Britain’s almost-forgotten subculture: jazz funk, electro, fusion from the 70s/80s

Out of all the musical tribes that emerged in post-ww2 Britain – mod, skinhead, Northern soul, punk, ska etc – there is one particular movement that’s been largely overlooked by historians.

Spanning roughly from the mid 70s to the late 80s, there was a thriving and musically diverse underground club scene around jazz funk, electro (or electro funk) and dance-oriented jazz fusion.

It’s a direct predecessor of today’s dance music club culture that first swept the country in the late 80s. Yet it’s a scene that rarely crops up in documentaries on Britain’s musical tribes.

I interviewed a couple of friends of mine, Chris Thomas & Ossie Labad, who were avid fans of the music as well as DJs, and have gigged extensively. They’re both featured in one of the few books written about the jazz funk movement. (The 2009 work ‘From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz The History Of The UK Jazz Dance Scene’ by Snowboy.) We spoke about this and much more. West Yorkshire, where the music had a strong following, was the point of departure though in fact the movement was one that was spread across the country.

They talked specifically about their experience as part of the movement in the 80s but also shared many valuable thoughts on music subcultures in general. It was a real education for me. I myself didn’t participate in their scene though as a musician & music lover, I also got heavily into jazz, and was aware of many of the artists they mentioned.

One of the best quotes came from Chris Thomas, who pointed out that those old-school music subcultures prided themselves on exclusivity whereas in more recent times, music is valued on its accessibility – i.e. the more well-known it is, the more hits it gets on Youtube, the better it’s perceived to be.

There are two aspects of the scene that struck me. Firstly, the music was contemporary rather than a retro reviving of older, rare styles. Secondly, the jazz scene in particular had a young black audience ranging from adolescents, no different from their descendants today that listen to grime and other similar styles. It belies the image of jazz as being quite separate from youth culture.

For anyone wishing to delve deeper into the topic, I recommend you check out Snowboy’s book, as well as the online writings of Greg Wilson and Seymour Nurse. Many thanks to BCB Radio in Bradford for their support in the production of the show.