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History of sound systems


A sound system is a group of DJs contributing and working together as one, making one kind of particular electronic music. This particular usage of the term is derived from the Jamaican sound system culture which firmly rooted itself in the UK in the 70s, which in turn took the name from extensive use of sound reinforcement systems by DJs. Aba Shanti-I, Good Times and Jah Shakas systems are examples. Hip hop grew from ex-pat Jamaican DJ Kool Herc's sound system parties in New York in the 80s.

Some bands or producers like to call themselves or are referred to as sound systems, for example Dub Narcotic Sound System or the On-U Sound System. Other bands, like Asian Dub Foundation, make a distinction: when they are advertised as Asian Dub Foundation the whole band performs, but when other times they announce themselves as Asian Dub Foundation Sound System only the DJ of the band mixes and plays music (music by other artists, rather than by ADF) while one or two MCs rap over the songs. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_system_%28DJ%29 [Mar 2005]

A sound system is a Jamaican patois term for a large street party. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaican_sound_system#History [Mar 2005]

Jamaican sound systems history

A sound system is a Jamaican patois term for a large street party.

In the 1950's in the ghettos of Kingston a new type of public entertainment came about. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. In the beginning, the DJs played American R&B music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavor.

The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the only sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area. The promoter (the DJ) would make his profit by charging a minimal admission, and selling food and alcohol. Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, and Duke Reid. It was not uncommon for thousands of people to be in attendance.

The popularity of a sound system was mainly contingent on one thing: having new music. In order to circumvent the release cycle of the American record labels, the two sound system superstars turned to record production. Initially, they produced only singles for their own sound systems, known as "Exclusives" - a limited run of one copy per song.

What began as an attempt to copy the American R&B sound using local musicians became Jamaica's first unique music: Ska. As this new musical form became more popular, both Dodd and Reid began to move more seriously into music production. Coxsone Dodd's production studio became the famous Studio One, while Duke Reid founded the famous Trojan Records. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaican_sound_system#History [Mar 2005]

Open Air

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. --bbc.co.uk


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. --bbc.co.uk


Because sound system dances were one of the few things ghetto people could call their own, they became central to downtown life, thus a barometer 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.--bbc.co.uk


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. --bbc.co.uk

Sound Systems exported

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. http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutmusic/features/reggae/history_sound.shtml

Blues dances

Dick Hebdige in his book, "Cut 'N' Mix" described Jamaican 'toasting' as when the Jamaican disc jockies talked over the music they played. This style developed at dances in Jamaica known as "blues dances". "Blues dances" were dances which took place in large halls or out in the open in the slum yards. "Blues dances" were a regular feature of ghetto life in Jamaica. At these dances black America R&B records were played. Jamaicans were introduced to these records by black American sailors stationed on the island and by American radio stations in and around Miami which played R&B records.

Some favorite R&B artists were Fats Domino, Amos Melburn, Louis Jordan, and Roy Brown. There was a great demand for the R&B type of music, but unfortunately there were no local Jamaican bands which could play this type of music as well as the black American artists. As a result, 'sound systems' (comprised of DJs, roadies, engineers, bouncers) which were large mobile discotheques were set up to meet this need. --Cut 'N' Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music - Dick Hebdige [Amazon US]


  1. Studio One DJs [Amazon US] Studio One!

    For this release we return to the roots of Reggae music-The Soundsystem. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s Soundsystems played throughout the city of Kingston, Jamaica. As well as Sir Coxsone's Downbeat Soundsystem other famous Soundsystem operators included Duke Reid (the Trojan), Prince Buster, Tom the Great and King Edwards.

    These Soundystems were the birthplace of much of Jamaica's musical culture ­ soundclashes, Dancehall and the idea of the toaster who sang over records- the DJ.

    As ever Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd led the field and so for this release the focus is on DJ's at Studio One and features legendary toasters such as Denis Alcapone, Dillinger and Prince Far I as well as a host of rare material by lesser known artists. Also included is Count Machuki ­ the original DJ- the first man ever to speak over the mic-at Sir Coxsone¹s Downbeat Sound System- from where it all began.

