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What makes a great sound system Part one

The facts are if we don’t tell our stories others will it’s up to us to teach our youths so they can be saved from making the same mistakes we made.

For over 8 decades of sound system culture greatness has been measured differently from Hedley H. G. Jones from Linstead Jamaica to 2021 many things have changed in sound system culture but the one thing that’s stayed the same is that in order to succeed you need to put the people first.

first sound system

Hedley Jones, the first sound system amplifier builder in Jamaica, and general inventive pioneer who also designed, from scratch, the first solid-body electric guitar on the island, its first streetlights, and his own telescopes, and had a hand in engineering Jamaica’s most prominent studios. As it almost inevitably goes, his role in creating early Jamaican music history was, for decades, largely overlooked. He started a radio servicing business in Kingston and imported jazz records from the US. He began making amplifiers in the late 1940s and played jazz and Cuban records through them at his record store, Bop City. Jones built powerful amplifiers, with the technologically advanced capacity to distinguish and enhance treble, mid-range, and bass frequencies. He later wrote:

“The public address system prior to World War II was designed to electronically respond to a limited range of audio frequencies, covering voice and general purposes. As against such limitation, a Jamaican sound system was designed to respond with low surface noise, low distortion and high fidelity, over the complete audio range of frequencies from 15 Hz to 20 kHz: a huge technological difference. The Jones model High-Fidelity audio amplifier of 1947 was designed to perform the function of reproduction of the full audio spectrum; and that was the model Tom Wong acquired and named a Sound System. Before that era noisy PA systems were the norm.”

 

Hedley Jones guitar amplifier Courtesy of Hedley Jones Archive

Over the decade’s 100,000’s of people have built sound systems inspired by Hedley for a vast array of reasons from the love of music to self-promotion however regardless of your agenda entertaining the people should always be at the forefront and just like the definition of greatness in our culture has changed so has the definition of entertainment.

                                                    

At first sound system entertainment amounted to one man his sound and his records, reggae music was not yet invented at this time so the main music was American rhythm and blues as time progressed and more local music was created, the music migrated to a local flavor and what passed for entertainment changed with the people’s musical taste. One of the pioneers of sound systems was Chinese-Jamaican businessman Tom Wong, he is accredited with being the first commercially successful sound system and influenced many sound systems that came later.

Hedley Jones may not have known what he started when he made the first amplifier and his intentions might only have been to sell records and not to entertain, however, we can not take anything away from him and his greatness. Tom The Great Sebastian was a great sound man because he took what Hedley Jones did to another level and inspired others to take what he did to another level whether his agenda was to sell more hammers and nails as a hardware store owner or to sell liquor because of his ingenuity and originality he no matter what holds the title of great.

The birth, popularization and growth of Deejaying

As sound systems became more popular at parties than live musicians, and custom-built systems began to appear with wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as “House[s] of Joy” it was in this era that sound systems first superstar DJ/MC, Count Machuki, rose to prominence adding talkovers to the songs, emulating the jive talk of American radio Disc Jockeys. Count Machuki (b. Winston Cooper) is regarded to be one of the first if not the first deejays. What he did was to change the role of the sound system DJ from a person that only puts on the records to a person who had live contact with the audience with the help of a microphone. Count Machuki started out as a disc selector in 1950 for Tom the Great Sebastian (b. Tom Wong). With the introduction of bigger speakers and the microphone came the most significant change in entertainment.

Count Machuki recalled getting his first break, as a disc selector, on December 26, 1950 (Boxing Night). Tom the Great Sebastian was playing at Forresters Lawn and liquor was selling at a fast clip.

Tom Wong opted to leave the venue to go get liquor to replenish the rapidly dwindling stock, and asked Machuki to select the discs in his absence. Machuki recounted that the crowd loved his selections.

Machuki eventually parted ways with Tom Wong because, as Machuki claimed, Tom shifted the playing base of his sound system to the upscale Silver Slippers in Cross Roads to avoid sound system clashes, which Machuki relished, with the likes of Nick the Champ and Duke Reid’s the Trojan.  

Machuki’s next break came when he attended a send-off party at which Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat, a sound system owned by Clement Dodd, was playing. As fate would have it, Machuki recounted that he had left his handkerchief at home inadvertently and decided not to dance, fearing that his shirt would be drenched with perspiration: a condition he loathed.

In order to occupy his time, Machuki asked to help with disc selection. Clement Dodd was impressed with Machuki as a selector and his dexterity with the turntable and recruited him that night.

It was while with Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat that Machuki first toasted on the microphone after being encouraged by Dodd to emulate the American Jive talk, while selecting records. He also created vocal sounds he referred to as peps

For good or bad love it or hate it but speech has been an integral part of sound system culture the ability to connect with a crowd through the medium of verbal communication is not as easy as it sounds and many many many mic men, Dj’s emcees have fallen by the wayside as many succeed five more fail Count Machuki don’t get the praise like U Roy who took what Machuki started to a whole other level but Count Machuki’s place as one of the greats is cemented in history.

