With the exhibition, The Return Of The Rudeboy, closing at Somerset House last weekend, i-D caught up with Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliott, the men behind it, to talk about the relevance of the Rudeboy in the 21st Century.
Originating in Jamaica in the 50s and the 60s, and being transported to the UK through the Jamaican diaspora of the Windrush generation, the Rudies favoured sharp suits and thin ties and Ska and Rocksteady music, in the UK it became synonymous with the 2 Tone movement, which saw British and Caribbean culture come together. But far from being a mere museum piece, Dean and Harris argue for the persistent importance of the Rudeboy in the modern life.
What inspired you to start taking photos of modern Rudeboys?
Dean: The inspiration came from the people we observed day to day, knew or came to meet through this journey. Harris and I have very keen eyes for what is going on in a cultural sense, what is bubbling up, it has to some degree become a natural instinct. Just over a year and a half ago we had a conversation that crystalised our separate thoughts on the growing Rudeboy presence, immediately we set about photographing people and bringing this dynamic and important statement to bear.
Was there any styling involved in shooting the portraits? Or were you interested in just capturing the personal style of those you shot?
Dean: There was nostyling in these photographs, we asked each Rudie to represent themselves as they are, this separates the body of work from what would have been a contrived fashion project. The people we photographed are the real deal, there was no need to interfere with their natural swagger and style.
What first drew you to the Rudeboy style? Was it something you were involved in, growing up?
Dean: There was a great appreciation for the impact and substance of Rudeboy Culture. When I was a kid at school back in the 80s I was into the Mod thing, it was the time of the 2-Tone revival that had thrust bands like The Specials and The Selecter, into our worlds; clothing including Harringtons, tight Sta-Press trousers, loafers and white or checked socks. What is happening now is the continuation and evolution of a culture that has a great heritage but is moving forward, searching and redefining itself. Rudeboys have a fierce individualism and a very personal way of expressing themselves, which is very exciting.
How did you decide upon the rest of the installation and ephemera included in the exhibition?
Harris: The objective was to tell as much of the Rudeboy experience and life as possible, there is a visual narrative to guide you through each space. From the music to showing the migration from Jamaica to the UK and the technical craft of Rudeboy sartorial lifestyle, and there’s the Johnnie Sapong barbershop, which within the Afro-Caribbean community is like Speakers Corner, the space when you garner all kinds of information, from the intelligent to the foolish.
How do you define a rudeboy?
Harris: One of our featured Rudeboys, Kervin Marc summed it up quite succinctly; "Rudeboy means attitude, it stems from the Jamaican and Rastafarian non-conformist attitude to their colonial former masters and modern day oppressors. To dare to challenge them physically, verbally, literarily, visually, musically you were considered rude. An old word in modern context underlines Rudeboy best, swagger.” It’s a reaction to what is going on, but with a sense of pride in how to conduct oneself.
Is the Rudeboy anachronistic in the 21st Century?
Harris: Not at all, the Rudeboy is very much relevant and necessary, the world needs more people that express themselves in ways that defy what society expects you to be. Far from being out of time the contemporary Rudeboy is forging the future, using their subversive resistance to kick out any ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude.
Dean: The 21st Century Rudeboy has a wealth of reference to draw on, but that is not really the essence of what we are talking about here, incorporation of heritage is only one element. The people we have in the exhibition are forward thinking, creative and expressive; it’s the unwillingness to fall into line with the notion of conformity sets them aside. This is an on going and developing culture that began in Jamaica, migrated to the shores of the UK and then in an unique way has evolved.
What’s your favourite photo from the exhibition?
Harris: To hard a question, I would have to have two favourites, Bevan through the Taxi and Zoe Bedeaux.
Dean: Come on! If they weren’t all favourites then they wouldn't be on the wall!
Do you think of this as an exhibition of fashion photography, or a cultural document?
Harris: This exhibition is unique in that it straddles style and culture seamlessly, so whether you are into either aspect you will hopefully be inspired. Current fashion photography is usually selling something, but these images are presenting real people, yet their stance and the details in the clothes they wear are incredibly appealing, which therefore encourages you to engage with the subjects as if you were looking at a striking fashion image.
What’s the difference between todays Rudeboys and the originals from 50s/60s Jamaica?
Harris: The main difference is the lifestyles, Times were harder and political pressures were tougher for the early Rudies, the choices available to people would have been limited, so notorious behaviour was a strong option. Nowadays those pressures aren’t there in the same way, especially not here in the UK. The Rudeboys we have photographed are not dealing with daily survival but the challenge to create and express themselves as individuals in a homogenised society.
What item of clothing couldn’t you live without?
Harris: My Underpants
Return of the Rudeboy exhibition posters are still available from the Rizzoli bookshop at Somerset House, priced at £12. Individual postcards are also available priced at £2.