Soundsystem Culture

Reggae | Wednesday 12th June 2013 | jim

A lot of people in the UK might not recognise the term soundsystem, nevertheless soundsystem culture and music clashes are a huge, and necessary part of the Reggae music scene and have a growing presence in the UK.

The culture started in Kingston Jamaica in the 50s and was soon imported to countries like the UK by immigrants. Soundsystems are not about live music at all, but instead about playing records and engaging people in the music, while creating a huge party.

Sound-systems would often have a selector as well as an MC who would spread the word of Reggae. As the sound progressed and was introduced into the UK, custom-built soundsystems were being created. These were huge home-made speakers and amplifiers that shake the floor, rattle the windows and vibrate all the way through you; but then that is partly what it is about, letting the crowd feel the music.

Soundsystems started as a focal point for Caribbean communities in the UK and became a powerful stance against the racial battles that were beginning to happen. In the UK in the beginning the only place you could hear reggae was through soundsystems, but as it grew in popularity more and more live bands began to play, but the core was still played through soundsystems. Live bands may have played to crowds, but they taught the people about their music through their soundsystems.

Reggae grew in influence and soon the Notting hill carnival was born in 1959. It started out as just 60 people, responding to racial attacks, and has now grown into a huge festival of reggae and soundsystem culture. Today partly through things such as Notting Hill the soundsystem culture is very much alive. Selectors such as Channel One or Mungo’s Hifi and their huge stacks of speakers and endless selections of dub-reggae play for a motley collection of Rasta’s and reggae lovers.

The soundsystem culture of selectors educating crowds with reggae music also led to culture clashes in which different sound-systems would battle it out to win over the crowd.

Red Bull music academy since 2011 has held the Red Bull culture clash in which four different sounds battle it out to win over the crowd. While no longer just focusing on reggae music, the event spans four completely different genres. Last year Channel One battled Magnetic Man, Boy Better Know and Major Lazer. As with old soundsystem clashes exclusive and original dubplates were created to help place each contender above their competitors. The Red Bull clash is not just a fierce musical battle but is also a celebration of soundsystem culture and the influence it has had on hip-hop, dancehall and dance music in general.

Going to any major club at the moment, multiple DJs will play through the night engaging the audience in their own personal sounds. While there are none of the horns or effects you would find in reggae soundsystems the music is mixed together in dance music as opposed to tracks being played just one after another.

However the influence on hip-hop and even grime today is unavoidable. Multiple MCs often take to the stage to battle it out to win over the crowd with one DJ laying down the underlying beats.


Here is a short documentary explaining a little more about soundsystem culture:

If you want to see a true soundsystem in action check out one of them at Notting Hill carnival or if you can’t wait to long then check them at Dinwalls in Camden on the 20th of June, or at Glastonbury festival on the 29th of June.


Written by Jim Roberts