The Sound System Culture: A Fusion of Music, Business, and Brotherhood
HOW SOUND ENGINEERING TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT MARKETING AND PROMOTION
People often ask me how did I learn to DJ? Or how did I learn about marketing and promotion?
Or what made me want to curate a brand and put on events? Well, my go to answer is that I
learnt it all from being in a Sound System. The person would look at me confused not
understanding how a sound system could teach me all these things.
I would go onto say that “Being in a sound system is not just about speakers and amplifiers
although it entails that as well. It’s a group of guys that form a union to put on parties for the
love and passion of sharing music. They will create everything to put on an event from
designing and printing flyers, promotion, finding venues, it’s a really culture that fuses music,
business and brotherhood”. I would then tell the story, which has led me on to write this
A NEVER ENDING PASSION FOR SOUND SYSTEM CULTURE
I was inspired from a young age to the sound system culture that has made me still devoted to
this day and has filled me with passion for music and sharing my creative energy.
Growing up in London UK in the 80’s was somewhat of an adventure in experiencing life, and
finding your place in it. Being first generation born in The UK of parents from the West Indies
who migrated post World War 2 to this monarchial land made life challenging. It was hard to
be in a country that didn’t accept or identify you as a Black person. The racism that our parents
faced trickled down to and through my generation. Apartheid, segregation or jim crow law
wasn’t in affect in England, but there was a subtle underlying invisible clouded smoke lingering
around us that made it clear where we as black youths could and couldn’t associate.
Our social scene was limited as to what we as black youths could or couldn’t create. School was
probably the first place that taught us the limitations of black people in a white society.
Teachers, head masters and authoritarians made it absolutely clear where we stood on the
English social scale.
I remember being in the last year of high school and going to see the deputy head master for a
career meeting and him telling me that I would never amount to much and my best bet was not
to go to college or university but leave school and get whatever job I could. My gut shouted out
loud and told me not to listen to him, so I didn’t. But it always concerned me how many other
black kids out there that didn’t listen to their gut, and succumbed to the English white
authoritarian who must know what he/she is talking about and is always right.
It was evident that all we had was each other as black youths in England. Socially we had to
make our own way in life and lean on each other to make headway. Sound systems were one
of the ways that we could use our creativity, social and business skills to make something of
ourselves and claim some sort of placement in life even if it was just local recognition.
SOUND SYSTEMS HAVE THE POWER TO TRANSFORM THE MUNDANE INTO SOMETHING TRULY MAGICAL
With the migration of West Indians to England the sound systems were also brought over in the
60’s with sounds like Lloyd Coxsone who started his sound Sir Coxsone in London in 1967 and
revolutionized reggae music in the UK. The Sound systems turned the local community halls
into dance halls with massive speakers the size of wardrobes, amplifiers, records, a turntable, a
selector and mic men. The mic men were all eager to get their chance to hold the mic and
impress the crowd with their lyrics. The audio quality of the sound system had to be perfect, it
was more important than the record you were playing. Mostly all people who build sound
systems were self-taught. Knowing what you wanted from a sound made the learning process
that much easier.
The hall used for the party was transformed into a totally different world of color, vibes, dance
moves and bassline, where all the social injustices and prejudices were lifted off our shoulders
and for the next few hours, we were able to be free people seeing each other as bredren and
sistren. You had to feel the music, from the bass to mids to the highs. The music had to hit you
in the chest so the vibrations from the music carried through the body and you were immersed
in the music container. Back then the lyrics were conscious they meant something and told stories of
African roots and oppression in the world. There was a spiritual part that was strong and
bonding holding our heads high and proud.
Sound systems also setup parties in unused houses. These were usually called blues dances and
was the primary night club scene for most of us in the 80s. It was a lucrative business. People paid to
get in with drinks and food on sale. Almost every Saturday there would be multiple blues dances
all over London and you could travel around going from one dance to another. This was were the
term ‘rave’ comes from, going out on a weekend from Blues dance to blues dance. They usually
started at 1-2am going all night to noon the next day or even into the afternoon. The houses were completely empty so Sound systems would setup in the front room, and then put speakers in all the bedrooms, creatingmore rooms for people to dance. The kitchen would be setup as a bar and serving food. The houses were so packed it would take you 30 mins or more to get to the bar . At times
my eyes would burn from the heat, smoke and smell of weed and rum. There were no flashing lights,
just a red or blue lamp in the corner of each room. It is an energy that I have never experienced
again and some what I still long for. A sound system on the Blues dance circuit if well known could make a good living as people would follow them every weekend.
MUSIC AND SOUND UNITES FRIENDS AND FAMILIES
The sound systems of the 70’s inspired us youth to build our own and try to create that same
dance hall vibe. It looked easier than it was, most black kids in the 70’s and 80’s were either
part of a sound or had friends who had a sound. Women weren’t usually in a sound but would
have their favorites and go to their dances. I was lucky my older brother Wes had a sound
system that he kept some of the speakers and equipment in our bedroom, so I learnt the ropes
of how to “string up” (setup) a sound. I used to help him move equipment for his events. The
entry level for a sound system member was a ‘box boy’ (someone who carried the speakers and equipment), I was happy to lift speakers and records for him. In Wes’s sound he had 3 huge valve amplifiers that weighed a ton. Usually took 2 people to lift one of them. They were powerful and
when switched on the building lights would dim momentarily. These 3 amplifiers would power
any and all the speakers connected to them that seemed to have no limitation and then drive them to earthquake sound levels.
