Linton Kwesi Johnson, or LKJ as he is frequently known, occupies a singularly unique position over the last twenty years as spokesperson for British persons of color, musical watchdog over the British establishment, and Caribbean poet voice, delivered in a sharp suit with an austere authority. Were it not for the hard-hitting reggae rhythms of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band behind him, united with the almost dread sensibility of LKJ's inimitable delivery, his records might have never found their way into the bin marked "Reggae." "It's the word that I'm about," says Linton. "Music was only there as a vehicle for bringing in a wider, young, audience."
For the last twenty years, Linton has committed his observations about life in the UK and the remainder of the globe to wax, earning (and since growing tired of) the title of "dub poet." He is really the father of "dub poetry." In 1978, Virgin records released LKJ's debut LP Dread Beat and Blood, which, rather than being credited to Linton, went out as The Poet and the Roots.
This LP was something new for the UK--local commentary-poems about life in Babylon: police harassment and violence against Black British youth and the epic class/race gap which exists not only in England but globally. Delivered with perfection and a rocking, revolutionary reggae beat, Linton was immediately embraced by other writers, socialists, anti-facists, anti-racists, punk rockers. It was a new and different direction for reggae music (which was previously comprised of strictly singers, djs, or dub music) with its completely secular stanzas.
LKJ's family moved from Jamaica to England in 1963. Linton majored in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, graduating in 1973. Shortly thereafter, following LKJ's growingconcern with the political and social circumstances facing blacks in the UK, Linton began writing and publishing poetry. The poems were in English and in patois (Jamaican dialect), with the patois poems being written as they sound. This was the first time that West Indian dialect poetry took on a political (let alone revolutionary) edge. LKJ's first volume of provocative poetry was entitled Dread, Beat and Blood (Bogle L'Overture - 1975). He also started a collective newspaper, Race Today, with Darcus Howe as editor. LKJ lent his support to anti-racist and anti-nazi groups, but became disappointed with the various left-wing parties in England ("the Socialist party is not very hearty an' de SDP can't do it fi we . . .").
After experimenting with reggae bands playing at his poetry readings, LKJ finally merged his poetry with some soulful, tough, and haunting reggae riddims, and came out with the haunting Dread Beat and Blood LP. The cover alone, an illustration of a riot, gave some clues as to the nature of the proceedings. As far as LKJ was concerned, when it comes to rioting, "all we doin' is defendin'." Shortly after the album was released a documentary film was made, also entitled "Dread Beat and Blood," which documented Linton's music, politics, and protest.
In 1978 Johnson moved from Virgin records to the Island label, recording Forces of Victory (1979) and Bass Culture (1980), which showed a broadening of the poet's concerns, to include, for example, a simple love poem. A dub album also appeared in 1980, which highlighted Dennis Bovell's masterful bass, arranging, mixing, and dub work. In 1981 a devastating series of riots in every black community in England shook the supposedly Great Britain to its very foundation. It was a time of intense disillusionment with the economy, Iron Maiden Margaret Thatcher, and the very wealthy and pointless Royal Family. It was also, unfortunately, a time when LKJ was away from his homeland. The side he would take regarding the riots would become clear, and it was decidedly not in favor of the police or the Crown. While one may have thought that this might have been the ideal time for LKJ to rush into the studio to comment on the uprisings, he instead decided to take a break from music recording for the next few years.
LKJ spent the next few years working on an assignment from BBC Radio One (he was comissioned to research, write, and present a ten-part radio series on the history of contemporary Jamaican popular music), performing live with other dub poets, and travelling to Cuba to participate in a conference of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean artists. 1984 saw his return to recording with the again hard-hitting "Making History," the title track referring unequivocally to the riots of 1981 ("It was the event of the year and I wish I had been there"). LKJ continued discussing the state of the world with more poems orchestrated by Dennis Bovell's brilliant musicianship, such as "The Eagle and the Bear," which explains why the threat of nuclear war is of little concern for those struggling to survive in the Third World. He performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band, and this concert was released on LP in the UK and the U.S. in 1985.
In the late '80s, Linton, ever the independent stalwart, started his own label, LKJ records, for dissemination of future work by himself and other artists such as female dub poet Jean Binta Breeze and veteran Jamaican vocalist Winston Francis. LKJ's first release on the label was another live album, In Concert With The Dub Band (1988) followed by Tings and Times (1990), his first studio album in 6 years. Here Linton continues wax poetically on everything from Third World tyrants to all that has been said about him by the press, the establishment, and "real" poets.
LKJ Records also expanded to release solo CDs by the eminently talented members of the Dub Band, such as flautist/saxophonist Steve Gregory ("Bushfire"), and guitarist John Kpiaye ("Red, Gold, and Blues"). The rest of the Dub Band are equally gifted: drummer Paul Blake, Henry Holder on piano, keyboardists Paget King and Nick Straker, Henry "Buttons" Tenyue on trombone, Everald "Fari" Forrest and Geoffrey Scantlebury on percussion, and "Rude Boy" Johnny T on electric violin. Collectively, the Dub Band is an enormously solid musical entity which forms the perfect framework for LKJ's observation-poems.
Not having been entirely satisfied with previous American tours, LKJ ceased coming to the U.S. in 1990. In 1997, Warren Smith, promoter of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival , and former business aquaintance and friend of LKJ since the '70s, reached out to to Linton and the Dub Band with an exclusive offer to play the Festival. Linton accepted and performed to rave reviews, presenting an LKJ Records Showcase, featuring Dennis Bovell's own compositions ("Oh Mama, Oh Papa"), John Kpiaye and Steve Gregory's jazz flute and guitar work, and Johnny T's wild violin prowess. Another hidden gem on the Showcase was wonderful Winston "Mr. Fix It" Francis doing classic Jamaican rocksteady from the 1960s.