This is a signal. Out to anyone feeling dissatisfied with their current nightlife experience; The underground is alive and well.
Hidden in plain sight in Toronto, Southern Ontario, and beyond, are a few locally owned sound systems, born out of the same spirit that first inspired the practice of throwing sound system-focused parties to begin. The current purveyors are an equalizing force for the commodified offerings of the EDM machine that most have come to associate with dance music. This culture is not perpetuated out of spite of the mainstream, but rather a desire to share a deeply held passion for music and shared experience on a more personal level than most clubs offer. The systems themselves offer not only a heavy, physical experience of sound, but also serve as a focal point for the community to gather around. The difference between this and most club experiences is palpable not just in sound, but also in the intention and energy exchanged between performers, organizers and attendees.
Sound system culture was born out of necessity. In 1950’s Jamaica, impoverished communities came together to dance and connect over something positive at block parties featuring local DJs (selectors) playing through powerful, custom sound systems. Its traditions evolved within Jamaica and eventually went on to globally influence countless artistic collectives and musical subgenres by sharing its practices, terminology and community focus with anyone who had something to gain from it.
Sound System Weekend
Bass enthusiasts were recently treated to back-to-back parties over Thanksgiving weekend, appropriately enough, when Last Planet, The Deep End and Master Lab enlisted two locally built and operated sound systems to power some big international bookings.
Shadow Play, an event curated by Last Planet, The Deep End and PixelCorn Productions, featured UK-born dubstep legend DJ Youngsta on the Iron Lung Soundsystem, supported by some of the most talented and fast rising producer/DJs in the area in Distinct Motive, Freeza Chin and Stranjah. The event came off as an excellent blend of old and new, holding onto much of the original aesthetic dubstep and half-tempo bass music is known for in its sweaty, dingy setting, while showcasing a promising future for the scene in Toronto.
The following night, Master Lab hired the near-legendary 40hz Soundsystem for their drum and bass focused affair. Local heavyweight Gremlinz set the stage for LSB, Skeptical and Jubei, a trio of UK-based producers all known for their dark and sub-heavy takes on the genre. The event featured an ominous, dark room, saturated with bass and fast paced percussion while minimalist visual projections and lights illuminated the high, cathedral-style ceilings of The Lithuanian House.
Finding proper spaces to host these events can be a struggle. Both parties were met with venue issues related to excessive noise late into the night. Shadow Play was forced to move locations just days before the event due to sound restrictions being imposed on their originally planned space, forcing organizers to choose between their preferred space and sound system. The favourable choice was made to keep the sound and move the venue, though this undoubtedly threw the organizers for a loop. The Master Lab show was shut down early (though only by about 45 minutes), when a few police officers with bright flashlights entered the dark dance to investigate the source of a noise complaint. Thankfully organizers and police were able to compromise and give the show a suitable ending with a few more tracks, rather than cutting it off immediately.
In both cases, the experiences of attendees were saved from any critical blows, though the issue is an ongoing challenge for organizers: How do you throw a party with pristine and all-encompassing sound that showcases the music as it was intended to be heard, while keeping it in or near a densely populated area so as not to alienate or inconvenience your intended audience?
This expectation of convenience presents the largest aspect of the issue. While there is a core following present at each show, many of which travel far from their homes to come into the city for each event, promoters need a reliable, high turnout in order to keep reinvesting and growing the scene. Toronto and the surrounding areas offer a wealth of unused, industrial-type buildings that would likely meet the needs of a party. Large indoor spaces for people to gather with no neighbours to bother are plentiful, however organizers understandably hesitate to commit their energy and focus to a space that some may not be willing to travel to. Likely a relic of North American club culture, this is somewhat ironic considering that the marriage of sound system culture and bass music was born out of the rejection of the associated musical styles by most mainstream venue spaces, with many raves happening far outside of city centres where it was unlikely anyone would be bothered.
So, why bother?
The need for a strong underground scene is very important. In any artistic pursuit, creators need space to learn, experiment and grow. In the case of musicians, producers and DJs, they need a space to explore their art and present material; To feel its energy in its intended space before heading back to their laboratory to adjust and refine. The parties and sound these systems provide nurture creativity, providing access to a community that can help shed light on getting from A to B. Mainstream festivals and EDM shows can be alienating and unwelcoming, often keeping the hired talent segregated from the crowd. The people who get to be involved are on one side, and the people who get to watch on another. That is, until someone takes it upon themselves to create an inside of their own.
All of this is not to say that there is an “us vs. them” mentality on either of these two sides of dance music. While being somewhat opposed in the motivation to create them, it is important to note that what comes out of both is simply a product of the collective energy contributed – how people act, interact and share with each other, and the level of respect shown to the spaces and organizers that make it possible. There is good and bad on both sides, as with anything, but it is my belief that the growing sound system culture in Southern Ontario as it relates to bass music has something seriously positive to offer. The ideal result being that local creators are raised up to the point where they start to garner international intention. This is how some of the most impactful movements in dance music have been born.
I still regularly attend many large-scale events to see performers I am interested in, but find community and inspiration more easily in spaces like I have described. This, above all, is something to truly appreciate. A handful of individuals have taken it upon themselves to make something happen, and we all have the chance to benefit from it, and contribute if we desire. This community mentality and positive energy as a driving force is intoxicating in the best way, indirectly seeking to spread peace, love, unity and respect instead of trying to package and sell it as an experience.
Visit 40hzsoundsystem.ca for more info on this system, and for a list of shows it will be powering in the near future. This crew works tirelessly and always seems to have something new and exciting in store. Their Facebook page is also a great resource for shows and music.
Check out the Iron Lung Soundsystem on their Facebook page. They are based out of London, ON and are quickly gaining a reputation synonymous with powerful sound and a wide range of explorative bass music.
I stopped myself from plugging upcoming shows (of which there are many!), and instead will point you to the Toronto Junglists Facebook page as a great resource for events, in addition to the individual promoters pages. They compile a list of shows on a weekly basis, and seem to have a knack for regularly finding those hard-to-reach parties.
Thanks to the promoters behind the aforementioned shows for the work they do and for supporting this piece, Master Lab, The Deep End and Last Planet. Two more promoters must also be mentioned; Rumpshakers and Spectrum, for regularly bringing a wide range of creative talent to the city while simultaneously showing support for local DJs and producers.
Finally, keep in mind this is just one persons view of the scene. There is so much more out there to be discovered. Some internet research and the courage to show up to a show on your own, if necessary, can take you a long way. Big respect to everyone else out there supporting, creating, and following their own path!
Edited by Kevin G.