Bass Borough by Orlando Gili, is a portrait series about the London musicians who have influenced and been influenced by the reggae sound emanating from the record shops, clubs and recording studios of Harlesden, North West London. The project brings together key music industry figures spanning multiple decades and genres – reggae, lovers rock, jungle, garage and grime. The portraits, with supporting quotes, tell the story of how the burgeoning, creatively open and supportive Caribbean community created a homegrown reggae sound. The sounds and soundsystem culture with Jamaican origins have since gone on to irreversibly change the musical landscape of the UK. The project is supported by 2020 Culture Fund.
Anthony ‘Chips’ Richards, Bobby Davies, Carroll Thompson, Daddy Ernie, Flirta D, General Levy, Janet Kay, Locksley Gichie, MC Bushkin, Popsy, T Starr, Tony Phillips, Vivian Jones and Winston Francis.
Orlando Gili is a London-based portrait and documentary photographer, who in fact began his career assisting in a photography studio in Kensal Green, Brent. His work has featured in The Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Vice, among other international publications and advertising campaigns. Alongside editorial and commercial assignments, Gili works on projects with a focus on leisure, community and identity. In 2018 Bluecoat Press published Que Sera, Sera, a co-authored photobook about football fan devotion. In 2020 Hoxton Mini Press published Trivial Pursuits: The English at Play, a tender portrait of a nation in pursuit of happiness.
Bobby Davies (Singer)
When I came here, the music was just growing up, you had people like Desmond Decker and the Aces, The Pioneers and The Cimarons, bands from here that were doing quite well. It was exciting and jumping. You could go and enjoy a night in the club because it was full... and you had house dances that went on in the area. You had musicians when you were ready, they were always there. People would help without charging you, it was a like a team, a community of musician.
Carroll Thompson (Singer)
When I finally moved out to London in the late 70s I lived in Brent and I was definitely influenced by the music and the sound systems.
During that period there was a lot of music from Jamaica, and from the UK as well, that’s where I heard a lot of the UK lovers rock. Lovers Rock is soulful reggae music, music with soul and a lot of arrangements and usually quite romantic.
It was fantastic because you felt you could instantly relate to it, you felt that it was something that you could be part of because it was speaking to you, and it was our music and it was instantly identifiable.
We were all together, it’s a very inner-city sound, you had white kids, Black kids, all living cheek by jowl on council estates listening to the same thing.
Anthony ‘Chips’ Richards (Trojan Records Manager)
Brent was the hub. Every little Black man set up their own label, selling records from the car boot. It was not laid out for us, it was a tough ride, and there was nothing offered to us that would encourage our community.
There was never a period in Jamaican history that we survived seven years without a riot, we are accustomed to standing up and fighting for our own.
Daddy Ernie (Soundsystem Operator & DJ)
North West London was the epicentre of the whole reggae movement.
The volumes of clubs we had in Harlesden as teenagers was phenomenal. We had places to party and grow up. It just encapsulated the time, and that time was just music. All us kids had a little sound system, or a little ‘ting’ as we would call it, a little record player with a couple of knobs. My old man had a soundsystem - he used to play Fats Domino, Brook Benton and Toots and the Maytals and Derrick Morgan.
I started my soundsystem President Downbeat when I was sixteen. We played clubs, house parties and schools, and we played lovers rock. To build a sound system we used to rip down sheets of plywood from building sites. It’s an expensive thing to do, so unless you had a few quid, it was by any means necessary. Once you had 3 or 4 speaker boxes, you were up and running.
Flirta D (Garage MC)
It is bass city, we are the borough of music, the soundsystems from back in the day were going on in the North West.
The speakers are so big, you’re going to feel music the right way, to be in a car listening to the music, it’s not the same as on the street soundsystem and you’re around your friends and family and the speaker is bigger than you. Crowd energy, person on the stage energy, the togetherness, everyone together, dancing to the same tune. There’s a whole lot of reggae music in grime, it all gets thrown in and chopped up.
General Levy (Jungle MC)
North West London had a strong musical community.
