Discover more from This Week in The 90s
How Windrush gave us SL2's 'On A Ragga Tip' [April 12, 1992]
Plus: Pearl Jam, L7, Curtis Stiger, and Annie Lennox
Welcome to the week of April 12, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Deeply Dippy’ — Right Said Fred (↑)
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (↓)
‘Save The Best For Last’ — Vanessa Williams (↑)
‘To Be With You’ — Mr. Big (↓)
‘Joy’ — Soul II Soul (↓)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
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This week’s Number 7: ‘On A Ragga Tip’ — SL2
One morning in 1948, people in Jamaica opened their newspapers and saw this tiny advert:
At the time, Britain was experiencing an intense labour crisis. The war had left the country shattered and exhausted, and they needed extra hands to help rebuild its ruined cities.
The Windrush was one of the first ships to answer this call. It carried 800 mostly African-Caribbean passengers (and two stowaways) who arrived in London on June 21, 1948.
The British government probably assumed that the new immigrants would show up, shut up, and quietly get to work. They didn’t give much thought to multiculturalism or integration. They certainly didn’t seem to think that anything of importance was going to change.
But the post-Windrush wave of immigration changed everything about Britain. Including the way it sounded.
The Caribbean countries began to develop their own musical ecosystem in the 1950s, which was a mix of local music like calypso and American jazz and blues.
By the time The Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’, Jamaica’s thriving ska scene was producing records that sounded like broadcasts from the future. Songs like Prince Buster’s ‘Madness’ are astonishingly sophisticated by 1963 standards:
The white mainstream first encountered ska a year later when Millie Small hit the chart with a cover of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, a bubblegum pop song with a ska rhythm:
Radio stations didn’t play a lot of this music, but that didn’t stop white musicians from devouring and assimilating Caribbean sounds.
The biggest culprit is Paul McCartney, who was an avid collector of Jamaican records. Ska and reggae beats show up throughout the later works of The Beatles, most noticeably on ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’.
Here’s a proper reggae band covering that track. They strip away the Cockney knees-up element and reveal the song’s true roots:
The Windrush generation had children and grandchildren, and these new Britons found that living in a majority-white country wasn’t easy. The late 70s saw a surge in white nationalism, racist violence, and discriminatory police practices.
The reggae scene in Britain developed in parallel with punk, and audiences of all races found something they liked in each others’ music. The Clash did a few reggae numbers. The Police became a full-on reggae-rock fusion band. Acts like The Specials and UB40 offered a new vision of what multiculturalism could be.
But these crossover records were only a taste of what was happening on the Black British scene. UK dancehalls were producing incredible reggae, dub and skank records that rarely reached a white audience.
In 1984, an artist called Jah Screechy was on stage in Brixton when he improvised a verse called ‘Walk and Skank’. It sounded like this:
Again, it’s amazing to look at the release dates on these records. 1984 was a time of synths and tinny production, especially on independent records. ‘Walk and Skank’ is so rich and textured in comparison.
‘Walk and Skank’ became a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic—but only on the dancehall scene. Mainstream white audiences would probably have never heard this song at all, if it weren’t for two DJs in the 90s, who built a monster hit around it.
They called themselves SL2 and their song ‘On A Ragga Tip’:
Now, in 1992 copyright laws were in absolute chaos. Hip-hop and dance artists sampled other people’s records with impunity, rarely giving credit or sharing royalties even if they had a big hit.
Personally, I don’t know what the arrangement was between SL2 and Jah Screechy. But I do know three things:
‘On A Ragga Tip’ uses so much material from ‘Walk and Skank’ that it is essentially a remix, rather than a brand new record.
Jah Screechy is not credited as a co-author of ‘On A Ragga Tip’.
Jah Screechy doesn’t mention SL2 or ‘On A Ragga Tip’ in his official bio.
If Screechy didn’t get a substantial payday from this record, then that’s very frustrating.
Let’s come back to 1992, where the dancehall scene is beginning to merge with rave culture and produce a new, uniquely British genre: jungle.
Jungle combines intense breakbeats and heavy dub basslines to produce mind-bendingly complex rhythms that are very hard to dance to unless you’ve taken a lot of drugs.
Just try to listen to DJ Hype’s 1993 single ‘Shot In The Dark’ without your brain melting:
‘On A Ragga Tip’ is not a jungle track as such, but it did prove that this kind of track had big crossover appeal. SL2 tore up the clubs in 1992 and, honestly, the track still sounds really fresh and fun.
Jungle did cross over around 1995 when Goldie won the Mercury prize for Timeless. Then followed drum’n’bass, two-step, garage and a thousand other genres created in Britain by the grandchildren of the Windrush generation.
Clubbers loved these beats. And that should be the climax to a story of multiculturalism conquering prejudice. People of all races and backgrounds having a big rave in a field, losing their minds to innovative basslines.
