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new formations NUMBER 5 SUMMER I 988








It is a music that beats heavily against the walls of Babylon, that the walls may come a-tumbling down; a music that chucks the heavy historical load that is pain, that is hunger, that is bitter, that is blood, that is DREAD. - Linton Kwesi Johnson 1

No matter what the soundman or MC is saying it is always reality because this is music by us for us.

- Tim (19, black Londoner) 2

For many young black Britons living in London today, the reggae played by soundsystems in dance-halls is inextricably related to coping with life in a white society. These soundsystems are massive hi-fi's which make it possible to combine the performance of recorded music with live vocals: the MC or DJ sings or 'toasts' lyrics over recorded rhythm tracks. This style of performance, with its roots in Jamaican music and culture, has been critically transformed by the first generation of black Britons. Over the past ten years or so, they have adapted its technology to create a crucible in which new versions of their history and experience can be voiced.



All the sound men I have spoken to seem to share the approach of Art, a 23- year-old who works on a small soundsystem.

This is not just playing records in your front rooms, this is a business, you know what I mean? We provide a service, it's something that is in me, and is a part of me, I mean reggae music, but we are still talking business.

Their business is to entertain. Ribbs, of Unity Soundsystem:

It's entertainment. So where is there for black people to go on a weekend?

Where is there for us? We don't go to football matches, we don't go to the

Our aim is directly a play fe entertain the crowd

pub, so we go a

because that is what we are paid for. 3

Soundsystems are usually owned by one person or by a partnership, but they are too big to operate alone. Some owners deal with the business side themselves, while others hire a manager to deal with bookings, finances, and so fortti. The


soundsystem itself is run by a group within which a division of labour operates. This is seldom rigid; there is often overlap and people will do more than one task. Some sounds can afford to have helpers to drive, shift equipment, and generally 'add muscle'. Other aspects are more specialized. The technology of the soundsystem is called the 'set'. This can range in size from 200 to 10,000 watts, but the basic apparatus consists of a turntable, an amplifier, and a set of speakers. Different effects are used to give the records played a new mix through the set. Most common is the use of echo, usually reverb, which adds to the atmospheric sound quality. Some sounds have installed digital delay units which have the capacity to repeat the signal from the microphone or the mixing desk. In addition, small synthesizers, or 'noise boxes', enable the operator to add processed sounds. Power amps may be used to boost the output of the set. Some of the larger sounds use mixer boards to achieve a high range of equalization and to co-ordinate the use of signal processing devices. Michael Ranks of Spectra Sound:

It's pure transistors, all of it is electrical, loads of effects you can get out of it. If you have got too much echo it has a clear button and you can stop the echo loop on that channel. Also there is a hold button which will repeat what you say. Man, you can put the sound all over the place, all round the dance-hall. With a mixer board you can play untold tape decks, you can put echo through the noise box, then run it through the send and return. You can do that to just one thing or put it through the whole sound. Sounds are more than just discos, you've got mixer desks, pan pots, delay, send and return, a whole heap of transistors.

The person who deals with this sophisticated equipment, who puts the soundsystem together and maintains it, is the operator. He has to be sound technician, electronics expert, and engineer rolled into one; dotted around London now are people who specialize in constructing power amps, equalization units, effects boxes, and speakers cabinets. The operator is also responsible for mixing down the music and for providing the mix which accompanies the MC. The MC, or 'Mic Chanter', is in contact with the crowd, not just introducing the music but performing to and directing the dance. Each sound will have its own 'stable' of MCs, paid by the owners to 'chat' lyrics on their set; some also have singers to sing over prerecorded backing tracks. In many ways the most important person on a sound is the selector, who chooses the running order for the music and decides when the MC should come to the microphone. A good selector will be able to judge the mood of a crowd and know which types of music it will react to. He has to know when to liven up the crowd and when to calm it down. In the context of the music business as a whole, the more successful soundsystem owners enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Some own record shops, and produce their own records on small independent labels. Shaka, for example, a sound based in New Cross, has released a number of Dub albums. This level of control can only be maintained, though, when production and consumption remain on a small scale. If an artist/MC wants to produce a record for wider