If you were in the soundsystem at that time you were like a mini-celebrity in the community. We had Jet Star Records which was the biggest reggae and black music distributor and round the corner to where I lived. My mum used to work for Jet Star. We were getting a lot of cassettes from Jamaica: King Jammys, Creation, Kilimanjaro, Jack Ruby, King Tubbys from 83 to 89.
Everybody wants to find a niche for themselves, whether it’s music, being a footballer or being a drugs man. I chose the music because it was all around me. My brother did music, he was MC’ing and I was just amazed at what he was doing.
Janet Kay (Singer)
I was born and brought up in Willesden. My parents were married at the Willesden Green Baptist Church on High Road Willesden, where my grandfather was a deacon.
My musical influence comes from my dad who used to play a lot of Trojan and Bluebeat back in the day and what I heard on the radio. I was really into Motown – Jackson 5, Diana Ross, Temptations.
The main record shop for me was Hawkeye. I didn’t always buy anything, it was more of a meeting place, but you used to go in there and you could listen to the music.
My acting TV debut was in the cult comedy series ‘No Problem’ which, incidentally, was based in Willesden Green.
Locksley Gichie (Guitarist)
The music started in this part in 1968 - records shops started to spring up. We had everything here, we had record studios, we had venues.
In Cricklewood Broadway there was tailors at the bottom and the upstairs there was a club. It was a teenager’s club every Sunday, that’s where we used to meet all the youths our age from Jamaica. It was good because you had soundsystems playing all the latest music and dances from Jamaica.
There was nothing happening on the radio. On the weekend you’d get dressed and just start walking around and follow the sounds.
MC Bushkin (Garage MC)
I started off running a mobile youth soundsystem that led me to become a garage MC. Growing up, it was all reggae and rare groove. My mum had a soundsystem.
It was Brent and North West London that was in the thick of Reggae and dancehall. The soundsystems and Jamaican culture have impacted the whole UK music scene. It literally changed the way we play and listen to music.
Popsy (Record Shop Owner)
Brent was the foundation.
I helped young musicians over the years by giving them their first shot in the studio, we have a studio of our own now but before we had to hire studios, by the time we started recording the hour was gone. It was £25 or £30 per hour, so bringing someone who had never been in the studio before was a risk – sometimes you go to the studio and you wouldn’t see half of the money you outlay back.
My two cousins were part of Trojan and this was the headquarters for the retail side, we had 32 shops. One of them used to be head of the retail section, which is how we ended up with this shop (Starlight Records).
Tony Phillips (Guitarist)
This was the reggae capital.
It was an explosion – this was the place, all the artists came from Jamaica, records were being played on everyone’s turntables all over the country, but they used to come to Harlesden. This was the meeting point for artists and Jamaicans.
We had the top-rated soundsystem, called the People’s Soundsystem. It was really wonderful to grow up in the area where all the recording artists from Jamaica and America would come to, for the food, and to use the studios and record distributors.
T Starr (Guitarist & Development at Trojan Records)
When I came up from the Caribbean I went straight to North West London, that was my base for a long time.
I used to be with Trojan Records in session music and development. There were a lot of record shops and studios in the area, it was important because if you want to make music you need a studio.
If you came up from Jamaica you know the music, there’s no learning, you just play. You know whatever idea you have it will be great because it’s our music. We had everything, all you have to do when you have a situation like that is to promote.
This is where everything started for me when it comes to music and singing. It is where I started recording, started my youth bands, and the place I started going to dances and listening to music. We had so many places in the north west - Tavistock Centre, Roxy Theatre, Apollo Club, Alperton Youth Centre.
Many of us who left Jamaica at the same time and came to England, met up in Harlesden. It was a home away from home.
Winston Francis (Singer)
North West London is just like Jamaica. There’s a lot of immigrants there, 4 or 5 or 6 generations of West Indians - it’s just like home. There were a lot of reggae shops in the area then, the headquarters of reggae was called Jet Star and that was on Harlesden High Street.
There was musical ideas passing around, there was Jamaican food. Guys writing sounds, guys playing songs. Guys would be standing up by a shop or a pub, or on a street corner just like we did in Jamaica.
We recorded in Harlesden, we did everything thing there, a lot of guys found their wives there. It was a very loving community. You needed that family and that connection, you needed to see the guys who were bringing stuff from Jamaica.