So You Want to be a Rude Boy?

Noah Wildman examines the history of Jamaican music, and the rude boy culture of yesterday and today.

What is a rude boy? What is a rude girl? What does 'to be rude' mean? Today, it simply means that you're a dedicated member of the ska scene. If you have a good ska collection, if you dress up in a way that indicates that you like ska, if your style and taste makes it obvious to others that you're in with the ska, you are therefore 'rude' by the definition of ska crowd.

Where did the term come from? I recently spoke to Tommy McCook, the founder, leader and tenor saxophonist of the original ska band, the Skatalites. When I asked him about rude boys coming to Skatalites in the early Sixties, McCook said: "Actually in our tenure as the Skatalites, in the time of the ska music, we did not have any violence. We didn't have any rude boys, so to speak. The violence came around 1966. I remember when rock steady just came in, in late '65. Then in '66 violence broke out wickedly across the island, so much so that we had to have a curfew in Western and Eastern Kingston. So, that's when the rude boy thing came out."

The truth is that 'rudeness' and the original 'rude boys' had absolutely nothing to do with ska. The rude boy came AFTER ska music, during the time of rock steady! Rude boys were the name given to a subculture of young street corner hoodlums, gangsters and other unemployables. In emigrating to England, the rude boys helped spread Jamaican music to the working-class skinheads, another youth subculture. When the 2Tone sound of ska (the second wave of ska in the late Seventies) made it into the popular media, youth subculture changed with it. Today , a new American subculture revolves around the images of the 'rude boy' and 'skinhead.'

The rude boy was not the first subculture of Jamaica, but it was the first youth subculture. After independence in the early Sixties (which gave birth to the nationalist 'ska' music), over-population was putting extreme demands on the basics of life---housing, work and food. The response to these conditions was the start of a creation of a new subculture, unofficially called scufflers. Scuffling was just scrounging to get by, by any means necessary. This often meant involvement in the underground economy. Pimping and prostitution, begging and stealing became the unofficial economic activities in the shanty towns of West Kingston.

The squatter camps of Trenchtown and Back O'Wall existed on the fringe of the city since the Thirties, but population pressures enlarged them and a hurricane in 1951 allowed the squatters to capture nearby government land that was cleared for re-housing. People lived in packing crates, fish barrels, cardboard boxes and polystyrene packing pieces. Fire hydrants and open-air pit latrines supplied basic amenities. Living in these parts was a social stigma that guaranteed unemployment. Diseases of overcrowding---tuberculosis and typhoid---remained in the camps even though public health improvement in the 1930s put these in check elsewhere on the island.

By the Sixties, the economic boom of the 1950s was receding, the Trenchtown poor were no better off than before. Independence may have given a sense of optimism to the population. But a lack of any major change lead to riots and protest movements by the end of the decade. Within this decade, the sub-culture of the scuffling rude boy emerged. These rude boys defined their own personal style. These youths, boys from fourteen to twenty-five years, carried German ratchet knives and handguns. They came from all over West Kingston. With deteriorating living conditions, these rude boys were, above all, angry.

They wore sharp 3-button tonic suits and "stingy brim," or pork-pie hats, in imitation of the upper-classes. The gangster image and sunglasses at all hours gave them a facade of 'cool,' a new and distinctly modern value. If you lived in Trenchtown and scuffled for a living, dressing in this manner would certainly bring attention from neighbors, and suspicion from the upper classes.

According to the Jamaican census of 1960, over one-third of the entire population were unemployed and looking for their first job, about 10,000 people. On the other hand, 70% were under the age of 21, from where the rude boys came.

First at the blues dances of the Fifties and later at the outdoor sound systems of the Sixties, it was the rude boys who would draw the knives and guns first, smash bottles for no particular reason, and cause fear when the pressure would heat up at the events. They would inspire a whole sub-genre within ska music---rude boy songs---which would either condone or condemn them.

One ska artist, Prince Buster, celebrated the rude boy for their "rough n' toughness." In the lyric to the early-Sixties ska song, "Too Hot," he sings:

  Rude boys never give up their guns,  
  No one can tell them what to do.  
  Pound for pound they say they're ruder than you.  
  Get out insurance and make up your will  
  If you want to fight them.  
Not all artists universally endorsed the sub-culture, as in the Ruler's 1966 song, "Don't Be A Rudeboy:"
  I don't want to be no rude boy,  
  I just want to be a good boy.  
  Why don't you change your way rude boy,  
  Try to be a good boy.  
  Because if you don't change your way,  
  You're going to be killed by mistake someday.  
  And when you grow to be a man,  
  You don't spend your days in the camps,  
  And when you walk down the street,  
  People will respect the man they meet.  

Either way, the rude boys were a strong presence on the scene in Jamaica, and a popular image that followed the music. You can translate music, style and attitude from country to country, you can even translate class-standing nationally, but for the very specific economic, political and social forces that made the rude boys truly rude, these things can not be copied.

The 2Tone (ska revival) movement in the Seventies saw kids both black and white dressing sharp and calling themselves rude boys, as one way to identify with the true Jamaican roots of bands like the Specials, the Selecter and Madness. Today, kids are dressing 'rude' not to give props to the Jamaican roots, but to '2Tone' each other.

I got a big chuckle when I read a magazine piece that started off something like, "Rude boys: them no loot; them no shoot; what the fuck do they do?" They're just ska fans, man, chill. Forgive them their lack of knowing the roots. Teach the young rude boy the way, and today's ska music will benefit.

See also: reggae


Noah Wildman lives in New York City, where he is the editor and publisher of "The People's Ska Annual," a fan magazine. "I discovered ska on my first Madness record in 1983," says Noah. "I was shocked by how much it made me dance around and feel good. Soon I was shocked again by how few people knew or cared about this music. Ever since then, it's been a process of getting people into it, one by one, on a personal basis first, then by writing, and now on a more formal basis." This article was reprinted from Issue #4 with permission from the author. "The People's Ska Annual" is free of charge, but postage costs money. If you'd like a copy, mail a large self-addressed manila envelope with $1 in postage stamps affixed (or include a $1 bill) to TPSA, c/o Noah Wildman, PO Box 1418, New York City, NY 10276. You can e-mail him at the_ska_annual@hotmail.com

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