Below is a feature on the history and origins of sound system culture published as part of Puma’s marketing campaign for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
‘I can’t find a reason why Papa Jarro is so nice – I can’t find a reason…’ sings Johnny Osbourne on a 1990 Killamanjaro sound-tape. ‘Wheeeeeeel and come again,’ screams mic-man and selector Ricky Trooper. ‘We no ‘kin teet’. Jaro, di original rude-bwoy soun’ fi years.’
The importance of sound systems (huge portable discos with powerful amplifiers) in relation to Jamaica’s music industry cannot be overstated. Having first appeared in the capital during the late 1940s, attending these sessions soon became the nation’s favourite musical pastime. They would regularly ‘string-up’ on huge outdoor lawns, beaches, in nightclubs and anywhere else they found an electric current.
By the 1980s, clashes between two or more sounds developed into a skilled art form with Sturgav, Killamanjaro, London-based Jah Shaka and countless others establishing themselves as champions of the arena.
The clash winner was determined by the crowd’s response to each sound’s exclusive recordings (dubplates), singers and MCs – most of the popular performers made their names on what many consider to be the entertainer’s ultimate training ground.
In the following decade, newcomers such as Stone Love, Metro Media and Bodyguard were praised for incorporating r&b, hip hop and dance music and adopting a more light-hearted approach to the business. Additionally, they changed the focus of the clash onto playing ‘specials’; rare dubplates of popular records which name-check the sound.
The equipment changed too. Previously, one-turntable DJs had been accompanied by an MC who would rap over instrumentals and keep the audience entertained with rhyming commentary and announcements. During the early 1990s, a second turntable was introduced enabling new-skool DJs to mix or ‘juggle’ seamlessly for hours.
‘At first sound systems weren’t really operated as a business,’ Stone Love founder Winston ‘Weepow’ Powell remembers. ‘You would just go and play music at a birthday party or for your friend; it wasn’t that serious. Now it has grown into an enterprise that has revolutionised the world, and today Stone Love tours all over.
‘Sound systems have done the most in terms of helping to develop the music. They have always been used as a springboard for the expansion of the music and that still continues.’
Dancehall MC Bounty Killer explains how his career was developed and launched working alongside one of Jamaica’s best-known sound systems.
‘How I got to be in this business is because King Jammy’s gave me a bligh as little yout’ who didn’t have any experience. They gave me the rhythm, I voiced something and it just worked. I wasn’t so wicked at first. Jammy’s groomed me and trained me by giving me certain rhythms and building me up to a certain level; that’s how I became one of the most dominant men in the business.’
Sound tapes, particularly those featuring clashes, became essential promotional tools after entrepreneurial music fans realised the huge demand for them.
With the advents of compact discs, sound tapes were replaced by mix-CDs, which feature the latest releases, hottest dubplates and hip hop remixes. These fashionable recordings are essential for dancehall lovers outside ofJamaicawho want to keep up to date with happenings on the scene.
‘Sound tapes have helped reggae a lot because they pushed the music all over the globe,’ says Weepow. ‘I remember in the early days I was closely associated with the cricketer Courtney Walsh. He usually travelled further than we could go, so if he went to Australia he would carry a cassette and play it while he was on tour so people would hear us.’
In 1999 Mighty Crown, a Japanese sound, clashed and defeated a host of Jamaican sounds to be crowned ‘King Of Sounds’ for that year. In doing so they proved the culture has become so prevalent it is now well and truly ‘outernational’.
British broadcaster and DJ David Rodigan confirms there has been an explosion of new sound systems around the world in recent years. He says: ‘There are young sound systems in every major European city. It’s like a tidal wave going across Europe right now. Thousands of people will come to an event in Rome or Milan just to listen to two or three sound systems.
‘Traditionally reggae and dancehall is very big in Japan, but particularly in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland and Hungry, there’s a musical revolution going on and it’s totally reggae,’ he adds.
During the mid-to-late 1990s, selectors such as Tony Matterhorn of Addies; Trevor Sax of Saxon; Ricky Trooper of Killamanjaro; and Chris Goldfinger of Asher Worl’ Movements, quit their sounds in favour of a solo career.
Goldfinger believes there is one simple reason for this evolution. ‘You earn more being a single man on the road doing your thing, than you do as crew of sound men. In the latter part of the 1990s, DJs realised they were the most important members of the sound system, so a lot of them left to go solo.’
The proliferation of sound tapes and mix-CDs, coupled with reggae’s popularity in international territories has encouraged the culture to spread rapidly far and wide. Two-turntable DJing, rapping, remixing and all-night open air festivals (a firm favourite with British rave fans) are essential elements of mainstream pop culture, but each are spin-offs from Jamaican sound system culture.
To paraphrase Sizzla, you just ‘Can’t keep a good sound down’ – long live the all-conquering sound system.
By Orantes Moore