Coxonne Sound, Brixton Town Hall, spring 1982 [Photograph: Anna Arnone] distribution, then he or she

Coxonne Sound, Brixton Town Hall, spring 1982 [Photograph: Anna Arnone]

distribution, then he or she would have to go through a larger company. Tipper Irie, one of the top MCs in the London dance-halls, recently had a hit with his 'Complain Neighbour' single, which was released on Greensleeves records and distributed by the giant EMI. The big companies' flirtations with reggae have not always worked out well. Linton Kwesi Johnson saw the dangers during his time with Island and Virgin: 'They attempt to evolve a vocabulary of exotic otherness to break into the mass market and thus titillate the palates of the white middle-class turkeys with images of the exotic and the erotic.' 4 Another practical difficulty for the larger and more successful sounds is that the growth in the size of their equipment threatens to undermine its portable nature, as Michael Ranks of Spectra Sound warns:

Sounds have come a long way from being just a deck, amps, and boxes. But things are crazy now. I don't think the sound business can get much bigger without losing its mobility.

Many of the smaller or younger sounds face rather different problems. Here resources are often pooled, and the separation between tasks is less clearly defined. They can seldom afford to pay their MCs, although the owner might get a small fee for playing a dance. Equipment is often passed down through a family and handed on to the next generation. Alternatively, because the technology is so expensive, they will buy second-hand equipment or build their own amps and speakers. Such customized equipment can offer unique sound qualities that can be developed and expanded. Usually, though, the initial progress is slow. Even a successful soundman like Dennis Rowe of Saxon Studio starts from humble beginnings.

When people see me or Lloyd they say, 'You own Saxon? We was looking for



some big man.' What they don't realize is that every sound has started off from young men. I remember when Shaka started off. He was a little boy when that sound came out. So everybody's got to be young before they get old. 5


Whatever the level, the soundsystem business can be very competitive. Apart from frequent wrangles over fees and payments, there is intense rivalry between sounds. This is ultimately expressed in competitions or 'battles' between them. There are two kinds of competition, cup dances and clash dances. At cup dances, a promoter puts up a trophy for which a number of sounds compete. This may take place on one night, or over a succession of heats. The competition will usually be judged by someone involved in the business; the criteria include selection, sound quality, performance, originality of dub and counteraction, performance and presentation. As many as six soundsystems may play together depending on the size of the venue. These multi-sound cup dances are chaotic affairs, with frequent accusations of 'rigging' the judges. They have become less common than they were five years ago because there are simply fewer suitable places to play now. Clash dances are one-night face-offs between two rival soundsystems. A promoter will pay the sounds to play together and then advertise the 'clash' as a means of attracting a large crowd. These competitions are exciting and spectacular; the best music is played at a volume which shakes the foundations. The battles run according to a fixed order. One soundsystem will play two records, then the other will do the same. This can lead to problems when the DJ has more than one mix of the same music. There is a lot of banter between the sounds via the microphone.

I remember when Coxonne skinned up against Shaka in the late 70s. Coxonne was being feisty saying Shaka was this and Coxonne was that. Shaka just replied - easy up your jibing and let the music do the talking. (Paul, 19)

Whether competitive or not, the work of a soundsystem is performance. People in the sound business talk about playing gigs in the same way as musicians. One key to success is having original music - it is hard to overemphasize its importance. Dub plates, or recorded rhythms, are original acetates and they are usually the only copies. (Dub is essentially an instrumental form of reggae.) They often have the bass and drums re-mixed with a more resonant, eerie emphasis, underlined by a snatch of vocals and other instruments sporadically dropped back into the mix. The records are made by the artists specially for the sound. This enables it to develop its unique style of putting the music over. A sound will be 'rated' for the number of versions it has of the same music (or 'counteractions') and so different mixes of the same record are sought after. The smaller sounds, who do not have access to these original pressings, might well use popular reggae hits on general release. They have also taken to using tapes recorded from the radio and from records, to cut the cost of buying music. Soundmen often boast that the latest releases are heard on their


Coxonne Sound, Brixton Town Hall, spring 1982 [Photograph: Anna Arnone] SOUND SYSTEMS IN SOUTH-EAST LONDON

