The Story of ‘Bo!’

ImageAs I was walking home the other day, I saw a poster on the side of a bus stop that caught my eye. It was an advert for a new music catalogue service from the BBC, called ‘Playlister’. But it was the text itself that grabbed my attention.

The tagline, ‘be selecta’, is a neat, if obvious, creative linguistic variation on the phrase ‘bo selecta!’. To anyone who doesn’t know the phrase it plays on, the lack of article between verb and noun will still be suitably evocative, accurately or otherwise, of some kind of pidgin or creole relative of English. And its core meaning will still be transparently – in this context at least – ‘you be the DJ!’.

However, to anyone that has had at least one eye on popular culture in the UK throughout the nineties and the noughties will spot the reference immediately.

Like many people, I’ve been familiar with the phrase ‘bo selecta!’ since it first appeared in the UK Number 2 hit ‘Re-rewind’ some 15 years ago. The track, by British garage artists The Artful Dodger, featured vocals by the shortly-to-be-famous Craig David and included the suitably-schwa’d lyrics:

    With Craig David all over your […]
    DJ it’s all up to you
    When the crowd go wild
    Tell me watcha gonna do

    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta-ta!’
    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo! bo! bo!’

The track marked a crossing of the music genre (known simply as ‘garage’) to the mainstream. At the same time, it also brought to the ears of the masses the Jamaican patois infused, urban dialect of English, representative of the predominantly black community in London that UK garage sprang from.

Importantly, to white, middle-class ears the words ‘bo’ and ‘selecta’ had a mystery to them – and an obvious sense of ‘cool’. They weren’t the kind of words you would forget.

And so it was for many more of my generation – not least for comedian Leigh Francis who, between 2002 and 2004, used the phrase as the title of a popular TV sketch-show. One of the programme’s main characters was a less-than-subtle, rubber-masked Craig David pastiche speaking in a broad Northern English dialect. Most of the humour of the sketches the character appeared in arises from the pure incongruity of the character’s Yorkshire accent and its pairing with the vocabulary of London’s garage scene. One particular catch-phrase was, for example:

    ‘It’s proper ‘bo’, I tell thee!’

The thorough lampooning quickly dismantled any sense of cool that ‘bo selecta!’ (and Craig David) had, at least among middle-class British audiences. That, I guess, was the point.

Now, more than ten years later, the BBC are using the phrase – or at least a clever spin on it – to advertise their new music app. But, walking home, I realised I still didn’t know what ‘bo selecta’ means. So I looked it up.

I found the answer in Simon Reynolds’ 1998 book: ‘Energy Flash: a Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture’. In the UK garage club scene, which had its roots in the reggae dancehall culture of the Caribbean, the MC (as in ‘master of ceremonies’) was an important figure who effectively mediated between the crowd and the DJ (the ‘selecta’). If the crowd liked a tune they would cry ‘bo!’ at which point the MC would ask the DJ to ‘rewind’ the tune – that is, play it again. The track conjures up the ritual cleverly, from the narrative in the verses, right down to the electronically stuttered (‘re-rewind’) refrain.

As for ‘bo’ itself, it turns out it’s not the same word as ‘beau’ as some sources on the internet suggest, although in this context it does imply approval of the selecta’s selection. Instead, it’s onomatopoeia: somewhat like ‘boom’, it echoes the celebratory sound of gun fire.

And that’s it. However, there’s one interesting side-note to all this. While I was researching this blog, I found this internet discussion forum about whether non-Jamaican DJs should ever speak in patois at gigs. Should a Swedish DJ, for example, ever shout ‘bo!’ to the writhing crowd? Or, in the terminology of linguist Ben Rampton (1995), should anyone ever ‘cross-over’ to assume someone else’s identity, except perhaps in jest?

Perhaps the best response I read was from someone called Danny Fyah. It read:

‘I would say: each one as best as he can. Means, if one chats a horrible patois creole, along with an European accent, it might be better to just speak Standart English. If one is able to speak the creole fluently why not using it then..?! The question is more: how much percent of the audience in – let’s say – continental Europe or Japan does understand patois? It is not even bad to switch between Standart English and Patois sometimes, if you feel like the crowd is getting a better glue of what you want to express.’

As well as enjoying a taste of his patois, I found Fyah’s comments heart-warmingly balanced (especially since they are framed around proper linguistic notions of ‘creole’ and ‘standard English’). Anyone that advocates code-switching to get the party started is OK with me!

So, that’s the story of ‘bo!’. Given the time of year, I could perhaps also write about the true meaning of ‘Crimbo’, as we like to call Christmas ‘round our way

But that, of course, is a whole different story.

References

Rampton, B. (1995) Language crossing and the problematisation of ethnicity and socialisation. Pragmatics, 5, 485-513.