Norman Jay MBE, The Heatwave, Mungo’s Hi-Fi, dBridge and Riz La Teef give us an insight into what sound system culture means today.
Over sixty years since the earliest DJs would truck up to a street corner in downtown Kingston with a turntable, a stack of speakers and a generator, sound system culture still carries a bass weight heavier than anything else.
Whether on the streets of Notting Hill in west London or the beaches of Croatia at Outlook festival, the sound system diaspora has extended way beyond its roots in the Jamaican capital, adapting and influencing new forms of music from hip hop to jungle and dubstep that now claim some of this culture for their own.
Now much expanded, the term “sound system culture” is also no longer wedded to wax, as vinyl and dubplates cut to order to win sound clashes have been in part replaced by cheaper and more versatile digital formats. And in the light of London’s recent spate of club closers, it’s also harder to see quite what this culture will look like in ten years time.
To find out what’s going on from those at the controls themselves, we hooked up with five heads from very different backgrounds to ask them the same four questions about what sound system culture really means in the UK and beyond today.
Vinyl and dubplates have traditionally played a huge role in sound system culture. Is that something which still resonates with you and how important is it to maintain that connection?
The Heatwave (Benjamin and Gabriel): They both definitely still resonate for us – we’ve actually just moved all our old vinyl into the studio we work from. When we started The Heatwave we were a strictly vinyl sound and the collection we built up during the early years is massive. Being surrounded by these 7″ discs of black plastic and their distinctive colourful labels is like being surrounded by the history of Jamaican dancehall. Each record tells a little story and captures a moment in time in the development of the music, and also the art and design that’s been such a big part of dancehall.
We’ve been playing digital/mp3 since 2008, but we still use vinyl control records and Technics turntables is the first thing on our tech rider. Many of those we converted to mp3 or just bought again, but loads of the records we have are impossible to find digitally, so being able to bring stuff out of the archives to feature on radio brings this music to people who wouldn’t otherwise hear it.
We used to cut loads of dubplates back in the days – Henry, one of The Heatwave founding members, runs a dub-cutting and mastering studio in Bristol so we’ve always been well set up for that. Nowadays we don’t cut actual dubs but the process of playing out dubs – as in, brand new unreleased tunes, or specials for our sound voiced by big artists – is exactly the same. That’s one of the things that always appealed about the switch to Serato, being able to finish a tune in the studio and then play it in a club that same day. We’ve done stuff on trains and planes and car journeys before, just a couple hours before a club set. So yeah we still play dubs like that, just not having to go and get them physically cut.
dBridge: I think is an important part of the story. It’s a component in the architecture and history of many scenes. I don’t like to get too caught up in the format wars though, I don’t want content lost at the expense of a format. Not sure who said it but “I play music not a medium”. It just so happens the music will sound better on vinyl…
Mungos Hi-Fi: We love our vinyl and we are all collectors. It’s the ultimate format as far as we are concerned, and the labour of love that goes into each piece is a testament to the music. We actually sell quite a lot of it as well through our online shop scotchbonnet.net where we have built up a big selection over the years, as well as selling a lot of our own music including limited runs of shop exclusives.
Norman Jay: No, it doesn’t. Like technology I’ve moved on and kept up with the times. Although saying that, I still have a massive affection for vinyl and still own my massive vinyl collection.
Riz La Teef: It definitely still resonates with me as I still cut dubs & only play vinyl. And nothing beats playing acetates/records on a well setup sound system. I grew up seeing all the old dubstep heads playing Transition acetates on big systems and thought that was the way to do things, so I just continued in their footsteps essentially.
How do you feel sound system culture has changed in recent times?
The Heatwave: The most obvious thing is that you see it everywhere now. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. The central components associated with sound system – the DJ and MC arrangement, hosting and lyrical styles, emphasis on bass, rewinds, dubplates – that was still relatively niche. It’s now completely blown up – in various ways.
Drum and bass, garage and grime are the fabric of this generation’s musical experience and a solid part of mainstream popular culture. EDM is massive all over the world and that comes directly from dubstep and other sound system variations. Similarly, in a bit of a broader sense, the explosions of festivals is really connected to sound system culture too. There’s millions and millions of kids who are completely comfortable and literate in the language of sound system – they go to festivals, they go and see their favourite DJ/MCs performing and expect rewinds and heavy drops or sick remixes. That is sound system culture.
Obviously the thing is – that’s come from a specific place, its a form of art that Caribbean and British-Caribbean developed. And many, many people who enjoy sound system culture don’t know that. So it’s grown massively and as is often the case with music originated by black communities, it often gets white-washed and disconnected from its roots and the people who invented it.
On a more technical level things have been really opened up though, and democratised. Which is great. The disappearance of vinyl and the advent of people playing mp3s/wavs using Serato or burnt CDs or now USBs has definitely changed things in the sense that you don’t have to invest loads of time and money now to become a DJ or a sound.