Coxonne Sound, Brixton Town Hall, spring 1982 [Photograph: Anna Arnone]



sound first. But even some of the bigger sound owners are questioning the value of paying five times the amount for a pre-release which gives them two weeks' playing time. Most of the music that is played comes from Jamaica and is known as 'yard sounds'. Recently, however, British reggae artists like Maxi Priest (formerly a singer on the Saxon Studio soundsystem) and Aswad have also been producing their own high-quality music. Another innovation is the use of funk and 'commercial soul'. A recent Coxonne dance advertised a policy of playing 50 per cent dance-hall reggae, 25 per cent Studio One and 25 per cent soul. The dance- hall is no longer strictly the domain of reggae. Soca, calypso, American funk, soul and Hip Hop are all increasingly influential; at a dance you might hear the Jamaican artist Frankie Paul back to back with the ubiquitous 'Get On Up' by James Brown. Some soundsystems have been passed on to a younger generation which is more interested in Hip Hop, Rap, scratch, raregroove, and Three Step soul (which hail not from the slums of Kingston but from the streets of New York) than in Rub a Dub and Sleng Teng (a synthesized reggae rhythm). Donovan, though, emphasizes the continuity that underlies this process and the evolving trends and the new influences.

I've given my sound to my brother - he is dealing with soul and rap and them things. I gave him the sound because he's like me. Do you understand what I saying? Black like me.

Although in the future the Hip Hop 'warehouse party' may overshadow the reggae 'blues', what remains is the use of recorded music in a creative and dynamic performance. Chris, from Deckmasters Soundsystem:

Rappin' and the reggae scene has got a lot in common. Yesterday, Wednesday night I thought of breaking up the crew, innit. You know who changed my mind? Levi! The Saxon MC, Levi! I was killed, man. I said, 'What you?' Then he started going - 'You Talk Too Much' [a song by Run DMC] - and I said, 'You what!' He said that he loves Hip Hop and that it's not like soul. He said soul music was all about T love you' and party style and everything. He said, 'No!' He said, 'Hip Hop is different.' He said, 'Listen to this record, it is about reality, life' - you know what I mean?

On the earlier Dub sounds, the single DJ/MC usually let the music do most of the talking, just adding an occasional lyrical comment. In recent years, with the development of Rub a Dub, MCs have taken on a more prominent and directive role. Often they will 'chat' lyrics that tell stories of their everyday experience. There are also different styles of MCing and, rather than just plagiarize their Jamaican counterparts, British MCs are increasingly evolving their own styles. Tipper Irie:

The three wise men are Daddy Cobnel, Pappa Levi and me. If you want to learn the fast style check Levi, if you want to roll your tongue check Cononel T, you want intelligent lyrics check Tipper Irie. 6

The real secret of a sound's success is probably the interaction between the



singer/MC and the operato; who mixes the sound, and the speed and wit with which each reacts to the other. The dialect used in performance is British Youth Caribbean Creole, and this helps to create the remarkable degree of 'closeness' between the performers and the audience. This lack of distance is both social and spatial. The performers are no different, in terms of socioeconomic background, from the people in the crowd; the music is performed and consumed by equals. The MCs are by no means superstars, aloof and mythical. Their lyrics pointedly address the ordinary humour, triumphs, tragedy, and despair of everyday concerns rather than escapist dreams and ideals. Over recent years, lyrics in the dance-halls have documented the Bradford fire, the miners' strike, the abolition of the Greater London Council, and the uprisings of 1986. Here is Pappa Levi of Saxon Studio on the Ethiopian famine:

Right now I am going to bring it down to a serious point. Now Ethiopia nuff a wee starve, seen. Ethiopia nuff a wee starve. Right now before you go up on a street corner and give a donation to some ratbat idiot western shit ratty tin can. You listen to Daily Mirror and Sun and dem papers about donation. Look how long my people are starving and it is only now they are talking about donation. You have to check them things ya now. They no generous, no, not at all rasta, they take everything and rape my country

clean, and them talk about them help

Stand still if you will because I have nuff lyrics to spill.



jah me fear, rasta no Selassie I, a jah me fear, rasta now Selassie


a Jah me fear.