    As Steve Barrow (author of The Rough Guide to Reggae/Blood and Fire Records) writes in the sleevenotes, Jamaican deejay music is the source for all Rap music: From Count Machuki talking over records on Sir Coxsone's legendary Downbeat Sound System this style would eventually travel to America when the Jamaican-born Kool Herc began playing at Block parties (a version of the Kingston Soundsystem parties) in the Bronx. Cutting up rare-groove classics for the first B-Boys to rap over, Hip-Hop was born and the DJ music that had started on the early Soundsystems of Kingston would go on to conquer the world!

    Studio One Records is the original Jamaican record label. Studio One Records started the career of hundreds of Jamaican artists from Bob Marley to The Skatalites, from Horace Andy to The Heptones.

    Studio One DJs (compiled by Mark Ainley) is the next in the series of releases where Soul Jazz Records are showcasing the music of Studio One, the label that literally defines Reggae.

    Following on from Studio One Rockers, Studio One Soul and Studio One Roots, this release also comes as a CD-Rom with a taster from the Studio One Story, Soul Jazz Records forthcoming full-length documentary about Coxsone Dodd and Studio One. --http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk/release.php?ReleaseId=148&NavId=2&Section=1 [Sept 2005]

  2. Studio One Soul[Amazon US]

    1. Express yourself - Sibbles, Leroy 2. Respect - Frazer, Norma 3. Groove me - Sibbles, Leroy 4. Soulful strut - Sound Dimension 5. Queen of the minstrels - Eternals (5) 6. Message from a blackman - Heptones 7. I'll be around - Gayle, Otis 8. Still water - Jones, Jerry 9. Time is tight - Sound Dimension 10. Can't get enough - Ace, Richard 11. Don't break your promise - Chosen Few (1) 12. First cut is the deepest - Frazer, Norma 13. How strong - Parker, Ken 14. Set me free - Booth, Ken 15. Is it because I'm black - Senior Soul 16. Deeper and deeper - Mittoo, Jackie 17. I don't want to be right - Ellis, Alton 18. No one can stop us - Williams, Willie
    Studio One Soul, another sensational compilation that this time spotlights the inescapable link between Jamaican reggae and US soul. Since the late 1950s, which saw ska born out of American R&B, the Jamaican reggae fraternity has always had a strong affiliation towards US soul, and later on, funk. --Chris King, amazon.co.uk

  3. Nice Up the Dance-Studio One Discomixes - Various Artists [1 CD, Amazon US]
    Always a hit factory, the label came close to completely dominating the Jamaican dance floor with the emergence of the long-playing 12-inch “discomix” in the 1970s. Studio One capitalized on the extended discomix format, successfully recycling some of its best material from the 1960s. Older hits were updated simply by mixing in lengthy instrumental endings. The popularity of the discomix allowed the label to prolong its reign, even after its most creative period had passed. Because a discomix filled up an entire side of a [12"] record, a hit song had the power to keep competing records off the DJ’s turntable for a good long time. Nice Up The Dance complies the very best of these highly sought-after 12-inch classics, including tracks from such legendary artists as Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, and Tommy McCook. The album opens with Cornell Campbell & the Eternal’s obscure classic, “Queen Of The Minstrels,” which unfolds in a deliciously slow groove that suspends both time and worry. The discomix of Alton Ellis’s eternal reggae classic, “Can I Change My Mind,” clocks in at an astounding 11-minutes. This endless version gives us plenty of time to experience the full magnitude of Ellis’s mighty soul caressing voice. The lengthy instrumental sections that fill Nice Up The Dance not only give added depth to older hits, but also showcase the impressive talents of the Studio One house musicians, masters of the hypnotic reggae groove. For almost three decades, Studio One has provided Jamaicans with the soulful soundtrack of their lives. -- John Ballon

    Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, is the founder and publisher of MustHear.com, a music review and photography website dedicated to celebrating the brilliant and the obscure. He is an avid reader, writer, photographer, dog-walker, thrift-shopper, percussionist, and record collector. While his musical tastes are as varied as his hobbies, jazz has long been a major passion. He prefers to photograph jazz in black and white, but has recently been dabbling in color. Visit John's photo Must Hear recommendations site at http://www.musthear.com

