Smiley culture

The Ragga Twins blended reggae with electronic sounds - and gave birth to UK dance music

By 1990, the first wave of the acid-house craze was ending. Police were clamping down on ille gal raves, gangsters were starting to muscle in, and the quality of drugs, which had brought the scene to life, was going rapidly downhill. Yet the crowds were getting ever bigger. What had started as a few hundred people in a London back room had become tens of thousands every weekend in towns and cities up and down the country.

Electronic dance music was still largely imported from the US or Europe; acid house had originated as a bass-drum-driven sound from the slums of Chicago and Detroit. Shut Up and Dance (SUAD), the Hackney likely lads Philip "PJ" Johnson and Carl "Smiley" Hyman, were the first British act able to compete. They brought a hip-hop sensibility to house music, speeding up hip-hop beats and adding reggae-style basslines, phantasmagorical bleeps and whistles, and samples gleefully stolen from a host of unlikely candidates. Suzanne Vega, Robin Williams and Eurythmics all graced their records without permission. They leavened this new dark, heavy "hardcore" sound with a dose of humour and sardonic comment: their underground hit "£10 to Get In" was later remixed as "£20 to Get In" when the price of admission went up.

The Ragga Twins - brothers known as Deman Rockers (David Destouche) and Flinty Badman (Trevor Destouche) - were originally MCs for Unity, one of London's top reggae sound systems. The two acts merged when Johnson and Hyman walked into an electrical shop to ask Deman Rockers if they could sample his voice. They walked out having signed the Ragga Twins to their fledgling record label. Their impeccable pedigree, along with SUAD's fast-developing breakbeat house style, provided British raves with a new, streetwise sound.

Initially the merger seemed like a clash of cultures: on "Ragga Trip", one of the Twins' first records for SUAD, Deman Rockers complained about people doing too many drugs at acid-house parties, adapting lyrics he had recorded as a reggae tune, "Hard Drugs". Yet the hits that followed were the cream of the hardcore sound. "Spliffhead" featured sweet reggae vocals with a gruesome, terrifying beat thundering underneath and Flinty Badman repeating the phrase "Ragga Twins deh bout!"; "Hooligan 69" began in typical SUAD style with the wholesale theft of the beginning of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and went on to smash dance floors with its pulsating bassline and thumping break; "Illegal Gunshot" put speedy ragga-chat over a bouncy rhythm; "Wipe the Needle" was strictly hardcore.

The Twins' first LP, Reggae Owes Me Money, arrived in 1991, and the next year they released "Shine Eye", the reggae star Junior Reid singing the chorus of the original hit, "Shine Eye Girl" by Black Uhuru. The blend of reggae classic with the SUAD sound essentially marked the birth of jungle, the first authentically British dance music and direct antecedent of other UK genres including garage, dubstep and grime.

SUAD's sample-happy tactics eventually caught up with them when their biggest hit, "Raving, I'm Raving", featuring the chorus from Marc Cohn's MOR song "Walking in Memphis", brought the despotic sledgehammer of the music business down on them. Legal costs put the whole label out of business, and the Ragga Twins signed to EMI, where they hooked up with the jazz hip-hop group US3. The resulting album, Rinsin' Lyrics, was so unlikely that it ended up getting an Australia-only release. That was the last of the Ragga Twins on record, though they have kept busy MCing at raves ever since.

The latest Soul Jazz release features most of the Ragga Twins/SUAD 12 inches, along with the whole of Reggae Owes Me Money - with the lamentable exception of "Hooligan 69", thanks to Prince's refusal to licence the sample. It includes a couple of the Twins' pre-SUAD tunes, the aforementioned "Hard Drugs" and "Iron Lady", an anti-Thatcher rap. The vinyl release includes a version of "Hooligan 69", remixed without the sample. This is probably the nearest thing we'll ever get to a full SUAD retrospective, as the fees for sample clearance would sink a small country.

Incidentally, I have no idea why they called it Ragga Twins Step Out rather than "deh bout"; the record company couldn't explain it either. Still, it's good to hear how well the sound stands up: Prince or no Prince, play most of these to an unsuspecting crowd and they'll party like it's 1991.

"Ragga Twins Step Out" (Soul Jazz) is released on 30 June

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically