Skin Deep meets Sound System Culture

Written by Skin Deep

Image by Arieh Frosh

16.03.16

Following the Sound System Outernational Conference at Goldsmith’s University of London in January 2016, Skin Deep got in touch with Michael McMillan, Thali Lotus and Paul Huxtable to talk about their involvement in sound system culture.

Michael McMillan, who lives in London, curated Rockers, Soulheads & Lovers: Sound Systems Back in Da Day, an exhibition exploring the golden era of African-Caribbean sound systems from the 1950s to the early 1980s in London. The exhibition is on from the 21st March to 21st May 2016 at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in London.

When Thali Lotus prefaced her question for the panel by explaining that she was building her own soundsystem – CAYA Sound System, which stands for ‘Come As You Are’ – she earned a big reaction from the crowd. Thali is designing the speaker boxes, learning the soldering and carpentry, and engineering the sound herself. Based in Bedford, she is part of an underground culture of sound women building their own sound systems.

Paul Huxtable built, owns and operates Axis Sound System, based in Huddersfield. He operates on an all-valve amplifier sound system that was involved in Sound System Culture, a project documenting the history behind the development of the reggae sound system in Huddersfield. The project consisted of a book, film, sound system and touring exhibition.

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get three sound men and women from different parts of the country in one place at one time. So we have weaved together our separate conversations with Michael, Thali and Paul in an attempt to convey a broad and comprehensive understanding of sound system culture: past, present and future, international and outernational.

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Skin Deep: What is a sound system?

Michael McMillan: Stepping into a sound system dance was/is a sensory experience: thumping bass in the chest, guys skanking with each other, a posse of girls rocking, weed smoke in the air, the toaster/MC chants ‘Jah!’ and the crowd responds, ‘Rastafari!’

As sound technology developed more music was imported from Jamaica – such as bluebeat, ska, rocksteady and later reggae – and custom-made sounds became integrated collectives with specialist roles. The ‘operator’ ran the sound system, the ‘engineer’ technically maintained it and would ‘string up’ wardrobe size ‘House of Joy’ speakers, KT88 glass valve power and bespoke pre-amps, and a single turntable with the ‘box boys’. Then the ‘selector’/DJ, like Jah Vego on Duke Vin or Festus on Sir Coxsone, would ‘drop a tune’: the A side vocal of either a 7-inch or 12-inch vinyl record followed by the B side ‘dub’ instrumental version, while the ‘toaster’/MC ‘chatted’ over the mic exciting the crowd. And if the crowd loved a tune they would bawl ‘rewind!’ or ‘haul and pull up!’

Paul Huxtable: If we’re talking about a reggae sound system, it’s something that has another dimension to a regular PA (electronic amplification) system or a disco set. The reggae sound system usually has a better sound, controlled bass and a richer, engaging sound. It used to be based around vinyl; the sound was really good, and that’s the sort of thing that I’m trying to maintain now, the original sound. Sound systems in essence are hand-built, hand-designed – often by the owner. It’s a little bit less so now. Back in the day, everybody had their individual sound, look, and also a different presentation.

Thali Lotus: I always try and look for analogies, that’s maybe just how my mind works. But I suppose if I had to visually compare a sound system to anything it would be almost like a voice, in that I would see the voicebox as the speakers, the voice as the music, and range is like your pre-amp – that’s how I would describe it, if I had to visually. And obviously how you tweak your voice or the range is the same as kind of tweaking a pre-amp. Traditionally I would say it was a provider of music. You know, I would describe it as a vehicle, in many different ways. I think it stands for a lot. Going back, I would say it stood for integration, hope, history and change.

It encouraged change in that it changed people’s thoughts about music, about how music should be played and  how music should be listened to, especially sound system and dub. I would say it’s very poignant in that it’s very universal, and despite the fact that it’s got very African, Black roots, it’s very universal. I think it changed a lot of mindsets about music and how music can be.

SD: The community around sound system culture was and is crucial to its survival. How has the community changed since the 1950s, and how have these changes affected the way in which we listen to sound systems, and the sound itself?

MM: Barred from English pubs and clubs, and rarely hearing reggae, soul or funk music on the radio, house parties began in the home (later called Shebeens and blues parties) and ‘playing out’ at these were some of the first sound systems (‘sounds’) like Duke Reid, Count Suckle and Duke Vin. Over here, wherever black people had settled, these sounds created an environment, sometimes racially mixed and equitable, where party goers could free up themselves, drink a stout Life Long beer, or bottle of Babycham, and dance with each other to music they knew. [Sound systems became] the only place they could experience music that spoke to them.

These young, gifted and black people experienced police brutality, SUS laws (stop and search), unemployment, racist attacks, and being criminalised in the media. Yet this was the moment of black radical politics, Pan-Africanism and Rastafari, and reggae resonated with what many black youth – male and female – felt about living ‘inna Babylon’.