Before we get to U Roy one of the most well known Deejay’s of the era we tell the story of another pioneer and great Winston Sparkes (17 September 1940 – 31 January 2012), better known as King Stitt,

Stitt was noticed for his dancing by Count Machuki during his time on Coxsone Machuki offered Stitt to try his hand on the mic. Stitt soon built his own deejay set, occasionally replacing Machuki and eventually becoming one of the most popular deejays on the island’s dances. He became King Stitt when he was crowned “king of the deejays” in 1963, in the heyday of ska.

Following the folding of Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat’s sound system around 1968 (as Coxsone preferred to concentrate on recordings), Stitt found himself working as a mason in Ocho Rios. He had been deejaying at the mic for over ten years when he was first recorded over brand new reggae rhythms in 1969, creating some of the first ever deejay records.

Born with a facial malformation, Stitt took advantage of it, calling himself “The Ugly One”, in reference to the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Stitt’s first and most prolific record releases came from producer Clancy Eccles with classic deejay tracks that included “Fire Corner” (1969), “Lee Van Cleef”, “Herbsman Shuffle”, “King of Kings”, “Vigorton 2” and “Dance Beat”. All were released on Eccles’ Clandisc record label.

Ewart  U-ROY Beckford was born in Jones Town, Saint Andrews Parish, Kingston, Jamaica, on 21 September 1942. Inspired by Count Matchuki he started his professional career as a DJ in 1961 on Dickie Wong’s sound system (originally called Doctor Dickies later changed to Dickies Dynamic) moving later to the Sir George the Atomic sound system. U Roy then worked on Sir Coxsone Dodd’s sound system where he ran the number two set while King Stitt “The Ugly One” ran the main set.

U-Roy, who eventually left Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat, went on to commercialize and popularize deejaying with monster hits such as Wake the Town and Wear You to the Ball, cited Machuki as a major influence on his work. He praised Machuki for not crowding the music when he is toasting, allowing listeners to hear the words of the vocalist clearly. It is a style that U-Roy emulated.

U-Roy’s commercial success opened the door for a succession of DJs, such as Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, Scotty, Trinity, and Dillinger, who followed. While Deejaying was deepening its roots in Jamaica, it was eyeing shores afar.

This was followed by a period with Sir Percy before he moved to King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi sound system. Beckford’s first single “Dynamic Fashion Way” (1969) was a Keith Hudson production.  It was followed by the Lee “Scratch” Perry production “Earth’s Rightful Ruler” with Peter Tosh.

The popularization and growth of sound system 

In order to understand greatness in our culture we have to look at the foundations in order to have a standard and a gauge this is what our culture was built on those that came before sound system culture was built on the ingenuity of Hedly Jones who attained and reached for more when deciding that loud music should be played with full range.

In the history of sound system culture, there has only been a 100 if that truly great sounds out of 100,000’s, copying what somebody else did before you well, does not constitute a great sound for example moving down to the mid-50s sound systems became louder with the help of Hedley Jones—capable of playing bass frequencies at 100s of watts, with similar wattage attainable at the mid-range and high frequencies—and far more complex than their predecessors. Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually, two sounds emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, and Duke Reid. Besides the DJ, who chatted over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks. These two sounds emerged as stars because and eventually became greats standing tall like mountains in our culture.

 

Clement Seymour “Sir Coxsone” Dodd CD (26 January 1932 – 4 May 2004) was influential in the development of sound system culture. The Kingston-born Dodd used to play records to the customers in his parents’ shop. During a spell in the American South, he became familiar with the rhythm and blues music popular there at the time. In 1954, back in Jamaica, he set up the Downbeat Sound System, being the owner of an amplifier, a turntable, and some US records, Dodd opened five different sound systems, each playing every night. To run his sound systems, Dodd appointed people such as Count Machuki, Lee “Scratch” Perry, who was Dodd’s right-hand man during his early career, U-Roy and Prince Buster. In 1963, he opened Studio One on Brentford Road, Kingston. is one of Jamaica’s most renowned record labels and recording studios; it has been described as the Motown of Jamaica. The record label was involved with most of the major music movements in Jamaica during the 1960s and 1970s including ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall It was the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica and changed the face of sound system culture forever. 

Coxsone Dodd’s greatness is more than evident in his work and his brilliance shines through to this day along with Arthur “Duke” Reid CD (21 July 1915 – 1 January 1975) Reid was born in Portland, Jamaica. After serving ten years as a Jamaican police officer, Reid left the force to help his wife Lucille run the family business, The Treasure Isle Grocery and Liquor Store at 33 Bond Street in Kingston.

He made his way into the music industry first as a sound system (outdoor mobile discothèque) owner, promoter, and disc jockey in 1953.

who ran one of the most popular sound systems of the 1950s called Reid’s Sound System, quickly overtaking Tom the Great Sebastian and his sound system as the most popular sound system in Jamaica.

Duke Reid made an impact with his gimmicks during sound clashes toasting battles allegedly one time he was dressed in a long ermine cloak and a gilt crown on his head, with a pair of Colt 45s in cowboy holsters, a cartridge belt strapped across his chest, and a loaded shotgun over his shoulder. It was not uncommon for things to get out of hand and it was said that Duke Reid would bring the crowd under control by firing his shotgun in the air.

In the 1960s, Reid founded the record label, Treasure Isle. He and Dodds dominated the Jamaican music scene of the 1960s, specializing in producing ska and rocksteady, 

Both Dodd and Reid duplicated what Tom Wong had done before them executing it in such a way that they eventually surpassed Tom Wong.

The level of greatness in the sound system achieved by Coxsone and Duke Reid has been rare throughout the decades, there have been many sound systems with record labels producing some amazing music but it was the sheer consistency of treasure isle and Studio one which meant it would be many years before anyone would come close to making the impact that Dodds and Reid did on the culture. A sound system producing its own music is like a gun with endless ammunition.

It was not until the late 1950’s that Osbourne Ruddock (28 January 1941 – 6 February 1989), better known as King Tubby a talented radio repairman found himself in great demand due to the rising popularity of sound system which were to be found all over Kingston and which were developing into enterprising businesses. Tubby owned an electrical repair shop on Drumalie Avenue, Kingston, that fixed televisions and radios. It was here that he built and repaired large amplifiers for the local sound systems, the tropical weather of the Caribbean (often combined with sabotage by rival sound system owners) led to malfunctions and equipment failure. 

Tubby would eventually form his own sound system, Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi, in 1968. It became a crowd favorite due to the high-quality sound of his equipment, exclusive releases, and Tubby’s own echo and reverb sound effects, at that point something of a novelty. The sound also launched the career of the late great U-Roy, its featured toaster.

Tubby along with his prento Lloyd James (born 26 October 1947, in Montego Bay, Jamaica), who is better known as Prince Jammy or King Jammy, has remained one of the most famous and popular figures of contemporary sound system culture.  Jammy began his musical career as a dub master at King Tubby’s recording studio. His dubs were known for their clear sound and use of effects. After earning money from building amplifiers and repairing electrical equipment from his mother’s house in Waterhouse in the late 1960s, he started his own sound system. He also built equipment for other local systems. After leaving Jamaica to work in Canada for a few years in the early 1970s, he returned to Kingston in 1976 and set up his own studio in Waterhouse,  When Phillip Smart left King Tubby’s team to work in New York City, Jammy replaced him,

In the late 1970s, he began to release his own productions, By the 1980s, he became one of the most influential producers of dancehall music. Producing such revolutionary riddims like 1985’s “Under Me Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, with an entirely-digital rhythm hook. Jammy improvised Reggae and Dancehall, he digitalized old riddims, like Real Rock, and the Far East. King, leading to the modern dancehall era. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Jammy’s productions dominated reggae music is a staple of present-day sound clash culture. King Jammy’s legacy lives just like he does and he continues to work as a producer, working with some of today’s top Jamaican artists.

King Jammy along with King Tubby are true Kings of sound system/clash culture their greatness is enshrined in the culture forever above is a fairly accurate timeline of the foundation of sound system/ sound clash/ dj/ reggae greatness every name mentioned above is a great name in our culture and their contributions continue to shape our culture today in 2021.

The outernational birth and growth of sound system 

The story of sound system culture is very much the story of reggae music anyone who knows the history will know that the UK  played a major part in the development of reggae due to the fact Jamaicans could travel to the UK without visa restrictions due to Jamaica and the UK’s colonial past, the two are so entwined in the UK went as far to originate its own version of reggae, Lovers Rock.

1954 at the same time sound system culture was spreading in Jamaica Vincent George Forbes (25 October 1928 – 3 November 2012), better known as Duke Vin, who began his career as a selector on Tom the Great Sebastian sound system in the early 1950s, traveled to England in 1954 as a stowaway on a boat from Kingston, he found work and two years later. George built his first sound system in 1955 using a second-hand turntable bought from a shop in Edgware Road, a speaker bought for £15 and an amplifier built for £4, soon establishing ‘Duke Vin the Tickler’s’, in Ladbroke Grove, London, the first Jamaican-style sound system in the UK. 

The sound system played an important part in popularising ska in Britain. He initially played R&B but soon concentrated on Jamaican music – he was supplied with fresh Jamaican releases, including many from Studio One, by the Daddy Peckings shop in West London. Fellow Jamaican Count Suckle soon set up a sound system in the same area, leading to a rivalry between the two and several sound clashes, with Vin involved in the UK’s first clash in 1958. One of the tracks that exclusively featured on his sound system was “The Tickler”, a track produced by Derrick Harriott that was unavailable elsewhere until it was released in 2006.

