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In Jamaican popular culture, a sound system is a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music. The sound system is an important part of Jamaican culture and history.[1]


The sound system concept first became popular in the 1940s, in the parish of Kingston. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. Tom the Great Sebastian, founded by Chinese-Jamaican businessman Tom Wong, was the first commercially successful sound system and influenced many sound systems that came later.[2] In the beginning, the DJs played American rhythm and blues music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavour.[1] The sound system remained successful when the conservative, BBC-modeled Jamaican establishment radio refused to play the people's music, while DJs could play whatever they wanted and favored local sounds such as reggae.[3] The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the few sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area. The promoter or DJ made his profit by charging admission and selling food and alcohol; often thousands of people were in attendance.

By the mid-1950s, sound systems were more popular at parties than live musicians, and by the second half of the decade, custom-built systems began to appear from the workshops of specialists such as Hedley Jones, who constructed wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as "House[s] of Joy". It was also around this time that Jamaica's first superstar DJ and MC, Count Machuki, rose to prominence. As time progressed, sound systems became louder—capable of playing bass frequencies at 30,000 watts or more, with similar wattage attainable at the mid-range and high frequencies—and far more complex than their predecessors.[4] Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and Duke Reid.[5] Besides the DJ, who rapped over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks.

The popularity of a sound system was mainly contingent on one thing: having new music. In order to circumvent the release cycle of the American record labels, the two sound system superstars turned to record production.[5] Initially, they produced only singles for their own sound systems, known as "Exclusives" or Dubplates—a limited run of one copy per song.[6] What began as an attempt to replicate the American R&B sound using local musicians evolved into a uniquely Jamaican musical genre: ska.[5] This shift was due partly to the fact that as American-style R&B was embraced by a largely white, teenage audience and evolved into rock and roll, sound system owners created—and played—a steady stream of the singles the people preferred: fast-shuffle boogies and ballads. In response to this shift in supply, Jamaican producers introduced to their work some of the original elements of the Jamaican sound: rhythm guitars strumming the offbeat and snare-drum emphasis on the third beat, for example.[4] As this new musical form became more popular, both Dodd and Reid began to move more seriously into music production. Coxsone Dodd's production studio became the famous Studio One, while Duke Reid founded Treasure Isle.

As sound systems continued to gain in popularity through the 1960s and 1970s, they became politicized in many instances. The DJs would often satirize current affairs and local events, taking on a “singing newspaper” role.[3] Many sound systems, and their owners, were labelled as supporters of a particular political party (such as the PNP or the JLP), but most of the sound systems tried to maintain political neutrality. Nevertheless, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the sound system was affected by the vast socio-political changes taking place in Jamaica at this time.[7]

An important part of sound system culture is the sound clash, an organized battle between two systems. The Guinness Sounds of Greatness is one of many such clashes. In 2009, the Guinness clash was organized into three parts: a "juggling" round, where each system gets 15 minutes to get the crowd going; a "tune fe tune" exchange of "commercial releases"; and a "dub-fe-dub", when the systems alternate "specials done specifically for the sound system playing the recording".[8]

The culture of the Sound System was brought to the UK with the mass immigration of Jamaicans in the 1960s and 1970s.[9] Notable UK Sound Systems include Sir Coxsone Outernational, Jah Shaka, Channel One, Aba Shanti-I, Jah Observer, Quaker City, Irration Steppas, Fatman International and Saxon Studio International. One of the first sound systems in the United States was Downbeat the Ruler, founded in Bronx, New York, in the late 1970s.

DJ Kool Herc, known as the Father of Hip-Hop, was responsible for importing many of the elements of Jamaican sound system culture to New York. Having immigrated with his family to the Bronx from Kingston at the age of 12, Herc grew up around dancehall parties, and despite being too young to enter, he would hang out outside the parties and listen to the music. When he started hosting his own parties in New York, he was known for having the loudest and most impressive sound system of anyone in the city, which heavily emphasized bass. He also introduced MCs (Masters of Ceremony) to the Bronx party scene, who are considered by some to be the first hip-hop rappers, as they emulated the toasting style of Jamaican reggae deejays.[10]

