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Channel One school us on what's so special about sound system culture

Reggae | Friday 18th September 2015 | Christina

Channel One, comprising prime selector Mikey Dread and MC Ras Kayleb, is one of the world’s foremost roots and dub sound systems. Established in 1979, they first played Notting Hill Carnival in 1982 and have been a regular fixture there ever since, as well as putting on staple shows at Outlook Festival in Croatia. As sound system culture celebrates 60 years in the UK this year, Channel One is teaming up with Mad Professor for a special five-date tour in October. Ahead of the shows we spoke to Mikey about what makes sound system so special.

How’s everything going? Life treating you well?
Yeah well you know you have to work hard for it, so that’s what we’re doing.

And how’s your summer been?
Summer’s been very good, Channel One’s been very busy over the summer. We’ve finished most of the festivals now, we’ve just come back from Croatia, from Outlook.

Yeah how was Outlook?
Very good, very good. It turned out very well, a lot of people there so we had a few good nights with Channel One. We did well.

Ah good. And how was Carnival this year?
Same as it is, we’ve done it for 32 years now, so I don’t think anything dynamically different, we’re just going on with the motion. Carnival was very good, everybody enjoyed it.

Do you have a best Carnival? You said you’ve been doing it for over 30 years, is there one year that really sticks out or are they all consistently great?
Well they’re all consistently good. Once you haven’t got any rain, they’re all  good. One or two I could say might stand out but that goes back ten odd years ago.

This year is a big anniversary for sound system culture, 60 years, why do you think that it’s been so successful and is so well loved in the UK?
Because it’s not in the mainstream, basically. It’s always been underground thing and people love things coming from the underground. It doesn’t get diluted because it’s not in the hands of the mainstream big companies, like you have to do that, you have to this, you have to stick to certain rules. Sound system is something what we built. 60 years up until now and it’s never been in the hands of the government or anything like that. It’s always been underground and if it sticks like that people will enjoy it more than going to these mainstream big companies who might want to take it over.

So is that what makes sound system so special, the fact that it is underground and it’s not commercial and it’s not about money?
That’s right, it’s not about no big financial gains or what have you, it’s about what we do with what we do. Channel One is a Rastafari sound system, we come out to break down barriers in different countries we play in. Once you go to different countries we play in, you leave them with a message that you can build your own sound system and do your own thing. You can only be at one place at one time, so when you actually leave the country, Brazil or Colombia or New Zealand or whatever, you leave that message that you can build a sound system.

Is it right that your father was a sound system man?
Yeah, yeah the old man was sound system, basically from that generation it just got passed down.

How did he first get involved in it?
Well I suppose like anybody else, in your own community you listen to music, listen to records and whatever, and you decide to build a sound system because the records weren’t being played on the mainstream. So you build up your own thing. If you couldn’t afford a bike, a ten-gear racer, you build your own bike. It’s basically the same as a sound system, if you couldn’t get it on the mainstream, listen to the music on the mainstream, you get your own sound system to listen to your music.

So it’s a DIY thing?
Well yeah, it’s DIY but it’s very, very expensive DIY. It’s like a trade, it’s not something you take lightly, it’s a trade.

And do you think because your dad was involved in it that you were always destined to be involved in sound system?
I wasn’t destined to it, we’ve always been in the sound system game since I remember. I could have gone off and done something else but we just love music.

And it must have been a very musical household then?
Very. A very musical household, boxes of music and amplifiers all over the place.

You once said in interview about the Red Bull Culture Clash, which you guys won, that dubstep tried to take over reggae music but couldn’t do it because it doesn’t have any foundation.
Yeah you know dubstep tried to take over reggae but one, it doesn’t have no continuity, two, it doesn’t have no background, and it doesn’t have no foundation. In our music we have foundation, that’s why we’ve been around for 60 years.

So do you think then that because you’ve got foundation that roots reggae is the most powerful kind of music that there is?
It’s very powerful, very powerful. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, you can always hear roots and reggae music somewhere.

To celebrate the anniversary you’re teaming up with Mad Professor for a big tour next month. How did that come about? Was it your idea, was it his idea?
I extended the idea, I planted the seed and sent the idea. We were asking “what is the next tour we should do?”, because we’ve done quite a few tours now and I said “the only other tour I can think of that we need to do is a sound system meets a major producer”, and the major producer who has been in the game for so long is obviously Mad Professor. Channel One meets Mad Professor, it goes hand in hand.

