Seventy years ago this month, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury near London carrying passengers from Jamaica in the Caribbean, and a number of other countries. An advert had been placed in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport to the UK for anyone who wanted to go to live and work there, and just under 500 people took up the offer. The British Nationality Act of 1948 had just been passed, giving citizenship to ‘British subjects’ from commonwealth countries — former British colonies — and a number of black servicemen who had fought for the Allies in World War Two also decided to make the journey to the ‘mother country’.
The British government encouraged immigration from commonwealth countries, because post-World War Two labour shortages meant that they needed people to work in the newly-created National Health Service, on the rebooted transport networks and so on. This influx of newly nationalised men and women who followed from the Caribbean in the subsequent years became known in the UK as the Windrush Generation.
All well and good, but what’s this got to do with DJ Mag? Well, it just so happens that some of the children of the Windrush Generation played a hugely significant part in building the UK dance scene — just as their parents had helped bolster the post-war infrastructure. Lately though, as anyone who follows the news will know, some older folk have been caught up in the current government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy which has, disgracefully, led to people being deported or not allowed to access the NHS after living, working and paying taxes in the UK for forty or fifty years or more.
It’s a shameful episode in recent British history, one that has developed while writing this piece — claiming the scalp of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, caught out lying to Parliament about immigration targets. But we want to celebrate the immense contribution of some of the ‘Children Of Windrush’ black and mixed-race British DJs in helping build our electronic music scene.
Ashley Beedle (left) and baby Ashley with his mum (right)
“My parents came in ’55 and ’56,” says music legend Norman Jay MBE. “They didn’t come on the Windrush itself but they came from [Caribbean country] Grenada. They both ended up living in Notting Hill, funnily enough, and working in and around northwest London.
“My dad was a grade one civil engineer on London Transport, having worked his way up from going to night school and getting all his certificates,” Norman continues. “My mum did various manual jobs, and then she became a childminder.”
“My dad came over in ’56, and then he sent for my mum,” says Bristolian junglist, Roni Size. “They were together already, but couldn’t afford to come at the same time.” Roni’s immediate family ended up in Bristol, his mum working in the local hospital and his dad in the local Cadbury’s factory and as a builder, but he remembers as a kid extended family coming from Nottingham, Birmingham and London for family gatherings.
“Both our parents are from Jamaica and arrived in the UK in the 1960s,” say drum & bass pioneers Fabio & Grooverider, who were awarded the Outstanding Contribution gong at DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards in 2015. “Both of our parents worked in the transport industry and were brought over to help rebuild the country.”
“My mum arrived from Barbados in November 1960 and went straight to Leavesden Hospital in Hertfordshire after landing at Gatwick,” UK house music pioneer Ashley Beedle explains. “The matron put her straight onto the ward without any training and nicknamed her ‘Topsy’ — she was never called ‘Nurse Layne’! She met my dad, who was a hospital porter — he sported a blonde quiff and rode a motorbike. Allegedly, my mum became the first black ‘ton up’ girl when my dad took her up to the famous Ace Café on the back of his motorbike!”
’Ton-up boys’ was the name given to rockers who rode their motorbikes past 100mph, but Ashley’s mum would experience racism from both the UK and Barbados for marrying his white rocker dad. “When they married, the local and national newspapers came and reported on the wedding, as a mixed-race marriage was so rare,” Ash says.
Ashley was born in the UK in 1962, and his family moved to Barbados when he was seven months old. “My mother experienced racism from other Bajans and from white officials too,” he explains. “Barbados was still a Crown Colony and didn’t gain independence until November 1966. My mother couldn’t accompany my father to social functions; she couldn’t gain access to any white members-only bars and clubs, and as a couple they would be stopped and questioned by the police. As a result, we moved back to the UK after three years and settled in Harrow.” London had its own share of racists at the time, though. “Racism was the norm,” says Ash.
“I was thinking the other day about the Commonwealth, and when you think about it, it’s 53 countries that England colonised. When you think about it that way, it’s a disgrace.”
– Jumpin Jack Frost’s Mum, Ingrid
The Windrush generation may have been invited to the UK from the Caribbean to help rebuild the country, but most could scarcely anticipate the appalling level of racism they would experience on arrival.
“My mum and dad are both from Guyana originally, which is considered part of the Caribbean due to strong cultural links,” says jungle stalwart Jumpin Jack Frost (real name: Nigel Thompson) down the phone-line to DJ Mag. “When did they arrive in the UK? Let me just put my mum on the phone, one second…”
Frost’s mum Ingrid comes on the line. “I arrived in June 1961, I think Nigel’s dad came the year before,” she begins, explaining how she ended up living in Brixton. “Did I experience racism in my early days here? Oh yes, yes. There were situations where you’d see a job advertised, you go for the job, and when they actually see who you are then suddenly the job’s gone. That sort of thing.”
“And at school there was a lot of name-calling,” Ingrid continues. “The way the children got treated at school was also an issue — because they were black, they were treated in a certain way, put into certain streams. But later on I found that people whose children had been told ‘You will never make this, you will never do that’ have turned out to be doctors and lawyers and all this sort of thing.”