Of course, nothing’s ever that simple. Especially when the Tories are involved.
In 2018, it emerged that the government had been trying to illegally deport African-Caribbean immigrants who had been in the UK for decades. British people who had never even been to Jamaica suddenly found themselves making the Windrush journey in reverse.
This is part of the so-called “hostile environment”. There are still a lot of people in Britain who hope to undo multiculturalism and return Britain to its pre-1948 state. Maybe they’re all big skiffle fans or something.
It’s worth remembering this history when you listen to this music. Even in a feel-good club hit like ‘On A Ragga Tip’, there are centuries of unresolved colonial tension.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (↑ from 15): ‘You’re All That Matters To Me’ — Curtis Stigers
The man, the myth, the legend that is Curtis Stigers returns with his second smash hit. This one is a lot more upbeat than ‘I Wonder Why’, with a big jazzy chorus.
Curtis RTed this newsletter on Twitter once, so he is our BFF and he can do no wrong. Hail Curtis, our king.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Silver Shorts’ — The Wedding Present
One of the weaker songs in the one-single-per-month project by The Wedding Present. Only eight more to go!
Number 26 (↑ from 34): ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ — L7
Crank up the volume and let’s fucking GOOOOOOOOO.
L7 are partly famous for a chaotic appearance on Channel 4’s The Word, during which Donna dropped her jeans and showed her fanny (in both the US and UK sense of the word.)
That wasn’t even the maddest thing in this episode, which also featured secret camera footage of Oliver Reed getting pissed in his dressing room.
Plus, they had Bill Hicks doing comedy. They do not make telly like that anymore.
Number 27 (New Entry): ‘Even Flow’ — Pearl Jam
We’ve probably said enough about Ten-era Pearl Jam at this stage. ‘Even Flow’ is very anthemic rock, one of their most explicit attempts to do a crowd-pleasing stadium number. A good singalong number.
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘I Want To Touch You’ — Catherine Wheel
In previous issues, we’ve covered shoegaze titans Ride, Lush and My Bloody Valentine. Catherine Wheel’s album Ferment kind of feels like an afterthought now. Pepsi to the Coca-Cola of Loveless, Spooky, or Going Blank Again.
Which is probably unfair, as Catherine Wheel were very good in their own right. And Billie Eilish recently covered this very song, which is an endorsement of sorts.
Album of the Week
Diva — Annie Lennox
Going solo after being in a successful band must be terrifying.
Your old band has set the bar that you must now clear. If you fall short, everyone will say you flopped. Freddie Mercury, for example, had a moderately successful solo career, but he was seen as a failure because he didn’t reach the same heights as Queen.
After Eurythmics broke up, Annie Lennox took a career break to have a baby while Dave Stewart started a new band, The Spiritual Cowboys, who entirely failed to make the charts.
So, you can imagine the pressure on Lennox when she finally stepped forward as a solo artist. How did she cope?
Mostly, by playing it safe
Diva is not a record that confronts or takes big risks. If you’re a fan of early Eurhythmics, you won’t find anything as delightfully spiky as ‘Sweet Dreams’ or ‘Sex Crime’.
But, to be fair, you wouldn’t have found those on the later Eurhythmic’s records either. By the end of the 80s, they had drifted towards a more melodic Adult Contemporary pop sound, and Diva kind of continues that journey.
Diva‘s main job is to show us that Annie can thrive without Dave, and it does that job with remarkable efficiency. The first big test is to see whether she can produce a pop hook on her own. She creates several, including the monster hit ‘Walking On Broken Glass’:
Although for my money, the catchiest riff is on the upbeat single, ‘Little Bird’, a track that is begging for (and received) a thousand dance remixes:
There’s also the challenge of seeing if she can create big soundscapes, which again she can do. There are a lot of big songs that show what she’s capable of, with ‘Precious’ perhaps being the richest of them all, with elements of funk, reggae, and gospel:
And finally, there’s the question of what happens when it’s just Lennox by herself, with no distractions. Some of the deep cuts like ‘Legend In My Living Room’ show off her pipes, but maybe the standout track on the album is ‘Cold’.
This is a slow burn song, more about creating a mood than setting off fireworks. But it’s a reminder that Lennox is a uniquely talented vocal artist, capable of using her voice for delicate brushstrokes:
If the question was “can Annie Lennox succeed as a solo artist?”, then Diva was an emphatic answer. It ended up as one of the biggest records of 1992 and each of the five singles became major hits.
So it’s kind of funny that Lennox didn’t go on to have a big solo career. She didn’t even attempt another album of self-penned solo songs until 2003’s Bare.
But it doesn’t matter. Diva proved that she could do it if she felt like it.
Speaking of people who were in massively successful 80s synthpop duos and then went on to have solo careers in the 90s, let’s check in on Marc Almond.
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