Thirty years ago on a snowy late December night in Brooklyn, thousands of reggae lovers were crammed inside the Empire Roller Rink to witness a much-anticipated competition between renowned British DJ David Rodigan and Jamaican radio legend Barrington “Barry G” Gordon.
In 1983 Barry G challenged Rodigan, then on Capital Radio, to a friendly on-air contest or clash on his widely listened to program on (the now defunct) Jamaica Broadcasting Company (JBC) Radio. Barry G and Rodigan’s entertaining comments and quality musical selections proved so popular among the JBC audience, the duo eventually clashed live in several locations including the city that’s home to thousands of Jamaicans and often referred to as the island’s 15th parish, Brooklyn.
Barry Gordon, now 60, and David Rodigan MBE (awarded the Member of British Empire in 2012), 64, reunited at the Resorts World Casino in Queens, NY on Nov. 28 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their landmark Brooklyn clash. The commemorative occasion presented by Irish and Chin, the foremost promoters of sound system events in North America and beyond, in association with New York’s Irie Jam Radio, which broadcasts Jamaica focused programming on WPAT 93.5 FM, New Rochelle, pulled 1,800 patrons; many witnessed the pair’s initial spar in Brooklyn, others only heard their legendary confrontation via pirated cassettes and in recent years, YouTube clips.
The titans of ’80s reggae radio reenacted their 30-year old skirmish by lightheartedly attempting to outdo each other, song for song or, in clash parlance, “tune fi tune.” They volleyed marijuana-themed singles, exclusives by the late rock steady singer Alton Ellis and U.S. hits by dancehall superstar Shabba Ranks; Shabba was in the Brooklyn audience in 1985; at Resorts World Casino he appeared onstage to pay respect to the broadcasters that supported him as a hopeful young artist.
Thirty years ago Jamaican music’s digital revolution was sparked by (keyboardist Noel Davy‘s) Casio Casiotone MT-40 generated Sleng Teng riddim (rhythm track), named for the biggest hit “voiced” on it, “Under Mi Sleng Teng” by the late singer Wayne Smith; the Sleng Teng riddim supplied powerful weaponry for the Rodigan/Barry G Brooklyn showdown. “I had 10 versions of that novel computer song with me,” Barry G told Billboard, “but I discovered, and I won’t tell you how, that Rodigan had even more so every time he played one, I changed the mood because if I didn’t, he would have murdered me!”
The sound system clash, which precedes Barry G and David Rodigan’s careers by two decades, is a contest between two (or more) sound systems (also called sets) vying for musical supremacy. Developed within economically depressed areas in Kingston in the late 1940s, early sound systems consisted of a turntable, amplifiers and towering speaker boxes, custom built to establish an identifiable, far reaching sound while emphasizing a deep bass. Sound systems employed selectors that chose the tunes and deejays whose cleverly rhymed introductions to each record created the art of toasting or deejaying, which became essential to clashing victories. The selectors’ need for new, exclusive music to attract audiences and defeat an opponent was a major catalyst in the development of Jamaica’s recording industry.
Sound systems clashed, sometimes violently, at dances held at meeting halls or in yards (referred to as lawns), the outcome determined by the audience’s response over several rounds to the selector’s sequencing of established hits, new releases, and the effectiveness of their specials (now called dub plates), an artist’s remake of a hit, lyrically adjusted to exalt a specific sound/selector or deride an adversary. For example, the “Golden Hen” dub by the late Tenor Saw, which Rodigan voiced with the young, influential Jamaican singer was specific to eliminating Barry G in the Brooklyn clash; following Tenor Saw‘s untimely death less than three years later, “Golden Hen” remains one of Rodigan’s most significant dubs.
The earliest sound clashes reportedly took place between Tom Wong’s Tom The Great Sebastian sound and Duke Reid’s Trojan sound in 1952. By the 1960s prominent sound system owners including Reid, Coxsone Dodd (Downbeat sound) and Prince Buster (Voice of the People) also became successful producers and record label founders, using their productions to win clashes. “Sound clashing developed so a producer could prove that his music was the best,” explains Garfield “Chin” Bourne, CEO of Irish and Chin, who are preserving Jamaican clash culture through such events as World Clash, a global sound system competition, and US Rumble, Road to World Clash, for younger clashing sounds. Adds Chin: “Sound systems owned by producers like King Jammy, Black Scorpio, and (Sugar Minott‘s) Youthman Promotions in the 1980s got attention for the music they played and the talent they had.”
Rodigan, among others, says that sound systems’ reliance on dub plates for clashing victories, which escalated in the 1990s, has impeded the progress of the clashing industry. “Exclusive recordings, white labels, B sides, remixes, instrumental versions and live deejaying were once used to win clashes,” notes Rodigan who now hosts a weekly show on BBC 1Xtra. “By the early 90s many selectors had specials with prominent artists saying their sound’s name; after that, clashing was almost exclusively about playing dub plates, which eliminated sounds that couldn’t afford them.”
Indeed, voicing specials brings significant revenue for many reggae artists. Depending on an artist’s popularity, or the rarity of his/her dubs, a single dub plate can cost a few thousand dollars. The exorbitant price tag attached to the numerous dubs required to survive several battle rounds has resulted in less clashing overall. In preparation for major contests such as World Clash, a sound system can easily spend upwards of $30,000, while earning a fraction of that amount for their participation. “Sound system owners say it’s too expensive to compete but if they do well or win, they’ll get more work offers and eventually make back their money. It’s an investment but it won’t work in every sound’s favor,” Chin reasons.
The dub plate concept has been co-opted by mainstream acts including Diplo who convinced Madonna to voice a special of her 1986 hit “La Isla Bonita”, with lyrics intended to slaughter an unnamed opponent.
Meanwhile, the sound clash premise has been adapted by corporate branded events including the Red Bull Culture Clash, won by Rodigan in London in 2014, as part of the Rebel Sound team; Rodigan rarely clashes nowadays but maintains a hectic touring schedule. Making even further strides, the sound clash has debuted on the high seas aboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise. In the pre-dawn hours of December 9th, veteran Jamaican sounds Metro Media, Bass Odyssey and Japan’s Mighty Crown squared off, each equipped with animated (expletive laden) showmanship and dub weaponry. The better prepared Mighty Crown voiced several dubs specifically for the conflict aboard the Norwegian Pearl, including vocal group T.O.K transforming their somber hit “Footprints” into a lamentation heralding the rival sounds’ demise; after several heated rounds, the audience’s deafening screams confirmed a victory by the Far East Rulers.
“Most people onboard had never seen a sound clash and they loved it, so clashing will be a permanent part of the Jamrock cruise,” acknowledged Marley’s manager Dan Dalton. “For the 2016 cruise (November 14-19) we want to give younger sounds the chance to compete, it’s important for the sound clash’s survival.”