String the sound - The evolution of J’can sound system culture
The plug-and-play convenience that the average DJ enjoys today contrasts the tedious set-up sound system operators endured more than five decades ago.
“It would take a while because in those days, you had to string up the sound, go behind the speaker boxes and connect two or three different wires,” Maurice ‘Jack Scorpio’ Johnson told The Sunday Gleaner. “It took a lot of batteries, and the process would be longer depending on the amount of boxes you have. It’s not like now. It was more manual.”
Johnson emerged on the scene with a dulcimina (one-side speaker, one-side turntable) in 1968 under the name Black Scorpio, operating in Drewsland, Kingston. The industry was already been infiltrated by established sounds like Duke Reid’s The Trojan, Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Downbeat, and Winston Blake’s Merritone, which were all formed in the 1950s. The new era presented the opportunity for the pioneers to branch out into production and play local music instead of rhythm and blues records out of the United States.
Dodd opened Studio One in 1963 on Brentford Road, where he recorded some of Jamaica’s earliest ska and reggae productions and helped to build the careers of acts like The Wailers, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and The Skatalites.
Not far away in the western Kingston Waterhouse community was Osbourne “King Tubby’ Ruddock, owner of the Hometown Hi-Fi sound system and a leading figure in the development of dub music. He later formed a dub-cutting studio, where artistes would re-record hit songs and mention sound names, then called a ‘special’, known as a dubplate. Under Ruddock’s mentorship was Lloyd ‘King Jammy’ James, who eventually established his own sound, King Jammy’s Super Power.
Ruddock stopped playing music in 1975 after his amplifiers were destroyed by police at a dance session in St Thomas. In his absence, James rose to the fore. “When I became a bigger sound, I went to England and built some high-powered amplifiers, so at the time, I was the most powerful sound in the island. We also became popular for our exclusive dubplates,” he said.
Favour with crowd
A popular sound won favour with the crowd in various ways. Today, a thunderous ‘blank’ and fervent flame from a lighter usually accompany the selection of a favourable tune at any musical session. If you were a patron at a dancehall session then, the ‘blanks’ would not be empty.
“In those days man used to fire a one shot when yuh draw fi a good tune,” Johnson recalled. “I remember when me used to keep dance, nuff soldier and police come. The gunshot thing start fire from the same police dem and rude boy weh have dem gun. But most shots came from the police. It’s all a part of the history.”
But there was also a different tone amid this sound system history. After Blake died in 1955, brothers Winston and Trevor continued to flag the Merritone ship from its St Thomas base before moving to Kingston in 1962.
“We were the first sound system in St Thomas, cause Kingston had the concentration of the sound systems,” current Merritone principal Monte Blake said. “We were like the country sound come to town, so a lot of people were sceptical. We were not like a big sound system. Sound system came in sizes like boxing. You had heavy weight, and we were like middleweights.”
Merritone distinguished itself with its diverse repertoire.
“We were around from before ska, rocksteady, lovers’ rock and reggae, so when the Jamaican music started in the 1960s, we had it because Winston was respected by most artistes,” he said. “My aunt also used to travel to the Caribbean and bring back the merengue and calypso from Trinidad “
Meanwhile, some of its contemporaries like Gemini, King Edward’s The Giant, and Prince Buster’s The Voice of the People are now defunct.
“Most of these guys came into sound system because they had liquor stores and they used to rent tables and chairs, so the sound system thing was just a natural thing. That’s how Duke Reid and some of the others started,” Blake said. “Great sounds like Coxsone and Reid didn’t last long, but they evolved into music production, which is really what will carry them forever. I don’t know why the other sounds didn’t last, but for Merritone, we don’t believe that music alone is it. It’s a lifestyle. You have to go to the hospital to visit your fans when they are sick. You have to go the funeral, the graduation, It’s a family thing.
“Some of these people were probably not family, got tired of it, or didn’t move with the time. We moved with the time and have younger DJs who understand young people. It’s a delicate balance, but you have to keep current or else one day you going to wake up and you’re not in it.”
James returned to the scene two years ago after most of his sound members migrated in the 1990s.
Johnson is also revamping his sound system with young talent to continue the sound-system legacy.