Smiley Culture made his name in the 1980s as the fast-talking DJ from the Saxon Posse who broke into the British pop charts with a tune called “Police Officer.” Paving the way for future hitmakers like Tippa Irie, Papa Levi, and Maxi Priest, Smiley helped to establish the Saxon Studio sound system as a cornerstone of the British reggae scene. Today London’s Daily Mail is reporting that Smily Culture has died of a self-inflicted knife wound to the chest during a police raid at his home. He was 48 years old. The dancehall artist rode his 1984 hit “Police Officer”—set to a hard-hitting version of the immortal “Answer” riddim—all the way to the Top of the Pops. Smiley’s humorous hustler’s tale—in which police pull his car over and search him for ganja but later recognize him as a reggae artist and let him go—was supposedly taken from real life. Years later, with his music career fading, the artist—named David Emmanuel—reportedly got involved in cocaine trafficking. Although in a recent interview with the UK Guardian, he listed his occupation as “Diamond Mine manager.” He told the reporter that he made little money in the music business but that he had made connections to people who gave him investments. At school I thought diamonds came from vaults: now I’ve got gold and diamond mine concessions in Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, Kenya and the Congo, and I’m promoting a record for the Azerbaijan government. Recently, I bought an expensive car in cash, which resulted in a visit by the police. It was like ‘Police Officer’ all over again.”
According to published reports, Smiley was already on bail for a £250,000 cocaine seizure before this week’s early morning raid on his home in Warlingham, Surrey. Officers wanted to question him about a drug mule who swawllowed 2 kilos of coke and was caught trying to enter the UK. He reportedly asked police if he could make a cup of tea, then went into the kitchen and stabbed himself with a carving knife. One unnamed source suggested to the Sun newspaper: “Smiley must have thought he was going away for a long time and decided he could not handle it.” But others doubted that the man would kill himself, especially with a stab wound to the chest. These sources alleged that there was never a raid to begin with and Smiley was taking the fall for some sort of bigger scheme gone bad. The mysterious death is currently under investigation.
Smiley—who got his name as a high school student in South London, where he used to ask girls to give him a smile—made light-hearted music that addressed serious underlying themes. Of course “Police Officer” was the forerunner to police pull over songs like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Smiley’s debut on Fashion Records, the brilliant “Cockney Translation,” is one of the cleverest records in dancehall history, a sophisticated exploration of much more than first meets the ear. The record’s stated subject is a comparison of British street vernacular—Jamaican patois versus Cockney rhyming slang—but the song also compares the different life experiences among people of different races in the British underclass.
But no matter how deep his topics might be, Smiley always handled him with a light touch that endeared him to his fans. And that winning spirit only makes the tragic circumstances of his death that much harder to bear.
“POLICE OFFICER” MUSIC VIDEO
“POLICE OFFICER” ON TOP OF THE POPS
“COCKNEY TRANSLATION” MUSIC VIDEO 1985
“SHAN A SHAN”
You’ve got to love the cheeky hustler’s ambition of this tune. Imagine a Jamaican youth bargaining for helicopters with Prime Minister Thatcher.
One time for the Saxon Studio family, Musclehead and the whole crew, I know you’re feeling this one badly. Blessings and respect, guide and protect.
SAXON STUDIO SOUND IN JAMAICA 1988 “SALARY!”