PH: When I decided wholeheartedly to build a proper sound system, nobody would show me anything because there was a lot of competition surrounding the culture. In Preston, which is where I’m from, it was very difficult to learn the fundamentals of sound system – everybody was so secretive about it, because white people weren’t involved in sound system back then and I’m a white person, you see? It was difficult. You know all that stuff about scratching the name of the label off so you can’t identify the record? I mean it’s all exclusivity. I knew a couple of guys who would hang around the sound systems and tell me a couple of things, but it was mostly trial and error. I went through a lot of experiments with speakers and amps blowing up, and eventually you just work through it, and then finally those same guys were coming to me for equipment!       

SD: Has it got easier now?

PH: Yeah! So much easier. We’ve got  the internet, forums, people talk openly about what they’re doing. It’s mostly the white community talking about what they’re doing and how they design things, and to that extent I think they can be a little too open, because if you’re trying to market things you don’t want to give away all your details.

SD: How do you think the sound itself has changed?

PH: There are basically parallel worlds going on; there’s the old style of sound system and the new generation like the dub sound systems. When reggae was split up in the mid-80s between deep roots, bashment, dancehall and lover’s rock, the different sounds had their specific requirements, which depended on the audience and what they appreciated. So there’s no one set way for a reggae sound system. The digitization of music has changed some of that; the sound that a lot of young sound men are looking for is very clean, with a heavy bass. The flip side of that coin is that the it can sound too clean and clinical. The power is there – it’ll blow the windows out – but there’s no tone. Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice bass but it’s got to sound nice.

TL: I think obviously one of the biggest arguments is the whole vinyl versus digital thing. At the Sound System Conference there were great arguments made for both. For a lot of people who are true to vinyl, like my partner who operates Countryman Sound System, they’ve been able to track the record from seller to buyer. It’s a lot more intimate and direct in that sense – and obviously people get paid. Whereas with the digital age, it’s more difficult. But then I think it was John Masouri who said: ‘I think we’ve all got our own responsibility when it comes to music, and as long as you are true to that, then that’s all that matters.’ I think the main thing is that the music is king and that the message is put across. I think what’s different now to what it was in the 1950s, is that a lot of sound systems now don’t have the longevity because everything is so instantaneous. It’s not as significant. For those that came and started the sound systems, it was their way to relate back to Jamaica and their homeland. Whereas now, because you have a lot more British-born Caribbean people, it’s not as significant.

SD: Are there different types of people setting up sound systems compared to in the earlier days?

TL: Definitely. It’s a lot more multicultural because of  widespread use of dub music. The dub scene in Europe is massive. You’ve got reggae sound systems and soul sound systems, but for me whenever I think of a sound system I think of dub. I think that’s why it’s a lot more universal. With dub music there’s no vocals, and you make the music what it is. You don’t have to relate it back to a particular event. You know, sometimes a song might say: ‘Oh, remember we were holding hands, walking along the Thames.’ And it’s like well I can’t relate to that. Whereas dub you make it what it is. It’s very much about what you take away from it.

SD: Kinda like the Charlie Chaplin of music where everybody can project what they want onto the blank canvas.

TL: Exactly.

SD: Has the role of sound women specifically changed over the decades, and what does that mean for sound system culture?

MM: [In the early days of] blues parties or Shebeen – usually in someone’s basement – drinks and homemade African-Caribbean food were sold by resourceful women. Sound system culture was/is often represented as a male domain, yet many women ran blues parties, ran sounds like Donna Harley-Moore (Sista Kulcha), June Reid and Ade Rosenior-Patten (Nzinga Soundz), and still do, like Valerie Robinson ‘Lady V’ (V-Rocket). They, and DJs like Lorna Gee and DJ Elayne, transcended patriarchal prejudices from men and women, through their intimate knowledge of the music, and an understanding of how  to address their audience.  

[When] lover’s rock arrived, the sonic landscape changed. Sound system culture had become militant and macho, and sounds like Sir Coxsone found that playing Motown-styled soul attracted more women to the dance.

Lovers rock resonated with a socially aspirational generation, and men and women wanted/want to dance with each other leaving shadows of themselves on the wallpaper in many house/blues parties. It also empowered women to take ownership of the dance and the dance floor, by, with, and for themselves, forging sisterhood.

SD: And how about now?

