On Saturday 5th November, I was invited to participate in a day of reasoning with other sound system practitioners, both ‘youngers’ and elders. The reasoning sessions aimed to learn how different practitioners started their sound systems; their approach to their practice and how various political and social situations have influenced their sound system approach.
The event also discussed key issues, targeting culture transformation, gate-keeping, appropriation and how sound systems practices are being preserved to pass down through generations.
In the morning there were two parallel sessions, with youngers and elders in separate rooms, and in the afternoon session, there was then a chance for youngers and elders to raise each other questions in two intergenerational sessions which ran parallel. Followed by a final Q&A session with all participants involved together.
Due to the nature of the event, we had an insight into the ‘youngers’ session, one of the two intergenerational sessions, and then the final Q&A session which had all panellists involved.
In this article, we will run through some of the questions raised, points answered, and insight into a conversation or two that led to a lot of passion and heat, whilst providing our final thoughts. Firstly, I would like to give awareness to what a fantastic and well-executed event Sound System Outernational provided.
The initiative is staged in association with Sonic Street Technologies (SST) and funded by European Research Council. Sound System Outernational #8 provided all pillars of sound system culture packed into one day which did not feel long enough. As you arrived, you were welcomed by the Lewisham-based Unit 137 sound system in the atrium of Goldsmiths Professor Stuart Hall building. Around the atrium was a collection of photography of sound systems and practitioners from Let’s Play Vinyl and Sisters in Sound. Music could be bought at Papa Faces, books at The Word and food was provided by a local family business, Pristine Eats. This is all that was experienced before, during and after the reasoning sessions. Nzinga Soundz provided the music throughout the day on the Unit 137 sound system, and the after-party featured artists Jerry Lionz performing a live dub mix, vocalist Sista Lexxy, Hylu on the decks and multi-instrumentalist A.P. Grimshaw. Lionbeat had brought the mobile sound, BASSISbikes, and if that didn’t tick every box, there was also a screening of Iration Steppas’ documentary Ina Vanguard Style, with Dennis Rootikal answering any questions at the end.
So that covers almost everything, except the main part, the reasoning. The ‘youngers’ session got off to a start with the panel defining their entry point to sound system culture. On the young panel were Black Obsidian Sound System, Rebel Spirit Sound, Young Warrior, Nimai Hi-Fi, CAYA, Legs Eleven, Creation Rebel, Lionpulse, Sisters in Dub, Indica Dubs and Unit 137. The stories of the panellists' introduction varied, whilst some were born with the culture in their family heritage, others picked it up in their teen or adolescent years. Some dived straight into the deep end of dub, experiencing it for the first time at the University of Dub, or similar events, whilst others flirted with the free party scene before indoctrinating deeper into the sound system industry. For most, it was the sense of belonging and having an identity that hooked them to the scene. There was a story of travelling on the Victoria Line selling sound tapes, with their business poignantly named ‘sell a tape’, which came from Legs Eleven’s Mili Red.
This led to what challenges had been faced by the panel. There was a healthy proportion of female sound systems which sat on the panel, with one sound system also identifying as QTBIPOC. All the females had shared experiences of patriarchal sound system culture. Most had acknowledged a lack of encouragement from family members who had maybe provided males with unequal encouragement. Sisters in Dub told the story of a time they had joined a sound system competition in Coventry and many had been discouraging them from taking part, and how people had said they expected very little, but they played with the ‘don’t take no shit’ attitude and shook the opinions of those who carried out judgement too early. One of the sound women shared how they have been challenged on being an engineer when turning up to a venue, and have been assumed to be the cleaner. The discussions showed there was obvious ignorance of females in sound system culture and more needs to be done to acknowledge their work. This could be very problematic for growing the scene, as it was raised on the panel, naturally, you attract to your own tribe, and if everyone is not involved in this community then we risk minimising our potential audience.
Nimai Hi-Fi had raised on the technical side in the culture, that an overload of information can often be a great challenge when learning sound theory. it was also raised by members on the panel that it can often be difficult getting help from elders. This raised the question of whether elders should be doing more to pass on teachings. Traditionally the teachings ran through apprenticeships. You learn by becoming a boxman for a bigger sound and rise through the ranks until you have the knowledge to build your own sound. This is a model which has slacked, and although some of the big sounds such as Iration Steppas, Channel One, and Mungos Hifi have a steady flow of ‘youngers’ taking the opportunity to take up knowledge, other sounds are less welcoming to showing the ‘youngers’ the ropes. This is an important role which must remain in the culture to reincarnate the well-rounded ‘soundman’. The Each One, Teach One philosophy.
