. You had that, then you had the Thatcherite governmnet who introduced new legislation surrounding dances and raves, called the Rave Act, which limited the venues you could take sound into. So a lot of sound men started to play in clubs, without their sounds, and moved onto playing on the pirate stations.
A lot of the great ones like Jackie Maro, a great radio DJ, was originally the selecter of Supertone Sounds, from Supertone Records in Brixton. He started playing on the radio.
Then it’s a matter of economics. The selecter could promote his shows on the radio, and he only has to carry a box of records and an MC, and he’s getting the same fee as if he carries all the boxes. So that kind of killed it off. So now you get the pastiche exhibition dances. Which is great, I’m not knocking it, but it’s not the real thing. Well, the sound systems are real. But when I was a youth, you would go to the record shops and there would be flyers for dances all over London, blues dances, club dances, sound system dances, and especially in the countryside. The effect took hold in London first and then the Home counties, because everywhere there was a black community there was a sound system.
It’s more in Europe now, the fascination of actually playing soundsystem. But there’s pitfalls as well. The soundsystems in the UK primarly came into existence as a social resistance to what was happening in the UK. There was a big influx of black people into the UK after the Second World War. The type of entertainment they wanted to consume wasn’t on offer in the UK. In those days, working class men went to the pub. That was it. It was largely the soundsystems that changed that culture. Winston Churchill’s granddaughter was a regular at Sufferer Sound in Notting Hill. So it broke down racial barriers. In a way, you had to have sound system ‘cos it was the only place you could play your music the way you wanted to. You couldn’t do it in a pub. They didn’t have the huge speakers. So it was like, necessity was the mother of invention
So they created these spaces of consumption, and that’s what led to what we know now. If you want to take an extreme view, every single dance culture in Europe owes its debt to the sound systems of the 50s and 60s. There wouldn’t be no garage music if those guys had not built their boxes and set up in houses and had blues dances and set up in church halls. There was no history of English people having raves in church halls before sound systems. It coincided with the decline of the Church of England, so a lot of the church halls were glad to hire (the halls) out to sound systems.
So sound systems are more important than just having a set of speakers, it’s become easy like that because of the blood and sweat of a lot of people, you know what I mean? It’s very intricate. When you look at the history of the sounds, it’s not just simply playing music. It’s into the social, economic realms as well. Sound system was one of the only independent black businesses in the UK for many years. Even now you don’t see that many independent black businesses the way you see Asian businesses or Chinese businesses. But sound system was a homegrown thing, it led the way. Electronic companies saw what was going on and started to build equipment that was based on sound systems. It’s just a fact.
There is a negative side of it. Nowadays, we don’t really need sound systems anymore, because reggae music is established. Entertainment in Europe is so cosmopolitan. If people want to go to reggae now, they don’t have to go to church halls to hear it.
White women were the first white people to really go to sound systems dances in England, which were completely black at the time. That broke down a lot of the racial barriers. That necessity isn’t there anymore. But now in the UK … London is one of most completely multicultural towns in the world, so there’s no need for that anymore. So all these guys building soundsystems now in Europe, they’ll find there is no place to play them. It’s like building an oil rig when all of the oil has been drilled out already. It looks great, but I’ve seen big sound systems in places like France, they only play four times a year if they are lucky. Or play a few festivals. But how long can you sustain that? A lot of it is an ego thing.
For one thing, the big sound systems back in the day were never as big as the sounds you have now. It was impractical, it was too hard to move around. But you have a lot of reggae snobs, who think reggae music can only be played on sound system blah blah blah. Nonsense, man. They are Luddites. Reggae luddites!
So people are starting to book reggae artists in China, is that another place that reggae will break?
Well, look, it’s broken everywhere. You know, 20 or 30 years ago, you could take reggae somewhere and it would be like a legendary gig. But it’s not like that anymore. It’s like football. If you watched the World Cup years ago, and someone like Zaire was in there, they would get hammered 5-1. But it’s not like that anymore. There’s lots of small countries now that are competitive in the World Cup. So reggae is everywhere.
But there’s still this romantic notion, oh, we’re oppressed reggae artists, which sells the image of the suffering artist. But it’s not like that nowadays. People don’t listen to reggae because they are suffering. We have to get beyond that romanticisation that reggae music isn’t known. It’s known everywhere, it’s commercialised, there’s posters of Bob Marley everywhere. Go to any set of kids, they’ll know who Sean Paul is, or Shaggy.
Tell me a little about playing in Mexico and Brazil. What’s the scene like there?
Nice. A very good scene! (Laughs). Actually, I omit Brazil and Mexico from the negatives that I just listed. There, it is still fresh. In Brazil they have a type of reggae, like reggaeton, but it’s not reggae that we would recognise.
