The 1980s relived and remembered at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Dancer, London, 1981 - 1983, Courtesy of Lindsay Wesker
Dancer, London, 1981 – 1983, Courtesy of Lindsay Wesker

IN THE 1980s and 1990s there was a thriving clubbing and lifestyle scene as a result of a growing and emerging second and third generation of black Britons predominantly in London and throughout the UK. Under Thatcherism, there was the early formation of an emerging black middle class, success and entrepreneurism reflected the new ‘Buppies’ culture.

Cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham were also creating multicultural identities as part of the history of migration and social change.

Nightclubs, pirate radio stations and record shops created a solace and forms of escapism away from the day-to-day issues of racism, discrimination and economic recession.

People could be themselves and express their opinions and identity through fashion and style and the rhythms and the vibes of great music of the time. The rise of the fashion industry and the explosion of black hair products from the USA saw the birth of the ‘Afro Hair and Beauty Show’ in 1983 and lifestyle magazines including Root, Candice, Untold, Origin, Black Hair and Beauty. Media outlets like the Voice, Caribbean and African Times respectively, Weekly Journal, Black Britain, Choice FM and Kiss FM were developing relationships with advertisers and global brands in targeting black consumerism.

Many clubs in London’s West End (Gullivers, Gossips, Crackers, Africa Centre, the 100 Club) and areas like Hackney, Haringey, Brent, Ealing and Lambeth, were now creating a new experience of night clubs with high standards and protocol in dress and decorum that reflected the growing aspiration of black people in Britain at the time. This was further promulgated by the advent of the jungle, garage, and house music scenes. London clubs were also a destination point for many ravers and clubbers travelling from the Midlands and the North to be of part of this ‘black metropolis’. However, there was still a vibrant scene ‘up country’ with clubs springing up such as the Hummingbird, Club Lafayette, Rock City, Rising Star, Hacienda, Place Mate 7, Reno and PSV Night Club.

Club promoters, DJs and pirate station owners played the best in music from lovers rock, rare groove, R&B, soul, hip-hop, reggae, soca, calypso and the latest sounds from Africa. Clubs and pirate stations including Galaxy, SLR, PCRL, Solar, RJR, Power Jam, Invicta, Solar, Horizon and Kiss FM created a space for homegrown music talent to express itself.

Many established and new artists cut their teeth through live club and radio station performances. Lovers rock artists, amongst others, did just that including the late Jean Adebambo and Louisa Mark, Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson, Kofi, Brown Sugar, Sandra Cross, Deborahe Glasgow, Maxi Priest, Delroy Wilson, Trevor Walters, Winston Reedy, Peter Hunnigale, Pato Banton, Smiley Culture, The Investigators, Matumbi, Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse. All this whilst the rest of Britain was still in transition from the glam rock, new romantic, punk band era and cross-over UK soul artists like The Real Thing, Imagination, Heatwave, Boney M, Loose Ends, 5 Star, Light of the World, High Tension, Linx, Billy Ocean, Junior, Sade, Jaki Graham, Phil Fearon & Galaxy and Central Line.

Reggae artists from Jamaica including Freddie McGregor, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minot and John Holt appeared regularly at UK clubs. US soul and R&B stars like Edwin Starr, Karl Douglas, Alexander O’Neal, Stylistics, Oliver Cheatham, Mary Wells and Rupert Thomas were also hitting the club scene hard. Caribbean Soca and calypso artists Shadow, Baron, the late Arrow and Mighty Sparrow also appeared on the British club scene, so too were musicians from Africa including Hugh Masekela. DJs Greg Edwards, Norman Jay MBE, Trevor Nelson and Jazzie B OBE learnt the ropes by working in clubs, pirate radio stations and the party scene before becoming national icons. Kanya King, British entrepreneur later went on to establish the MOBO awards in 1996 that highlighted the impact black music had on the music industry, culture and lifestyle.

Sporting personalities and celebrities were also an important part of the club and fashion scene, including Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Lloyd Honeyghan, Ricky Hill, and Rudolph Walker. Mohammed Ali graced the club scene presence whenever he came to Britain. During the highpoint of the ‘West Indies’ Cricket team the likes of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, and Gordon Greenidge were also part of the scene.

Certain clubs like Dougies, Night Moves and All Nations were categorized as ‘Big Peoples’ clubs for the more mature and sophisticated ravers. Clubs also became a fertile meeting place for social networking and dating and was probably the bedrock, along with house parties and churches for creating new generations of black Britain’s and children of both black and white heritage. Couples dated, leading to an explosion of weddings and long term relationships that contributed, no doubt, to a mini baby boom, you could say brought about by the ‘lovers’ tunes of the 1980s.

Many clubs were once the pride and joy of the black community, eventually became a symbol to protect mature club goers and the local neighbourhood from the onslaught of turf wars and indiscriminate shootings, related to activities of various gangs and anti-social behaviour. Today all of these historic clubs that were part of the lover rock, reggae and rare groove scene, for a number of reasons, are now either new music venues for the hipster scene or housing association developments.

The legacy of the black music scene, the development of artists and performers, and the social and family history of club and pirate radio must be remembered. It is this ‘intangible heritage’ of clubs and pirate radio that holds a cultural significance of the history of black people that is part of our DNA in the UK.

Read more about pirate radio and the music scene in the 1980s & 1990s in the book Masters of the Airwaves: The Rise and Rise of Underground Radio by Dave VJ and Lindsay Wesker. It features those individuals who shaped, informed and educated our love for music, helping to create our own vibe and lifestyle, building on from the Windrush Generation and the early development of sound systems.

For further details of ‘Masters of the Airwaves: The Rise and Rise of Underground Radio’ go to

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