PH: Women in sound system? Well it’s a rare thing. What I do see is some women coming through now. There’s a few women sound system operators that I know of, but there’s more singers coming through. Some of them I don’t think are very good but they get lifted onto a pedestal because they are women. And I’m listening to ‘em and I think you really can’t hold a key, can’t hold a note, there’s no pacing, no rhythm, no anything. But because they’re a woman and they put their head in a hair wrap and they chant rasta, they’re booked in left, right and centre all over Europe. But saying that, there are a lot of decent people and a lot of good singers. But as far as actually operating a sound system, it’s very difficult and to do it properly – it’s almost a full-time job. There’s a lot of lifting of equipment at ridiculous hours of the night, managing it all the way through the night, looking after the security of the sound system, your components and records, late-night driving ‘til sunrise and beyond. It’s a crazy, crazy life, and often there’s not a lot of money to share around, so you either do it for the love of it, or you don’t. 

There’s a couple of women involved and it’d be nice to see more, but I think it’s a bit like cars, you know what I mean? If you look at the percentage of women around racing cars, there’s not many because it’s more of a macho thing. Generally there’ll be a few women interested in motorsports and stuff like that but I don’t think you’ll ever get a balanced ratio of man/woman in sound system, you know, it’s just not the way it is.

SD: So you think that’s because of the market then? You think people are wanting male DJs because that’s what they want from a sound system?

PH: To be honest, if you’re a woman DJ and you’re good, you’ll go far very quick, quicker than a man, because the market is hungry for woman DJs.

SD: You’re view is not unique within sound system culture, but women like Thali are definitely changing this scene. Thali, what have your experiences building your own sound system been like?

TL: I think it changed over the decades. I think there has been a change in that it is ever so slightly more prevalent. But then I think it hasn’t changed in that it’s still very much the archetypal kind of role of women in sound systems, in that you don’t find women who have their own sound systems. They might sing on a sound system, or they might DJ, but in terms of having their sound system, in terms of having built the boxes, travelling and touring it around – that’s still very much a rarity. I’m going to meet V-Rocket – Valerie Robinson from V Rocket Sound System in Nottingham – you should know her! She is definitely one of the most well-known females in sound system. It was her parent’s valve sound system initially and she has taken it over, and she said it’s really good timing that I’ve contacted her ‘cos they’re actually working on the sound system for the first time in 20 years.

SD: So there is some change, but it’s still men who seem to be running the sound.

TL: I think in general sound system is very niche and that hasn’t changed much. Whenever I say I am building a sound system to sound men, I’m usually  initially met with deterrence. They’ll be like, ‘you know how heavy the boxes will be? So how you gonna lift the boxes? It’s not some easy flighty fing, ya na? And it’s expensive…’ You get all of the kind of negatives. But once you get through that and let them know ‘yeah I’m aware, yeah I know,’ you are able to speak a bit more of the language. Then they kind of relax and think: OK.

SD: They’re almost scouting out to see if you’re serious about this.

TL: Yup, definitely.

SD: Is there a community of sound women? Is there a way of reaching out and communicating amongst sound women, or are people still a bit isolated at the moment?

TL: People are still isolated. Another woman that I met at the Goldsmiths seminar was Dubplate Pearl, and I’m meeting her on Saturday as well. Hopefully, going forward, once I’ve got the sound system up and running, I’d actually like to hold meet ups. Not particularly based around women, but around sound system culture, and maybe move it around the UK so that we get a good flavour of things. That’s a bit of a way off still.

SD: Do you think there are particular assumptions and associations that people make with sound system culture?

PH: There’s a lot of people using reggae iconography to move forward. People think of Jamaica and a rastaman on the beach, smoking a spliff, red, gold and green. But if you go to Jamaica, it’s very rare you see that. Most people just look ordinary, and they don’t smoke ganja. That image has come to  define reggae music around the world. When you think about how Bob Marley’s face is the most recognized face, more than Jesus Christ or President Obama, that’s saying something. That sort of reggae appeals to a “lifestyle” really. If you’re doing that then you’re gonna listen to reggae music, and if you’re gonna listen to reggae then you’re gonna listen to sound system, so then you’ve got to talk a certain way and dress a certain way. You could be some middle-class guy from Hereford and suddenly you’ve grown dreadlocks, you know like a broken patois that you learned from the next guy who’s got broken patois and whose never spoken to a black person in their life, you know? Why do you have to assume this identity? That’s not who you are. If you like reggae music, you like reggae music, that’s all good. If you wanna build sound, that’s all good. But don’t become something you’re not. I mean, there is a religious aspect to it but sound system was around long before rasta became involved in sound system. If you wanna be a rasta then you should be drumming round the campfire — be totally authentic. So, there’s a lot of conflicting and confusing things that go on in reggae music.

SD: Do you think that UK sound systems can learn something from European sound systems and what they’re doing there?

