It’s a Bris Ting
Anyone who has lived in or even visited the city of Bristol knows it is unique. In many ways it is a kept secret. And yet, Bristolian figures and artifacts are known worldwide (e.g Banksy, the ‘Bristol Sound’ of Massive Attack and Portishead). A number of factors have contributed to the character of Bristol, not least its history and geography. Phil Johnson, in his great book on trip hop, notes that Bristol is a ‘difficult city to read and it takes some time to get beyond the rather bland surface it presents to outsiders.’ For those in the know, of course, it is a vibrant and diverse collage of music scenes and has been for a long time. A new generation of young people that grew up on hip-hop (amongst other styles) are now using the genre to celebrate the city and its history in important and exciting ways.
Bristol hip-hop, like many types of hip-hop, celebrates the local. It is not uncommon to hear names of suburbs, streets, postcodes and local rappers in hip-hop tracks. Music videos commonly employ the trope of familiar places, venues, and local figures in the community. Recent Bristolian artists have successfully portrayed their depictions of (dare I say love letters to?) the city: take, for example, ‘Bristol Love’ (2011) by Laid Blak. The music video shows a range of iconic and some infamous images of the city that define Bristolian identities: the music video opens with an image of the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge followed by the Victoria Rooms (home of the University of Bristol music department). This is followed by store fronts of Stokes Croft massage parlours, St. Werburghs Food & Wine (on Mina Road), a Big Issue seller on Park Street, Turbo Island, street signs in BS4 and BS5, and football fans in City and Rovers jerseys. We also see images of graffiti, the ‘Mild Mild West’ Banksy outside Hamilton House and various pieces from the See No Evil exhibit on Nelson Street. Bristol becomes its own protagonist in these videos, from the rolling green hills in the not-too-distant distance to the cans of Natch and Special Brew that adorn the streets.
Multiple Bristol-based hip-hop videos reference current places and often suggest the rapper’s sense of place within them. R.E.’s ‘Bristol Ain’t A Game’ mentions Henbury, Easton, Hartcliffe, Kingswood, St. Werburghs and tries to rhyme ‘Knowle West’ with ‘Noel Eds’ (Noel Edmonds). In the video for the remix of K*Ners’ ‘Bristol Grammar’ (featuring K*Ners, Suge, Carasel, Pine, B’tol, Blacksmith and Twizzy), we see the graffiti of Stokes Croft (including the ‘Boycott Tesco’ piece), mentions of Stapleton Road, K*Ners on the M32 Motorway, and cycle path signs (to St. Werburghs and UWE, or to Bristol Temple Meads and St. Pauls).
Optimistically, perhaps this is a way to territorialize Bristol in ways that previous generations of Black Bristolians could not. For example, the creation of the M32 had huge effect on the shape and character of the areas it bisects. K*Ners on top of the Motorway, in a way, dominates it, and doesn’t let the car-only space dictate his ability to traverse the city by foot. In a hilly city like Bristol, is it easy to depict dominance visually– the rappers in ‘Bristol Grammar’ on top of the Downs of Clifton, overlooking the Avon Gorge and the Suspension Bridge (questioning the psychogeography of Clifton as the playground for the white-middle class only). The remix features a number of rappers all sharing verses, while the original version by K*Ners also shows images of the city: walking on Pero’s Bridge , images of Cabot Tower, the bus station, and other reminders of the slave trade and racial discrimination (the 1963 bus boycott).
In addition to hip-hop referencing (or mapping) the current state of affairs (Chuck D famously called rap the ‘Black CNN’), it also maps its history within the track itself. There is the direct Caribbean musical influence in Laid Blak’s ‘Bristol Love’, but history is also embedded directly in lyrics: one rapper heard at Carnival (who presumably went to Colston’s Primary School), rapped the line, ‘It’s a shame I went to school named after a slave owner’. In the ‘Bristol Grammar’ Remix, Suge raps ‘The graffiti on the walls tell the history of the city, from slavery to riots in the 80s are you with me?’, referring to both Bristol’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and the St. Pauls Rebellion/‘riots’.
Of course, music’ ability to map places and spaces through lyrical reference pre-date hip-hop. We only have to look 30 years ago to another Bristol-based music group: the Roots Reggae band Black Roots. The first song on their debut EP was entitled ‘Bristol Rock’ and include the lyrics ‘Rock Bristol Rock, St. Pauls Jammin’. Like in hip-hop, the song mentions specific streets: in this case, Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill. As Martin Langford writes in his excellent liner notes to The Bristol Reggae Explosion: 1978-1983 (2010), ‘unfortunately for the band the reality is that both Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road are named after long since demolished pubs and contrary to the persistent myth have absolutely no direct link to the slave trade.’ In a way, for many listeners, the exact origins of the street names don’t matter. What it does is help embed reputation to certain areas, what a region is symbolized to represent, which sometimes trumps its actual history.