Sound systems were the method in which Jamaican migrants were able to maintain their cultural connection with their roots. They broadcast the remixed samples of reggae beats and created an underground music culture. This culture was separate from the larger population which relied on the radio to provide popular music.[citation needed] These sound systems were played in warehouses, clubs, and street corners. This was not simply just music played on the radio for a few people to hear, but a culture that involved many people was developed out of being consumed by sound through large sound systems.[citation needed] Sound system culture presented what Julian Henriques refers to as sonic dominance.[11] He is strategic in his usage of the word dominance because it is visceral and this term embodies the "power and the pleasure of the sonic" (452). The sound is an "enveloping, immersive, and intense experience" (451).[citation needed] The experience is so strong that "sounds carry people, as much as people carry sounds; 'vibes' find bodies to move" (230). Dance acts as a natural, immediate response to dancehall sounds, and as Henriques puts it, "bodies have no musical burden to bear; rather they are borne along, even berthed, by music."[12]

According to Henriques, the sound system has also played an influential role in the global influence of Jamaican music internationally.[13] It has "proved itself to be one of the most efficient of musical distribution mechanisms," (218) which has resulted in Jamaican music's influence on genres such as Hip hop, Jungle, and Dubstep.[13] While part of its influence can literally be credited to its superior audio fidelity over radio, the sound system also acts as a symbolic transmitter of shared experiences across the African diaspora.[13][14]

In popular culture

The 1978 Jamaican film Rockers featured authentic culture, characters and mannerisms of the 1970s Jamaican reggae scene, featuring Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace with his wife and children and in his own home, and the Harry J Studios in Kingston.

The film Babylon, released in 1980, so accurately captured the raw smoldering tensions between White and British Afro-Caribbeans centered around Brixton in the 1970s and 1980s, that it would be given an X rating in the UK and blacklisted in the United States, due to its depiction of institutional racism. Believed to be too incendiary for general distribution, it would be buried and forgotten following its premiere at Cannes, and would take another 40 years before it would be re-released by Kino Lorber in 2019 and made available in the United States on The Criterion Channel in 2020.[15][16]

Menelik Shabazz's 2011 documentary The Story of Lover's Rock tells the story of the intimate dance, soundsystems, and social backdrop of the Afro-Caribbean community of South London in the ’70s and ’80s.[17]

Lovers Rock, part of the 2020 Amazon anthology series Small Axe, is Steve McQueen's paean to the lovers rock genre and its influences across space and between the diaspora communities of the "Black Atlantic" culture of the British West Indian community of 1980s London.[18]

See also


  1. ^ a b "BBC - Music - Essential Guide to Reggae". Archived from the original on 14 October 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2021.
  2. ^ Gooden 2012
  3. ^ a b Brewster, Bill; Broughton, Frank (2014). Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Grove Press. pp. 92–103.
  4. ^ a b Barrow 1997
  5. ^ a b c Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 2330/1. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  6. ^ "BBC - 1Xtra - Jamaica". Retrieved 11 October 2021.
  7. ^ Stolzsoff 2000
  8. ^ Cooke, Mel (19 October 2009). "Black Widow, Bredda Hype win in 'Guinness Sounds of Greatness' - King Mello, Black Scorpio first sounds eliminated". Jamaica Gleaner. Archived from the original on 31 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  9. ^ Dagnini, Jérémie Kroubo (18 May 2011). "The Importance of Reggae Music in the Worldwide Cultural Universe". Études caribéennes (16). doi:10.4000/etudescaribeennes.4740. ISSN 1779-0980.
  10. ^ Brewster and Broughton (1999). Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disk Jockey. London: Headline Book Publishing. pp. 168–171.
  11. ^ Henriques, Julian Henriques. "Sonic Bodies : Introduction : Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques & Ways of Knowing" (PDF).
  12. ^ Henriques, Julian, “Sonic diaspora, vibrations, and rhythm: thinking through the sounding of the Jamaican dancehall session.”
  13. ^ a b c Henriques, Julian F. (2008). "Sonic diaspora, vibrations, and rhythm: thinking through the sounding of the Jamaican dancehall session" (PDF).
  14. ^ Jaji, Tsitsi Ella (7 February 2014). Africa in Stereo - Hardcover. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-993637-3. Retrieved 12 December 2015. ((cite book)): |website= ignored (help)
  15. ^ Kay, Jeremy (18 January 2019). "Cult British reggae film 'Babylon' to get first ever US release". Screen Daily. Retrieved 26 June 2021.
  16. ^ Hsu, Hua (7 March 2019). "What "Babylon" Captured About Racism and Reggae". The New Yorker. Retrieved 26 June 2021.
  17. ^ David Katz, "Lover's rock: the story of reggae's Motown", The Guardian, 22 September 2011.
  18. ^ Angelica Jade Bastién (27 November 2020). "Small Axe Is a Revelation". Retrieved 16 December 2020.