I used to like to see the hall lights flicker with every surge of bassline, or hearing window frames rattle, dust falling from old wooden beams and dancers totally losing all concept of composure. I was a
teenager when I first started going to Wes’s parties and I used to just sit on the speakers and
watch the DJ spinning and crowd reactions. I would study music selection and after a while
know the music and instinctively know what would work with the crowd. I was just having fun,
in fact I had the time of my life, little did I know that these parties was an education that would
serve me going forward in life.
Electronics was something that always fascinated me. So, when I finished school at 16 I went to
Willesden Technical college in London where I learned about TV, Radio and audio devices all down to
component level. It all inspired me but the main thing I wanted to learn was how to build a
sound system, this passion overtook the hardship of learning physics and mathmatics, and I
studied hard to satisfy my thirst of one day having my own sound system.
Near my college was an electronics store that sold speakers without cabinets. They had these
H&H speakers for sale, and every day in my lunch break I would walk to this store and look at
these speakers in the window and wonder how I would be able to afford to buy them and build
my own speaker cabinets. They were 12” 150 Watts at 40 pounds (GBP) each. Before I knew it, I had
a Saturday job and worked with my Dad when I could. Eventually I had enough money to buy
these speakers and then studied cabinet designs for 12” speakers. I designed the speaker
cabinets and had the panels cut to size at a local timber yard. My Mum drove me in her car to
pick up the wood. As soon as I got home, I called my neighborhood friend Alan Robins and we
went to work building these speakers, painted them black and put them in the bedroom along
with all my brother’s other sound equipment. That was my start and it just grew from there. I
went on to build custom power amplifiers, mixers and pre-amps for myself and other sound
SOUND ENGINEERING TURNED A CHILDHOOD DREAM INTO A REALITY
The Nottighill carnival was the largest street festival in Europe and was a celebration of our
West Indian heritage with Soca, Calypso music, Mas bands, floats, steel bands and it also
included Sound Systems. This was where all the sound systems would come out and showcase
their equipment and music. As a youth I would walk the carnival sound systems with my older
brother and friends just looking and studying all the different sounds, how they setup, what
was their sound quality like, how they were playing music, amplifiers, turntables It was all
fascinating I was like a kid in a candy store, taking it all in and being inspired beyond
recognition. I would think to myself how one day I would have a sound system at the carnival. I
would visualize myself having a massive sound system, at the time it was a dream that
eventually became a reality. To this day, I flick back to those days and pull from the creative
elements that triggered my inner being.
As Black boys in London it was always assumed that you were into reggae music, but with the
popularity of disco, R&B, soul from the United States, these genres could not be avoided. So in
the early 80’s we saw the emergence of the soul sound systems. These were Sound systems
that looked like a reggae sound but played soul. There was a lot of controversy about this as
some people didn’t recognize soul sounds as being real a sound system, but they were just as
Soul music was a new sound, a new vibe and there was a large following of people behind it but
there wasn’t many places for us as black youths to hear it to dance to. The first Soul sounds that
had a massive impact were Mastermind, Rappertack and Funkadelic. Later on you had sounds
like Madhatter Trevor, Norman Jay's Good Time Road show and Jazzie B's Soul II Soul. A lot of
London clubs didn’t allow Black youths into their clubs even though they played black music, so
we had to either drive out of London to dance to soul music or create our own events.
After being involved with a few sounds in the Mid 80’s I decided to start a sound system with
five other guys Cecil Peters, Paul Denton, Ricky Lite, Ashley Beedle and Zepherin Saint. We had
all been playing music together for some years so now it was time to join forces and create a
sound system. All sound systems needed a name, something unique, easily recognizable and
remembered. We came up with the name ‘Shock’ it had impact and it was what we were all
about shocking people with our music delivery. We were a sound system playing soul, rare
grooves and R&B, but that soon changed when we were introduced to this new faster
electronic sound out of Chicago called House music. We continued with the sound system
culture and probably became the first sound system to play house music in London.
Having a sound system is like managing a corporation, each person had roles and
responsibilities, DJ’s, mic men, technicians, promotion and box boys. Being a member of a
sound system is more than just playing music it was a brotherhood where friendship had more
meaning and loyalty. Almost like a secret society of music, sound techniques and personal life
issues. If anyone had a problem, we all took ownership of it. It’s what we needed at the time to
hold a place in society.
We played house music religiously without compromise. We played in warehouses, deserted
houses, mansions and could be in any part of London or the UK on any given Saturday night.
Our notable residency was 12 years at the Notting Hill Carnival playing to crowds of up to 4000
house heads. The other was the infamous Clink Street warehouse parties in 1988 the summer of
love. Without knowing anything about marketing or branding by todays standards we
developed the Shock name where we became pioneers that played house music on an
authentic sound system. Most of the amplifiers I custom built and some of the speakers.
I even made the record crates out of 3/4“ plywood. I don’t know what I was thinking using ¾ “
plywood as those crates were super heavy. But the weight didn’t bother us, we just wanted to
setup sound and play music to a crowd.
The Notting Hill gate carnival would be over 2 days finishing at 8pm each day. We would get
there 8am on the first day setup the sound and play all day up until 8pm, then take some of the
sound to a house for a blues dance and play there all night. Sleep in the van for a couple hours
then play all day again. Don’t ask me where we washed!! We didn’t complain about being tired
or having to lift equipment, it was all about having a great time laughing, joking and playing