Satan kiss out my ras but you I don't care. Because my people suffer ahear. And the yout trousers battered and tear, and children in Africa can't even

pick a pear. The white South African cock up in a chair The government of England act like them care, but they treat black people the same everywhere. Oppression we go through you can't compare.

Or Ranking Ann on the Police and Criminal Justice Bill:

Right about now me come fe warn everyone About the wicked Babylon and dem plan Hear me su hear me star hear me Bill

Hear me Ben hear me

You hear about de Police Bill

If you na strong you bound fe get kill

Dem kill you in the name of legality Dem kill you cause dem tek weh you liberty We have fe kill the Police Bill Dem search you vagina and you bottom Say them a search for a dangerous weapon Dem mek up evidence fe a conviction

Ken - do


Jah - lord.



To get a release you have to make a confession Same ting they do in Northern Ireland And now dem a bring it here in England Dem have the power to set up a roadblock So you better watch out if you are poor or black You drive a car you bound get fe shot Remember how Steven Waldorf get shot It was at a police roadblock We have fe kill kill the Police Bill

Not all lyrics deal so directly with political issues. Tipper Irie's 'Complain Neighbour' contains characteristic elements of dance-hall humour:

Well it's a Complain Neighbour It's Tipper Irie inna Complain Neighbour You could be born in Kingston or be a Londoner You could be very old or be a teenager There is some time in your life when you must remember Someone knocking at your door and saying, 'Look hear Guv'nor, You better turn that music down or I'll get a Well it's the Complain Neighbour [et cetera] You will find them sorta neighbour in every area For instance take my good friend that name Deborah She live in Islington with her little toddler One day she and Hyacinth sit down pon sofa And the music was very high them under sensimilia All of a sudden Deborah scream and Hyacinth holla And two young ladies had to run for cover 'Cos about ten bricks come through the window Don't you agree, don't you agree, that is out of order? Suppose the baby was there they could have committed murder And all because the bass was too high on the amplifier

The success of recordings like these can create its own problems. Lovebug, of Deckmasters Soundsystem, argues that when singers and MCs are lured away from the dance-hall to record, the music can lose much of its power.

If you are not doing it [rapping/MCing] to street people, then you are doing it for records and commercial business and you lose half your vibes. It has been watered down a lot for records, man. Everything has gone when it goes on record. I want to prove myself live, then the record companies will come. The vibes are the important thing. It is the appreciation which inspires me - vibes are everything, if you haven't got vibes then you are dead.

All soundsystems want commercial success. But from the largest professional ones, which act almost as reggae's radio stations through their performances, to small ones providing entertainment for private house parties, the question of why the music is played and whom it is for remains vital. The unique 'vibes' created by the dynamic combination of live vocals with recorded music in front of a live audience are what they all try to achieve in their performance.





Earlier I quoted Ribbs from Unity Sound. 'Where is there for black people to go?' he asked. 'We go a dance!' Sound dances can happen in a range of places - from a club to a church hall to someone's front room. 'If a man got a birthday party or something like that, the sound might play - they might not go under nay name or something like that,' explains Paul. 'They just do it because it is a party. MCs might get up from out of the crowd and chat lyrics on the spot.' Usually one person - sometimes a soundman - will promote or 'keep' a dance. Again this varies according to size. The promoter/keeper has to put up the money for the event, book the hall, organize the security, print the tickets and advertise. The keeper will invite one or two sounds to play, depending on the occasion - a clash, a benefit dance or whatever. Any profits go to the promoter. Like a mobile club, a soundsystem may attract regular followers who turn up wherever it is playing. These may develop into a 'posse' - at dances, one constantly hears reference to posses. Michael Ranks:

Well we don't have a posse as such, what we have is a Legion - the Spectra

Legion. What happens is like this, it's like an army. We talk to them and they talk to us. We say, 'Don't fight, don't take heavy drugs.' What we are saying

is uprising because it can't be contained any longer.

