by Eric Doumerc
Black Slate was formed in 1974 in London and began to gig on the London reggae scene, working as a backing band for visiting Jamaican artists such as Dennis Brown or Delroy Wilson. They gradually acquired a reputation as a skillful reggae band and recorded their first single, "Sticks Man" in 1976. In 1978, they released the single "Mind Your Motion," went on a nationwide tour and released their first album, Black Slate, in 1979. In 1980, their single "Amigo" rose to number 7 in the British reggae charts and was very popular thanks to its dub qualities.
1981 saw the release of Sirens in the City and of the single "Boom Boom" which was very successful in Britain and in France. Six Plus One followed in 1982. In 1998 a collection of their greatest hits was released by the Ensign label (Amigo, 1998).
As Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton pointed out in their Rough Guide, the members of Black Slate grew up in England and were united by their Black British background. Most of them had spent at least half their lives in England and, as a consequence, their songs reflected the Black British community's concerns. A case in point is their most successful single, "Sticks Man" :Sticks man, why you do that?With its scat intro, grumbling bass line, eerie keyboard sound and sombre lyrics, "Sticks Man" signalled that Black British reggae had come of age and was at least the equal of its Jamaican counterpart.
Robber man, why you do that?
Say it was your mother,
Say it was your father.
Would you like that?
You go to work every day,
At the end of the week, you get your pay.
Sticks man, why you do that?
Robber man, why you do that?
You no rob the bank,
You no rob the rich.
You know black and white is the same,
No bother tell I-man that.
You say that you take away the tax
That they took from us.
You also take it from the Blacks.
If you tief a white, you will tief a black.
Hustle, hustle inna right way, my brethren! I beg you!
It's the truth.
You have to bow to truth and rights! Bow!
That song was released in 1976, at a time when tensions between Jamaican immigrants, Black British people and the police forces in England were rising. The 1976 Notting Hill Carnival held that year had ended in violence when the presence of the police had angered the local community. In the 1970's, a social major issue in England was the SUS laws, or Suspected Persons Acts, which allowed the police to stop and search any person they thought might have the intention of committing a crime, so the police could arrest any person they thought was "loitering with intent." The early 1970's were also marked by a worldwide oil crisis which led to a rise in the unemployment rate in England for the whole population, but the unemployment rate for the black population in particular rose twice as much as the one for the native English population. Partially ecause of the crisis, immigrants were blamed and scapegoated for the lack of jobs and stereotyped as violent "muggers." Between 1971 and 1973, some papers began to use the word" mugging" in relation with crime and the issue of violence in some black neighborhoods like Handsworth, Birmingham, which could give the impression that mugging was a specifically "black" problem. In such a context, Jamaicans became unfairly associated with crime and violence.
But in "Sticks Man", the group dared speak the unspeakable and they addressed the issue of black crime. "Sticks man" at the time was the latest Jamaican slang for "thief" or "mugger." Instead of writing an anti-police number , the group focused on the problem of juvenile delinquency within the black community- black on black crime, as the phrase goes. The message seems to be that these young muggers provided bogus excuses to rob other people and did not "hustle inna the right way." Instead of crime, they are encouraged to turn to "truth and rights," that is, the more positive force of Rastafarianism.
Black Slate addressed another specifically Black British concern, the SUS laws, on their 1981 album Sirens in the City with the song "Message to Mr Susman." The point of view we get in that song is that of a young West Indian who walks the streets of London and who feels that he is being watched all the time by the police :Standing on the corner,Black Slate also released songs about the power of music ("Reggae Music," "Rasta Reggae") and were very successful with their 1980 single "Amigo" whose simple but compelling lyric "Jah no-go, no-go mislead you all; Jah no-go desert you all; leave it to Jah!" struck a chord with the West Indian record-buying public in England. That track was characterized by pristine harmony, a great bass and drum workout, and a neat guitar sound which all made for a rootsy and urban sound.
Watching every move I make.
Behind my heels
Each and every day!
Each and every day!
1981 saw the release of "Boom Boom," a new version of an old rock steady tune by The Jamaicans (Tommy Cowan's band) entitled "Ba Ba Boom" recorded for the late Duke Reid in 1967. Black Slate's take on the song emphasised the power of roots reggae although it kept the reference to rock steady which came from the original lyrics :People, get ready!Black Slate did not only work in the roots reggae mode or vein and were keen to experiment with various influences, as evidenced by their 1981 track "Sirens in the City" with its laid-back, soul-influenced groove which belied its very serious message about surviving and "making it" in the city.
It's time to rock steady!
Ba Ba Boom time is here.
Get on your feet now, and make it a treat
Rasta time is here.
The group also released a dub album entitled Ogima in1981, the title-track of which was an echo-laden, heavy and atmospheric dub version of "Amigo." That dub track featured arresting keyboard parts and fluid guitar lines which generated an eerie atmosphere. Six Plus One Dub, the dub version of their Six Plus One LP, came out in 1982 and contained very good instrumental tracks like "Feel A Dub," once again with that characteristic keyboard sound.
Like Aswad, Black Roots, and Steel Pulse, Black Slate showed that British reggae was a reality, with its own sound and its own thematic concerns, and it is to be regretted that this band seems to have been inactive since the mid-1980's.
Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae- The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, 1997.
Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae International. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.
Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Who's Who
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