Image Credit: Benjamin Salmon .

What Is A Sound System?

What is a ‘Sound System’? How does it differ from a normal mobile DJ or a Club PA System?  I would define a ‘Sound’ is a super-amplified mobile system,
invariably called by a name, manned by a team of individuals, each having real skills, who together create a unique party vibe wherever they set up and play   

recorded music of their choice. Jamaican migrants to the UK in the ’50s and ’60s started gathering in houses and basements for events called blues parties. These required a soundsystem and party-goers paid an entrance fee to cover the costs. Lloyd Coxsone‘s Sir Coxsone Outernational were one of the UK’s best-known early systems, and were followed by Jah ShakaChannel OneIration Steppas and Saxon Studio International.

The biggest names in Jamaican music came over to perform with these soundsystems and this unique take on the culture had a huge influence on the style of Yellowman and others back in Jamaica. In the UK, soundsystem culture dominates Notting Hill Carnival and has influenced everything from rave and free parties to festivals

Origin & Background

The concept of a sound system originated in Jamaica during the 1950’s. The idea arguably came from Jamaicans going back and forth to the USA during the 40’s & 50’s and being bowled over hearing American R&B bands playing through PA systems and were inspired by the New York block parties where DJs set up PA systems and sold liqueur at these gatherings to make some money. These ideas were then taken back to Jamaica, but as bands were expensive to hire, poor Jamaicans played recordings through these early ‘sound systems’ which were very rough compared to the ‘PA sound systems’ they saw in America. They consisted of a turntable, a home built valve amplifier & pre-amp (from a kit) and the biggest speakers they could lay their hands on, mounted in home-made ‘wardrobe’ sized speaker cabinets, some even nailed and glued together with ‘chicken wire’ as speaker grilles!

By the late 50’s early 60’s these sounds had become more sophisticated and high powered. The early ‘sound system’ operators were already legendary figures and played at very well attended dances, some on the open air ‘lawns’, the real home of sound systemology! Men such as ‘Tom’ The Great Sabastian, Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster & Duke Vin who later started the first sound system in the UK, developed the idea by not just playing records but opening studio’s and producing local artists and releasing tunes on their own label – the early Ska (a Jamaican interpretation of popular American R&B music) then later Rocksteady & Reggae music.



With the migration of Jamaicans to the UK in the late 50’s & 60’s the tradition of ‘sound systems’ was also exported. Early UK ‘sound system’ operators like the aformentioned Duke Vin, Count Shelly, Count Suckle, Lloyd Coxsone, & East London’s ‘chicken’, each had a huge following and from these early sounds developed many new ones encompassing new ideas and directions. The concept of a ‘soul sound’ or ‘roadshow’ was developed in the 70’s, by the likes of Mastermind (originally a ‘reggae sound’ called the Mighty Conquerer who changed policy to play Soul/Funk/Disco & later Electro & Hip-Hop music) TWJ, Roxy, Soul Incorporated, Good Times, Freshbeat & Rapattack. Interestingly, ‘Rampage Sound’ who popularised ‘Swingbeat’ in the early 90’s, added a profitable dimension to this concept and made it a business venture by playing on club systems and ‘hiring in’ a ‘sound system’ when needed. All these and many more ‘Sounds’ brought their own style & ideas to the discipline including using professional purpose built PA gear (Electrovoice, Turbosound, ASS, JBL speakers and amplifiers such as Crest & Crown & not forgetting Technics 1200/1210 turntables) as opposed to home made equipment, which was championed particularly by ‘Mastermind’ & ‘Rapattack’ Sounds. Ironically this returns to the origin of sound systems being initially a ‘homemade’ version of a PA system.

During the 70’s & 80’s every area of London & every city with a West Indian population had their own crop of ‘sounds’. Historically it was important to ‘build a sound’, one man (it was mainly men in those days) would mainly buy music, another has an interest in electronics and one liked to MC – ‘talk on the mike’. While a young member or apprentice was learning about the equipment and how to ‘play a sound’ (which means; although you are using recorded music, the effect is of it being ‘live’) he would have the status of a ‘box boy’ his particular job was to lift the heavy speaker boxes at the end of the night!‘ Sound men’ took pride in this achievement, to the point of sound systems challenging each other to a competition or ‘clash’ where each ‘sound’ sought to win over the crowd at a dance by any means such as playing an exclusive record or one off pressing of a tune by a well known artist (a dub plate – UK Garage DJ’s, does this sound familiar?), or the verve of the ‘mike men’ (Saxon had some of the best which in conjunction with their vast knowledge of reggae music helped them win the ‘World Sound Clash’) or sometimes, turning up the bass and ‘drowning out’ the other sound! The sound system world has it’s wealth of stories of rivalry and within this it’s ‘villains & heroes’ to rival any from the corporate world.

The installation is accompanied by a rolling programme of musical events and participatory opportunities from 2019-20. so please check back.

Portobello Radio
Certain Blacks
Carnival Village Trust
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Colour Sonic