The South London borough is an important part of UK music and culture…

From seminal reggae sound systems to grime and new UK jazz, Lewisham in South London is a vital part of UK culture.

One of the most exciting phenomena to burst out of the borough in recent years is Steam Down – a dynamic, innovative jazz collective and weekly jam session in Deptford – which has been celebrated in a recent book.

‘Steam Down or How Things Begin’ by author Emma Warren uses the regular – famously high-octane and inclusive – jazz happenings to explain the universal ways things are when new culture is being generated.

It also draws a line between the young London jazz musicians making waves internationally and the reggae soundsystems that operated further down Deptford High Street in the 1980s.

The book then extends that line to the site of Deptford Docks, just 10 minutes’ walk down the same street, where ships left for the Caribbean hundreds of years ago. 

Emma has been documenting music and culture for decades, and she’s witnessed the evolution of new music on multiple occasions, compiling the 'Steppers Delight' dubstep albums for Soul Jazz and running the Counterpoint DJ series at Tate Modern, giving many new UK jazz artists a platform.

Here, Emma takes us through an aural topography of Lewisham…

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Brown Sugar - ‘I’m In Love With A Dreadlocks’ (Lovers Rock)

Like all UK boroughs that had a critical mass of people with a shared Caribbean heritage, Lewisham had a thriving sound system culture. Motivated individuals built complex electronics and speaker boxes; hundreds of young people were attuned to the music at a highly sophisticated level and there were youth clubs, church halls and community centres where dances could happen.

With Lovers Rock, there was a label to propel the music outwards; a label which gave the genre its name. This 1977 sugar-sweet stepper featuring Caron Wheeler – later of Soul II Soul – was the first release. All of this was before my time but it remained in the ether when I was growing up in the neighbouring borough of Bromley a decade later. I knew it had happened, and that it mattered.

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Aswad - ‘Warrior Charge’ [‘Babylon’ soundtrack] (Takoma)

1980 film ‘Babylon’ shows us the roots of what followed in jungle, garage, broken beat, grime and drill. The dancehall scenes that form the end point of the film were filmed in the crypt of St Paul on Deptford High Street.

The Crypt was opened up to the community five nights a week by Father David Diamond throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s and it’s worth remembering the context of his remarkable actions. The Battle of Lewisham, where the National Front tried to march through the borough, happened two minutes down the road.

It’s a short walk to 439 New Cross Road where 14 children and young people lost their lives in a house fire at a 16th birthday party, an event commemorated by Linton Kwesi Johnson In ‘New Crass Massahkah’ and more recently by Jay Bernard in the remarkable ‘Surge’. 

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Spacek - ‘Eve’ (Island Blue) 

Steve Spacek grew up in New Cross and made this heavyweight future classic with Ed Cavill and Morgan Zarate back in 1999 – re-released the following year with a J Dilla remix. At the time it sounded like nothing else; an out-of-time and deeply soulful London tune that fed off the bass weight histories that had propelled local sound systems like Shaka and Saxon a decade before.

In turn ‘Eve’ fed the next wave, sonically predating music made by New Cross residents like James Blake a decade later. 

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Emma-Jean Thackray - ‘Leylines’ (Vinyl Factory) 

Many of the new jazz-ish musicians coming through at the moment are based in Lewisham. Some like Moses Boyd, Kwake Bass or Theon Cross grew up here and have family connections to neighbourhood sound systems including Saxon. Others (Nubya Garcia, Chelsea Carmichael, Joe Armon-Jones) moved to study at nearby Trinity or Guildhall and stayed because it was relatively cheap.

As with all migration stories, musicians and their friends gravitated towards the area because they knew people here. Emma-Jean Thackray moved to Catford from Leeds and name checked her new ends in the ‘Catford Bridge’ interlude off last year’s acclaimed, DIY-made EP.

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Neue Grafik - ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma feat. Brother Portrait’ (TRC Recordings)

I can’t talk about Lewisham without talking about Steam Down, the weekly improvised jam run by Ahnansé and the Steam Down Collective, which I wrote about for my Rough Trade pamphlet. At some point in the future there will be tons of recorded music linked to these amazing musicians: many of the players have their own releases coming with the myriad bands they’re all involved with.

I first heard this tune at Steam Down last summer when Fred ‘Neue Grafik’ N’thepe tested out some early versions – and Steam Down Collective regular Brother Portrait provides the reasoning. See also: Wonky Logic, Project Karnak, Sawa Manga, Nadeem Din Gabisi, Nihilism, The Levitation Orchestra, Belinda Zhawi, Germane Marvel and many, many more. 

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Emma Warren’s Steam Down Or How Things Begin is available on Rough Trade Books now. Her first book – Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre  – came out in spring 2019. 

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