The rude boy has come a long way from his origins in Jamaican subculture, as shown in a new photography exhibition celebrating the movement's distinctive style.
It was towards the end of 1963 that the Wailers released their first single, Simmer Down, on the legendary Studio One label in Jamaica. The song was written and sung by an 18-year-old Bob Marley, the lyrics intended to placate his mother, Cedella, who was worried about the company her son was keeping in the Trench Town ghetto of the Jamaican capital, Kingston, where they lived. Simmer Down was aimed directly at the often sharply dressed young men locally known as "rude boys", who were making headlines in the then newly independent island with their violent and antisocial behaviour. "Simmer down, oh control your temper/Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter," sang Marley over a frenetic rhythm by the studio's stellar house band, the Skatalites. Produced by Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Simmer Down was not the first song to address the rude boy phenomenon. The previous year Stranger Cole had released Ruff and Tough, produced by Coxsone's rival, Duke Reid, a song now recognised as the first rude boy anthem. Simmer Down, though, had an urgency that caught the edgy, increasingly unruly atmosphere of Kingston's mean streets. It was also an early example of what, as the fast-paced, jazz-inflected thrust of ska gave way first to the slower "bluebeat" and then to the even slower, but deeper, bass-heavy rhythm of reggae, would come to be known as "sufferer's music" – a song voiced by, and for, the oppressed, who ordinarily had no voice in Jamaican society.
"The figure of the rude boy with his swagger and casual disrespect for the law harks back to older archetypes like the semi-mythical Stagger Lee character in black American folk blues, the bad man who seems invincible," comments Paul Gilroy, academic and author of several books on the politics of race, including There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack. "That kind of figure also appeared in various guises in the imported Hollywood western and gangster movies that young Jamaicans lapped up. But the emergence of the rude boy at this particular moment also marked out the acquisition of a new self-confidence and sense of self-reinvention among the young and disaffected that was related somehow to Jamaican independence in 1962. The rude boy was a recognisable, if culturally complex take, on an archetypal bad-boy figure."
Since then, the rude boy has recurred throughout the history of popular music both in Jamaica and Britain. His sartorial influence – sharp suits, pork-pie hats, shiny shoes – was felt in both the early mod and, more problematically, skinhead movements of the early and late 60s, as imported ska and bluebeat singles from Jamaica ignited the hipper dance floors of London and beyond. It was revisited, too, for the 2 Tone movement that emerged out of the Midlands and London in the wake of punk in the late 70s, when bands such as the Specials and Madness reinvigorated Jamaican ska.
Now an exhibition of photography called The Return of the Rudeboy is about to open at Somerset House in London. Curated by fashion photographer Dean Chalkley and stylist and creative director Harris Elliott, it aims to "depict a collective of sharply dressed individuals, who exemplify an important yet undocumented subculture …" With live events, DJs, merchandising and even a rude boy barber shop, as well as screenings of fims such as The Harder They Come – perhaps the ultimate depiction of the lawless rude boy lifestyle – the exhibition will, say the curators, "document the life, style and attitude among a growing group of people that embody the essence of the term".
What, though, is the essence of rude boy in 2014? For many young people, the term is now synonymous with the 2011 single of the same name by Rihanna, the reigning rude girl of sexually suggestive R&B. "Come here, rude boy, can you get it up/Come here rude boy, is you big enough?" she sings, rendering the term reductively literal and blatantly stereotypical.
I put it to Harris that, in their interpretation of the term, the rude boy also seems to have travelled a long way from his edgy ghetto roots, shedding his anti-establishment tendencies to become simply an arbiter of a certain kind of post-modern urban style in which the past is rifled and recontextualised, and, in the process, stripped of real meaning. (An installation will show off a range of "handcrafted items" made by the luxury luggage designers Alstermo, that "will reflect the precise environment that our rude boys cultivate and inhabit".) Are they, in short, elevating style over substance? "We are definitely looking at the rude boy as representing a particular kind of style that has evolved over the years," says Harris, "The show is really about the contemporary expression of that style, even though there are elements and details that refer back to Jamaica in the 60s and to the influence early Jamaican emigrants had on British style."
Chalkley concurs. "It's a celebration of a kind of sartorial attitude that has endured through early bluebeat and rhythm and blues through mod, skinhead and all those 60s working-class style movements. Today, it is much less tribal and much more refined – guys with English tailored tweed jackets, brogues and vintage Levis or whatever, but with loads of attention to detail."
Missing for me, though, is the rude boy attitude – the edge that added somehow to the cool. It strikes me that, if one were to go looking for the contemporary equivalent of the original Jamaican rude boy, the forbidding housing estates of north and south London, where the so-called "postcode wars" are currently played out, might be a better place to prowl. Paul Gilroy agrees: "Originally, it was certainly very much to do with where you lived, where you could and couldn't walk, and the whole tense political geography of Kingston. So, a comparison with the postcode wars would certainly be valid. The rude boy was essentially about attitude first and style second."
