The Reggae Scene
The music of Jamaica, known generally as reggae, is one of the most influential in history. To fully grasp the intricacies of the genre and its development, it helps to have a solid understanding of how the reggae scene works.
Sound systems are the main driving force of reggae music. More than a collection of speakers and DJs, the sound system has for decades been the primary form of entertainment in Jamaica – a genuine social occasion on the street or in a garden or dancehall, with music, drinks and food, and often lasting all day and into the wee hours. Sound systems have sprung up all over the world imitating this style of gathering, in a variety of different situations.
As a fully autonomous operation, a sound system will usually consist of a few DJs (“selectors”) and MCs (“DJs”) running the show, as well as a hefty speaker set-up, designed for near perfect – and very loud – sound with a heavy rumble of bass. The crew will also include people who help carry speaker boxes, run the door, operate a bar or cook some food to sell cheaply, amongst many other roles. In this way anyone with a desire to get involved can usually find a role, contributing to the community spirit and helping build a loyal following.
In Jamaican music the role of sound systems is complex, but the first point to consider is that they are responsible for the creation of reggae in the first place. The first Jamaican sound systems in the ‘40s and ‘50s would play American R’n’B and jazz, however these records were difficult – and expensive – to obtain, and as such it became cheaper to get local musicians to record versions of hit tunes. Overtime, these musicians gradually created their own sound, and eventually genre, and the story of reggae began.
The owners of these sound systems became the first producers, and they would test the popularity of the music they recorded at their sound system dances. Thus the sound system became the ultimate barometer of taste in reggae – what pleased the crowd would guide future productions – and it has been so ever since. The traditional rite of passage for a sound system has been to eventually set up their own record label, on which they release the music they record and play at their dances.
The original role of the “DJ” was to chat on the mic, talking up the sound system, making announcements and hyping up the crowd, but with the advent of dub versions (instrumentals) of tracks, the DJs’ role expanded and they became one of the main attractions, singing and toasting over “riddims”. The popularity of the DJs in the dancehall gave producers another avenue to explore – recording the DJs’ versions of popular tracks, with the DJs becoming artists in their own right. As such, nearly every reggae vocalist will have cut their teeth as a DJ on a sound system.
This also leads on to the idea of the “riddim”. Whereas in many forms of music it is considered a negative to copy someone else’s tune, in reggae it is positively encouraged. Over the years popular tracks will have their instrumental version, the “riddim”, reworked and re-recorded many times over, often in different styles, such that there may be literally hundreds of versions of a popular instrumental track with different vocals. In fact, these days it’s much more common for music to be released as riddim “albums”, with all the tracks on the same instrumental, than as individual artist’s albums. There is also an economic reason for this: recording using riddims is much cheaper in terms of studio time and paying the band. As a relatively small country, Jamaica never had a huge number of “bands”; instead there were a few high-quality house bands, featuring the finest musicians in the country, working as studio bands for solo artists or vocal groups.
Sound systems also comprise a certain competitive element, whereby the aim is to be recognised as the “champion sound”. In order to reach this status, it necessary to succeed in “sound clashes”, where two (or more) sound systems will set up in the same dance and take turns to play, starting with short sets before progressing on to “dub-fi-dub”, each sound system taking it in turn to play one track. For this, sound systems require a good selection of dubplates – unique and exclusive versions of popular tracks with the vocalist adapting the lyrics to praise the sound system and/or criticise their opponents. In Jamaica sound clashes are traditionally a serious business, however amongst the huge number of recently formed European sound systems they are often undertaken in a spirit of friendship and mock-rivalry, usually with a great atmosphere.
Much like the reggae scene as a whole, the experience of attending a sound system dance can be a little bemusing at first, but with a basic understanding of what’s going on it quickly becomes one of the most authentic and exciting musical experiences around… pull it up an’ come again, my selecta!
Check out Part Two for a breakdown of reggae genres.
All images courtesy of the author