About Sound System Culture
Sound System culture as we know it emerged in the ’50 and ’60 out of ghettos of Jamaica. Locas music didn’t get any airplay on the radios, so local engineers started to build their own equipment like speakers and amplifiers so they could play their own music. Always connected to the people in the street, playing tunes for their own people, the music reflected everyday life and became the medium to speak about social injustice or politics.
In the late ’60s and ’70s the local ‘locksmen’, the RastafarI, descended from their isolated hillcamps to record their chants and hymns and to confront the world with their point of view. The music mixed with other Jamaican ‘rocksteady’ and early reggae and became widely played on the ‘sound systems’. During the ’70s, reggae became the main vehicle for the RastafarI message, with their own first ‘Third World Superstar’ for example, Bob Marley. Live artists are expensive and often abroad, but sound systems can always be found in the streets, just around the corner. Just because they’re so close with their audience, they became in this period a synonym with the ‘Rasta message’: equal rights, social justice, repatriation, education, the divine character of the nature (and so, Ganjah as a sacrament) and a restoration of the Throne of Judah: the claim HIM Haile Selassie is the living Messiah & Jah in the flesh. These type of lyrics and its audience is known as ‘Roots and Culture’
During the ’80s the hype of the RastafarI message in music faded out, making way for a more digital sound, the ‘Dance Hall’ without the so called ‘conscious’ lyrics. By the late ’80s and early’90s reggae music, especially in Jamaica, was a dying breed. But. Jamaican emigrants in the UK had played reggae excessively on their own build sound system, build in a real Jamaican tradition, with one turntable, heavy speakers, Pre-amp, sirens…
It was there, in very small crowds (estimated 10-50 people!) and with the endurance of a man called Jah Shaka, that sound system culture and it’s message could survive. While others mixed their playlists with some dance hall, Shaka refused to play anything else than conscious tunes. His militant attitude gave his music selection different names; amongst one of them ‘King David Style’, a reference to the biblical King David, Chief musician of the Lord and writer of many Psalms.
During this period ‘sound system culture’ emerged largely to Europe, and made way for many producers. Nowadays, worlds biggest sound systems aren’t based in Jamaica or even the UK, but in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Poland and even Ghana, Japan and Mexico.
You’ll find a nice history of Shaka here on the Reggae Music Story.