BBC - The Story of Reggae - Sound Systems

  • Sound systems are the heartbeat at the centre of all meaningful Jamaican music.
  • During the last forty years, sound system culture has spread all over the world essentially unchanged.
  • They appear in a pure Jamaican form for the Notting Hill Carnival with systems such as Aba Shanti-I and Good Times being huge crowd pullers.
  • Don’t confuse sound systems with mobile discos – one can rock a real party, the other is useful for weddings.
King Tubby The early sound system
Sound Systems
The only way to listen to reggae is at a sound system. Ideally, this would be at an open air lawn in downtown Kingston, where it’s 80 degrees at 2am and the bassline vibrates your bottle of Red Stripe, but a church hall in Bristol or a house party in Birmingham will do. The whole point is you’re packed in with like-minded people; you have ownership of the music; the rig is such that you feel it before you hear it; the deejay is vibing up the crowd; and every killer tune brings a noisy reaction.

Sound systems took over from orchestras in Jamaican dancehalls in the 1950s – why pay a band when you can play imported US R&B records? The cost of having your own record player or radio was also overcome by the systems putting their speakers in the street for all to hear the music. The first Jamaican record producers - Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd (Studio One) and Duke Reid - were sound system owners, commissioning recording sessions to ensure a supply of exclusive tunes.

Because sound system dances were one of the few things ghetto people could call their own, they became central to downtown life, thus a barmometer of popular taste. Once producers started making records for sale, they’d test new styles out on their sound system and nearly every development in Jamaican music – ska, rock steady, reggae, dancehall and so on has been a result of competition between sound men to find something new to pull in the crowds.

Competition for the best equipment and the most exciting music was fierce and sound clashes – contests whereby two sound systems in the same dance played alternate records and were judged by audience reaction - frequently spilled over into violence. Clashes are still part of reggae culture, dub plates get cut with the DJ’s name being overlaid on the track. In London recently the DJ David Rodigan had Wyclef Jean and Tom Jones (!) singing his name live as part of the clash.

Wherever Jamaicans have travelled sound systems have been part of their luggage. In Great Britain sound systems established themselves almost as soon as The Windrush docked. They are also at the centre of the Notting Hill Carnival and proved crucial to development of UK urban music as outfits like Soul II Soul in London and The Wild Bunch in Bristol began life as local sound systems. In New York, hip hop grew out of a sound system set up by an ex-pat Jamaican - DJ Kool Herc – as he brought Kingston dancehall culture to American music.

Next chapter: Dub