It's great to see a movie that fills in lots of holes in your musical knowledge. Babylon is a very British film from 1980 that was co-written by Martin Stellman, who wrote Quadrophenia, and directed by Italian-born Franco Rosso. The film has been rarely seen in the US, and there is a new 2019 restored version that we were able to see recently at Durham’s Carolina Theater.
The story is set in the depressed, segregated areas of Brixton in London, and concerns Jamaican sound system culture. Started in the 1940’s in Jamaica, sound systems were large, homemade speaker systems connected to a turntable. The sound system crews would have custom tracks pressed on vinyl (often just one record at a time), put on parties, charge admission and provide food and drink. The person controlling what is played on the turntable is known as ‘The Selector’ and the DJ’s would rap and/or sing over the tracks, a process known as ‘Toasting.’
The plot follows a young man named Blue, played by Aswad singer (a very popular British reggae outfit) Brinsley Forde. There is a competition between his crew, the Lions, and the Ital crew. The movie follows Blue and his many tribulations, losing his job and being belittled by a racist boss, being chased and beaten by the Police for being black on the street, fighting with his father and leaving home, and losing his girlfriend. He falls in with some friends that mug a helpless man, and he wants no part of that life. Returning to the storage area for the Sound System, he finds their gear smashed and National Front (a very right-wing, racist UK group) graffiti sprayed everywhere. In a rage, he stabs a racist neighbor with a screwdriver. The movie ends with the Police, looking for Blue, smashing in the doors where the Sound System clash between the Ital Lions and rival crew is being held.
This movie, though set in England, is much like a foreign film. The main characters all speak in a Jamaican patois, and the new version of the film has updated subtitles for North America. The overall feel is almost like a gritty documentary, the acting and music are great, but the pervasive racism in London is a real eye-opener. There is even a scene where an elderly white woman tells the crew to “go back to your own country,” although of course these young men are all born in England, and respond “this is my country!”
Musically, there can be no doubt that sound system culture was a strong influence on modern rap. The systems bring the bass and drums and the ‘toasting,’ the sometimes spoken, sometimes melodic live patter over recorded music, to form the basis of the crowd-moving music. This DIY resourcefulness provides both community and a sense of pride for the young English Jamaicans. It’s a remarkable and intriguing movie, and I recommend it, very entertaining and a real learning experience.
Babylon Trailer 2019