Reggae 101: SOUND SYSTEMS - The "Big Bang" of Reggae Culture



Unlike other notable historical events, the advent of sound systems in Jamaica has no specific date. It just sort of happened.  There is no single day or hour to which one can point and definitively say that "sound systems came into being on this date."  However, what we do know is that during the late 1940's and early 1950's in Jamaica, there were a handful of individuals who had a reputation for setting up mobile parties.  These men and women would arrange to have a particular street blocked off for a night in a certain part of town--namely Kingston--and set up what is still considered to be a street dance.  After the designated street was chosen, a van or truck would unload a generator, several columns of speakers, and a stand-alone rack of electric amplifiers.  Once all of the equipment was set up and the crowd began to gather, one or two disc jockeys (or "DJs") would play popular music that kept the crowd entertained.

American rhythm and blues (R&B) music was in heavy rotation in Jamaica at the time; so naturally, rhythm and blues accounted for most of the music being played at these street dances.  Toward the early to mid 1960's, however, Jamaican music evolved and R&B’s popularity began to fade.  This set the stage for local artists in Jamaica to make a name for themselves on their home turf.

In contrast to American R&B artists at the time, Jamaican artists in the early and mid 1960's were tremendously accessible.  They lived in the neighborhoods where the street dances took place and rarely had a strong international presence.  They made very little money from their musical efforts.  In fact, most notable Jamaican artists at the time still worked blue collar jobs.  Thus, musicians who lacked notoriety in Jamaica had to get creative in order to convince well-known sound systems to play their records. Recording artists began to cleverly create special versions of songs that named the DJ or sound system whose airtime the artist sought.  These types of recordings were called "specials," but are more currently called "dubs" or "dubplates."  In no time, "specials" took on a life of their own.  This added incentive created an "in" for popular and unpopular Jamaican artists alike.  Also, buzzing off of the uniqueness that specials brought, more and more sound systems requested specials from artists far and wide.  Naturally, this bred competition among sound systems across the island; and with scores of sound systems popping up over the course of a decade, competitions, like specials, took on a life of their own.

As the number of sound systems grew, so did the struggle for sound system dominance in towns and neighborhoods all over Jamaica.  Kingston was the hotbed for this activity.  Scheduled competitions in Kingston between sounds became a regular occurrence, to the extent a name was given to these types of events.  That name: "sound clash."  Although the term "sound clash" does not have an official definition listed in any Oxford or Merriam-Webster dictionary (seriously... we checked), most hardcore fans of reggae music can tell you all about it.

Sound clashes can involve as little as two sound systems or as many as ten or more sound systems.  The structure is pretty simple, and always has been.  The clash is separated into several rounds.  The number of rounds depends on myriad factors, including, but not limited to, the number of sound systems involved.  The first round usually lasts around 30-45 minutes.  The second round can last just as long.  As the rounds progress, the duration of the round decreases. Typically, after each round a sound system is eliminated. No matter how many rounds, however, sound clashes generally have one constant: in the final round.  Here, the remaining sound systems play one special a piece and the crowd judges the timing and quality of the special chosen.  Since this occurs in the last round, the sound system that plays the most series of entertaining specials wins the clash.  Sound clashes have become an immensely popular spectacle across the globe.  In fact, some of the top sound systems in the world known for their sound clash success hail from OUTSIDE of Jamaica... but I digress.  In addition to competition among sound systems, specials also gave birth to an entirely different style of performing reggae.

As mentioned above, DJs controlled the music being played on a sound system; but not all sound systems were created equal.  Some sound systems lacked the money to pay artists for customized renditions of their songs.  As a result, some DJs forged impromptu rhymes over the breaks and bridges of popular songs and inserted their own DJ name or sound system name, which had the effect of simulating an actual special but free of cost.  The more sound system DJs successfully practiced to “chat” their own specials live at street dances, the more audiences started to pay attention.  Record labels recognized this trend and began recording the DJs from the sound systems over already established reggae singles.  In time, remixed versions became more popular than the originals, such as U-Roy’s version of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and I-Roy’s version of the Maytones’ hit, “Money Worries.”

In sum, I present the “bigger picture.” Reggae culture as we know it today derives from a series of events that occurred over the course of roughly five decades.  One such pivotal event is the arrival of sound systems.  Without sound systems, there would have been less effective means of bringing reggae music literally to people’s door step. Without sound systems hand-delivering reggae, artists would not have made the extra effort to record specials.  Without specials, sound clashes definitely would not have fostered the careers of many prominent DJs.  Without that, the style of reggae DJing that we know and love today would not exist.  Without that style of DJing, chatting over a popular reggae beat perhaps would not  have shaped roots reggae and dancehall as we know it.  Although this line of reasoning may be a bit far-fetched, it at least proves that an argument can be made for sound systems:  That the introduction of sound systems on the reggae music scene is arguably the “Big Bang” of reggae culture as we know it.

For more on sound systems, check out this video:


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