    During the seventies in Jamaica the 12" mix of popular songs became the vogue. The vocals and dubs were mated for a musical extravaganza. As a result of the popularity of these 12" singles Coxsone Dodd compiled and released some "Showcase" albums. Now the Cambridge, Massachusetts U.S.A. based Heartbeat Records has issued "Nice Up The Dance", which is a decent follow up to the previous releases 'Showcase Volume 1 & 2". Many of the songs on the album were originally released in the late sixties and re-released in their extended version ten years later. The album opens with classic late sixties lovers tune Queen Of the Minstrels from Cornell Campbell and The Eternals. He recorded many sides for Coxsone, starting in the late fifties, before teaming up with producer Bunny Lee. In the seventies his output was prolific and he still is recording quality sides for a variety of producers, such as the New York based Don One. Ken Parker comes next with his rendition of William Bells' My Whole World Is Falling Down. Ken's version topped the Jamaican charts in 1969. One of Jamaica's most underrated vocalists is the late Freddie McKay. Love Is Treasure remains his best remembered tune, the Studio One album 'Picture On The Wall' is a classic set. An often versioned riddim is Horace Andy's Mr. Bassie. It's a dancehall staple, and any producer looking for a dancehall hit will consider versioning it. Great names like Beres Hammond, Garnet Silk, Frankie Paul, Dean Fraser and Robert Ffrench have scored hits riding this riddim. The late great Delroy Wilson is one of Studio One's legends. He started out at the age of twelve, voicing popular ska sides for Coxsone Dodd. His tune Give Love A Try is one of the highlights found here. The Sound Dimension's 'Real Rock' riddim probably is reggae's most versioned riddim. Although Willie Williams' version 'Armagideon Time' is a very popular cut of the riddim, Michigan and Smiley offering Nice Up the Dance is a noteworthy track. This tune is followed by the killer tune of the album, Alton Ellis' Can I Change My Mind. This brilliant retelling of Tyrone Davis' 1968 hit tune proved Alton's most popular tune. He has recorded a few tunes over the years and his outings still remain popular with the reggae massive. The album closes with a previously unreleased tune by The Viceroys. For this release the original vocal cut Slogan On The Wall was mixed together with Tommy McCook's instrumental cut 'Tenor On The Call'. -- jo moenen for amazon.com

  4. Original Underground Massive Attack - Wild Bunch [1 CD, Amazon US]
    1. Hands In The Air One Time (Live Intro) - Wild Bunch 2. Party Scene - Russell Brothers 3. On The Radio - Crash Crew 4. Love Rap - Spoonie Gee 5. T LaRock - Its Yours 6. Tearin Down The Avenue (Live) - Wild Bunch (Feat Daddy G) 7. Techno Scratch - Knights Of The Turntables 8. Jam On Revenge (The Wikki Wikki Song) - Newclass 9. Smurph Across The Surf - Microawts 10. Hip Hop Be Bop Sucker DJ - Man Parrish Dimples D 11. We Rap More Mellow - Younger Generation 12. Dyin To Be Dancin - Empress 13. Come Back Lover - Fresh Band 14. Rock Shock - BBCS And A 15. Inside Out - Odyssey 16. Im In Love - Evelyn Champagne King 17. Behind The Groove - Teena Marie 18. You Used To Hold Me So Tight - Thelma Houston 19. Double Fresh (Live) - Wild Bunch (Feat Daddy G) 20. The Music Got Me - Visual 21. Who Needs Enemies With Friends Like You (Montana Sextet) 22. Dance Freak - Chain Reaction 23. Its Serious - Cameo 24. Can You Feel It - Mr Fingers 25. Dub Plate Fashion (Live) - Wild Bunch (Feat Daddy G) 26. The Look Of Love - Wild Bunch

    Another major release for ultra-cool UK label, Strut as they present the rise of one of the great UK dance music success stories, The Wild Bunch DJ crew from Bristol, members of which went on to enjoy worldwide success as Massive Attack with their massive selling Blue Lines, Protection and Mezzanine albums. Mixed by DJ Milo.

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