But for the UK steppers thing – and that’s where I eat my bread and butter nowadays, to be honest – the UK over the past 30 years actually has earned the accolade, that they did invent a type of genre of reggae, which is what we know as UK steppers, that’s the best way to describe it, and this is uniquely English, and it’s what makes English artists like me still in demand, that they would bring over artists from Europe. Othewise they would just bring Jamaican artists. But the Jamaicans can’t do steppers the way the UK can. So that is very unique in Brazil. There’s a crew in Brazil called Dub Versao, a very good youth called Yellow-P, so they are one of the first to bring the UK style over there. He had his amps built by Tubbys, and pre-amps built in the UK, from Tubbys, and I think it’s just the boxes they built over there. They stay very true to the UK style, for want of a better term, the Jah Shaka style of playing. But it’s branched out a bit more now, there’s Digital Dubs, who are more with a Jamaican influence, working with Jamaican artists, and more roots dancehall style, but with a wider audience.
There’s a lot of scope for the scene to grow over there. The problem with Brazil is that the economics are not so great, when you go there as an artist, it’s not like touring in Ger-money or the UK, it can be rough and ready. But there’s big scope. Funny enough, the language is not a barrier when it comes to steppers style, it’s like a universal language that transcends such things. You have people that want to hear Disciples, they want to hear Dub Judah, they want to hear Manasseh, they want to hear Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood, you know what I mean?
What about Mexico?
Mexico is a slighty different case. It’s nearer to America, there’s been a lot of influence from reggae on American radio. There’s a very good roots market there. There are people producing new roots stuff. My promoter there brings a lot of UK people there. But a lot of people there wouldn’t really know the difference between Jamaica and UK styles. I’ve been doing some work in Mexico with Rootikal productions, and they’ve brought people as diverse as Dreadzone, African Head Charge, Aba Shanti, Mungos Hi-Fi and people like that. I was there in May with Dubmatix, a Canadian dub producer.
Who do you rate as the best reggae producers?
One of the most interesting is called Youth, who has a label, Liquid Records, which was the first to release a Manasseh tune. He’s far sighted in that way, and a great producer. There’s a producer called Danny Renegade, I recorded at tune called ‘Dub It’ with him, which is on the latest Aswad album. I love Manasseh as a producer, he’s the best at what he does, that authentic, quite melodic Jamaican sound. I would rate Adrian Sherwood in the top five, because of what On-U Sound were doing in the late 70s and early 80s had a huge influence, bringing serious dub music to the UK. I rate Dub Judah as a producer, I rate Norman Grant from Twinkle Brothers. A lot of the young guys that are coming through dubstep like Mala, and youths from Brighton, King’s HiFi, they are exciting producers. Of course, Lee Perry is an all-time favourite. I love King Tubbys, Exterminator, all of that.
We hear UK producers say that the new stuff coming out now is no better than what they were doing 15 years ago, what do you think?
Well, everything that came from the UK was derivative of things that went before. That’s human nature. I know what they are talking about, sure, you hear stuff in Europe now and you think, well I heard Jah Tubbys or Mad Professor do that 20 years ago. But I’m 45 years old, so I can remember the 1980s and the rise of digital reggae. I was there in the crucible!
I remember the first Firehouse tunes that came, like ‘Tempo’, Anthony Red Rose. When you hear it now, it sounds very rudimentary, but at the time it was revolutionary to hear autoclap or anything like that. Eveything moves on. Electronic music is normal these days. So you might have crews in, say Denmark, in their early to mid-twenties. They’re in music production is some way, and something has brought them to reggae. They want to research and find out how things were made in the past. That’s why people like Kenny Knots are coming up again, ‘cos he was a UK artist in the who made an impact in the 1980s with the digital tunes he was making for Unity.
So obvously imitation is the highest form of flattery, just the way that youths in the UK heard the Jamaican sound and they wanted to recreate it. Youths that turned out to be Aswad. Youths that turned out to be Steel Pulse. Youths that turned out to be Mutumbi. You know, three of the seminal bands in UK reggae, they started by listening to the sounds of the Caribbean, imitating and emulating
It’s snobs. Roots snobs. Roots snobs are the cancer of the music. Make sure to write that down! They think that they are the one who hold the key, the keepers of what comes through the gates. I come to kick down gates. I come to smash down barriers. I’m not going to do it by fighting, but by being Brother Culture, and carrying my music everywhere. I’ll be Brother Culture on a trance track, on a breakbeat track, on a jungle track, or on a drum and bass track.
But the roots snobs and the Luddites, they want to keep it exclusive and to screwface. But Bob Marley say, “screwface know who to frighten”. So the roots snobs will put down everything that is happening in Europe, but they’re afraid of what’s coming. Most of these producers, they get most of their work in Europe. It’s not in London. Dub music in clubs in London now is a swish affair, and they don’t bring people like that. I went to a so-called Culture Clash, not long ago. It was Goldie, Soul 2 Soul and Digital Mystiks. It was full of rich kids, it was ridiculous. But what can you do? If you fight it, you become a Luddite!
The roots Luddites want Europe to be a place where they come, and everyone says how great they are. But if the music is any good, it’s going to plant a seed, and that is going to grow up. So you’ll have producers coming up there, people like Jahtari, who have something to say. Stop the Luddites!