Music Out Of The Box : The Pervasive, Yet Still Ignored Role of the Sound System

sound system

Michael A Edwards, Emx Group

Release Date

Friday, April 6, 2012


Internationally, almost everyone knows it, from Daft Punk to Diplo, from King Britt to Jay-Z (though in the case of the latter, he may not be too keen on publicly admitting it. Even Madonna and Nikki Minaj know it.

So what's it? That the foundations of today's dance music and whichever pop sub-genre you care to name rests in obscure alley, lanes and byways, primarily in downtown Kingston, but in truth scattered across the length and breadth of Jamaica. The sound system, or more simply the sound (soun' in the Jamaican vernacular) gave rise to the toaster, or DJ (ironically that term is globally used interchangeably with what Jamaicans know as a selector) and the story hardly ends there. Concurrent with the sound system (or at least, as part of its middle wave), enterprising studio wizards like Osborne King Tubby Ruddock, Lee Scratch Perry and Keith Hudson helped to popularize dub the bass-heavy, stripped-down near hypnotic use of rhythm tracks to established records or B-sides.

Another enterprising Jamaican, Keith Campbell, whose athletic prowess on street side basketball courts earned the nickname Hercules (subsequently shortened to Herc) exported the sound system culture of his native Kingston upon emigrating to New York City and birthed, over the course of time, what is now globally recognized as hip-hop (rapping in various forms, had existed for many years prior).

On the twin pillars of these (former) sub-cultures rests the greater part of today's recorded pop remixes, maxi-singles, the 12, you name it. The aforementioned 'turntablists', and others are as much stars in their own right (bigger, in some cases,) as the artistes whose records they spin and increasingly now produce. Diplo, whose work under the moniker Major Lazer was as staple of the party, club and dancehall scenes in 2011, is presently producing a reggae album for hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg. The gangsta rapper recently sought to immerse himself in the indigenous culture of the Rastafari, and his sojourn almost undoubtedly included a few calls on local selectors and sound systems.

But what of the giants on whose shoulders these megastars now stand? Truth be told, they remain unknowns and obscurities more among Jamaicans that among the foreign cognoscenti. The sound system is one of the primary expressions of the communal (not communist) spirit that guided much of Jamaica's social development, particularly in the gap years between the end of WWII and Independence in 1962.

Fifty years on, the mention of Clement Sir Coxsone Dodd for instance, may get a few nods or flickers of recognition among the present generation of club goers, given his long involvement up to his death in 2004 - with not only sound systems, but with a host of great Jamaican artists. But it's not guaranteed. Similarly for Duke Reid, of Treasure Isle fame (a key rival of Dodd's), for the likes of Sir George Atomic, V-Rocket, and also for the durable Merritone sound, which the Blake brothers inherited from their late father and which continues, in this digital age, to be a leading tastemaker in recorded entertainment.

But while present-generation Jamaicans have largely emptied their collective consciousness of the King Tubbys and the Jack Rubys (he of the J'can sound system biz, not the Lee Harvey Oswald shooter) and even the King Jammys (progenitor of the computer era of dancehall) of this world, music fans the world over having been snapping up examples of their work, learning all they can about them while we're still debating the merits of teaching Garvey in schools! and, most of all, are incorporating those primordial sonic experiments into their own (sometimes) weird and wonderful soundscapes. Some of that work is paying off quite handsomely, while in Jamaica, the obsession over a relative few crumbs continues to play out.

Seems pretty clear that a back-to-the-future trip is in order, and several of the emerging bands that I mentioned in my previous piece (The Harsh Realities) have indeed begun to take it, immersing themselves in the great records of the pivotal decade (from around 1969 -78, though the work of Sly & Robbie's taxi Gang in the following decade is also seminal), and exploring new directions, even if incrementally. A few of the dancehall producers are also following suit, but the rest are content with a mere recycling of the existing rhythms in service of the aforementioned limited values (material consumption, etc).

There's every reason and opportunity for Jamaican music practitioners to reclaim their dominant position on the world entertainment stage, the way they did just a few decades ago. It will come not from merely rehashing old styles, but from confidently building on what has gone before, filtered through individual perspective and knowledge. This fact, as those in the know, know, is how the great movements have always been built.

Michael Edwards is a freelance contributor to MNI Alive

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