“For a lot of black people who came here, their original idea was that you were gonna spend five years here and then go back,” she explains. “But in reality you get into relationships, get married, have children. We came over to get a better life, but we found a lot of things where we thought, ‘Oh dear, is this better?’ When they get into financial difficulties, they always try to blame ‘the people who have come here and taken our jobs, taken our houses’.”
It’s an absolute pleasure talking to Frost’s mum — who doesn’t really like the term ‘Windrush generation’ herself — and after a while she’s onto the history of slavery; an appalling episode in Britain’s history. “Initially it was from Africa, and they were forcibly taken to these places like the Caribbean,” she says. “I was thinking the other day about the Commonwealth, and when you think about it, it’s 53 countries that England colonised. When you think about it that way, it’s a disgrace. A lot of these things that were built up — the cotton industry, the mills and all that — was on the blood of black people. The sugar industry… all this money coming from the colonies.”
Jumpin Jack Frost (left) and baby Frost with his mum, Ingrid (right)
Norman Jay talks of how his mum and dad lived on eight or nine streets around the Notting Hill area — within a mile of the Grenfell Tower when it was built later on — in quick succession in the late ‘50s. “My mum said that every four to six weeks they were getting evicted or chucked out and forced to move,” Norman, who is currently writing his memoirs, says. This was an era when signs saying things like ‘No coloureds’ or ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ frequently appeared in the windows of properties to let.
In the late 1950s in London, white working class teddy boys would frequently racially abuse black West Indian migrants to Britain. Fuelled by the scapegoating rhetoric of far-right groups like Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, peddling claptrap like ‘Keep Britain White’, there was a number of violent attacks on black people in west London in late August 1958 — leaving at least five black men unconscious.
After an incident where some teddy boys assaulted a mixed-race couple (Raymond Morrison and his white Swedish partner Majbritt), approximately 300 teddy boys began rampaging through Notting Hill armed with iron bars, knives and belts — breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find. The shocked black community was forced to fight back in self-defence.
The ‘racial riots’, as the press called them at the time, continued for several days over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Senior police officers tried to dismiss the riots as “the work of ruffians, both coloured and white” hellbent on hooliganism, but secret police papers released 44 years later stated that they were overwhelmingly the work of a white working class mob out to get members of the black community at the time.
“My parents lived two or three streets away from where that whole 1958 race riot kicked off,” remembers Norman Jay. “My dad had to run the gauntlet, trying to avoid those gangs of teddy boys. Harrowing stories.”
“My parents lived in Notting Hill before I was born, and when the riots happened they moved to Hampstead,” says DJ and singer Rhoda Dakar. “The race riots of ’58 made them move.”
Rhoda’s dad first came to the UK in 1923. He’d fought for the British in World War One before being shipped back to Jamaica, she says, and lived quite a nomadic existence around Europe, spending time in Paris and becoming immersed in the jazz scene. “In 1938 they knew war was coming, so they started ejecting all the foreign nationals, and he had to come to the UK cos he was British,” Rhoda says. “Because he’d learned French, in Paris, he said ‘I spoke fluent French, so I was a Frenchman. Then when I came to England, I was just another black man’. Which is an indictment really.”
“Our families brought culture, which is inbred now in the fabric of British society. The swagger, the language, the mindset… the thing about the musical influence was, my parents listened to Elvis as well.”
— Roni Size
In response to the west London riots, a Caribbean Carnival was held early the following year to celebrate West Indian culture — the precursor to the awesome annual Notting Hill Carnival, which now attracts over a million revellers every August bank holiday weekend with its parade of floats and renowned soundsystems.
Norman Jay, of course, would have a long association playing Carnival over the years, turning many young people onto house music and other styles for the first time. “Over 30-odd years I’ve successfully managed to integrate 10,000 people at my Good Times soundsystem at Notting Hill — the mixture of people was like a proper Coca Cola advert, y’know?” he says. “That’s what I’ve always strived to achieve.”
The black migrants who came to the UK from the Caribbean in the ’50s and ‘60s brought with them a rich cultural heritage. Norman Jay remembers family celebrations where extra speakers would be plugged into the radiogram and aunties and uncles would bring records, while Roni Size talks about his dad’s “prize collection of seven-inch records, about 20 records which they’d play on rotation”, especially recalling tracks like the rocksteady heavy monster sound of ‘Monkey Spanner’ by Dave & Ansel Collins and calypso cut ’Shame & Scandal In The Family’.
Roni chats fondly about one of his uncles who had a pure calypso record collection. “Everyone had a gramophone in their house, you’d stack up all the seven-inches on it and they just came on one after another,” he smiles.
“Our families brought culture, which is inbred now in the fabric of British society,” Roni continues. “The swagger, the language, the mindset… the thing about the musical influence was, my parents listened to Elvis as well. And Pat Boone, but then they’d also listen to The Mighty Diamonds. It was more the celebration — like with Carnival. The main thing that the Windrush generation brought here was the Jamaican spirit. And white rum.”