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Authentic sound system culture, a hard sell to sponsors

Published:Thursday | August 10, 2017 | 12:00 AMKimberley Small
A Bass Odyssey selector at this year’s Boom Sound Clash.
Selector Tony Matterhorn (right) and Jesse Star at the controls at Sumfest sound explosion, Pier One, Montego Bay, last year.
Members of Mighty Crown sound system at the 2007 staging of death before dishonour.

For the past 28 years (on the second weekend in August), Bass Odyssey has celebrated its anniversary as a sound system. This year marks the third in a new five-year business projection, developed by the event's organiser, Yaniq Walford, which rebrands the anniversary event as the Jamaica Sound System Festival.

The ultimate goal, Walford says, is to reinvigorate local support to become the 'number one big dance' on the island but at the cost of no major corporate sponsors.

The festival operates under the ideology that tourists are more attracted to explicit sound-system clashes.

"A sound clash has to be hard core. It has to be explicit. It doesn't do much for building an entertainment brand when sponsors say what will appeal to what kind of people. Sound systems thrived for decades because it appealed to Jamaican people, and altering it is what will kill it. If you alter it, you change the appeal," she argued.

Activity in the global space supports Walford's ideology as there has been an increase in international clashes and sound systems abroad.

In a December 2015 article (From Reid to Red Bull: Inside the Business of Jamaican Sound System Clashes), Billboard writer Patricia Meschino succinctly explained the origin of sound-system culture and the attractiveness of its explicit content.

She wrote: 'Developed within economically depressed areas in Kingston in the late 1940s, sound systems employed selectors that chose the tunes and deejays whose cleverly rhymed introductions to each record created the art of toasting or deejaying, which became essential to clashing victories.'

According to Meschino, the earliest sound clashes reportedly took place between Duke Reid's Trojan sound and Tom Wong's Tom The Great Sebastian sound in 1952.

Fast-forward six decades later, and major corporate sponsor Red Bull has engineered one of the largest annual clash competitions, attended by over 20,000 people. The Red Bull Culture Clash was established in 2010, and past participants include American rap group A$AP Mob, Wiz Khalifa, Taylor Gang, and Eskimo Dance (a grime rap collective led by British rapper Wiley), with a smattering of locally sourced participants. Most notably, local dancehall stars Spice and Popcaan added their support and toasting skill and appeal to 2016's winning crew, Mixpak.

Considering the success of the Red Bull Culture Clash and the establishment of other competitions with title sponsors like Boom Energy Drink and Guinness, Walford believed that it would have been easy to acquire corporate sponsorship to support sound-system clashes. However, contractual stipulations of local sponsors compromise the charm of the illicit and explicit.

"What we are doing is for the locals, in it's authentic form. In sticking to the authentic form of sound-system culture, it's a hard sell to sponsors," Walford told The Sunday Gleaner. "We've had to say no to sponsors because we are keeping it authentic. They water it down to be in line with brand ideals. Because of that, we've had to say no."




During its last staging, Reggae Sumfest organisers imposed strict rules on the Heavyweight Sound Clash, warning selectors not to use bad words or to do or say anything that could hurt the festival's brand.

"We want to promote clean dancehall. We are going a positive route and are looking to influence the youth the right way," said Robert Russell, a member of the Sumfest organising team.

However, for Tony Matterhorn, who came away winner from that event, he believes that the rules were too restrictive, calling the event a microwave clash, as content allowed was too filtered.

Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise debuted it's first sound clash in 2015.

"Most people on board had never seen a sound clash and they loved it," said Marley's manager, Dan Dalton.

Meschino also documented the presence of veteran Jamaican sounds Metro Media, Bass Odyssey, and Japan's Mighty Crown.

"The better-prepared Mighty Crown voiced several dubs specifically for the conflict aboard the Norwegian Pearl, including vocal group T.O.K., transforming their somber hit Footprints into a lamentation heralding the rival sound's demise. After several heated rounds, the audience's deafening screams confirmed a victory by the Far East Rulers," Meschino wrote.