‘Rudeboyism’ as some chose to call it in earlier days, remains one of, if not the most topical issue in Jamaica today. These rude boys, parading their trade under the heading of crime, literally at times have the police on the run and there has, until recently, seemed to be no letting up.
The rude-boy syndrome is nothing new to Jamaica. It has been around for a long time. What is also not new is how many songs there are that have been written and recorded since Jamaica’s independence on this topic, some glorify the rudies’ behaviour, while others condemn it.
As early as 1962, record producer Duke Reid, an ex-policeman with credible claims to toughness himself, released Stranger Cole’s Ruff and Tough, a ska number that was one of the first instances of a singer in popular music giving warning to the unruly youths through the music.
“Don’t bite the hand that feed you, cause the good you do lives after you – it will be rough and tough on your side,” he warned in the recording.
The following year, record producers discovered that there was a market for the converse message and sought to glamorise the ‘rudies’ with a number of recordings.
Foremost among these were three cuts by The Wailers – Let Him Go,Rudeboy and Jailhouse, all recorded for producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd. Quite ironically, however, The Wailers first recording for Dodd’s Studio One record label in early 1964 sent the opposite message in the nursery rhyme song Simmer Down. They warned “Chicken merry hawk de near and when him de near you must beware, so simmer down.”
It was right on the heels of Jamaica’s independence in 1962 that the rude-boy syndrome and crime showed signs of escalating. For one, a large number of young men migrated to the city in search of jobs and other opportunities. When these were not forthcoming, it led to discontent. This mounting discontentment and resentment found expression in outbursts of violence, with the rude boy often employing ratchet knives and guns.
Others found expression in music by getting themselves into recording studios. Simmer Down, written by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, had the unique Wailers touch and it sent a message to the dissatisfied and should have helped to curb the upsurge.
Other factors such as the James Bond celluloid adventure movies, which were popular at the time, also contributed to the lawlessness and the rude-boy culture. Many of Kingston’s young criminals named themselves after the characters and actors in these movies.
1965 saw the godfather of Jamaica reggae music, Alton Ellis, joining the call for an end to rudeboyism. It had, by now captured the nation’s imagination and countless songs were written on the topic.
The ratchet knife-wielding rudies were sometimes sentimentalised as folk heroes like Robin Hood and were looked upon as heroes by a few.
Ellis, however, had a different view and sought to dissuade them from their actions.
“Dance crashers, don’t break it up, please don’t make a fuss, don’t use a knife to take somebody else life, you’ll be sorry,” Ellis would sing.
He, in fact, had a triplet of songs on the topic, the other two being The Blessing Of Love and Cry Tough for producer Duke Reid, in the early 1960s. Sadly though, Ellis began receiving threats from his competitors and peacefully reverted to singing mainly love songs, focusing mainly on the love of his life, Pearl.
In 1967, Tougher Than Tough, as the name suggests, was one of the toughest rude-boy songs ever made in Jamaica.
Employing the rocksteady beat, its chilling gun lyrics are uncompromising: In answer to the judge’s question “What do you have to say for yourselves,” The Heptones replied “Your Honour, rudies don’t fear, tougher than tough, rougher than rough, strong like lion, we are iron.” In the end, the rudies were freed.
One of the ironies of the song was its comparison with the character of the singer Derrick Morgan, who was known for his always unruffled manner.
Born with a sight defect, Morgan was seen as the last person in reggae music to promote ‘badmanism’. One view is that songs like these only reveal the realities of society and do not necessarily portray the character of the performer or promote violence.
The question remains, however, do these songs glorifying lawbreakers, and which came to prominence in the rude boy era of the 1960s, have anything to do with the murder rate?
From a musical standpoint, however, for sheer rocksteady artistry,Tougher than Tough remains in the highest echelons of Jamaican music.
The Silvertones, The Slickers, The Clarendonians, Desmond Dekker and others, also had messages for the rude-boys, coming from various points of view.
A man who could not possibly stand by and watch the phenomenon of rude-boy songs, without adding his voice was Bob Andy, songwriter extraordinaire.
His input, as has now become the norm, was a composition of extreme class.
It was persuasive and opened eyes, vividly showing rudies what could befall them if they did not stop.
He remarks in the song, “What about your home, what about your food, what about your future too, you don’t seem to care about the coming year, you just live for today.“
The recording titled Crime Don’t Pay was taken from one of the best-selling albums out of Studio One.
The album, Songbook, incidentally, was a composition of 12 recordings, the only ones Andy ever did at Studio One.
Other recordings of note on this topic during that period were Guns Fever by Baba Brooks band, Rudies All Around by Stranger Cole, Let Him Go by The Wailers, 007 Shanty Town by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, Don’t Be Rude and Copasetic by the Rulers, Badness Don’t Pay by Leroy Smart, Big Bad Boy by Alton Ellis, Rude Boy by the Clarendonians, Too Hot by Prince Buster, Run Boy Run by Dudley Sibley and Gun Fever by The Silvertones.