One thing that draws a posse together is the idea of 'rating' a sound. Paul again:

Yeah, Shaka is the greatest soundman of all. I have seen sounds 'string up' against Shaka and arrange to play three musics each, and by the time Shaka was in his second music the other sound was 'stringing down'. I rate Shaka the highest.

A soundsystem will only develop a posse if it is 'saying something' to the crowd. This need not be a didactic philosophy; it can just mean producing feeling, passion, or energy. Which soundsystem one 'rates', however, depends on taste and sometimes on age. The young are more likely to opt for innovations like Rub a Dub, Sleng Teng and MCing, while others may stick to older genres such as Studio One and Dub.

A posse need not be defined solely by allegiance to a sound. It can also refer to

a geographical area or merely to a group of friends in a dance. The boundaries of the group are not absolute. It involves a sharing of loyalties, of origins, of identities. It also provides the terms in which, for example, this Saxon MC identifies and addresses his audience:

Paddington Posse are you na ready? Lewisham Posse you na ready? Brixton Posse you na ready? SAXON POSSE you na ready?

Sound dances can be extremely violent places. Knife fights and stabbings are common. People speak of going out 'tooled up'; that is, armed with a knife, a machete, or even an axe. According to one local youth, 'No matter where you go people are looking war.' This is perhaps the 'dread' or personalized catharsis which Linton Kwesi Johnson talks about. In the Jamaican context, he trices it back to a colonial system based on violence. The situation has hardly changed in



Saxon Sound [Photograph: Anna Arnone] the 'second Babylon' of England. The violence in the music

Saxon Sound [Photograph: Anna Arnone]

the 'second Babylon' of England. The violence in the music and the black experience is turned inwards producing a confrontation of black versus black. This, coupled with the broader cultural equation of violence with masculinity, creates a potentially explosive combination. One of the subtlest and most difficult functions of the sound and the MC is to act as peace-keeper, to redirect this internalized rage. At the same time, the potential social power of the sounds is undoubtedly limited by the masculinism that pervades the dance-halls and the domination of the sound business by men. Many soundmen would agree with Art's view of women as a means of getting men to come to the dance: 'If you play soul you are guaranteed to get the girls to come and if the girls come the men will follow, and you are sweet.' Now, though, there is a growing band of women MCs - Ranking Ann, Lorna Gee, Sister Candy - who are quite aware of this relationship and who are introducing a critical perspective.

All kinds of things are said about women by male MCs and singers. When you hear women sing about men all you hear is that they love them. Like Lovers' Rock [soft melodic reggae] women are always expressing their feelings, whereas a man tries to play hard. He always likes to be domineering and doesn't like to show his feelings, because he might be seen to be getting soft. 7

All-women soundsystems like Silhouette and Ladies' Choice no longer accept 'being the pied pipers of the dance-halls: girls attract men, and men want Rub a Dub'. They have different priorities, as Sonia from Silhouette explains.

Men seem more interested in finding out how big your amp is. We don't feel that we need to compete with anyone, it is just a waste of time. We don't care how big someone's name is. Names don't impress us. 8


The emphasis in these women's sounds seems to be on soul, although they also incorporate Rap and Hip Hop. One problem they face is that women MCs are often accused of being 'slack', that is, running down men in their lyrics. Sister Candy denies this, and defends lyrics about women's experience.

This is a reality that is not often expressed in MCing. Everything is said about women - she looks disgusting, she has been with ten thousand men or whatever. I have chatted lyrics about battering women, I had a lot of guys coming up to me and laughing. They would say, 'Yeah, you are saying something about me there.'

Calling women MCs slack seems to be an attempt by men in the audience to deflect criticism which they don't want to hear. But however much men may dominate soundsystems, the microphone does provide these women with a platform for their version of reality. The dance-halls are important because they provide a microcosm, controlled by black people, in which young black men and women work through in symbolic form the variety of their experiences, conflicts, and desires.




