30 British Black Music Albums To Mark African History Month @ 30
I’ve always found list-type pieces most difficult to write. Having been a fan and also worked within the music industry for over forty years, part of that time as a journalist, you can imagine the number of albums one would have accumulated.
Not having revisited several of these albums for decades, this piece seemed like an uphill task, until I discovered my eureka moment at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Brixton.
On one side of the BCA wall is a mural depicting the covers of the albums highlighted within the current ‘Black Sound: Black British Music’s Journey Of Creative Independence’ exhibition, which ends November 4 2017.
So I decided to approach this piece by focusing on the albums on that wall that I have owned or consumed via streaming, and include a few not featured in the exhibition.
I love American artists, from James Brown, Isleys, Ohio Players, Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder. I also love African-Caribbean artists such as Culture, Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Third World, Buju Banton, Garnett Silk and Tarrus Riley, not to mention continental African artists such as Angelique Kidjo and Lucky Dube. However, as founder of BritishBlackMusic.com/Black Music Congress, my focus simply had to be on British recordings.
Of course this list is subjective. There are many albums by commercially successful artists such as Corinne Bailey Rae, and underground artists such as Akala, which couldn’t be included simply because of the limited number allowed. This list reflects my age, and the fact that I still haven’t fully got on board the MP3 and mobile way of listening to records – still love the CD, and lately vinyl. And I’m also not down with albums that warrant Parental Advisory stickering. That’s in part why there’s a paucity of albums of the late 2000s.
On the BCA mural are Stormzy’s 2017 chart-topping ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ and Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’, which reached no. 2 in 2016. Although they aren’t in my list, I acknowledge these self-released albums for their commercial success.
So as we mark African History Month @ 30 in the UK, here is my list of albums in chronological order spanning five decades and several genres.
OK, enjoy, go discover, and let the debate begin!
Osibisa ‘Osibisa’ 1971
This pan-African band managed to cross over their West African and African Caribbean influence mixed with a bit of rock and loads of jazz long before world music was coined.
Cymande ‘Cymande’ 1972
This band mixed Rasta inspirations, jazz, funk to create dance-floor classics such as ‘Bra’ and ‘The Message’, both sampled by ‘90s American rappers.
Aswad ‘Aswad’ 1976
This creditable and insightful debut highlighted socio-political themes, like the magnificent ‘Back To Africa’, which spoke to disenfranchised African youths and Rastafarians.
The Real Thing ‘4 From 8’ 1977
The Amoo brothers’ creative control on their sophomore set delivered a sophisticated offering, including the jazz/soul socio-conscious standard ‘Children Of The Ghetto’.
Hi Tension ‘Hi Tension’ 1978
The only album by this group from Brent, it contains two crossover Brit-funk hits, ‘Hi Tension’ and ‘British Hustle’, which respectively made the top 20 and 10.
Steel Pulse ‘Handsworth Revolution’ 1978
This Brummie band helped define the British reggae band sound with songs about Marcus Garvey, Rastafari, and disenfranchised African youth vignettes.
Tradition ‘Moving On’ 1978
Another band out of the north-west London borough of Brent, Tradition covered roots and lovers rock, of which the latter’s typified by ‘Every Little Beat Of My Heart’.
Light Of The World ‘Light Of The World’ 1979
The opening track ‘Swinging’ powerfully showed off the band’s jazz-funk chops – riffing guitars and horns, phat b-line, and irresistible percussive grooves.
Imagination ‘Body Talk’ 1981
The band’s questionable fashion sense shouldn’t detract from the top-notch production, phat bass, Leee John’s attention-grabbing vocals, and fine songcraft that straddles Brit-funk and disco.
Linx ‘Intuition’ 1981
Oh gosh – how many times did I play this album? Lots! Simply because Linx produced clever, pop-friendly Brit-funk gems like the classic ‘You’re Lying’.
Courtney Pine ‘Journey To The Urge Within’ 1986
Although this first British jazz album to breach the pop top 40 has some fine original material, the Sasaye Greene-featured cover of The Real Thing’s soulful socio-commentary ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ absolutely dominates.
Neneh Cherry ‘Raw Like Sushi’ 1988
A sassy rapper, as evidenced by the electro-driven UK and US top 5 hit ‘Buffalo Stance’, Neneh demonstrated fine singing talent on the part-rapped cuts like ‘Inna City Mamma’.
