In the light of the 2014 exhibition The Return of the Rudeboys at London’s Somerset House, Andy Royston looks back at Jamaica’s original rude boys and the music they inspired.
Rougher than rough, tougher than tough,
Strong like lion, we are iron
Rudies don’t fear no boys, rudies don’t fear
– Derrick Morgan
Rude bwoy is that person, native, who is totally disenchanted with the ruling system, who generally is descended from the African elements in the lower class and who is now armed with ratchets and other cutting instruments and with increasing frequency nowadays, with guns and explosives. – Garth White
Andy's Rude Boy playlist on Spotify.
Jamaicans first got to hear about rude boys around 1961, soon after a generation of rural youth had moved to the city looking for work. As those already there could have told them there was no work to be had, so these young migrants frequently wound up in the slums that were spreading out of east and west Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.
With mobs of young men hanging around with little to do there was inevitably a wave of violence, robbery and petty crime. Some took up a habit of breaking up rival sound system dances and later would align themselves to local political and gangland figures. Very soon the rude boy antics were dominating page one of the Kingston papers.
The Legend of Rhygin
Young men watching American westerns, where guns settled most arguments, there appeared a character to bring the outlaw gunman right into the heart of Jamaica. The story of Rhygin would eventually be immortalized by the popular movie The Harder They Come, featuring a spaghetti-westernized Jimmy Cliff.
The real Rhygin lived in an earlier time and was quite different from Cliff’s glamorous hero. He was short, reports the Jamaican Observer, with teeth missing, a brisk walk, looked over his shoulder every few steps and spoke fluently with an effeminate voice.
He’d had a long series of run-ins with the law and not long after getting a seven year jail sentence he was on the run after breaking out of the maximum security General Penitentiary. The Jamaica Times in 1948 described a dramatic scene where Rhygin was cornered by armed police, only for the man, to shoot his way out wearing only his underwear.
A second shootout days later was like something out of a Chicago gangster movie. Several police were injured and one killed and yet still Rhygin escaped to fight several more battles before dying in a hail of bullets. Read the full story here.
For the thousands stuck in the shacks of West Kingston the economic boom experienced in the run up to Jamaican Independence was well out of reach. There was growing gang warfare, riots and increases in crime (mostly on their neighbors) that was becoming increasingly political. In general, though, the average rude boy was just a feral class of young man with an anti-social streak.
Writer Lloyd Bradley, in This Is Reggae Music writes of these young men; Anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, antisocial, hell even anti-each other they had all manner of frustrations to vent. Without the discipline that comes from the responsibilities of work, commerce or even schooling there was an audacious wildness about this youth that rewrote the rules of street violence.”
“After independence people start observing what was happening, the problems and such, economics no better, no jobs and they figured they’d end up even worse off than they were before. That’s when the rude boy era start, and to many people it was like a Robin Hood situation, with the rudies standing up for the oppressed” Jimmy Cliff
Stranger Cole Rough and Tough 1962
Rough and Tough was recorded for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label in 1962 just around Independence, and written by a young Lee Perry.
“Don’t bite the hand that feed you, cause the good you do lives after you – it will be rough and tough on your side,” he sings, in the first song to address the problems in the inner city ghettos.
The Wailers Simmer Down 1964
At ten years old Bob Marley had moved with his family to a government yard back in the 1950s and was all too familiar with the rude boy attitude. At the point he recorded Simmer Down he was still young, and keen to distance himself from the troublemakers beyond the studio door. They sang “Chicken merry hawk de near and when him de near you must beware, so simmer down.”
The Wailers though had a rude boy swagger themselves, and ‘Simmer Down’ served to glorify the young toughs as much as it condemned them. Records under the auspices of Clement Dodd with the backing of the Studio One’s house band The Skatalites it was a dance hall smash. By the time that Simmer Down hit number one in February 1964 Clement Dodd was having to pay for his own band of rudies to protect his businesses. Things were getting serious.
Alton Ellis – Dance Crasher 1965
Alton was very much the leading light of Jamaican music in ’65 as ska gave way to the rocksteady beat. If Alton is singing about them then the rude boy had arrived.
“The bad boy business just sprang up in Jamaica and I couldn’t appreciate what was happening. Like when I go to a little dance and was to enjoy myself this bad boy thing and them fling bottle about the place and a lot of stupidness. So I write things like Dance Crasher.” Alton Ellis.
There were lots of factors that caused an escalation in violence at that time – one of them being the politics of the day. Never a laid back affair, Jamaican electioneering got much more heated after Independence and the gloves quickly came off. Pretty soon the rabble rousing had descended into sectarian violence. Add to the mix the growth of an international ganga trade and the city became a powder keg.