Taking their cue from the archetypal "baddies" in so many Hollywood western and gangster movies, the rude boys struck fear into the hearts of respectable Jamaicans, but attained a level of respect in the ghettoes, where they fiercely defended their turf from rival gangs. They also made their presence felt at early ska and bluebeat sound-system dances, either as hired protection or as rampaging troublemakers – the so-called "dance crashers" immortalised in a track by Alton Ellis, who recorded a string of anti-rude boy songs including the almost existential Cry Tough – "how can a man be tough, tougher than the world?" Soon, the rude boys were being employed by the likes of and Duke Reid, a policeman turned record producer and sound-system owner, who thought nothing of beating up his rivals and their charges. Prince Buster, the legendary ska singer, began his musical career as a rude boy providing protection for Coxsone's sound system before becoming a performer. His early hits, such as Madness and One Step Beyond, became early rock-steady anthems in Kingston and London, and on a song called Judge Dread, he took on the role of a magistrate sentencing rude boys for "shooting black people". According Chris Salewicz, music journalist and author of Rude Boy: Once Upon a Time in Jamaica, Buster had "a serious indentation in the back of his head from a beating he received from rival rude boys".
This was the fiercely competitive and casually violent milieu that the Wailers stepped into when they recorded the placatory Simmer Down in 1963, but the song soon took on a life of its own. As the American music journalist Timothy White noted in Catch a Fire, his 1986 biography of Bob Marley, the main reaction to the song in the ghettoes of Kingston was "a communal shock of self-recognition". Despite its cautionary thrust, Simmer Down became both a big-seller and, paradoxically, a song much beloved by the very constituency it criticised, a constituency that was increasingly making its presence felt in the cut-and-thrust world of Jamaican music. "The militant rudies got bolder as Simmer Down got bigger," writes White "and, while Dodd was moving a thousand copies of the single a week, he was also paying for extra muscle around his premises. "Throughout the 60s, the rude boy was a constant presence in Jamaican music, whether employed as protection by producers such as Duke Reid or to disrupt rival sound-system dances. He was both celebrated and castigated in songs by the likes of the Rulers (Don't Be a Rude Boy), Baba Brooks (Gun Fever), the Clarendonians (Rudie Bam Bam), Derrick Morgan (Cool Off Rudies), the Pioneers (Rudies Are the Greatest), Dandy Livingstone (A Message to You, Rudie) and, perhaps most famously, Desmond Dekker, who had a UK hit with Shanty Town – "Dem rude boys out on probation/Them a rude when them come up to town" – and recorded several songs on the subject including Rude Boy Gone a Jail and Rudy Got Soul. The Wailers released two other rude boy songs, Rude Boy (1965) and Rudie (later retitled Jailhouse), both of which are celebratory. In 1972, the infamous "Rhygin" became the real-life model for the rude boy played by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come, still the definitive portrayal of a Jamaican rude boy who buys into the outlaw myth even as he dies in a blaze of glory.
As reggae became infused with the spiritual message of Rastafarianism in the 1970s, the rude boy survived as an archetype and an often threateningly real presence through sharp-dressed, but edgy, artists such as Tapper Zukie and former Wailer Peter Tosh, who, in 1977, recorded the ominous Stepping Razor, its opening line almost a rude boy statement of intent – "If you want to live, treat me good."
"Like Bob Marley, these guys came from the west Kingston ghetto and so did many of the people they mixed with,' says Salewicz. "When they sang about the oppression and the poverty, there were voicing their own experience. For many, the only way out was music or crime, and it was only the gifted few who made it as musicians."By the late 70s, though, the rude boy was undergoing an unlikely rebirth via the multicultural 2-Tone movement – ska rhythms melded to punk politics – which emerged out of Coventry with the Specials at its vanguard. Founded by Jerry Dammers, the Specials had their own record label, 2 Tone, which bore the logo of a silhouetted rude boy based on a photograph of sharp-suited Tosh from the Wailers debut 1965 album, The Wailing Wailers. One of their hits was the loping A Message to You, Rudie, a cover of Dandy Livingstone's original anti-rude boy song but this time, the Specials were addressing the often far-right British skinheads that had become a disruptive presence at their otherwise celebratory gigs.
As the rude boy was being reinvented as a symbol of multicultural Britain by a new generation of ska bands that also included the Selecter, Madness and the Beat, many of the original Jamaican rude boys had become so-called enforcers for the two main political parties in Jamaica, the Jamaican Labour party and the People's National party. By the late 70s, the turf wars of old had escalated into often murderous sectarian feuds that left hundreds dead. In many ways, then, the trajectory of the rude boy from young delinquent to fully fledged gangster prefigures the rise of hip-hop bad guy – Ice T, Tupac Shakur – that stalked gangsta rap two decades later.
As Paul Gilroy says, the rude boy is a complex archetype as well as a real and recurring presence throughout modern black culture and popular music. That he has been reinvented once again purely as a style icon can be read as a positive development in tune with a contemporary Britain where race is no longer such a fraught issue – or as a reflection of our more conformist times in which style is constantly elevated over substance. For the time being, if Return of the Rudeboy is anything to go by, the rude boy is back: still cool, but no longer edgy; razor sharp but minus the razor.
Return of the Rudeboy is at Somerset House, London 13 June-25 August