Soul II Soul ‘Club Classics Vol. 1’ 1989
A chart-topping album, its beats were copied by others for years. It contains the underground fave ‘Fairplay’ and the massive ‘Keep On Movin’’
Omar ‘There’s Nothing Like This’ 1990
In 1990 multi-instrumentalist and singer Omar’s debut’s title track was the lick on pirate and emerging legal black music radio before a major re-release of the album a year later.
Rebel MC ‘Rebel MC’ 1990
This includes crossover hits like the reggae-infused ‘Just Keep Rockin’’, though on ‘Street Tuff’, he had reason for explaining himself by rapping “Is he a Yankee? No I’m a Londoner”.
Massive Attack ‘Blue Lines’ 1991
Very innovative and the calling card for the multi-genre blending trip-hop style. Contains the sublime ‘Unfinished Sympathy’.
FBI ‘F.B.I.’ 1992
Discovered this mid-1970s album from Kongo’s 1992 rare groove-inspired re-release. Contains real live, feel-good soul, funk, and jazz-funk, like ‘Talking About Love’.
Maxi Priest ‘Fe Real’ 1992
Laden with the ubiquitous Soul II Soul breakbeat, this radio-friendly, pop and soul tinged reggae album contains three modest hit singles including ‘One More Chance’.
Incognito ‘Vibes & Scribes’ 1992
With Incognito you get quality jazz funk, such as ‘Closer To The Feeling, instrumentals like ‘Pyramids’, and delicious vocal-led jazzy soul cuts.
Fela Ransome-Kuti & Nigeria 70 ‘Fela’s London Scene’ 1994
Discovered this 1971 recording from Stern’s 1994 re-issue. This established Fela’s Afrobeat template of socio-politically-tipped pidgin and Yoruba singing/rapping and instrumental solos over rock-solid rhythms.
Goldie ‘Timeless’ 1995
The 20 minute-plus ‘Timeless’ suite, dominated by Diane Charlemagne’s amazing vocals and sophisticated arrangements, established this album as a drum & bass classic.
Mark Morrison ‘Return Of The Mack’ 1996
Credible R&B album that even the Yanks bought into. Talented Mark’s debut produced seven UK hit singles, including the chart-topping title track, which reached no. 2 in the US but sold more copies than what was no.1!
Craig David ‘Born To Do It’ 2000
This slick R&B/garage chart-topper would have had three chart-topping singles had the record company not mis-calculated stocks of my favourite – the mellifluous pop-tinged ‘Walking Away’.
Various Artists ‘Black British Swing’ 2001
Swing tracks recorded pre-Windrush in the 1930s/40s London by African big bands led by the likes of the sauve Guyanese Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson.
Ms Dynamite ‘A Little Deeper’ 2002
Garage rapper Ms Dynamite demonstrated her talent as an R&B singer, with a little reggae in the mix, on this Mercury Prize winner. Dy-Na-Mi-Tee!
Beverley Knight ’Who I Am’ 2002
The third of her consistently quality albums, this contains the rocky, hip-hoppy bittersweet ‘Shoulda Woulda Coulda’, and ‘Gold’, one of the deepest ballads ever!
Various Artists ‘London Is The Place For Me Vol. 2’ 2005
1950s African British diaspora’s multi-cultural offer of South African kwela, West African highlife, and Caribean calypo including Mona Baptiste’s ironically blissful ‘Calypso Blues’.
Silas Zephania ’War Begins Where Reason Ends’ 2010
Proof that conscious rap can rock and still drop knowledge, be it bigging up mum, commenting on war, or delivering head-nodding rhymes on African history.
Labrinth ‘Electronic Earth’ 2012
This producer-turned-artist proved most innovative with electronica, synthy-pop, rock and hip-hop forming the building blocks of this hits-laden album.
Emeli Sande ‘Our Version of Events’ 2012
From the moment one hears the rocking breakbeats, classy arrangements and Emeli’s dulcet tones on ‘Heaven’, a pleasing listening experience is assured. This was 2012’s biggest-selling album and the runner-up in 2013.
Kwaku is a music industry and history consultant. He’s the founder of BritishBlackMusic.com/Black Music Congress, which focuses on domestic black music, discussions and networking, and music industry issues and education. He’s recently developed the ‘British Black Music History Through The Ages’ educational video, and is the convener of the African History Month UK Network Conference on Nov. 18 2017 in London. Music activities are posted at www.BBM.eventbrite.com and African history events at www.AfricanHistoryPlus.eventbrite.com.