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How CDs changed the sound-system game

Published:Sunday | March 3, 2019 | 12:00 AMSade Gardner - Gleaner Writer
Monte Blake: “I hear people say all the time that vinyl is coming back, it’s not coming back nowhere.”
Jack Scorpio: “The CD ting was good for artistes, but not for us producers.”
CDs ultimately replaced the vinyl format.
Keith Walford: “... with the CDs coming into play, a selector could copy your dubplates and have access to it.”

When Merritone sound-system principal Monte Blake was describing a vinyl record, he stopped for a moment, almost in awe, before romanticising the audio format.

“It was so personal. It was like a girl, you could hold her,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “You could hold it in your hand and feel it, feel the warmth.”

Vinyls had replaced the shellac, a 10-inch disc used in the 1940s that was made from brittle material, which Blake said became scarce after World War II. Vinyl reigned supreme until the late 1970s, when other formats, like cassettes and digital audio-tape machines, were introduced.

But there was a digital format on the horizon that was about to change the sound-system industry forever – compact discs (CDs).

“We moved to this format, which was more impersonal. There is nothing that sounds like vinyl and tube amplifiers,” Blake compared.

The impact was not only noticeable in sound, as prized dubplates were now vulnerable to acts of piracy. Bass Odyssey’s founder, Keith Walford, described it as the biggest disadvantage of the evolving digital era.

“Technology was showing itself up, and we had to move with it,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “Before, when it was cassettes or just strictly vinyl, selectors would have a harder time copying the dubplates, but with the CDs coming into play, a selector could copy your dubplates and have access to it.”

Walford said the introduction of CDs paved the way for the ‘sole DJ’ at events, instead of traditional sound systems.

“Before, the manager would have the plates, so no matter what happened, the selector would have to go through him to get access,” he started. “That is why in today’s game, we have hundreds of selectors with only a laptop. They don’t have a sound system, and it is because of the introduction of CDs and laptops. Right now, people just go on different sites and download songs and give themselves a name, and they are out there like a sound. Before that, you actually had to have a sound system to be considered a DJ.”

The effects of piracy were not just confined to selectors. By the 1990s, many sound-system operators were successful music producers, including Maurice ‘Jack Scorpio’ Johnson. According to the Black Scorpio sound and label owner, the popularity of CDs stifled many record companies.

“I could have cut a thousand records on 45-inch vinyls and know I could sell it off, but when CDs came in, a man could just copy it, and before you know it, everybody get the song for free,” he said.

“The big companies, like all Dynamic Sounds, started to feel it, and that is why to this day we don’t have a pressing plant in Jamaica again, Europe tek it over which shouldn’t have happened. People like Greensleeves and Jetstar had to close down. So the CD thing was good for artistes, but not for us producers.”

Despite the initial sour taste, CDs ultimately replaced the vinyl format in the new millennium, and file types like MP4 and MP3 are often used today.

Though Blake still holds the vinyl record near and dear to his heart, he does not believe that the format will ever see a complete return.

“I hear people say all the time that vinyl is coming back. It’s not coming back nowhere,” he said.

“When you see a guy press (manufacture vinyl records), him don’t press more than 2,000 copies, and that is just for the collectors. Nobody likes changes, but every format has its advantages and disadvantages. The great thing about the CD format was that you could move a lot of records in a little packet, where in the old days, we have to lift up all these boxes of music on our shoulders. There are a lot of people who don’t like it, but if you don’t move with the times, it’ll leave you.”