In terms of their production, soundsystems exploit technologies primarily associated with mass production to create dynamic musical performances which not only address a specific community, but also help to define and sustain it. The technology of the soundsystem enables its operators to transform recorded music, purchased as a fixed commodity, into a creative and expressive form. The consumption of the music is equally positive and expressive. Of course, the dance is a place to celebrate and have fun. But this does not mean that the audience is there to induce a soporific state of political fatalism. On the contrary, the soundsystem and the microphone provide a platform from which black Londoners can rewrite and document their own history. What makes it so effective in this is the lack of distance between the performers and the audience. When the MC Pappa Levi chats lyrics about the 36b bus ride and his experience growing up as a black Londoner, everyone in the dance knows what he is talking about. The physical and social reality common to the audience and the performers alike makes the music relevant and accessible. The dance provides a powerful unifying context for the sharing and celebration of collective experiences - the power of the music lies in its collective nature. it would be wrong to overstate the social or political effectiveness of the soundsystems' 'didactic populism'. They have no real impact on the conditions which perpetuate inequality; their role is better viewed as that of a primer. The lesson from the mic is 'check yourself, don't fight amongst yourselves, see the 'bars and chains' that confine. These messages relate to black history, black unity and struggle. They have been taken up in south London by activists like Spartacus R. In Brixton in the summer of 1985, he started a cultural awareness programme which aimed to educate, re-educate, motivate, and activate its members. Needless to say, the soundsystems have been in its forefront,







providing a vehicle for information and entertainment. In times of political strife and external attacks, this role becomes more important. The sounds have increasingly become both a source of alternative news and an arena for black unity and autonomy. In the dance-halls, politics and pleasure coexist; coughing up fire and anger, celebration and joy.


1 Linton Kwesi Johnson, 'Jamaican rebel music', Race and Class, XVII4 (1976), 397.

2 All the interview material quoted in this article, unless otherwise credited, was collected by me between 1985 and 1987 as part of a research project looking at popular culture in south-east London.

3 Interview with Anna Arnone, Echoes (11 August 1984).

4 New Musical Express (19 March 1985).

5 Interview with Anna Arnone, Echoes (14 July 1984).

6 Tipper Irie, taken from Saxon Studio's live album Coughing Up Fire, released on UK Bubblers (Lockwood 1).

7 Sister Candy, interview with Anna Arnone, Echoes (22 December 1984), 20.

8 ibid., 22.



The editors and publishers would like to thank the following organisations and individuals who hold rights on illustrations and extracts used in this issue:

Statue of Liberty (p. 70): the Kubler Collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Delacroix's Liberty Guiding the People to the Barricades (p. 72) and Daumier's The Republic, (p. 74), Musee du Louvre, Paris Photographs (p. 40 and p. 42): Jean Mohr Photograph of Theresa (p. 99) and postcard of the Commune (p. 101): Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris Soundsystem photographs (pp. 143, 145 and 150): Anna Arnone Lyrics by Pappa Levi (p. 147) and Tipper Irie (p. 148): Greensleeves Records Ltd Lyrics by Ranking Ann (p. 147-8): Ariwa Records Ltd Although every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, we apologize in advance for any unintentional omission or neglect and shall be pleased to insert the appropriate acknowledgement to companies or individuals in a subsequent issue of this journal.




COHEN is research fellow at the Post-16 Education Centre at the University of London

Institute of Education

Territories 1983-85. He is writing up the materials in a book on the ideological and institutional effects of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the 'Holy Land'. At present

he lectures in the anthropology department of University College, London

ROSS is Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz KAJA SILVERMAN is the author of The Subject of Semiotics (1983) and The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis (1988) as well as numerous articles on feminism, psychoanalysis, film and literature. She is currently working on a book on

marginal male subjectivity

Design at Portsmouth Polytechnic Washington University, Washington D.C

philosophy at the University of Warwick. His forthcoming book on translation will be

published by Croom Helm


MARGARET SOLTAN teaches English at George ANDREW BENJAMIN is a lecturer in

HOMI K. BHABHA teaches literature and literary theory at Sussex University

GLENN BOWMAN undertook field work in the Occupied


ADRIAN RIFKIN teaches in the Department of Art and

GILL DAVIES is senior lecturer in English at Hatfield

LES BACK is a research student and teaching assistant in the Department

of Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths' College. His doctoral research examines the relationship between culture, race and class on two south-east London council estates.