SMILEY CULTURE DEAD
SMILEY CULTURE DEAD
Few people are surprised any more by a reggae artist’s untimely death, not even when it is as bizarre as Smiley Culture‘s seems to be. My biggest fear is that this icon of British reggae rap will end up as a mere footnote in the annals of rock’n’roll.
Say Smiley Culture and pop pickers of a certain age will go, "Wasn’t he the one-hit wonder who did that record Police Officer? My kids love it and so does my mother …"
They don’t know the half of it.
At the time – 1984 – being pulled over and being issued with the ignominious "producer" (a notice to produce driving documents at a police station within seven days) was a recreational hazard for young black drivers like me in flash cars. It was one of the many issues that made us feel immigrant.
Smiley’s Police Officer made us all see the funny side of it. Cause he was the cheeky chappie from south London who told it like it would have been if Cheech & Chong had written the script. And the punchline when it comes is what we all wish would be the outcome whenever the cops pull us over.
But that’s not all. I’d go as far as to say that through his musical slapstick, Smiley made it OK for guys like me to chat cockney without being regarded as "coconuts", and for white guys to speak "yardie" without being regarded as wiggers – or, worse, Jim Davidson.
Smiley’s first and best hit Cockney Translation with its classic line, "Cockney have names like Terry, Arthur and Del Boy / We have names like Winston, Lloyd and Leroy" stopped you dead in your tracks at the very moment when black Britons were wrestling with the Tebbit acid test.
I didn’t realise that I could support England and the West Indies until I heard it. Because 25 years ago black guys were still struggling to get into a lot of the white clubs – which were of course playing black music. Our parents stood up to this discrimination by building mobile discos called sounds or sound systems, playing tunes from "back-a-yard".
My pioneering generation of black Britons wanted our own MCs, just as lovers rock a few years before had given us our own reggae singers. Out of that grew a much more vibrant and entertaining expression of second-generation black Britons based around the Saxon Sound System in Smiley’s end of southeast London.
It was at a Saxon dance in Deptford in 1984 or 1985 that I first saw Smiley perform his cockney anthem. And you know, for the first time in my life I relished in being black and British … and was proud of it. And it wasn’t just me. I could see the same feeling in the 500 or so other youngsters in the place.
Above all Smiley Culture made us laugh. Together. Because white guys could see the funny side of it, too. And in just the same way that 2-Tone made a lot of white guys realise that black guys were OK, Smiley Culture and Saxon Sound made a lot of black guys feel that white guys weren’t too bad either.
If Smiley hadn’t made it cool for black Brits to chat "British" on record UK rappers would probably still be chatting "yankee" and there would have been no UK vocal flava to drum and bass, two step, dub step or grime. There would be no Dizzie or Tinie Tempah.
And if Smiley had been born a generation later he would have probably been picking up all those gongs at the Brits as well. But I fear that Smiley’s story, like the story of the many pioneers of the first generation of black Britons (the second generation of "black immigrant" to Britain) will never be properly told because our revolution in this country was never televised.