Linton Kwesi Johnson – the godfather of UK hip hop

Posted on 16 July 2011


Linton-Kwesi-Johnson-Photo-by-Collin-PattersonI haven’t blogged for a while. But I have been listening to a lot of Linton Kwesi Johnson during my time away. You don’t really need a reason to put on Dread Beat an’ Blood or Bass Culture, but it all started when Gil Scott Heron died.

The natural response would have been to listen to some of Scott Heron’s best work. And what a fine selection to choose from: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, The Bottle, Pieces of a Man, I’m New Here.

But when Scott Heron died one comment stuck with me: the description of him as “the godfather of rap”. Heron’s influence on hip hop is undoubted – his poetic, spoken word vocals and proto-rap anthems giving rise to and influencing hip hop. He’s described as having drawn on an oral poetry tradition that reached back to the blues and forward to hip-hop. And to top it all, one day he casually drops I’m New Here, an absolute modern classic.

The description of Scott Heron made me think about who I would describe as the “godfather of UK hip hop”. And I quickly and easily settled on Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I’ve been listening to him loads ever since.

In the same way the music of Scott Heron during the ‘70s influenced and helped engender the origins  of hip hop in America, the development of the genre in the UK owes much to the influence of Jamaican music on generations of Caribbean immigrants to the UK – from the Windrush generation to the present day.

Soul Jazz Records’ online review, of the excellent An England Story – The Culture of the MC in the UK, which is released on the label, notes: “The global pre-eminence of American hip hop means that music like grime and UK hip hop is often seen as a form of rap, whereas it owes as much to reggae music and culture as it does to any American influence.”

Or as Rodney P apparently once put it: “This is a UK thing. It’s hip hop and it’s reggae, and we do reggae – and those Americans don’t know about that.”

An England Story shows the links and musical path from the arrival of UK “fast chat” dancehall styles and sound systems in the early ‘80s, through successive musical movements such as jungle, UK hip-hop, up to today’s garage, grime and dub-step.

Linton-Kwesi-JohnsonIn amongst this British Jamaican musical diaspora, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s late ‘70s and early ’80 spoken word dub poetry, patois-inflected rhymes and bass culture, is yet another link in this musical path, helping to engender UK hip hop as it is now.

Inglan is a Bitch with its looping horn and head-nodding rhythm should grace any UK hip hop producer’s list of influences; Sonny’s Lettah lyrically amazing; Fite Dem Back with its “smash their brains in” refrain enough to rouse the most apathetic.

Linton Kwesi Johnson is a true legend, a national treasure and gets my vote for the godfather of UK hip hop. But isn’t there some new material due?

Listen to:

Snippets of Soul Jazz Records’ An England Story

Inglan is a Bitch (original version):

Inglan is a Bitch (acapella version):

Fite Dem Back: