Diving Into the History of the Legendary Jamaican Sound System

by Christivie Manga

Fun fact: Did you know sound systems were invented in Jamaica? Sound systems are one of the most overlooked aspects of Black-British music despite being a commercial success story of immense proportions!

Sound System: Defined

A sound system is the combination of microphones, signal processors, amplifiers, and loudspeakers in enclosures all controlled by a mixing console that make live or pre-recorded sounds louder and may also distribute those sounds to a larger or more distant audience.

The Creation of a System

The invention of sound systems first came about in Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1940’s. Sound systems were created to bring financially deprived  Jamaican communities together. A hardware store worker who goes by the name of Tom Wong, was known to be the first owner of a sound system. Today we have the luxury of music streaming apps such as Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube, and much like today not everyone in Kingston had the means to afford a radio (the streaming service of the day). Therefore, they could not always enjoy music through that medium. 

Whilst the more bourgeois Jamaican community enjoyed live orchestras, sound systems brought neighbourhoods of financially deprived Jamaican’s together. The term ‘ghetto’ was surprisingly used to refer to this community during that time. Sound systems would blast music in the streets of Kingston and allow Jamaicans to escape the reality of their poverty and celebrate and enjoy with their community. Research shows that sound systems played a role in giving the less privileged power! Imagine being systematically excluded from positions of power… Sound systems allowed those from economically deprived backgrounds  an opportunity  to experience leadership in their own way.  

In a book titled Wake the Town and Tell the People by Norman C. Stolzoff states that the usual positions of power in this era was the media, the government and religious establishments –– sound system culture served its role in “communication, social interaction, education, moral leadership, political action, and economic activity, especially for [B]lack people  from poor backgrounds.”

Sound clashing began on the streets of Kingston in the 1950s. Because very few people had the money to buy records, the main way that people were introduced to new music was either in dancehalls or at street parties. Therefore, whoever owned and operated the portable sound systems was in a position of influence when it came to setting musical trends.

Starting out as an informal rivalry, sound clashes developed as the result of a natural instinct to compete with another sound system set up in close proximity to your own. Sound systems were led by people such as Tom Wong, Duke Reid, and Sir Coxsone and began with stacks of speakers set up, playing US R&B records. The competition involved two or more sound systems battling to produce the best selections and performance to be crowned victorious by the watching crowd.

Across Di’ Atlantic: Sound Systems in England

Now you have knowledge on the origin and purpose of sound systems, how did it become a BIG thing in Britain? Originally, sound systems were not very popular. Shortly after the beginning of the Windrush Era, the UK became populated with nearly half a million people from the Caribbean who were removed and displaced  from their roots. Jamaican communities experienced racial violence which meant that Black music and Jamaican music were not respected or well-regarded outside of the community. 

Radio stations and radio play were a huge factor in music, but no radio stations would play Black records. At the time, there were no local Black-led radio stations and so music and radio only ever catered to white music. This meant that the only way you could hear reggae music, according to Dennis Bovell, was by attending a party that had a sound system.

Black people had to enjoy their music in secrecy. The only place sound systems were seen was in their homes, underground make-shift dancehalls, or secret parties. Sound system culture was somewhere Black people could unite and enjoy as one with the freedom of being themselves. It was the main form of social life for Black people in Britain. Sound system culture gave Black people in Britain their own unique Black and British identity.

Here is a short documentary about the importance of  sound system culture to a generation of newly migrated Caribbean British people. .

If police became aware of  these events, they would quickly shutdown and arrest attendees. DJs and MCs faced even more racism and discrimination and were falsely accused of crimes and wrongly arrested. UK sound system pioneer Duke Vin was constantly targeted and threatened by the police, police even went as far as destroying his sound system equipment! 

Sound Systems in Britain Today

When we think of Notting Hill Carnival, we are reminded of the beautiful mas trucks, delicious food, and poppin’ music. Notting Hill Carnival put sound system culture on the map across the UK! As the biggest street event in Europe and the 2nd largest carnival in the world, Notting Hill Carnival has provided static sound systems with a huge platform.

Sound systems have been an integral part of  the atmosphere at Carnival since the 70’s. Sound systems became hard to ignore, the loud amplifying music, and the intense sound clashes. The culture of sound clashes was adapted from the culture of sound system. 

Sound clashes were another aspect of Jamaican sound system culture impacted British music. Sound clashes continued to grow in popularity into the ‘90s with the arrival of a new format called ‘World Clash’. This system saw countries from around the world competing in a clash at one location. 

The first World Clash is believed to be the one held in London in 1993 between Bodyguard (Jamaica), Saxon (UK), Coxsone (UK), and Afrique (USA), ending with a controversial win by Bodyguard. We now have a range of huge sound clash battles including the popular Red Bull Culture Clash. 

The next time you hear the sounds of contemporary grime artists giving us some rap battle fire in the booth, remember that sound clashes influenced them!

Explore these sound systems which cater to numerous musical tastes and exist today! (That’s right, sound systems are not a historic relic of the past!)

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