“Sweet as a nut? Just level vibes, seen?”
Recognise the refrain? No!
Where have you been? perhaps having an enforced holiday at the hands of what Smiley Culture calls, in his opus of dual interpretation, either “Old Bill” or, more appropriately, “Dirty Babylon”.
“Slam-bam, Jah-man, hail dem fashion,” I seem to recall were some of the MC’s opening shots on his debut slate. And that’s exactly what the reggae buying public did, going wild enough over ‘Cockney Translation’ to send the Minder speak-meets-patois-patter to the zenith of the charts for six weeks, as the ‘Real Rock’ rhythm lived from Hackney to up the Junction at Clapham.
The latter South London location is where myself and Smiley – given name Emmanuel Brown – bucked upon each other for a few hours. More specifically the gaff at Dub Vendor, the stable which has already spawned new-style deejaying in the forms of Papa Face and Laurel And Hardy.
“Hardly anyone knows me by that name (Emmanuel Brown), ever since primary school I’ve been called Smiley Culture. What it was, like, there was a group of boys in the school at that time, which was our posse, and we used to play this game,” explained the MC, gold chains and buzzer-shades shining.
“What this game was, meant any girl that passed us we’d have a go at talking to her,” the tall blade, with a distant facial resemblance to General Saint, continued. “The idea was to make the girl smile and look over at the posse to make them know you were getting through.
“But what I used to do was just ask the girls to look over at the posse and smile for me please, nothing else, and I used to get away with it. Since then I’ve just been called Smiley, and since I’ve been an MC it’s true in that I don’t preach slackness.”
It’s been a long road for the 24-year-old deejay between getting his moniker bestowed on him at Saint-Lee primary school in Brixton and the cutting and subsequent killer pay-off of ‘Cockney Translation’.
Like many entertainers in all fields, Smiley started off practising in front of the mirror at home, “not thinking I would ever chat at a dance, much less make a music.”
In the late 70s the London sound system scene was not as formalised as it is now., with each crew having its own exclusive selector of rhythms and deejay outriders, according to Mr Culture.
Round about the period he waved goodbye to the educational system at Tulse Hill, Smiley began to chat at blues with Buchanan Sound, now operating as Studio Mix, where he combined with his spar Asher Senator and formed a partnership which is still going strong today.
The pair gradually filtered through virtually every major London dance hall outfit, from Supertone and Black Harmony to murder-watt specialists like Coxsone, Frontline and others, eventually ending in a semi-permanent residence with the mighty Saxon, home of Philip Levi.
But Smiley and his partner Asher, though they are closely associated with Dennis Row’s sound, prefer to keep themselves freelance.
“Me and Asher, we don’t go full out to the dance halls and all that business. If we have got something directly to do we’ll go out but only then, or if we’re inspired.”
This preference for independence has, of course, been made all the easier by the success of ‘Cockney Translation’, a record which shifted enough copies to chart nationally, but in keeping with the discriminatory manner in which these things are compiled, didn’t figure in the top 100.
“Before (the hit) we used to do three, four, or five hours on a sound, not feeling no way about it, for £25 or whatever. Now I do three things (chats) and get fifty times that,” continued Smiley, dropping a heavy hint about his earning power.
Obviously there have been weeks when Mr Culture’s finances weren’t so healthy and if dances were scarce on the horizon he would supplement his income by hustling jewellery from connections in Hatton Garden in an above-board manner, or sell shave-ice during summer.
Like ‘Mi God Mi King’, the tune that broke Levi, the element which made ‘Cockney Translation’ stand apart from the competition was, indeed is, that it tells a whole story as opposed to being linked by loose and ill-fitting themes. And in a similar manner to Phillip’s approach, Smiley emphasises the necessity of getting the whole thing down on paper before entering the studio, a move that breaks with the traditional MC scam of improvising on the spot in the recording booth.
Tired of attempting to interest producers in his and Asher’s talents, Mr Culture decided to wait until the right people approached him at the right time with the right offer. Those people were Chris Lane and John of Dub Vendor, who were very impressed by Smiley’s slot on last year’s competition between JA’s Gemini Sound and Saxon.
“it happened that at the time I thought about doing a music about a split personality,” recalls the deejay on the genesis of ‘Cockney Translation’. The idea was that this would give him flexibility of drawing on a number of characters all rolled into one artist, and hence allow for complicated bit intelligible toasts.
The exact nature of this split-personality motif must remain a secret because, although it was superceded by ‘Translation’, which operates on a similar principle, Smiley plans to execute this sound excursion into schizophrenia on a slate at a later date.
While Mr Culture might be this month’s hottest deejay, unlike other practitioners of the genre he didn’t really check MC records as a kid… “The only time I can remember myself listening to deejay music was when I-Roy and Jazzbo were putting down each other.” Very viciously, it must be said.
“But I didn’t even really think about those works as MC’ing or deejaying at the time. I just thought of them as songs in the same way I get little white kids or little black kids coming up to me and saying ‘Oh, I got that song’ when they’re talking about ‘Cockney Translation’.
“Apart from them, I must mention Nicodemus who I heard much later on a Jamaican dance-hall tape which was another competition between him and Brigadier Jerry, who in fact never turned up for it. Respect is due anyway to Brigadier Jerry because a lot of his styles have been exploited by MCs. I respect anybody who does original things because they’re exciting to listen to.”
Smiley Culture goes international! Yep, on the many merits of his debut 45 the man suddenly found himself performing in Germany, an experience which he said made him think twice about the media coverage reggae gets in the UK. Jimmy Cliff, for example, was given four hours of peak viewing time on Kraut TV to strut his skank. It’s difficult to imagine the same thing happening here.
Still, the way the genre is still locked in its little ghetto by the BBC and other broadcasters doesn’t really aggravate the MC, who is as amicable as his name would suggest. In fact, the only thing over which he got steamed up about during our interview was the “burial business” prevalent in deejaying.
“Both me and my partner Asher are really against the MCs who go into the dance and mock another man’s name, saying things about their mothers and so on.
“It has never happened to us right from the days of Buchanan maybe because we know all the MCs personally. The other thing we don’t like is slackness, we prefer to teach and preach the truth or something sensible, and something sensible has obviously got to be the truth,” reckoned Smiley with Buddhist-like logic.
“Slackness is a thing I think MCs use as a gimmick. Because there was a time when General Echo was still alive and everybody went slackness crazy. Then Brigadier Jerry came along and chatted ‘Slackness bite the dust, culture must come first’. And suddenly everybody was onto his style again.”
At present, in the same way British based bands like Aswad and Misty are forging forward compared to most of their Jamaican brothers, deejays like Smiley and Phillip Levi are proving that we can expect England to spawn the next generation of genuine MC innovators.”
Or as Mr Culture would say, “Just level vibes, seen?”