Wed | Jan 27, 2021

Chune Een | When dubplate was King

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Bounty Killer scores the 2017 World Clash Award for Best 90’s Dubplate Artist of the Year.

From the dulcimina to the Apple MacBook, the sound system industry continues to evolve since its development in Jamaica in the 1940s after World War II. A plethora of sounds have come and gone, disseminating the culture abroad while providing opportunities for others. Today, The Gleaner presents the second in the seven-part series, Chune Een, which explores the evolution of the sound-system culture in Jamaica and important aspects therein.


Ring the alarm, another sound is dying (whoa-ohh, hey)

Ring the alarm, another sound is dying (whoa-ohh, hey)

Four big sounds inna one big lawn

The Don sound a play,

the other three keep calm

Four big sounds inna one big lawn

The boom sound a play,

the other three keep calm


Tenor Saw’s legendary 1985 hit Ring the Alarm has embodied the consummate sound clash record in the dancehall arena for decades. Just 19 years old at the time, the west Kingston singer partnered with Techniques producer Winston Riley for the Stalag rhythm creation, which would become one of the most popular ‘specials’ used by sound systems.

“Tenor Saw is a very popular artiste in the dancehall when it comes to the sound clash era,” veteran sound system operator Lloyd ‘King Jammy’ James told The Sunday Gleaner. “Fi yuh draw fi a Nitty Gritty, Sugar Minott, and dem man deh was a good move cause they had the popular songs in the dances. Even a Johnny Osbourne, too, he is the dub doctor. A him mek the most dubs in the world, and if you not drawing a Johnny Osbourne yuh nah draw nobody. But I’d say Tenor Saw definitely has the edge.”

A special, now known as a dubplate, was a re-recorded song played in a sound clash battle, which mentioned the name of the home sound and often criticised opposing sounds. A sound clash is an organised battle between sounds to see which has the newest and best music while taking jabs at the other through the use of specials that aim to annihilate the credibility of another sound system.

James recalled first hearing anything close to a special courtesy of his mentor, Osbourne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock, who operated the Hometown Hi-Fi sound system in the late ’50s into the ’70s.

“It wasn’t called a special in those days, but Johnny Clarke would do a song without calling the sound name. It was still exclusive to Tubby’s sound. That is how Tubby used to run the place,” he said. “When him play against another sound, him have the exclusive songs weh no other sound can play, so him would get ratings for that sort of thing.”

Ruddock owned a recording studio at his home in Waterhouse, Kingston, which was primarily known for dub-cutting. According to James, Ruddock had the advantage of getting new music as “most artistes used to pass through there, so he could say ‘Johnny Clarke do this chune for this sound alone’, him could do it with other artistes, too. You couldn’t hear those songs anywhere else. Yuh haffi go Tubby fi hear it”.

James said that he adopted this technique for his own sound system (King Jammy’s Super Power) to distinguish himself from his competitors.

Big Bucks

Specials were not just beneficial to sound system operators as Black Scorpio principal Maurice ‘Jack Scorpio’ Johnson shared. “Quite a few elder artistes who never used to earn much start earn some money through dubplates (in my days we call it special),” Johnson told The Sunday Gleaner. “I am the first man to put John Holt on a special. Freddie McGregor is another one, and people like Jimmy London who nobody used to voice.”

Among the dubplates Holt recorded for Johnson’s sound were Stealing, Pick Up the Pieces, and Up Park Camp. For Johnson, it came at no charge.

“He didn’t charge me, but him ask if him could tek the rhythm for each song so him can sing on other sounds all over the world, and me give it to him,” he said. “Specials created a whole genre again in this music fraternity and mek these artistes eat a lot of food. The money weh Jimmy London, John Holt, Beres Hammond, and these artistes mek off the original song is not the same money dem mek off a dubplate. I know that as a fact.”

According to a 2016 Red Bull article, prices vary based on the class of the celebrity (A-list, B-list, etc). It quoted prices of £500 for entertainers like Capleton and Sizzla and £200/£250 for acts like Burro Banton and Johnny Osbourne.

Last year, reggae singer Jah Cure took to social media, asking sound system operators to only bring “good figures” for dubplate requests. His basic fee as stated in the video was at the time US$1,000.

“It could get very expensive. One of the times Bounty Killer was one of the most expensive man to do dubs, and one dubplate could run you all US$1,000,” James relayed. “I don’t think it’s like that these days, but Jnr Gong and dem man deh will charge expensive money. I don’t really pay to cut dubplate because the artiste dem look up to me. Sometimes I do something back for them (not financially) like give them studio time or promotion.”

The duplate phenomenon has reached higher heights, with ceremonies being held to acknowledge thecrème de la crème. Garfield ‘Chin’ Bourne of the renowned Irish and Chin duo is the principal of the virtual World Clash Dubplate Awards first held three years ago. The event recognises artistes for their annual dubplate contributions across eight categories, including Male Dubplate Vocalist of the Year, International Dubplate Artiste of the Year, Female Dubplate Artiste of the Year, and Best 90s Dubplate Artiste of the Year. This year’s nominees include Josey Wales, Koffee, Rygin King, and Dovey Magnum.

“The dubplate culture is a vital part of Jamaica’s indigenous sound system culture,” Bourne said. “I strive to continue to bridge the gap between artistes and sounds while preserving this highly important sector of our musical heritage.”