Sound system (Jamaican)

Last updated
Music of Jamaica
Nuvola Jamaican flag.svg
General topics
Related articles
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem Jamaica, Land We Love
Regional music

In Jamaican popular culture, a sound system is a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music. The sound system is an important part of Jamaican culture and history. [1]



The sound system concept first became popular in the 1940s, in the parish of Kingston. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. Tom the Great Sebastian, founded by Chinese-Jamaican businessman Tom Wong, was the first commercially successful sound system and influenced many sound systems that came later. [2] In the beginning, the DJs played American rhythm and blues music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavour. [1] The sound system remained successful when the conservative, BBC-modeled Jamaican establishment radio refused to play the people's music, while DJs could play whatever they wanted and favored local sounds such as reggae. [3] The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the few sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area. The promoter or DJ made his profit by charging admission and selling food and alcohol; often thousands of people were in attendance.

By the mid-1950s, sound systems were more popular at parties than live musicians, and by the second half of the decade, custom-built systems began to appear from the workshops of specialists such as Hedley Jones, who constructed wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as "House[s] of Joy". It was also around this time that Jamaica's first superstar DJ and MC, Count Machuki, rose to prominence. As time progressed, sound systems became louder—capable of playing bass frequencies at 30,000 watts or more, with similar wattage attainable at the mid-range and high frequencies—and far more complex than their predecessors. [4] Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and Duke Reid. Besides the DJ, who rapped over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks.

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" or Dubplates—a limited run of one copy per song. [5] What began as an attempt to replicate the American R&B sound using local musicians evolved into a uniquely Jamaican musical genre: ska. This shift was due partly to the fact that as American-style R&B was embraced by a largely white, teenage audience and evolved into rock and roll, sound system owners created—and played—a steady stream of the singles the people preferred: fast-shuffle boogies and ballads. In response to this shift in supply, Jamaican producers introduced to their work some of the original elements of the Jamaican sound: rhythm guitars strumming the offbeat and snare-drum emphasis on the third beat, for example. [4] 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 Treasure Isle.

As sound systems continued to gain in popularity through the 1960s and 1970s, they became politicized in many instances. The ‘DJs would often satirize current affairs and local events, taking on a “singing newspaper” role. [6] Many sound systems, and their owners, were labelled as supporters of a particular political party (such as the PNP or the JLP), but most of the sound systems tried to maintain political neutrality. Nevertheless, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the sound system was affected by the vast socio-political changes taking place in Jamaica at this time. [7]

An important part of sound system culture is the sound clash, an organized battle between two systems. The Guinness Sounds of Greatness is one of many such clashes. In 2009, the Guinness clash was organized into three parts: a "juggling" round, where each system gets 15 minutes to get the crowd going; a "tune fe tune" exchange of "commercial releases"; and a "dub-fe-dub", when the systems alternate "specials done specifically for the sound system playing the recording". [8]

The culture of the Sound System was brought to the UK with the mass immigration of Jamaicans in the 1960s and 1970s. [9] Notable UK Sound Systems include Sir Coxsone Outernational Jah Shaka, Channel One, Aba Shanti-I, Jah Observer, Quaker City, Iration Steppas, Fatman International and Saxon Studio International. One of the first sound systems in the United States was Downbeat the Ruler, founded in Bronx, New York, in the late 1970s.

These sound systems were the method in which these migrants were able to maintain their cultural connection with their roots. They broadcast the remixed samples of reggae beats and created an underground music culture. This culture was separate from the larger population which relied on the radio to provide popular music[ citation needed ]. These sound systems were played in warehouses, clubs, and street corners. This was not simply just music played on the radio for a few people to hear, but a culture that involved many people was developed out of being consumed by sound through large sound systems[ citation needed ]. Sound system culture presented what Julian Henriques refers to as sonic dominance. [10] He is strategic in his usage of the word dominance because it is visceral and this term embodies the "power and the pleasure of the sonic" (452). The sound is an "enveloping, immersive, and intense experience" (451).[ citation needed ] The experience is so strong that "sounds carry people, as much as people carry sounds; 'vibes' find bodies to move" (230). Dance acts as a natural, immediate response to dancehall sounds, and as Henriques puts it, "bodies have no musical burden to bear; rather they are borne along, even berthed, by music." [11]

