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Various artists: An England Story (2008) March 17, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Various artists: An England Story: From Dancehall to Grime: 25 Years of the MC in the UK 1983-2008

There was a time when an album with a subtitle like From Dancehall to Grime: 25 Years of the MC in the UK 1983-2008 would have generated precious little interest around here. My interest in reggae has generally been in roots reggae and dub up to 1980 or so. The whole dancehall sound, with its emphasis on cheap keyboard sounds and Casio beats, not to mention the gruffer almost rapping style vocals and frequently lewd or violent lyrical content, just didn’t have that reggae feel for me.

So I didn’t get into dancehall through its predecessor style. Instead, I worked back from grime and dubstep. I think I first heard about grime five years ago, when Dizzee Rascal’s first album Boy in da Corner generated a lot of buzz in the music press. It was British rap that didn’t try to sound like American hiphop but had a sound of its own. And then came the Streets, and then dubstep, which was grime’s sibling as a descendant of the UK garage scene (or so all the magazine articles and blogs were telling me).

Where this all becomes relevant is that grime had a lot of dancehall influence, and some dubstep artists used dancehall vocalists occasionally as well. Warrior Queen, who appears on An England Story, has also worked with Skream, one of the most well-known dubstep producers. I’d heard her on his album before buying this. So, if I was listening to a bit of grime and hearing the occasional dancehall vocalist in my dubstep (not to mention the influences showing up years earlier in triphop artists like Massive Attack), why not give this a shot? I’m glad I did.

I still haven’t listened to much Jamaican dancehall. This is the UK version, which has been influenced by the Jamaican original but, as the liner notes point out, has also sent some ideas back. Maybe I’m missing some slang or patois lyrics here, but I get the impression that the UK variety is a lot less pornographic and homophobic than the Jamaican stuff, which imho is a good thing. In addition to being British, it’s about the evolution of the MC from reggae through dancehall and hiphop to grime. There’s a lot of variety here.

The album starts with YT’s “England Story,” a dancehall-style track rapped in Jamaican dancehall deejay style, Caribbean accent and all. The next track is the driving and insistent “Somebody” by Suncycle, with male MCs with a blend of Jamaican and British accents and female singers with British accents, a more modern riddim, and not much musical accompaniment, but damn, it’s catchy. And then straight into a recent grime track by Doctor & Davinche, with a Jamaican-sounding man and London girl swapping lines. Then Ty and Roots Manuva’s “So U Want More? (Refix)” mixes Roots Manuva’s UK hiphop with bhangra beats and backing vocals. And then you get Papa Levi’s dubbed out deejay track that could have come out of Jamaica in 1978. Tenor Fly’s “Bump and Grind” is back to dancehall, with gruff ragga vocals. Jakes & TC represent the MC style in jungle/drum and bass. And that’s not even all of the first disc in this two-disc, 21-song set.

Ultimately, what this helps demonstrate is just how far-reaching reggae’s influence in UK music has become — and that’s not even including a lot of postpunk and instrumental electronic music. The MC is the common thread through a diverse set of songs that flow together well and could make for a great party soundtrack. Oh, and the second last track on disc 2 surprised me not too long ago because I’d forgotten who performed it — Estelle and Joni Rewind, Estelle being the rapper/singer whose Shine album I posted about here not too long ago. Tying things together nicely, the song is a 2002 update of Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking,” a classic pop reggae song from 1978. I bought Althea and Donna’s album a few years back, so hearing that familiar song in this context helped fit all the pieces together.

If you like reggae but haven’t moved too far beyond Bob Marley yet, you may find it hard to recognize much of this as having reggae roots. But it never hurts to expand your horizons. This is a well-organized two-disc set, with extensive helpful liner notes. And if you’re not really sure… well, the album has its roots in a Blogariddims podcast from a few years ago. The podcast has twice as many songs in a continuous mix, as opposed to complete songs, and  it’s a lot more to take in if you’re new to this sort of thing… but it’s free.

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