Sound Systems

Rooted in Jamaican culture and ‘Reggae’ music, sound systems were officially introduced to NHC in 1973. Today there are over 30 static sound systems catering for numerous musical tastes. Everything from ‘Dub’, ‘Rare Groove’ and ‘House’ to ‘Jungle’, ‘Samba’ ‘Blues’ and ‘Hip Hop’.

What Is A Sound System?

How does it differ from a normal mobile DJ or a Club PA System?

We would define a ‘Sound’ is a super-amplified mobile system, invariably called by a name, manned by a team of individuals, each having real skills, who together create a unique party vibe wherever they set up and play recorded music of their choice.

Origin of Sound Systems

The concept of a sound system originated in Jamaica during the 1950’s. The idea arguably came from Jamaicans going back and forth to the USA during the 40’s & 50’s and being bowled over hearing American R&B bands playing through PA systems and were inspired by the New York block parties where DJs set up PA systems and sold liqueur at these gatherings to make some money. These ideas were then taken back to Jamaica, but as bands were expensive to hire, poor Jamaicans played recordings through these early ‘sound systems’ which were very rough compared to the ‘PA sound systems’ they saw in America. They consisted of a turntable, a home built valve amplifier & pre-amp (from a kit) and the biggest speakers they could lay their hands on, mounted in home-made ‘wardrobe’ sized speaker cabinets, some even nailed and glued together with ‘chicken wire’ as speaker grilles!

By the late 50’s early 60’s these sounds had become more sophisticated and high powered. The early ‘sound system’ operators were already legendary figures and played at very well attended dances, some on the open air ‘lawns’, the real home of sound systemology! Men such as ‘Tom’ The Great Sabastian, Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster & Duke Vin who later started the first sound system in the UK, developed the idea by not just playing records but opening studio’s and producing local artists and releasing tunes on their own label - the early Ska (a Jamaican interpretation of popular American R&B music) then later Rocksteady & Reggae music.

UK History

With the migration of Jamaicans to the UK in the late 50’s & 60’s the tradition of ‘sound systems’ was also exported. Early UK ‘sound system’ operators like the aformentioned Duke Vin, Count Shelly, Count Suckle, Lloyd Coxsone, & East London’s ‘chicken’, each had a huge following and from these early sounds developed many new ones encompassing new ideas and directions. The concept of a ‘soul sound’ or ‘roadshow’ was developed in the 70’s, by the likes of Mastermind (originally a ‘reggae sound’ called the Mighty Conquerer who changed policy to play Soul/Funk/Disco & later Electro & Hip-Hop music) TWJ, Roxy, Soul Incorporated, Good Times, Freshbeat & Rapattack. Interestingly, ‘Rampage Sound’ who popularised ‘Swingbeat’ in the early 90’s, added a profitable dimension to this concept and made it a business venture by playing on club systems and ‘hiring in’ a ‘sound system’ when needed. All these and many more ‘Sounds’ brought their own style & ideas to the discipline including using professional purpose built PA gear (Electrovoice, Turbosound, ASS, JBL speakers and amplifiers such as Crest & Crown & not forgetting Technics 1200/1210 turntables) as opposed to home made equipment, which was championed particularly by ‘Mastermind’ & ‘Rapattack’ Sounds.

Ironically this returns to the origin of sound systems being initially a ‘homemade’ version of a PA system.

During the 70’s & 80’s every area of London & every city with a West Indian population had their own crop of ‘sounds’. Historically it was important to ‘build a sound’, one man (it was mainly men in those days) would mainly buy music, another has an interest in electronics and one liked to MC – ‘talk on the mike’. While a young member or apprentice was learning about the equipment and how to ‘play a sound’ (which means; although you are using recorded music, the effect is of it being ‘live’) he would have the status of a ‘box boy’ his particular job was to lift the heavy speaker boxes at the end of the night!‘ Sound men’ took pride in this achievement, to the point of sound systems challenging each other to a competition or ‘clash’ where each ‘sound’ sought to win over the crowd at a dance by any means such as playing an exclusive record or one off pressing of a tune by a well known artist (a dub plate – UK Garage DJ’s, does this sound familiar?), or the verve of the ‘mike men’ (Saxon had some of the best which in conjunction with their vast knowledge of reggae music helped them win the ‘World Sound Clash’) or sometimes, turning up the bass and ‘drowning out’ the other sound! The sound system world has it’s wealth of stories of rivalry and within this it’s ‘villains & heroes’ to rival any from the corporate world.