PH:  Yes, they can learn a lot of manners and respect. There’s a lot of arrogance involved in sound systems in this country. What I do know is that the Europeans are very helpful with each other. They seem to take the message of the spiritual side of sound systems seriously. I don’t know if it will carry on the same way – it’s still quite embryonic in Europe to a large extent – but I find them to be very helpful, respectful and hospitable. If you get booked by a promoter here in the UK, you’re lucky if you get a bag of chips! Over there, they sort it out properly – they’ve got proper food, they lay it out and all eat together.

Loads of UK promoters want me to come in the dance but I won’t go. I don’t think they respect the culture, the tradition. They offer me money to come and play at these massive things but they just want to stick their own DJs on my sound system. They only want to use it as a name. The thing about a sound system is that you build it up to play it yourself. And I play valve systems, which is old technology and there’s nobody really doing that now. That’s my little marketing gimmick, and  I actually prefer to play on valves. They want a valve system in because it’s unique but they want to stick their twenty year old DJs on it with their CD players. And I say no, you’re just missing the point and I’d rather not do it. I don’t get on with a lot of the big promoters over here but it doesn’t bother me because I’ve got my own little run-ins.

SD: But what about the future of sound systems in the UK? We understand the culture has changed over the years, but it’s so important for the older generation to communicate with the younger generation, those building sound systems now.

TL: I think even though sound system has survived for over 60 years, from its first beginnings here in the UK, I really do think in order for it last another 60 years it needs to evoke more in order for it to become more attractive to the younger audience. It needs to be considered more entrepreneurial. The last thing I’d want is for someone to say ‘OK, I’m going to make 100K out of sound system’ in a way that was just money orientated – those are  not the right reasons for doing it. I feel they need to be passionate about it, but also able to make money from it. That’s what I think it doesn’t have at the moment. I think what you see now, or what you get from sound system is a lot of passionate older men who have been in the business for a long time. Whereas I think the new generation wanna see that you can actually make a living from it. I have invested so much in my boxes, I need to have a return. ‘Cos it’s not little money that you invest in a sound system.

For a long time I wanted to have my own studio, my own venue, just somewhere that I could enjoy music at my leisure, and then I thought actually, I really don’t like the thought of someone saying ‘I’ve got to pay this and that.’ I want something which is mobile, that I have ownership of, and that’s why, as well as the music, I thought of sound system. So for me, I’ve taken out that kind of Babylon element, so to speak, because it’s my own, and that’s all I need. If I want to play out I can. If I don’t want to, I don’t have to. I can take the whole business-savvy approach, because I’m still being true to what sound system is, in that it’s a vehicle for music. And in order for you to get ahead, people who are my age, like Young Warrior, you need to have that business approach, otherwise you won’t last. In all that I’m doing, in all the great thoughts I’ve got for the sound system, I can’t be reckless.

PH: In the UK sound systems are springing up left, right and centre, which I think is good but the contradiction of it all is that there’s fewer and fewer venues to play. There’s a lot of emphasis on how heavy your bass is, there’s a lot of macho stuff and I think the whole thing needs to feminise a bit and just say look, it’s about the music, it’s about the vibes, and it’s about togetherness, and that’s what I particularly promote.

SD: What is the main thing that you have taken away from your involvement with sound systems?

PH: If I didn’t do sound systems, I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s everything, everything. I married the daughter of a sound man, and her mother said to her ‘don’t matter who you marry, black or white, rich or poor, just don’t marry a sound man’. And she went ahead and married a sound man. That’s what I am. I was a sound man before I met my wife and I’ll be a sound man ‘til I die.

I think there’s a lot of false philosophy about it. At the end of the day, its original purpose was to entertain people and bring them to one area so that you could sell more beer. You know, basically put on musical entertainment. To me, it’s not about macho, showing off, or showing how much you spent on this record. It’s not about doing the most gigs, or playing to the most prestigious people with the most prestigious sound systems. To me it’s about entertainment, and I think that is lacking in a lot of sound systems. A lot of the dub-roots events is people necking red stripe like there’s no tomorrow and popping pills. They’re dancing for a different reason, they’re dancing to get blitzed. You know, it’s like a rave. To me, that’s not sound system dance, and I don’t really support that. I like to entertain people, I like to chat on the mic, make them feel nice, bring them together. I get a lot of young people in my dances, but I also get a lot of older people, black people, white people, Polish people, as many women as there are men, and that’s what I like about it, I don’t leave anybody out. I play love music. I play Alton Ellis and Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown. It doesn’t have to be the most militant stepping thing. I can play a tune about falling in love, the price of bread in Jamaica or whatever.

TL: I think eventually, even though I’m in my research and development phase, you have to take away what you want, and in the end do it in a way that suits you. Because everyone can have their own interpretation of what is a sound system, whether you need a pre-amp or not, or whether you should have 21s or 18s, or whether you should play CD or vinyl.

SD: As well as the music you play.

TL: Yeah, exactly. So everyone does their thing a little bit different.