The only good system is a sound system.
The term ‘soundsystem’ dates back to 1940s/50s Jamaica, when people in poor areas of Kingston would gather in large public spaces for an outdoor party as a way to celebrate and connect with the local community. Whoever had the best speakers in the neighbourhood would bring them out and play music for everyone, sometimes selling drinks or charging a small fee for entrance. These kind of ‘pop-up’ parties became very popular and by the mid-late 60s a number of different large soundsystems (which refers to the party itself, not just the speaker system) existed, competing with each other for the fame of having the biggest and loudest system in town. Parties were often a combination of two or more ‘rival’ soundsystems. Referred to as a soundclash, DJs from each system would take turns playing music to see who could hype the crowd up the most – an obvious precursor to modern DJ battles.
As technology improved and the (usually custom-built) speaker systems themselves became bigger and more powerful, DJs began to focus on production, creating music engineered for and exclusive to their soundsystem to give a creative edge over the competition. Referred to as ‘exclusives’ or dubplates, these productions, always limited to just a single copy to be played by the DJ, was the key to exciting crowds and boasting the best soundsystem in town. Soundsystem parties were known not only for the giant stacks of powerful speakers and bass-heavy reggae, ska and dancehall music they featured, but also served as a cultural epicentre for the local community, bringing people together and providing a shared-positive experience for all in attendance.
With a massive migration of Jamaican immigrants into the UK in the early 70’s, soundsystem culture and the influence of Jamaican music followed, and over the next 40 or so years injected many of its traditions and sounds into various genres of electronic music.
Because this music and culture are so focused on the live experience, videos and audio recordings cannot begin to do justice to the energy and heavy sound created. To give some idea, the legendary Channel One Soundsystem at their annual Notting Hill Carnival party in London;
Today many of these soundsystem-inspired traditions have found their way into various dance music genres, the most obvious of which are dubstep and jungle. Though these genre labels are broad, many parallels can be drawn from each to practices that began in Jamaican dub and soundsystem culture; Often minimal productions with heavy bass, driving rhythms, and a continued practice of using dubplates and playing exclusive music never to be released for public consumption. It is common in many bass music circles in the UK for producers to release a version of their track, and have a remix dubplate that they only play live. This can drive fans mad, especially in a time where we can easily listen to a song that is stuck in our head on repeat until we are tired of it, but makes for explosive energy at live shows, often hearing slews of unreleased material the way it was meant to be heard; on a giant, custom-built soundsystem.
Dubplate version – sorry for the poor quality – as I’ve explained – this records exists only in Kahn’s record bag.
The origins of both jungle and dubstep specifically trace back to the melding together of Jamaican and UK dance music; Taking production techniques and signature traits from dub and combining them with the gritty, aggressive rhythms and bass-weighty sounds prevalent in the UK. Though dubstep in particular has taken on a more mainstream sound of its own in North America, its deep, dark and dubby roots are still being explored by producers such as J:Kenzo, Kahn and Mala, to name a few, as well as on labels such as DEEP MEDi Musik, Tempa and DMZ. With a minimalistic mix leaving the majority of the room for big bass wobbles, original (now often referred to as ‘deep’) dubstep features many traits of dub and reggae music; simple bass melodies, slow, shuffled rhythms, and a litany of percussion sounds to help progress the song as their structures are often simple and based around one idea.
Currently standing in direct opposition to the bright and shiny production of popular big-room EDM styles, soundsystem culture has spread throughout the world. Anyone who feels they need a break from the LED-screens, bright lights and sounds featured in most large dance music shows these days would do well to find a proper soundsystem near them (or if you can’t find one, build your own!). My introduction to this culture in Toronto was with the 40hz Soundsystem; A locally owned, completely custom-built collection of some of the biggest subwoofers I’ve ever had the pleasure to dance in front of. After attending my first Harvest Festival (thrown by Toronto’s own Promise events – well known for their Cherry Beach Sunday parties every summer), I started to follow the 40hz system around. At first, I thought it funny (though logical, given my taste for bass) to be following a set of speakers to find good events instead of a proven promoter or nightclub, but soon found that I was being exposed to a plethora of new music, and meeting much more interesting and open people at every event I went to (when compared to the usual King & Queen West club crowd especially), and breaking my routine of always going to the same few venues to dance.
Soundsystem parties often pop up in locations that aren’t proper venues, feature a broader range of music than found in downtown clubs, and attract people who are looking for a change from the usual stand-in-line for too long and overpay-for-drinks experience that most equate with a night of dancing. Though every party, system and individual experience are different, I find there to be much more substance in following around a soundsystem in both the vibe of the party as well as the type of people that attend. This is likely due to the fact that the organizers care about keeping a good reputation of providing a unique experience and quality sound to their attendees, which then contributes towards a feeling of community that is very welcoming and not easily replicated.