Oi Polloi

Pull Up: a brief history of the sound system

Published: Thu Mar 23 2017

Anyone who’s found themselves on this ‘blog’ thing before will be well aware that we’re not afraid of a tedious link. So when we clocked the new adidas Spezial stuff had a slight Caribbean flavour to it, we had the perfect excuse to talk about Jamaican music.

So here you go, a brief history of the sound system courtesy of overflowing fountain of aural knowledge, Patrick Ryder… 

At the risk of riling America's Midwest, while it most certainly has a groove, things didn’t start with jack. In fact, dance music culture and the sacred art of putting on one record after another has its roots 1500 miles south of the windy city, on the balmy streets of Kingston, JA. From the liquor store jukeboxes of the early fifties; through the vibrant skank of ska, rocksteady and reggae; to the infectious slackness of the 80s dancehall, the sound system has always led the way for the dance floor.

And as with all the best entries in the musical lexicon*, the sound system enjoys a complex definition which throws your everyday je ne sais quoi into a king size Rizla and takes a heroic toke. So, for the benefit of those slightly awkward students skanking stiffly in basements across the globe, here’s a likkle introduction to the musical might of the black, gold and green. 

*For other examples of indefinable sonic entities, stop me in the street sometime and ask me about Balearic… “Well, it’s a feeling really…”

As Jamaica’s population moved from the country to the city in the face of post-war modernism, the outdated (and interminably dull) sounds of mento and jonkanoo were ditched in favour of the electric shock of American R&B. Faced by financial constraints and a dearth of live musicians willing to play the popular style, music loving entrepreneurs like Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd and Tom the Great Sebastian began to import raucous U.S. discs to spin on their nascent sound systems, battling for supremacy with crowd pleasing hits and added amplification.

In a game where exclusivity was fast becoming number one, and in the face of an emerging national identity, the sound system pioneers hit the studio with some willing sessionists to run up a few special discs of their own. By the mid-sixties Dodd’s Studio One and Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle were turning out hits from the likes of the Skatalites and Justin Hinds & The Dominoes, all tried and tested long before a commercial release through their Downbeat and Trojan Sound Systems. 

In these early days, Dodd and Reid supplied the turntable, amplifier, speakers and record collection, but employed selectors to keep the party moving. Armed with exclusives and imports, the likes of Count Matchuki, U-Roy, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Prince Buster took the role of selector, mixer and deejay, gradually adding elements of talk-over or toasting to hype up the dance-floor. 

As the musical style shifted from ska to rocksteady and reggae, and the popularity of the sound system grew, so did its personnel, with each role filled by a different individual. Boxmen looked after growing numbers of speakers, selectors programmed the music, mixers worked the turntables and fx and the deejay worked the crowd with a typically Jamaican slant on the jive talking of the U.S. radio jocks — an appropriate development considering the all-conquering sound system occupied radio’s role in disseminating new music.

As clashes between rival set ups became increasingly violent throughout the sixties, each firm employed its own personal security team, swelling the numbers and definition of what a sound system is.

By now sound systems had taken their place in the heart of the community — where us Brits may look back fondly at jumpers for goal posts and hedgerow copies of Razzle, Jamaican youths stayed up late to hear the latest tunes from the dance and spent their afternoons helping the boxman rope up the speakers.

By this stage the sound system fulfilled the role of live band, radio and primary source of entertainment, as well as kickstarting the Jamaican recording industry. Then in 1968, sound system culture took centre stage once again as Ruddy Redwood and Byron Smith inadvertently left the vocal off Paragons hit ‘On The Beach’, creating a massive response in the dancehall and paving the way for dub.

Soon King Tubby and Lee Perry were bringing their radical live mixing techniques to the studio to radically reshape existing reggae tracks into the devastating and disorientating versions we’ve come to know and love. Armed with spring reverbs, tape delays and space echo, the sound system operators ripped apart the studio and made the riddim a number one priority. 

As the decades rolled on into the 1980s, this obsession with riddim, coupled with a growing reaction against the conscious, religious lyrics of roots reggae prompted the next major evolution in Jamaican music, dancehall. Bored of the righteousness of the Rastafari movement, a new generation of deejay, led by Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse began to toast with a humourous, sexually charged lyricism and violent delivery, perfectly suited for a sparse, bass heavy and rhythmic sound.

And while Scientist continued to fly the flag for dub in the decade of excess, Prince Jammy picked up a Casio MT-40 and laid down dancehall’s first entirely digital riddim, ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’. Soon enough the dancehall was packed with a youthful crowd, dressed to impress and packing a whole host of salacious dance moves. If you wanted the finest female to butterfly your way, you’d better rock your freshest adidas, not roll up to the dance like old Dr Alimantado. 

Over the last 30 years the sound system has maintained its place at the heart of Jamaican culture, as well as continuing to influence new styles of music across the world, for better or worse.

Hip hop, jungle, drum n bass, dubstep and (sadly) reggaeton all have their roots in the sound system, while the style, fashion and steps of dancehall are now an ever present in any contemporary music video or club. So next time you find your ribcage rattling with some serious bass-weight, take a moment to remember the roots of clubbing before you go full gurn…