According to Henriques, the sound system has also played an influential role in the global influence of Jamaican music internationally. [12] It has "proved itself to be one of the most efficient of musical distribution mechanisms," (218) which has resulted in Jamaican music's influence on genres such as Hip hop, Jungle, and Dubstep. [12] While part of its influence can literally be credited to its superior audio fidelity over radio, the sound system also acts as a symbolic transmitter of shared experiences across the African diaspora. [12] [13]

See also


  1. 1 2 BBC - Music - Essential Guide to Reggae Archived 14 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  2. Gooden 2012
  3. Brewster, Bill; Broughton, Frank (2014). Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Grove Press. pp. 92–103.
  4. 1 2 Barrow 1997
  5. BBC - 1Xtra - Jamaica
  6. Brewster, Bill; Broughton, Frank (2014). Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Grove Press. pp. 92–103.
  7. Stolzsoff 2000
  8. Cooke, Mel (19 October 2009). "Black Widow, Bredda Hype win in 'Guinness Sounds of Greatness' - King Mello, Black Scorpio first sounds eliminated". Jamaica Gleaner . Archived from the original on 31 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  9. Dagnini, Jérémie Kroubo (18 May 2011). "The Importance of Reggae Music in the Worldwide Cultural Universe". Études caribéennes (16). doi: 10.4000/etudescaribeennes.4740 . ISSN   1779-0980.
  10. Henriques, Julian Henriques. "SONIC BODIESIntroduction 1Julian HenriquesSonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques & Ways of Knowing" (PDF).
  11. Henriques, Julian, “Sonic diaspora, vibrations, and rhythm: thinking through the sounding of the Jamaican dancehall session.”
  12. 1 2 3 Henriques, Julian F. (2008). "Sonic diaspora, vibrations, and rhythm: thinking through the sounding of the Jamaican dancehall session" (PDF).
  13. Jaji, Tsitsi Ella. "Africa in Stereo - Hardcover". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 12 December 2015.


Related Research Articles

Reggae Music genre from Jamaica

Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. The term also denotes the modern popular music of Jamaica and its diaspora. A 1968 single by Toots and the Maytals, "Do the Reggay" was the first popular song to use the word "reggae", effectively naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience. While sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of popular Jamaican dance music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that was strongly influenced by traditional mento as well as American jazz and rhythm and blues, and evolved out of the earlier genres ska and rocksteady. Reggae usually relates news, social gossip, and political commentary. It is instantly recognizable from the counterpoint between the bass and drum downbeat and the offbeat rhythm section. The immediate origins of reggae were in ska and rocksteady; from the latter, reggae took over the use of the bass as a percussion instrument.

Riddim is the Jamaican Patois pronunciation of the English word "rhythm". In reggae, dancehall, calypso, soca, grime, and reggaeton parlance it refers to the instrumental accompaniment to a song. These genres consist of the riddim plus the "voicing" sung by the deejay. The resulting song structure is distinctive in many ways. A given riddim, if popular, may be used in dozens—or even hundreds—of songs, not only in recordings but also in live performances.

Roots reggae is a subgenre of reggae that deals with the everyday lives and aspirations of Africans and those in the African Diaspora, including the spiritual side of Rastafari, black liberation, revolution and the honoring of God, called Jah by Rastafarians. It is identified with the life of the ghetto sufferer, and the rural poor. Lyrical themes include spirituality and religion, struggles by artists, poverty, black pride, social issues, resistance to fascism, capitalism, corrupt government and racial oppression. A spiritual repatriation to Africa is a common theme in roots reggae.

The music of Jamaica includes Jamaican folk music and many popular genres, such as mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub music, dancehall, reggae fusion and related styles.

Coxsone Dodd

Clement Seymour "Sir Coxsone" Dodd was a Jamaican record producer who was influential in the development of ska and reggae in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond.

Dub is a genre of electronic music that grew out of reggae in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is commonly considered a subgenre, though it has developed to extend beyond the scope of reggae. The style consists predominantly of partly or completely instrumental remixes of existing recordings and is achieved by significantly manipulating and reshaping the recordings, usually through the removal of some or all of the vocals, emphasis of the rhythm section, the application of studio effects such as echo and reverb, and the occasional dubbing of vocal or instrumental snippets from the original version or other works. It was an early form of popular electronic music.

