The work of acclaimed dub poet and musician Linton Kwesi Johnson has had a profound effect on hip-hop artist Roots Manuva. He explains Johnson’s influence and tells Port why a dub poet is a ‘mutant hybrid’
Photography Linda Brownlee
The legacy of Linton Kwesi Johnson is, to me, beyond words. How strange for there not to be the correct emotional gravity, expressible in simple English, to communicate the impact of this literary giant. Sadly, today’s obsession with genre-specification has disconnected the tapestry of his work from its spider’s web influence in the UK and beyond.
As a dub-influenced hip-hop recording artist myself, I find no end of sonic references in both his written and recorded works. For years I’ve been at pains to explain that my parents did not encourage my domestic relationship with music. The tales and dialogue in LKJ’s poems helped me understand the concept of my parents not being born in the UK, and the fact that they did not have the same connection to England as he did. He came here when he was 10 and grew up in a more confrontational environment. Still, though, he managed to speak in a way that made me think about the conditions my parents were trying to work through. They arrived in England in their late teens with minds purely focused on achieving a better life for themselves in an honest, hard working, non-artistic way.
LKJ expressed so much anger and pain, without swearing or being crude, while still maintaining a ‘rude boy’ manner: a weary, unsaid distrust of the system, without any religious ideology or rhetoric. The resonance of Jamaican patois has a pretty compelling tonal poetic mystique in itself. Mixed with authentic street knowledge and a British education, LKJ had an angle on language that I could not ignore. Both my parents were barely educated in the conventional sense and it played havoc with our relationship that they did not seem to understand or care much for encouraging me to engage with my own education, other than saying, now and again, that I should “read my book”.
Being that they were Pentecostal Christians, they would not encourage me to read anything other than the Bible. A shame, as I always found it easy to read but never could take in the message. It was the sound of reggae that mesmerised me. I love funk and jazz too, but reggae got to me on deep-set levels. While I loved Jamaican reggae particularly, I could truly relate to the reference points of LKJ poems and songs. When he spoke of Brixton, I knew that place first hand.
On songs like ‘Inglan is a Bitch’, the humour and the Jamaican sense of ridicule are endearing because he seems to be laughing at his own migrant naivety, thinking that he would travel to the UK and have an easy time. There are so many witty and observational lines in the poem, without being too disgruntled or navel gazing; talking about working on the London Underground and not knowing one’s way around represented an important voice in my cultural social heritage, because it cross-referenced a sense of physicality with humour and passion. Some ask why is he taking about London and calling it England? That’s part of the joke. The point is not about being geographically correct but more about the audacity to complain, over a reggae beat, in that accent and with such confidence. It still rattles people’s bones because of its honesty.
On ‘Fite Dem Back’, Jamaican patois is used alongside blatant cockney vocal inflections. It is this accent-meets-dialect-meets-slang tapestry that represents so much about the migrant attempt to find a voice, and hold on to a heritage, while adapting to the new. Given that there are more people in London than the whole of Jamaica, and given the size of the Jamaican Diaspora, it’s amazing how one island has had such a deep reaching effect on all genres of music. Reggae being the often forgotten father of hip-hop as we know it; dub poetry is, in my mind, the music beyond music, because it’s not just pretty noise or words for the sake of it. The dub poet is a mutant hybrid of vocalist-comedian, come news-reporter, come social-commentator.
Hip-hop, being the genre that had my mind from late teens until now, was my chosen vehicle of expression. After years of desperately trying to mimic this sound, my own hybrid of syntax and vocal metre seemed to be a sonic relative of LKJ, rather than standard American rap – most expressly in the use of broken UK Jamaican dialect. His song titles and sonic fusion have had a major influence on my audio timbre, where the vocal serves as percussive accompaniment, more than a standard verbal affair where melody is king. Here the message and the mood are most important: both equally infectious.
Whether just the word, or the word and music, the union of Bass Culture (a title LKJ used for a 1980 album) is now used to describe a generation of sonic engagement that celebrates bass and basslines. The audacity of the slang, the un-watered down, phonetically spelt song titles and the excellent musicianship are all concepts that still hold meaning today. The migrant experience in audio, which appealed to everyone from strict reggae lovers to jazz lovers and punks, has a timeless connection to all the new genres. Dub is dub.
Roots is a MOBO award-winning musician