Derrick Morgan – Tougher Than Tough
Born with a sight defect,and a cheery upbeat demeanor Derrick Morgan was the last man you would expect to align himself with ‘badmanism’. Tougher Than Tough – using the new rock steady beat was one of the most uncompromising songs about the rude boy ever recorded.
Morgan later would say that the song was written under threats from one of West Kingston’s biggest gangsters – called Busby – who insisted Morgan write a song for him.
Baba Brooks – Gun Fever 1965
Baba Brooks’ trumpet had been featured by all the top bands on the island going right back to the Eric Dean Orchestra in the 1950s and he was by now a respected session man. His jaunty instrumental cut seems to celebrate the whole of Jamaica’s gun culture – one that was about to get much worse.
Desmond Dekker 007 Shanty Town 1966
In songs like 007 rude boys were now so rude and tough that they deliberately clashed with the police. In this song a rudy released from jail goes right back to his thieving ways of petty crime and murder. “Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail…”
Dekker had provided backing vocals for Derrick Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough and now was using his own experiences to celebrate the rude boy culture.
Prince Buster – Judge Dread 1967
Judge Dread initially came about as part of a good-natured rivalry between Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster. A former boxer, Prince Buster was one the most flamboyant characters on the early dance hall scene. He’d been a protege of Coxsone Dodd until he left in 59 to set up his own operation, and because he didn’t have Reid and Dodd’s connections in America to get hold of the latest RnB hits, he began to champion home grown talents and well as make his own increasingly successful records.
Not simply an appeal for non-violence Judge Dread is a wonderful piece of satirical pantomime mixing cartoon-like characters with deadly serious sentiments about black-on-black crime, music made with the help of Lee Perry. His Judge 400 Years was a fierce, authoritarian Ethiopian magistrate who routinely sentenced rude boys to crazy prison sentences in order to save the Black nation. Buster was now a Nation of Islam convert and saw this as nothing less than an artist’s duty to the community.
The song, immediately popular was followed up by The Appeal which offered a chance of mercy–only to have the judge sentence the lawyer to life and increase the rude boys’ sentence to six thousand years.
Prince Buster on Judge Dread
After Judge Dread there came a whole range of anti-rude boy rocksteady records, including Stranger Cole’s Drop The Ratchet, Bob Andy’s Crimes Don’t Pay, Keith McCarthy’s Everybody Rude Now and Alton Ellis’s Cry Tough. But others sided with the rudies, with Dandy Livingston’s We Are Rude and Honey Boy Martin’s Dreader Than Dread. One of the most effective replies to Buster’s song came from one of the people who helped make Judge Dread such a hit in the first place: Lee Perry.
The Defenders Set Them Free 1967
Perry – partly aiming to get the maximum mileage from the theme – set this up as a direct answer to Buster’s hit, pointing out to the judge that the rude boys were forced into their life of violence by a crooked system. Perry, like Prince Buster had been working around the sound systems and recording studios for a decade, and was always one for a business opportunity. But the lyrics showed a level of black pride that pre-dated even the African-American pioneers like James Brown and Curtis Mayfield.
They are from a poor generation,
Having no education, no qualification,
So they are driven to desperation,
Can’t get a job, so they are forced to rob
I’m not suggesting that they should, but as you know,
A hungry man is an angry one…
Peter Tosh and The Wailers – Stepping Razor 1968
The original Stepping Razor was written by Joe Higgs, an early mentor and closer friend of the Wailers who had – as Higgs and Wilson, made one of the first indigenous recordings (Manny Oh). He was a slight man, so in his hands the song was a matter of pride.
Peter Tosh, though, was an intimidating 6 feet four, so the song had an altogether different impact with him singing.
The Specials – A Message to You (Rudy)
Ska and rocksteady (better known to British ears as Blue Beat, after the pioneering record label) was familiar to UK ears, but the 2Tone movement in the early seventies started a whole new ska-based youth movement. Back in Jamaica, ska was old school and representative of the colonial era. 2Tone emerged from the punk era and was spiced up with typically silly music hall humour and a new multi-racial context, and many of the bands were made up of black and white kids who had grown up together in the same neighborhoods.
Leading 2Tone band The Specials chose to re-work Dandy Livingston’s rocksteady hit ‘A Message To You’ at breakneck speed. In England, the term rude boy had already changed. Even though the young 2Tone bands adopted the same fashions as their namesakes in 60s Kingston – sharp suits, pork-pie hats, shiny shoes – the context was different and beneath the cartoon violence was a peaceful and busy social scene.
“We don’t have to say to people, he’s black and I’m white, or I’m black and he’s white. I mean, people can see for themselves. If they can’t they must be blind or something, because black and white are there. They’re playing together and loving every minute of it…That’s love and unity.” Ranking Roger – Singer, The Beat
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