British music lost an unsung hero recently with the tragic passing of David Emmanuel, AKA Smiley Culture.

The apparent taking of his own life as the police came to take him away is a shocking and unexpected outcome to his recent legal troubles. Emmanuel’s defining moment, his 1984 single “Police Officer” has become tragically prophetic: “Every time me drive me car police a stop me superstar”. A statement on the unjust treatment of black people by the police, its message now has a heartbreaking resonance.

I first heard about Smiley’s untimely demise hours after publishing an interview with his cohort in the legendary Saxon Sound System and lyrical foil Tippa Irie. Tippa was able to shed some light for me on Smiley’s and Saxon’s position as an inspiration for black people who faced discrimination on their own doorsteps in London in the 80s: “There was more love in the dances back then, and the sounds clashes were great and most of the time sold out, with people just wanting to enjoy themselves and get away from the trouble we face as black people living in the UK.”

…their accents blended Jamaican patois with a distinct London slant…

Smiley and Saxon Sound were incredibly important in the development of not only Reggae music in the UK but all urban music to follow. In the early 80s their pioneering “fast-chat” vocals directly inspired the still developing Hip-Hop movement while their accents blended Jamaican patois with a distinct London slant, a much needed celebration of black culture at a time when racism was endemic in British society and a sense of displacement was widespread for minorities in the UK.

Growing up in Stockwell, South London Emmanuel became inspired at an early age by the Sound System records from Jamaica that initially found their way to London in the suitcases of Caribbean immigrants. These records proved to be so influential that an explosion of UK-based labels and Sound Systems would bring Reggae to the mainstream as well as inspiring generations of UK artists to come.

Smiley Culture’s legacy and impact is profound…

In the early 80s, Emmanuel hooked up with fellow South London residents Tippa Irie, Asher Senator, Maxi Priest and Papa San (amongst others) who were the masters of ceremonies for the Saxon Sound System, a travelling carnival/live show that represented UK and Jamaican Reggae and Dub music, referencing the style of Jamaican Deejays (MC’s) like Ranking Joe or U-Roy while at the same time relating their own trials and tribulations in early 80s South London.

Saxon would go on to dominate the Reggae world with their Deejay’s even penetrating the mainstream, clocking up top-40 hits (and even appearing on Top of the Pops!) as well as international acclaim winning the World Clash, the World Cup for global Sound Systems in 1994. But Smiley Culture would have the most success on other labels, namely Fashion Records, the Dub Vendor record shop affiliated label and recording studio.

Although Smiley Culture’s legacy and impact is profound, mainstream success for him was limited, and 1984 was the focal point. This was the year he released the two singles for which he is most well-known, the aforementioned “Police Officer” and the pioneering “Cockney Translation” as well as his debut album “Tongue in Cheek”.

Although Smiley’s period of mainstream acclaim was all to brief, his place in the pantheon of UK musicians is forever secured through artists such as The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Roots Manuva and pretty much every Garage/Hip Hop/Jungle MC ever, who would not exist today without the music of Smiley Culture.

David Emmanuel AKA Smiley Culture | February 2, 1963 – March 15, 2011


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