Whilst it’s a no-brainer regarding the likes of Purple Hipsters or The Flesh Eaters, certain acts like Ruts DC approached the JA beat with such verve that it’s often hard to tell them apart from their Caribbean cousins, and then there’s folks like X-O-Dus who remain guilty mainly by association.
And somewhere amidst all this we find Benjamin Zephaniah straddling the fence with a concoction of dub-laced poetry and street politics, rooted in Jamaican tradition but informed and aggravated by British issues.
Finding his footing within his community, the Handsworth revolutionary soon transplanted to London in search of a wider audience, performing anywhere from protest marches to clubs, winning over many a dub-loving punk in the process; something which undoubtedly rubbed off on his approach to reggae itself.
Take Zephaniah’s debut EP Dub Ranting for example, a predominantly a capella affair who’s back cover claims “this record is subversive, not decent, dreadful, more left than right, educational, not sexy, not danceable, this record will not be number 1”. Clearly not destined for the pop charts or even the accessible end of reggae, Dub Ranting set the precedent for an uncompromised recording career, with Mad Professor capturing the poet in his element, spitting freely at the mic instead of putting pen to paper.
Further quasi-reggae credentials ensued with the release of his debut album Rasta on the rockabilly run Upright Records in ’83. Rasta features some solid rhythm work, flanked by a who’s who of UK and JA session players (including members of the recently Bob-less Wailers band), yet this is one of the few reggae records to feature the seemingly inconceivable combo of oboe and sitar, in turn preempting the world music boom almost a decade later.
And it’s on Rasta that we find Benjamin’s most Bologna-worthy moment. An urgent precursor to Smiley Culture’s Police Officer, Dis Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death strips back the rhythm track to it’s bare rattling bones as Zephaniah delivers damning verse after verse over an onslaught of bells and whistles, as dizzying and disorientating as a truncheon upside the head, yet catchier than a black mariah.
And here’s a clip of Zephaniah taking on Keats, Byron and Shelly (and Timothy Spall’s repugnant business man) in Dread Poets Society…