Rave, Rap and the Remix: The Jamaican Sound System's Influence on Popular Music

David Corio/Redferns
King Jammy photographed outside his Kingston, Jamaica studio in Aug. 2000. 

As thousands converged on the original Woodstock grounds in Bethel, N.Y. over Memorial Day weekend for the dance festival Mysteryland USA, another event took place simultaneously in Fort Lauderdale, Fl., celebrating the direct forerunner to the superstar EDM DJ: the Jamaican sound system selector.

The first annual World Sound System Festival, held at the Central Broward Regional Park and Stadium (May 22-23) featured 14 reggae and/or dancehall DJs ('selectors,' in Jamaican parlance) representing three generations and several locations throughout North America and the Caribbean. While Mysteryland mostly drew in 20- and 30-year-old Americans, the Sound System Festival pulled a largely Caribbean crowd of all ages, there to hear some of reggae’s greatest sound systems and selectors, including New York's Downbeat The Ruler, Jamaica’s Silver Hawk, and Miami’s Waggy T. Irrespective of their backgrounds, attendees at both festivals were intently focused on the DJs -- or the selectors -- who embellished song choices with now-standard lighting choreography, raising their hands in the air and intermittently shouting out phrases to hype up audiences.

“I wanted to present sound systems as the main attraction in a festival, to show where they came from and why they have become so influential; I was quite impressed to see people screaming for our selectors like they would for artists at a stage show,” commented venerable Jamaican singer Freddie McGregor, whose Big Ship Productions presented the World Sound System Festival in association with County Line Chiropractic Center, based in Plantation, Florida.

Whether respected or completely unrecognized, rave-headlining dance DJs are the latest pop music phenomenon whose lineage is directly traceable to the earliest days of the Jamaican sound system (i.e. mobile disco). “The sound system influence is undeniable in hip-hop, in jungle, drum and bass, now EDM,” asserts veteran Jamaican MC/selector Walshy Fire, of the production collective Major Lazer, along with Diplo (Wesley Pentz) and Jillionaire (Christopher Leacock). “The energy Major Lazer presents on stage is guided by sound system sessions of years ago,” continued Fire.

“I’m not sure if EDM DJs really understand that some of the one-liners they shout out, like ‘gal jump up’ or ‘wine your body gal,’ come from Jamaica’s deejay/selector culture,” says Kingston based Kamal Bankay, an EDM DJ and promoter of several events there including the annual Major Lazer and Friends show, which returns to Kingston on December 18. “Like the sound system selector who became a producer, the EDM DJ also produces many of his tracks and becomes popular because people gravitate towards his music.”

EDM DJ’s that dissect and otherwise manipulate their tracks while playing live are following an innovation established by the brilliant Jamaican engineer, sound system owner/selector, the late King Tubby (b. Osbourne Ruddock). While working as a disc cutter for Duke Reid and using a two-track recording console, Tubby eliminated vocal and instrumental segments, sometimes stripping a song down to a single, thunderous bass line, which he embellished with echo and reverb effects, in a process called dub. Because of his expertise with electronics, Tubby was able to recreate the dub effects live on his sound system, something no one had ever heard, making his set the most popular of the early '70s.

King Tubby’s creation of dub transformed the landscape of popular music, establishing the prototype for song remixing. The instrumental spaces built into Tubby’s dubs provided deejays an opportunity to develop toasting beyond just providing contrast to a singer’s vocals; Tubby's dubs were also the precursor to hip-hop’s break beats. In the early '70s, DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) set up his turntables, amplifiers and massive speakers (reminiscent of the sound systems he heard growing up in Kingston) for parties in the recreation room of his Bronx apartment building. He initially played reggae records -- which were not well-received. He got a far better response by spinning hard funk and emphasizing the drum beat, switching from one break to another or using two copies of the same record to extend it. Meanwhile, his MC, Coke La Rock, rhythmically delivered catchphrases to a receptive audience, just like the sound system deejays had done in Jamaica for nearly 20 years. Stateside, this vocal approach was called rap. The hip-hop movement was born.

The sound system emerged in Jamaica in the late '40s as an inexpensive form of entertainment within the poorest communities of downtown Kingston then spread across the island throughout the '50s. The early sound systems (or sets) usually assembled in open-air spaces with a single turntable and (often) custom-built speakers and amplifiers to maximize the forceful bass lines in R&B, the preferred genre among the era’s sound system dance supporters. Sound system owners often traveled to the U.S. to purchase new records, and would promptly scratch off the labels to conceal the records’ identity from rival sets.

In the late '50s, as American music segued from R&B into rock and roll, the supply of music favored by sound system patrons dwindled, spurring the development of Jamaica’s recording industry. The island’s indigenous genres, including ska, reggae, dub and dancehall, all developed from the sound system owners' and selectors' need for new and exclusive music to satisfy clienteles and to defeat competing sounds in heated battles (primarily musical, occasionally physical), referred to as clashes. Owners of top sound systems of the late '50s through the mid-60s -- Duke Reid (Trojan), Coxsone Dodd (Downbeat) and Prince Buster (Voice of the People) who played a pivotal role in the development of ska as an artist and producer -- established individual labels, and started producing records backed by the island’s top musicians. The producers then played these songs at dances, all the while carefully scrutinizing audience reactions. “I started recording in 1963, and whenever Mr. Dodd would find a hit song, he would go cut a dub plate [a soft acetate], play it on his sound and then take it back home,” reminisced Freddie McGregor, 58, who recorded for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label, considered Jamaica’s Motown, as a child. “The audience would ask about the new songs and from their responses, Mr. Dodd knew what records he needed to press and how many copies.”

The sound system dance was the only place to hear these local recordings: despite their popularity, homegrown music was not yet played on the island’s radio stations, which instead adhered to play lists dominated by American pop.

Besides the selector, each sound system utilized the talents of a deejay whose animatedly rhymed introductions and playful boasts over a song’s instrumental break added to the excitement at the dance. The deejay’s uniquely cadenced patois delivery, referred to as toasting or deejaying, the Jamaican equivalent of rapping and the signature vocal approach in dancehall reggae, is heard on countless tracks throughout Jamaica’s recording history from U Roy, the first deejay to have a hit record in Jamaica, to contemporary stars like Assassin (featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry”, which peaked at no. 66 on the Hot 100).

“Wherever Jamaicans have traveled since the '50s, sound systems have been part of their luggage and legacy, significantly influencing music scenes in the US and throughout Europe,” comments Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day.

In Kingston, an IRD panel discussion will highlight the sound system’s impact on Jamaica’s musical development with awards presented to several trendsetters within the sound system movement, including the venerable Stone Love, the host sound system at Kingston’s popular weekly dance Weddy Weddy Wednesday, still an important venue for breaking new hits; Merritone Disco, founded in 1950, the world’s oldest, continually operational sound system; Prince Buster, now 77, and veteran sound system owner/selector Lloyd “King Jammy” James, producer of the Sleng Teng riddim, so named for the riddim’s biggest hit, the late Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng”. Jamaica’s digital revolution was launched in 1985, when Jammy debuted the Sleng Teng riddim on his sound system, King Jammy’s Super Power.

“I am glad for these awards because the sound system hasn’t been properly rated for all that it has contributed,” comments Jammy, now 68, who has toured Europe extensively in recent years as a selector, creating live, exclusive mixes of his productions from the 80s and 90s, reminiscent of the pioneering work of his mentor King Tubby. “I am bringing back memories for people who miss those days while teaching the younger generation that what we did back then is being done now by people all over the world.”