by Deika Morrison
Sound systems first became popular in the 1950s/60s in downtown Kingston. DJs would import foreign records to play on turntables with augmented sound through amplifiers and huge speaker boxes. Sound systems were big and profitable businesses employing, on average, fifteen people – music selectors, truck driver, engineers, men to lift speaker boxes etc. Their events attracted thousands of patrons with a winning value proposition: nice vibes with good music, food, drinks and company for a minimal entrance fee.
As their events became popular in Jamaica, sound system operators became producers of local music. Notoriously fiercely competitive, sound systems would have an edge if they had access to the newest music – which they could create and not have to rely on foreign music release cycles. It was a business decision that was an ideal symbiotic relationship – sound systems needed to keep their thousands of patrons entertained and local music needed the sound systems to play their music to gain popularity and sell records.
Popular sound system operators who became music producers to fill that void included Duke Reid who founded Treasure Isle and Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd who founded Studio One – described as the “Motown of Jamaica”in the 1960s and 70s producing some of the most well known ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub and dancehall global hits.
To the equal delight of Jamaicans in the Diaspora and foreigners, these sound systems started to tour the Caribbean, US, Canada and the UK taking with them local Jamaican music. They also transplanted the cultural experience that is a sound system ‘dance’ and therefore played a critical role in reinforcing ties between Jamaicans within Jamaican communities overseas and also across borders.
By the late 1980’s, cassettes of popular sound systems like Stone Love, for example, could be found in every corner of the globe. At its hey day in the 1990s – fuelled by dancehall – the most popular sound systems had an overseas date every other weekend. The sound system transitioned from vertically integrated producer and record seller into a key source for producers to find new artists as the sound system recorded ‘dub plates’ or ‘specials’ for their own self-promotion.
Sound systems became an integral means of reinforcing and circulating Jamaican music and culture all over the world. In many ways, there would have been no local music industry had it not been for sound systems – encouraging Jamaican talent to produce and also providing an outlet locally and globally for that Jamaican talent to be heard, loved and importantly, paid.
Having made sound systems so popular in other countries, local sound systems now find themselves competing with sound systems set up in other countries, for example King Addies in New York, and Mighty Crown in Japan. In a more recent development, technology has enabled a DJ to use a computer to get a dance or party rocking without a sound system. The sound will be inferior to a sound system, but if you never knew the difference you wouldn’t miss it. Still though, the alternatives simply cannot produce an ‘authentic Jamaican sound system experience’.
In Jamaica today, sound systems struggle for survival in the face of prohibitive legislation like the Noise Abatement Law and a challenging economy that leaves patrons with less disposable income for this form of entertainment. At the end of the day, if sound systems can’t do well in Jamaica financially, they can’t raise the funds needed to cover airfare, accommodation and related expenses necessary to export the music and importantly, give patrons the authentic experience.
But it is more than the music and the experience that are at risk. Historically, sound systems have rallied local communities and have been powerful communication vehicles for educating people and getting messages across. Jah Love Musik, for example, was famous for deliberately trying to raise the consciousness of the people.
Given the critical importance of sound systems in the evolution and globalization of Jamaican music as well as the reinforcement of Jamaican culture around the world, it is imperative that we look at preserving and promoting this significant art form that is part and parcel of our cultural identity.
Studio One Artistes
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Michigan and Smiley
Toots and the Maytals