Judge Dread

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For some reason recently I have become academically interested in Judge Dread, not the 2000AD comic character (“Judge Dredd”), but Alex Minto Hughes from Snodland in Kent: a rather vulgar white cockney reggae artist who, inspired by Prince Buster, had a successful career on Trojan records in the 1970s. He had eleven UK hits, all banned from the airwaves.

In 1973 Hughes was interviewed in the NME by the jeering, bohemian, faintly Leavisite ego Nick Kent, who had him pegged as a “working class hero and the Robin Hood Of reggae.” Kent’s interview is full of the expected sniggering sarcasm and it frames the Judge as a joke. Hughes in turn, defends himself as a true folk phenomenon (he was rarely helped by TV or radio) who loved reggae and had his finger on the commercial pulse of popular taste.

What is interesting about the Judge is that he offered nothing redeeming: no creativity, no meaningful artistry, no utopian alternative, no deep soul, no revolutionary politics, no hip poses or super cool rock’n’roll swaggers; only obscene nursery rhymes done to a reggae beat, viral as Eminen and every bit as tasteless. And yet he had a huge record collection and was one of the few white men to run a disco sound system. He loved his chosen music genre, knew how to speak patois, and as an adept performer endeared himself to “authentic” black audiences in Jamaica. Yet it was back at home that he really mattered: he was as bawdy and English as Chaucer. In a Robin Hood stylee the Judge articulated an oppositional form of sexual vulgarity to launch a blue assault on middle class tastes.

I saw the video for his song Big Six, I think, on a documentary in the 1980s. The footage was shown just in passing, but I was still shocked at the style of it – the bad production values and topless dancers, his ebullient stance and silly gangster clothes. It was as if Hughes came swaggering out of nowhere, located perhaps only in the decadent Soho club circuit of the decade before, where cockney geezers might plausibly tell dirty jokes but never to an inter-racial beat.

Judge Dread was literally a rude boy, but given the permissive state of Britain by the early 1970s, at what exactly was he waving those two fingers? His microbial music seemed predestined to launch a moral panic without any real content. While casually revelling in the sexism of his era, he did something perhaps to challenge working class racism. He cultivated a knowledge of “uncultured” black music. Later Hughes released a charity single and died of a heart attack in 1998, and his legend died with him. We rely on meatier myths and more easily located footage to valorize our idols, but it’s his slipping away from the canon that – given such commercial success – makes a million-seller like Hughes interesting. What I am saying is that the Judge seems antithetical to so much of what we are now. He was, in a sense, written out of the script for being the wrong kind of multi-culturalist.