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The House Music Sound System Culture: A Fusion of Music, Business, and Brotherhood



HOW SOUND ENGINEERING TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT HOUSE MUSIC, 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 an Afro House Music brand and put on events?


Well, my go to answer is that I learnt it all from immersing in Sound System Culture. 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

article.



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 where 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, creating more 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

systems.



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 a real sound system, but they were just as

good.


Soul music was a new sound, a new vibe and there was a large following of people behind it but

there weren'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

music. These are the great times that sound system brought us.


QUALITY AND CONNECTION OVER EVERYTHING

Sound system culture doesn't get enough credit in todays club scene. The whole concept of

big systems in a club where you could feel the music and dance to it has come from the West Indian

sound system. Where ever West Indians migrated to we setup these Sound systems inspiring

communities to play music with passion and feeling. The sound systems would setup in parks,

halls, churches etc and provide a foundation in terms of a large PA for all types of Black Music

to be played from Reggae to soul, to Hip Hop to House, Jungle, Drum n Bass, Broken Beat and

the list goes on. Clubs had to catchup and install so called “professional” sound systems so that

their patrons could experience the music and feel the music.


Science has now shown how being able to feel the music you are dancing to helps relax the mind

and body, putting you into a somewhat trance state of relaxation removing anxiety and

depression. This is something that was known decades before through sound systems, that’s

why sound quality was so important.


The creativity of the sound systems has come from the need of belonging somewhere with our

own stuff that no-one could take it away. Sound systems today are spread on every continent

mimicking the original sounds from the 70’s. The ones that have survived are now at world

status like Channel One, Jah Shaka, Aba Shanti who are still holding true to their roots.

Although my sound system no longer exists, it’s very much in my heart and no matter where I

DJ I always bring that nostalgic essence to my set, in the form of a spiritual energy that sets you

free, feeling the music and having a laugh.



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Also, ncruz8744@gmail.com

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The Tambor Family is absolutely AWESOME! Stan, you will always be the MAN

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