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Jamaican Rude Boy Culture

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The term ‘Rude boy’ began as a colloquial name for juvenile delinquents and criminals in 1950s Jamaica. Despite, or perhaps because of its notorious origins, the term entered popular culture and came to denote a Jamaican subculture revolving aroun

The term ‘Rude boy’ began as a colloquial name for juvenile delinquents and criminals in 1950s Jamaica. Despite, or perhaps because of its notorious origins, the term entered popular culture and came to denote a Jamaican subculture revolving around ska music, an early form of reggae.

The first rude boys appeared in the 1950s, particularly within the poorer sections of Kingston. Highly conscious of fashion and music, they dressed in the latest styles on the streets and in dancehalls. The rude boy look consisted of sharp suits, thin ties and pork pie hats; sometimes a trilby was worn instead. The aesthetic was inspired by American gangster movies, jazz musicians and soul artists. In this period, the most popular forms of music among young Jamaican audiences were ska and rocksteady, and these helped to sustain the emerging rude boy culture.

As the name implies, rude boys had a bad reputation. In this period, it was common for disaffected Jamaican youths to obtain temporary employment as ‘dance crashers’. Sound system operators would pay them to disrupt competitors’ dances using violence and intimidation. The great ska artist Alton Ellis released a track called Dance Crasher in response to this trend.

Street violence was integral to the rude boy lifestyle, and contributed to the rise of political gang violence in Jamaica. Troubled by these violent tendencies, some ska musicians produced songs that spoke directly to this faction and urged them to curb their activities. A key example was Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 track, A Message to You, Rudy, which was later covered by British ska-revival group The Specials.  In my opinion, this is one of the few occasions when the cover is better than the original.

The United Kingdom experienced an influx of Jamaican immigrants during the 1960s and this greatly enriched British culture. In particular, the exotic rhythms of ska, reggae and rocksteady were assimilated into British popular music. Rude boy music and fashion became a strong influence on the skinhead movement, which was initially very different from the racist skinhead culture it became. This process is depicted in Shane Meadows’s film This Is England, in which a young boy is inducted into skinhead culture.

The Jamaican influx led to a ska revival in England during the late-1970s. This movement was also known as 2 Tone, after 2 Tone Records, and also because groups like The Specials were racially-integrated. The terms rude boy and rude girl were used to describe UK fans of this music.  In 1979, Madness named themselves after one of Prince Buster’s tracks and released a tribute to Buster called ‘The Prince’. The lyrics urge ska fans to remember ‘the man who set the beat’. Their second single was a cover of Buster’s ‘One Step Beyond’.

The greatest ska revival group was, of course, The Specials. On their first album, The Specials covered ‘Too Hot’ and drew from ‘Judge Dread’. Their song ‘Gangsters’ was based on Buster’s ‘Al Capone. The Specials also covered Buster’s ska version of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ on their second album.

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