The discussion then moved on to motivation, and for many, the motivations revolved around preserving the culture and maintaining the message of the music. At one point it was queried ‘what is the message?’, and although it was not strictly answered, there were many times throughout the day in which the referred message that the culture needs to maintain is peace, love and unity. Another important topic which was raised was the topic of holding space, from two perspectives. Finding venues is becoming increasingly difficult with the rate of gentrification and decibel meters, but also safeguarding the spaces in which events are hosted is also an important matter. It is becoming a worry that finding ‘dances’ where you are able to express yourself, whilst the incursion of ‘bad minded’ people coming into sound system spaces is becoming more prominent. It will always be a struggle to choose your audience, particularly when we are so easily identified as loud music which at the end of the day provides entertainment. It's for the event organisers or sound systems to find the most appropriate spaces, and create a respectful environment, but with every step towards a heavily governed event, you again risk minimising your audience and potential revenue which supports your project. Considering this, we must be innovative, and pragmatic, but respectful of the culture.
It was also raised in the ‘youngers’ session if the message within the music was lost or fading, which prompted discussion of lazy production and a lack of community clubs and spaces which once served neighbourhoods and became nests of creativity.
Following a lunch break, the intergenerational reasoning started, and again, there were two sessions which ran parallel, so we had an insight into one, with Nzinga Sounds, Black Obsidian, Creation Rebel, Rebel Spirit Sound, the Great Wassie One, Gladdy Wax, Black Magic, Lez Henry, CAYA, Rebel Rock, Ras Terry Gad, Zion Inna Vision, Indica Dubs, Sister Culture, and Legs Eleven on the panel. These sessions allowed the ‘youngers’ and elders to provide each other with three questions. The first of which was a question from the ‘youngers’ to the elders which asked what advice could be given to the ‘youngers’. Gladdy Wax pointed out that the clue is in the name, and it is a system, so all the components must be compatible, as in the 80s many sounds were just buying things and hoping the result was good when often it wasn't.
The elders' first question back to the ‘youngers’ was whether they understood the meaning of the music and the consciousness. On this topic, I shared my opinion and raised that the player of music needs to understand the content of the music that they are playing and make sure that the music applies to them. Lez Henry highlighted on the back of this that reggae music speaks of class issues, as well as race issues, and many other barriers to which people can relate. What was also raised is there is a misconception about many artists well known for their ‘slackness’ music, that they only played ‘slackness’ but many also had conscious music too, but the radios would never play that music. There was a balance to be struck for many of the big artists.
The second question the ‘youngers’ asked the elders, was what are the elders actively doing to help the younger generations. The answers from those who were doing the most tended to come from the female practitioners. Amongst them, they were carrying out practice sessions and DJ workshops. They said that when they are approached, they make themselves available, and more elders need to do the same. A great point was raised by one of the panellists, “if it is not documented - it didn’t happen”.
In a similar vein, the elders then asked the ‘youngers’ “how do we look after vinyl and make it available”. This led to much discussion of the restoration of vinyl, the Black Cultural Archives, and donating to archives, however, it was accepted that not many people would want to donate their collection, therefore creating digital copies is an important means of keeping the music alive, whilst the music would also be remembered most by playing the music rather than shelving it away somewhere - a living archive. Others stressed the importance of protecting vinyl by storing it at the correct temperatures, and moisture levels, and playing with the correct quality needle. Indica Dubs also raised in regards to the music of this time, that polyvinyl is not a feasible option for most collectors, and therefore new music will be kept alive through pressing appropriate quantities of vinyl and circulating that music throughout record stores.
Now here is where discussion exponentially heated up and given the topic and passion involved, we wish to document this as fair as possible but also without misinterpretation of the conversation therefore we will avoid the names of those who shared opinions in the case we have misunderstood. On top of this, we also believe that there was confusion in the reasoning of what was trying to be said and therefore we hope by recording the sequence of events, we can clarify the discussion. The final question raised to the elders from the ‘youngers’ was how do we continue to keep safe space, particularly on a gender and sexuality basis.
There was some resistance to this question, which queried whether there are any safe spaces and if anyone can guarantee safety. The one name I will mention in this is Lady Culture who herself played on the LGBT circuit, spoke very well and explained that it is the sound system, or the promoter's responsibility to do all they can to guarantee the safety at their event. If you choose to carry out events, you must act and provide a safe space for all who attend your event. If the venues provide security, then you can still do your best efforts to make sure the venue you choose is protecting your audience, otherwise, you need to take issue with the venue and reconsider whether it is the right venue for you. Historically the crew of the sound would orchestrate the crowd, protect the dance, and if required, even stop the dance to resolve any issues.
The discussion led to whether reggae music is homophobic; at this point, the topic was getting very heated. One of the elders explained it was important that we historise, and contextualise it, because the discussion of homophobia goes much deeper, and it would be duly unfair to call reggae music homophobic when there are other music genres which in comparison, hold more negative connotations with homosexuality. Ultimately, there is always more that can be done to achieve a safer dance, and I would hope that no one should ever feel uncomfortable in a session at the decisions or lack of decisions from a promoter or sound system.
The next question was then from the elders to the ‘youngers’ which asked, how will the ‘youngers’ preserve traditions? It is important to know that within the reasoning, the previous question did not feel resolved and so some of the emotions of answers in this question were influenced by the topic in the last question.