A lot of the older heads used to complain about that, saying “everyone can be a DJ now” but in many ways that’s a good thing. No one’s position is protected any more just by having been in the game longer or having more money to invest in records. If anyone can download a zip file of “1000 biggest bashment tunes” or whatever, then it forces all the other DJs to up their game.
Every time we play out, we have to prove that what makes The Heatwave sick is not what tunes we have, but how we play them, how we build a set, how we host it, the way we connect with the crowd on the mic, when we drop certain tunes, the way we mix, what we get the crowd to do. These things are just as big a part of sound system culture than crate-digging or building your record collection, if not bigger.
dBridge: I think it’s had to adapt to changes in technology more than anything and the new and interesting ways that people are showcasing their sound. It has in some senses become easier to setup and call yourself a sound system and as a result some sounds have become lazy in their approach. There has been a lack of understanding, especially when it comes to setting up for the use of vinyl. It’s not just a case of sticking some decks on a table and plugging them in. Especially Technics, those tone-arms feed back easily.
Mungos Hi Fi: It feels like the roots are really growing. We can see that locally in Scotland with a bunch of new sounds coming up and regular events even in smaller towns. And we see it when we travel as far afield as Peru and India that more and more people are catching the vibe and making it their own. Some people see this as some sort of appropriation of a culture, but we see it more as a continuation of it.
Norman Jay: It’s changed radically, but from where I’m standing it looks like it’s making a come back, with quite a few young sound systems emerging on the scene.
Riz La Teef: Obviously the sound systems have become more advanced as technology as improved over the last 10 years. I think now there are less sound systems than there were 10 years ago although I could be wrong. I reckon sound system culture has become less niche due to the internet etc & so now more and more people are appreciating the benefit of a sick sound system which is great.
Have stricter regulations around noise and club closures in major cities had an effect?
The Heatwave: The only noise regulations we’ve fallen foul of really are when a couple venues have complained about all the whistles and horns we give out. The sound systems we play on seem to be as loud and as bass-heavy as ever. Club closures are definitely keenly felt though, especially in London it seems. There’s too many places where we’ve had sick nights in the past and you see them now and they’re flats or shops or car parks.
Things are is a lot stricter now – and clubs are getting shut down left right and centre. People move in above a club and complain about the noise. Even though the ‘vibe’ the club created is the reason they moved there. Festivals are the main way people experience music – but its harder to nurture young artists at festivals and also its harder for smaller promoters who are passionate about a sound to make money.
dBridge: As a DJ, yes. I’ve had quite a few cases of the council coming round with there bloody meters and forcing events to be turned down. The knock on being, I get wound up, the crowd gets annoyed, and it just ruins the vibe.
Mungos Hi Fi: Yes. Sound System culture still struggles to be accepted among the populations of licensing boards, meaning that there are few places that ‘get away’ with being able to freely run sessions. Then again, by having to be inventive and seeking out new places and ways of doing things it keeps things fresh and is a testament to the commitment of everyone involved – particularly the faithful supporters.
Norman Jay: No, not really because I always had to comply with current health and safety regulations as long as I can remember. But, it is impacting on the more traditional sound systems.
Riz La Teef: Definitely, I mean I live in London and we have lost some very decent clubs in past few years due to council regulations, property developers etc. But there are still some good spaces with good systems so it’s not all bad news. Maybe it’s time to challenge the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in order to try an get a free party movement going again as regulations have tightened in major cities, but that could be wishful thinking.
Where do you see sound system culture in 10 years? What kind of future does it have?
The Heatwave: It’s so hard to say the way things are moving. It’s got to evolve into something based around festivals/raves, online interaction and streaming/downloading music. But not sure what it will look like – maybe some weird musical version of Pokemon Go?
dBridge: I think it will always be around, maybe more so now than ever. Clubs are getting shut down but people need a place to party, and they will find a way. The mobile nature of sound systems means this can be easily done. Also according to a United States Library of Congress study, vinyl will last approximately 100 years. So as a format it will have succeeded all that has so far followed it. CDs, digital files and hard drives.
Mungos Hi Fi: Sound system culture in 10 years will undoubtedly be bigger and further advanced than it is now. So many people talk to us about making their own rigs while others get into running regular promotions and building a scene – this is a real thing, not about hype, and it is a solid and global foundation.
Norman Jay: They will all eventually be online and digital, all a figment of our imagination!
Riz La Teef: I think they will continue to thrive as people will always want to hear bass driven underground music played through weighty systems. I mean sound systems have been going since the ’60s and they are still going today so I think the future is bright!
Europe’s leading sound system festival, Outlook returns to Pula in Croatia on August 31st. Click here for more info.
Lead photo: Sound System Culture Birmingham exhibition. Click here for more info.