Present Day

There are many and varied ‘sound systems’ in existence, run by many different people both men and woman from different backgrounds and cultures. All playing a selection as broad and diverse as US/UK Garage, Soulful, Deep, Funky House, Hardcore, Techno, Trance, Drum & Bass, Miami-Bass, Hip-Hop, Trap, Grime, Afrobeat, Swingbeat, Dub Reggae, Roots Rock Reggae, Ragga, Revival Reggae, Lovers Rock, Soca, Calypso, Jazz, Jazz-Funk, Fusion, R&B, Disco, Soul/Funk from & 70s/80’s/90’s, Rare groove, Latin, Pop, Ska, Rocksteady.

The impact of ‘ sound systems’ on UK culture is immense. For example before ‘sounds’ most clubs had small ‘Rock & Roll’ style systems & poor facilities. Consider that the ‘sound system’ influence has subsequently caused the demand for both bands on the road and clubs to want to hire/install high powered, multi-amplified PA systems. UK sounds (without question) have raised people’s expectations when they go out to rave, as well as being instrumental in the rise and prevalence of ‘urban’ music in the mainstream media today. Many successful UK artists started on ‘sound systems’ and the ‘Modern Superstar Club/Radio DJ’s owe a lot to the influence of ‘sound systems.’

The Future Of Sound Systems

The formation of a committee representing the British Association of Sound Systems BASS is a major step in the right direction. It has given ‘sound systems’ a Trade Association, raising the profile and organisational standards of all that play at the ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ and formalising the contribution ‘sound systems’ make to our lives and the community we live in.

The Notting Hill Carnival on August Bank Holiday Sunday & Monday every year, has always been the biggest Weekend of the year in all sound men’s diaries. Sound systems have been an integral part of  the atmosphere at Carnival since the early days. Statistics compiled by Intelligent Space who were commissioned by the GLA around the Millenia surprisingly showed that 80% of the people who attend the Notting Hill Carnival, come specifically to hear its legendary ‘sound systems’. The streets of Notting Hill during our summertime is the nearest place we have in the UK that produces the atmosphere present at ‘open air lawns’ of Jamaica. Sound system has not only evolved and diversified in the UK having arrived with migrating Jamaicans back in the 1950’s it is now a recognised ‘global movement’ that has millions of passionate and loyal followers. Several BASS members regularly travel abroad including to all corners of the globe to play their music and whilst doing so creating an electric vibe to crowds of exited sound system fans whether at a club or open air festival.

A massive shout going out to all the ‘sound systems’ (see Annex 1) both past & present. The next time you hear someone saying “ have you heard the wicked ‘sound system’ at the Ministry” you should ask yourself why has this become so very important?

Stationary, or as we say these days ‘static’, sound systems were a part of Notting Hill Carnival from its early days. Both Duke Vin and Count Suckle put their sets out on the street unofficially as they were both based in Ladbroke Grove. Sound systems were officially invited to join NHC as the 5th discipline in 1973 by Leslie Palmer, who was then on the NHC committee (so 2023 will be a 50th milestone  for sound systems at NHC). The main reason for this was in those days funding was linked to attendance and the organisational need was to increase NHC's attendance numbers which the introduction of static sound systems certainly did and continues to do.

As the biggest street event in Europe and the 2nd largest carnival in the world, NHC has provided static sound systems with a huge platform, to display their discipline which is both a performing and technical art form. Originally in both Jamaica and the UK, sound men (it was only men in those early days but not so now) skilfully built the equipment themselves. What was available 'off the shelf' would only give you loudness and volume. What all sound systems were after was that ‘BIG BASS’ to move your waist!  The annual NHC has helped elevate many to legendary status down the years. All members of BASS are in reality legends noting they each have a loyal and cult following (that support their sound system of choice all year round at various dances and functions culminating in a gathering of the largest support at the annual NHC event – similar to fans of a football club with NHC being like going to the FA Cup final at Wembley!) whether they are a small, medium or large set up – each create their unique vibe in a different way. Sound systems play different forms of recorded music some specialist in one form such as House, Latin, Hardcore, Roots Reggae, Rocksteady & Ska -  others play dance music across the board. It is noticeable that the relatively newer members of BASS have each grown in crowd size and stature since their first appearance at carnival and will no doubt become the well-known/household names and legendary sound systems of the future.

Credit: Ricky Belgrave, Chairman of BASS (British Association of Sound Systems)