Dancehall is a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s. Initially, dancehall was a more sparse version of reggae than the roots style, which had dominated much of the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, digital instrumentation became more prevalent, changing the sound considerably, with digital dancehall becoming increasingly characterized by faster rhythms. Key elements of dancehall music include its extensive use of Jamaican Patois rather than Jamaican standard English and a focus on the track instrumentals.

Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was the dominant style of music in Jamaica for nearly two years, performed by many of the artists who helped establish reggae, including harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Paragons, The Heptones and The Gaylads; soulful singers such as Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Ken Boothe and Phyllis Dillon; musicians such as Jackie Mittoo, Lynn Taitt and Tommy McCook. The term rocksteady comes from a popular (slower) dance style mentioned in the Alton Ellis song 'Rocksteady' that matched the new sound. Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.

Jungle is a genre of dance music that developed out of the UK rave scene and sound system culture in the 1990s. Emerging from breakbeat hardcore, the style is characterised by rapid breakbeats, heavily syncopated percussive loops, samples, and synthesised effects, combined with the deep basslines, melodies, and vocal samples found in dub, reggae and dancehall, as well as hip hop and funk. Many producers frequently sampled the "Amen break" or other breakbeats from funk and jazz recordings. Jungle was a direct precursor to the drum and bass genre which emerged in the mid 1990s.

Prince Buster

Cecil Bustamente Campbell, known professionally as Prince Buster, was a Jamaican singer-songwriter and producer. The records he released in the 1960s influenced and shaped the course of Jamaican contemporary music and created a legacy of work that would be drawn upon later by reggae and ska artists.

Alton Ellis

Alton Nehemiah Ellis was a Jamaican singer-songwriter. One of the innovators of rocksteady who was given the informal title "Godfather of Rocksteady". In 2006, he was inducted into the International Reggae And World Music Awards Hall Of Fame.

Studio One is one of Jamaica's most renowned record labels and recording studios; it has been described as the Motown of Jamaica. The record label was involved with most of the major music movements in Jamaica during the 1960s and 1970s, including ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub and dancehall.

There are several subgenres of reggae music including various predecessors to the form.

Delroy George Wilson CD was a Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae singer. Wilson is often regarded as Jamaica's first child star, having first found success as a teenager. His youngest son, Karl "Konan" Wilson, has found success as part of British duo Krept and Konan.

The dance halls of Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s were home to public dances usually targeted at younger patrons. Sound system operators had big home-made audio systems, spinning records from popular American rhythm and blues musicians and Jamaican ska and rocksteady performers. The term dancehall has also come to refer to a subgenre of reggae that originated around 1980.

Keith Hudson aka the "Dark Prince of Reggae", was a Jamaican reggae artist and record producer.

The Heptones are a Jamaican rocksteady and reggae vocal trio most active in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were one of the more significant trios of that era, and played a major role in the gradual transition between ska and rocksteady into reggae with their three-part harmonies. The Heptones were contemporaries of the Wailers and the Maytals, and every bit their equal in the mid-60's.

Winston Cooper (c.1929–1995), better known as Count Matchuki or Count Machuki, was a Jamaican deejay.

Tom the Great Sebastian was an early Jamaican sound system started by Tom Wong in 1950, named for a trapeze performer in Barnum and Bailey's circus. The group has been called "the all-time giant of sound systems" and helped launch several notable artists. Count Matchuki is generally credited as Tom's first deejay, before he joined Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Vin was one of Tom's selectors. The sound was also backed by Prince Buster. It was later known as Metromedia.

Doris Albertha Darlington was a Jamaican Maroon who owned a food shop and later a liquor store in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1950s and 1960s. This site provided the initial space for her son Coxsone Dodd to begin playing music for customers, a practice that eventually led to his founding Studio One and becoming one of the island's key musical forces. When her son was away buying records to play on the sound system, Darlington set up and ran the sound system herself, and thus can be named one of Jamaica's first sound system operators, and a force in the development of ska, rocksteady and reggae music. Darlington also ran a record store in Jamaica, was often present at Studio One recording studios and involved in producing music in the early 1960s.