To return to Laid Blak, musically, ‘Bristol Love’ directly demonstrates its linkage to the Afrikan Caribbean heritage of Bristol, as the song is infused with reggae rhythms, melody and dialect. In this way, the song celebrates musical heritage within the track stylistically, and the accompanying video celebrates the city and its diverse regions visually. There is a great moment in the video that focuses on specific venues, pubs and clubs including Lakota, The Golden Lion, Cosies Wine Bar, The Croft and Lebeqs Tavern.
Bristol is full of these cultural venues, sometimes places for music and dancing, sometimes for other purposes. But unlike more visible musical landmarks like The Victoria Rooms, St. George’s, Colston Hall and the 02 Academy, Bristol’s historic venues can sometimes exist under the radar despite their tremendous influence.
Turn back the clock 30, 40, even 50 years to a time when the Afrikan Caribbean population of Bristol, many of which were new arrivals, weren’t welcome in a number of venues in the city. One solution to the lack of entertainment venues for Afrikan Caribbeans were the ‘Blues Clubs’, house parties where soundsystems ran late into the night and the early morning. While not a music venue in the traditional sense, the music played at these parties had a tremendous influence on its listeners, and on later 80s and 90s developments in pop music. It was a place for expression for people who had fewer places to do so, and held very different hours to mainstream pubs and clubs, starting later and running much later in the night (and the morning). To quote Paul Sullivan, these clubs were a site of ‘cultural expression, social cohesion and autonomy for the Afro-Caribbean community.’
It is important that these types of scenes are remembered, amongst other reasons, to paint a more accurate picture of Bristol’s musical heritage and to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of a less-visible musical community. The Bristol Record Office is one way to archive this history: through the Bristol Black Archives Partnership, there are images, films, newspaper clippings, paperwork and other pieces that have been deposited. For St. Pauls musical communities, documents include flyers, programmes and footage from St. Pauls Carnival and The Bamboo Club, as well as the Arts Opportunity Theatre which ran in the early 1980s, staging reggae-themed musicals and plays. As the BRO is funded by the people through Council tax, anything deposited remains available to the public. They are open to further deposits and donations which will help expand the collection to the benefit of future generations.
Bristol Archive Records have done an incredible job with re-issuing and celebrating music of the past that was in danger of being forgotten by future generations, and the Lottery Funded Dubplate2Dubstep project has been an excellent way for young people to both teach and learn about Bristol’s black music history. The film they created from the project is incredible and informative.
Another emerging way to archive history is to map communities online. Know Your Bristol on the Move has created an online map (and mobile app, coming soon) with a music history layer which can also help to archive this history. With much participatory mapping, many of its possibilities are up to the user: one could map parade routes, link to clips and videos, and celebrate and acknowledge some of the lesser-known venues in this history.
In honour of Black History Month, and as part of the music strand of the Know Your Bristol Project, there will be a day at Trinity Centre on 11 Oct called Scenes, Soundsystems and Shebeens. The day will explore, remember and celebrate Bristol’s African Caribbean music heritage of the 1970s and ’80s through talks, discussion, archive material, great food and music to make you move. The event is free and is from 4-9pm, and we encourage people to bring their memories and artifacts to share in the general discussion. We are also hosting a double feature at the Cube Cinema on 27 Oct at 7:30pm starting with local filmmaker Clive Smith’s From Past to Present (2009) which celebrates the Afrikan Caribbean music scene in Bristol from the 60s until now, followed by a screening at 9pm of Babylon (1981), a film that depicts the struggle by David, a young mechanic by day, to get half-way across London to a show where he is MC for a Reggae sound system. The film, with music by Denis Bovell, is a wonderful and challenging snapshot of what is was like growing up in the Afrikan Caribbean community in 1980s London.
In this spirit of celebrating Bristol, present and past, I have compiled an ongoing ‘Know your Bristol’ playlist: songs and accompanying music videos that directly celebrate the city and all its idiosyncrasies. No doubt the list could be longer, and to reflect the co-production ethos of Map Your Bristol, I encourage people to suggest more in the comments below. There is something special about Bristol, and a number of artists, writers and musicians have tried to put their finger on it. Perhaps Bristol rapper Buggsy says it best: it’s a ‘Bris Ting’.
Black Roots—“Bristol Rock” (1983)
R.E.–“Bristol Ain’t a Game” (2007)
Laid Blak–“Bristol Love” (2011)
Grimz–“I’ll Be Laffin” (2011)
Ellis, Wish, Gilly, Dashvillz–“Southwest” (2012)
Buggsy “Gully Side” (2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMHy97bXTeo
K*Ners “Bristol Grammar” (2013)
K*Ners–“Bristol Grammar” (2013) Remix FT, Suge, Carasel, Pine, B’tol, Blacksmith, Twizzy