In 1973 he was one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival one of Europe’s biggest annual events, and performed at the event for 37 years, despite suffering a stroke in his later years.

Duke Vin should of been promoted to King Vin showing true greatness in continuing the work that he started in Jamaica under adversity in racist 1950’s UK we couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like playing music in the cold UK in the 1950’s its hard enough in modern times and to be an instrumental part of London’s Notting Hill Carnival shows true dedication to the culture and greatness.

You cant tell Duke Vin’s story without telling the story of the aforementioned King Suckle he was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in poverty as one of thirteen children. He began supplying records for sound system operator Tom the Great Sebastian, and in 1952 he, along with Vin, and Lenny Fry stowed away on a banana boat. They reached London, where they settled in Ladbroke Grove. By about 1956 he was running the Count Suckle Sound System in competition with the one established by Duke Vin, with whom he had several sound clashes. Suckle built up a large following within the African-Caribbean community by playing at private parties, and began attracting an audience of white musicians through his bookings at the Flamingo Club in Soho.

In 1961, he became the resident DJ at the Roaring Twenties club at 50 Carnaby Street, where he began showcasing records sent to him privately by Prince Buster in Jamaica as well as R&B record labels in the US. His clientele included mods and leading white musicians Georgie Fame, the Rolling Stones, and John Paul Jones. However, the club was regularly targeted by police raids. In 1964 he began managing his own club, the Cue (later Q) club at 5a Praed Street, Paddington. This played a mixture of ska, reggae, soul and funk music, as well as featuring live performances by leading Jamaican and American musicians including Prince Buster and Edwin Starr. In 1970 he also ran Q Records, a short-lived subsidiary of the Trojan record label,

In 1974, Suckle said of the club:

We lead the field because we’ve always moved with the times at the Q club. When we opened ska music was the thing, Prince Buster, Don Drummond, Reco, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Baba Brooks y’know. They all played here when they toured London. We played all the latest things and the new dances caught on quick…. The Q club is international so we have to mix the records. A few years ago soul was the thing so we used to play more soul…. You just got to stay with the times. If they wanna hear reggae we’ll play reggae, if they want rock and roll we’ll play it… .

A common sign throughout the UK 1960s

In 1943 Hedly Jones planted a seed and by 1950 that seed had started to grow within four years that same seed had flourished and branched off to to the UK both Vin and Suckle the men that brought it to the UK individually took it to another level it is no small achievement as a black man to run a club in the UK at any time never mind 1963 UK if you ask the majority of UK sound owners if they have ever managed a nightclub they will tell you no to put it into context in 1963 a black would struggle to get served a drink in a bar.

10 years after Vin and Suckle took sound system culture to the UK via London in 1967 a 12 year old Clive Campbell, migrated to New York from Jamaica with his family. Adopting the moniker DJ Kool Herc, and setting up a sound system with equipment he accessed from his father, a technician in a local band, he and his sister, Cindy, decided to throw a party in their West Bronx apartment in 1973.

At the said 1973 party, DJ Herc also toasted over and between tracks as his dancehall precursors were doing back in Jamaica. The toasting allowed him to engage his audience and build rapport with them. Just as toasting led to Deejaying in Jamaica, it evolved into Rap in the US.

DJ Kool Herc is recognized widely as the pioneer of Hip Hop and the first American sound system. Without the inspired greatness of Count Machuki who passed away in 1995: His financial standing bore no evidence to the two multibillion-dollar music genres – Deejaying and Rap – for which he and Coxsone Dodd unwittingly laid the foundation from his innovativeness in Jamaican dancehall in the 1950s. Notwithstanding, their legacy will endure.

The expansion of the culture beyond borders

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94 | Netherlands | 

In 1963 Phillips was introduced the cassette tape to the world and by the late 70s, the sound tape was born, live recordings of actual dances circulated the globe. It is truly impossible to understand the impact sound cassettes had on the world it’s impossible to measure how many people were educated and influenced by the sound cassette. To the majority of us, whose parents weren’t sound men or women our first exposure to a sound system culture was the cassette you didn’t truly know what you were listening to you just knew that you liked it the first two decades of sound recordings out of Jamaica the sound quality was authetic with a constant hiss of white noise, thinking back it was crazy that the sound cassettes sounded so bad when the actual sound systems prided themselves on quality.

In the second part of our series on greatness in our culture we focus on the history that can be told with the introduction of the audio cassette tape and later on the video cassette tape the magic of sound system culture continued its journey around the world…

What do you think?

Written by The Editor

warrior dedicated to the cause of fighting the takeover of our culture.

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