Is there one show that you’re particularly looking forward to? You’re going to big places – Manchester, London, Birmingham, Leeds.
Yeah it’s a chance for everybody to get a little taste of Mad Professor, if they’ve never heard him for years or probably never heard him before. The same with Channel One, it’s a chance to see Channel One in a dance hall to play music. That’s what it’s all about, giving people the chance to come and see what we do.

Do you see other systems like Iration Steppas and Aba Shanti as competition or is it healthy for the culture overall to have all these different people doing it?
There’s no competition, we all do our own separate things. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got sound systems doing well on the circuit and that’s what you need. Channel One can’t do it alone, so we all help one another, whether it’s me or Iration or Shanti or Shaka or whatever, we all do the same thing. We really need to keep it moving and it’s all healthy.

How has the actual physical Channel One system changed over the years because it’s been going for such a long time?
It’s changed a lot from the boxes what we had 15, 20 years ago to the boxes what we have now. Them days we had like seven-foot boxes for quadruples and six-foot double boxes. Those were the boxes we had before to the boxes what we have now, everything, the dynamics, has changed trying to get the best sound you can possible. It’s not like before where we were using 100, 200 watt speakers, nowadays we’re using like 1000-watt speakers, that’s the difference.

Are you changing it quite a lot? Do you find that the more you go on tour you have to keep changing bits?
No, no, I don’t change it. The boxes what I use I’ve been using for nearly fifteen years. You don’t need to keep on changing it because when does it stop? What are you actually looking for? If you keep on changing it just because something new comes on the market then you’ll never finish building the house!

What do you think the future holds for sound system culture? We’ve had 60 years already, what’s coming next?
Well what is coming next is that it’s going worldwide now, so sound system is built in different countries. Other countries are starting where you never hear sound systems, France, Holland, Belgium, everything like that, you’re getting sound systems all over the place now. Wherever you go now, whether it’s Africa or whatever, everybody wants a bit of sound system. That can only be good because people like Channel One, we won’t be around forever. From 60 years ago it’s growing to fruition right now, we see all these youngsters want to build sound systems.

You just said it’s going worldwide and you’ve played all over the world, is there somewhere that you really want to take the Channel One experience to that you haven’t been to yet?
I’d like to take it to somewhere like Hawaii, that’s one of the places I think we haven’t been to. If we can go to Hawaii and plant the seed there, yeah that’d be a good thing to look forward to. Anything is possible. We’ve been to places you wouldn’t think of twenty years ago like Australia and New Zealand, and when we left there they’ve wanted to build sound systems. There’s a guy at Notting Hill Carnival said he came from Christchurch and he’s building a sound system, he wants Channel One to come over and play his sound system. That’s the legacy we’re trying to leave. Wherever we go, we put sound system on the map.

And aside from the tour, what are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Well working and getting on with it. Living good as much as possible, that’s the whole idea. We take our time and do what we need to do. You get these sound systems who want to run a little bit faster than they can walk, we don’t do that, we don’t need to. We just take our time and do what we have to do.

What’s been your proudest moment in the whole history of Channel One?
Oh bloody hell, I don’t know. My proudest moment in the whole history of Channel One? One of the last sessions I saw the old man at, sitting on the back of a truck and listening to what we do, that was one of the proudest moments because he is the one who started it all. When we saw him before he passed away on the back of the truck with my older brother, that’s one of the proudest moments I can say.

That’s a good one! So last question, what would you do to make the world a better place?
Bring in more sound systems and open up more venues [laughs]. Open more clubs so we can all play out at different clubs in the week. It’s necessary because nowadays you get restrictions on clubs and things, people are closing down, and you can’t play your music to a certain time or whatever. You can do it some countries and can’t do it in others. It’s all about the culture, a lot of countries you go don’t have our culture of music, so we’ve had to teach them. Once you teach them, we went to Colombia last year and it was the first time they’ve had a sound system on the streets of Bogota. Once you get to that stage, they thought they were going to have where they’re getting like 4-500 people coming on a Thursday night, they get nearly 4000 people, only going to one o’clock in the night. The mayor was there, some of the government people were there, no trouble, no nothing, and this proves what we’ve been teaching. It goes one in one. 

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