It was raised that what constitutes a good sound system, is one which can maintain old traditions, whilst creating new traditions and staying relevant, and this is perfecting the practicality of preserving culture. On top of this, and possibly influenced by the previous question, on the topic of acceptance, “we must differentiate sound system and Rastafari so that we can make a decision that some things are to stay the way they are, and some things are to be changed”. This was an important and very well-stated reflection which was well-received by most people on the panel. Although it did not sit well with everyone, and we will come on to that point before we do I would like to add that other points raised on this question were it is important to document the culture in as many different ways as possible, from photography, art, magazines and more, and also, making sure that you are in dialogue with other generations, and gaining untapped knowledge through informal or formal interviews.
Before this question was wrapped up, a panellist from the elders took issue with the opinion of differentiating sound system and Rastafari, as sound system is a message, and it represents suffering, and if you separate sound system and Rastafari, the message will not be maintained, and therefore that concludes there is no point to sound system.
In response to this, other elders on the panel highlighted that we must be careful when we claim what sound system represents historically, and listed the different types of sounds from past generations such as soul and funk. It was described as an imposition of scripture as we do not know who subscribes to what, and therefore we must just respect each other.
This was not the end of that debate, however before it did recommence, there was dinner of curried goat and jerk chicken and music played before everyone recongregated once again for a final takeaway of the day.
There were final reflections on what was discussed on the day as a whole. The ‘youngers’, were encouraged to reason with elders, and the best the elders could do is try. If they happen to find themselves asking an elder who doesn’t wish to help, then do not waste energy on them and ask someone else. Also, by keeping on doing what they are already doing, they are already helping others get involved in sound system culture. For the elders, they should aim to provide more outlets to support the ‘youngers’ even though it is hard work. On top of this, it is also never too old to learn, and the elders can still take away a lot. There was a special mention of BSSC - British Sound System Collective on Facebook, which is a group that provides extensive work and help to others who wish to get involved. An acknowledgement of hard work also went to Taleba Wax who helps administer the group.
There was a Q&A at the end which reignited some of the heated discussion. There were members of the audience who shared the opinion of the elder who did not appreciate the talk of differentiating sound system and Rastafari. There was further questioning of what the point of sound system is if Rastafari is detached from sound system. I was not aware of anyone who laid such points and had such views that they should be detached. Only that they be differentiated when discussing preserving and evolving traditions.
I think that it is largely accepted that the history of Rastafari in sound systems must always be respected and understood. It is hugely important if you are involved in sound systems to know its history and give credit where it is due. It is also majorly important if you associate yourself with roots reggae music, that you understand the context of the music and give it its deserved respect.
There is also history and science to sound systems which does not involve Rastafari and that history can also be learnt there are many sound systems that did not identify as Rasta that are pivotal to sound system being alive. Moa Anbessa laid claim that he may have been the first Rasta sound in 1977, not just in the UK, or Europe, but also in Jamaica. He understands that sound system has no race, or colour, and music is music, and the message is ‘one love’. He also referenced the sound systems that were not just roots reggae sound systems. I believe it was Neville King on the panel who listed the first sound systems in Jamaica and the UK and noted that those sound systems were not Rastafari sound systems. The richest aspect of sound system culture is the wide variety of styles and identities. As inspired by Errol Dunkley's song, everyone does their thing a little way different.
To the person in the crowd who queried ‘if sound system and Rastafari are not the same, then what is the point?’. As someone welcomed to the culture as a guest, stuck around long enough to be adopted and now living with every minute of everyday reasoning and documenting the culture, and on weekends moving wooden boxes from midday til the next dawn, there is a great point.
In the beginning, sound system culture provided purpose and opportunity in the ghettos of Jamaica through the desire to be a champion sound, and offer paid work. It provided purpose and opportunity for the Windrush generation who arrived in the UK, giving a memory of home, and a safe space to find work. To this day, following the conversation in this reasoning day, it still provides purpose and opportunity, in less poor and needy times, but to a wider community than ever before.
It cannot be ignored that there is a chapter in this journey where sound system and Rastafari intertwined and provided each other life, so it is important to learn and respect Rastafari. But to question what the point of sound system without Rastafari is is a huge discredit to the non-Rastafari innovative, hard-working pioneers and practitioners of sound systems who built the foundation, broke the boundaries, or conserved the culture. The full history of sound systems must be documented, respected and learned, and we must give full credit to all who have contributed their life to this culture.
I would like to finish my reflection on this point. I am incredibly grateful to Sound System Outernational and Sonic Street Technologies for providing this event to create such discussions. There is much more to be discussed, and we may have created more questions than answers, but the work of this event will help stabilise the direction of the culture so that we can make progress. It is important that we do not just sit on this valuable reasoning and do nothing with it. The concerns and problems have been raised, and now it is for the practitioners and promoters within this culture to address them and provide solutions. Sound systems come in all shapes and sizes, and with different identities. We must build an industry that works for all and respects each other. The future is bright but only if we start building the future together.