“ For a lot of people, and including ourselves, it was mostly about building a sound so we could play when we wanted and where we wanted without anyone else controlling the sound and the music policy.”
Short interview with Tom from Mungo’s HiFi on his influences, the reggae scene in Glasgow and Europe, and sound system’s place within the music industry.
How did you discover reggae and sound systems, and when did you decide to start your own sound system?
I first discovered reggae through an Andy Weatherhall mixtape, a dub compilation of King Tubby and Scientist stuff. Plus my dad used to like Bob Marley and listened to Bob Marley at home, so I had that from childhood. But the Andy Weatherhall mixtape is what really showed me the dub side of it, the darker, more creative side of it.
And then in terms of the sound system. I was making music since school really. But more like Electro and House and Techno. And I started making more dub stuff and buying reggae records. And just by chance really we found these speakers on the street in Glasgow, and we fixed them up started from there.
That was probably around 1999.
This is a question that I find quite hard to answer: how would you describe a sound system dance?
I would describe a sound system dance as being organic, and it’s a lot to do with the interaction between who is playing the music and the crowd. Rather than it being a show of someone playing their music and everyone else just accepting it. Like the sound system, the DJs, the MCs will be feeding off the energy from the crowd, and different crowds have different desires, so you have to be reading that.
If a crowd gets excited, then it’s easier for an MC and the DJ to get excited, and that generates this kind of special vibe, which doesn’t always happen in a normal nightclub situation.
And also the simple factors like the way a lot of sound systems run being on the ground, right next to the people. Not on a stage, far away from the people. That’s another important thing.
About that, when you organize your own dances. How do you organize your system? Is it always the same or does it change?
It depends on where we are, because smaller venues will sometimes only want four bass bins, or be allowed to have four bass bins, so that dictates the set up and the cabling and so on. But it’s generally quite a symmetrical thing. So we’ve got one stack that can be run by one set of amps and then the same for another stack if necessary.
Since I’ve been in Glasgow you’ve played in a variety of places, like clubs, warehouses, bars… Does how you play, or the vibe you manage to create, change according to where you are?
Yes definitely. Some bookings will be more of a dubstep night, where they want a reggae dubstep edge to it, whereas others will be a roots nights, in which case we will be playing more rootical, but with a modern electronic, digital element to it.
Back to the music. For you, what makes dub and reggae have that particular vibe? It’s something you find rarely anywhere else.
It’s hard to say. I think it’s because most reggae has been made with the intention of making good music and with a positive message. And I think that’s the main element really. There’s a sense of freedom about it as well. Where some producers in other forms of music will be trying to engineer their music to fit in with what’s going on at the time, and of course we do as well. But I think there is an element of freedom, of doing what you want in a DIY fashion.
This is a question that relates to several debates that have been going on in France. What creates a sound system’s identity?
It’s crew really, the people in the sound. I mean the speakers is the most obvious aspect, but if you don’t have a solid crew of people to run it, then it’s never going to succeed, no matter how good your speakers and amps are.
People often ask me how do Mungo’s manage to make a living from this, and employ several people, all working full time. And I think it happened because each of us has got a set of skills, and we try and make space for everyone to utilize their skills in the best ways possible. For example I can make tunes but I’m not very good at replying to emails and keeping on top of dates and things like that.
So yeah, it’s really about the crew, and the vibes between the crew. The crew have to get on very well. If there’s bitterness and division its always going to show in the end result, in the dance.
And obviously the music that they produce. Because there are sound systems that are strictly selectas and speakers. But I think there’s only so far you can go with that. Because especially these days people have access to any tune, pretty much. And anyone can learn to select and buy speakers. But when you actually start using your influences to make your own music and add your own edge to it, that’s when your identity forms even more.
If the identity is from the sound system and the crews behind them, you go to certain nights because they have certain identities. Let’s say, you have Iration Steppas playing on your system, will it be just a Mungo’s night with Iration Steppas playing on your system, or will it become an Iration Steppas night when they play?
Well it’s a bit of both. In that case it is a Mungo’s night, but when Iration plays it’s very different from the set that we’d play and for that time he’s playing, then yeah, it’s an Irations set.
If we play on OBF, then they’re inviting us to show our identity on their sound.
So you can move around your identity in a way?
Yeah absolutely. And especially in that situation where we go play abroad for example like an hour and a half set or two hours and its generally strictly Mungo’s production, not vinyl and so on. And that’s the idea to get a Mungo’s vibe across. But on the other hand at a festival where we have more hours to play then it will be much more selection as well.
As you were saying, you manage to play across the world – Japan, US, Europe – especially going to Europe, does the sound system scene in France, Italy or Spain change from the one in the UK?
Yeah, it varies a lot from county to country. I would say France is one the most advanced in terms of the number of people that come to sound system nights and that are into it, and the way that reggae is generally more mainstream in France than here. And you notice it in the dance, we always have a great time when we play in France. People know the tunes, they’re really excited to be at a sound dance. And then other countries are still learning sound system culture, and people don’t know so much but you have to give them a flavor of what it’s about.
One comment that has been made is that France and Italy are slightly more conservative musically wise than the UK.
From personal experience I’ve never really felt that. I mean, the kind of dubstep we play, generally bassline and very reggae influence, and for me there’s very little difference between that and a hard steppers tune, it’s just a few details really that make a difference. And for some reason, people will love to pigeonhole things, and even if they’re very close to each other they will say “ that’s different, it’s for different people”, which I just totally don’t see the point of.
But in France, any experience I’ve had has always been good, and even playing more dubsteppy tunes always goes down well.
I mean there are more orthodox sounds I’d say in France, who are much more into the UK steppers style, and more into the Rastafari part of it, which is not such an important element for us.
Is there something else than music that you try to bring to your dances.
Definitely. Like I was saying before about how the crew works together, that all reflects in the vibe of the night. Even who you have doing security, the first people that people meet on the door when they come in. If they’re grumpy and rude, then that puts things off to a bad start. So these small details are important. Whoever is talking the money on the door, and the bar staff.
And generally… I’m not sure why it’s the case, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any fights or troubles at a dance we’ve done in 14 years. Maybe once or twice. But compared to other clubs scenes I’ve been to. People are expecting a certain openness, friendly vibes, there’s no particular agenda, and it’s quite open to different kinds of people.
In the last 5 years I’ve noticed, mainly because I’ve been more aware of the sound system scene. But even in the three years I’ve been in Glasgow I’ve noticed this, there seems to be a lot more people building their sound systems. Any ideas why that would be happening?
I think it’s just the natural kind of growth and spread of sound system culture. And in Scotland especially compared to England and London in particular has never had a West Indian community. So it’s never had the reggae history that London or Birmingham or other towns down south has had. So I think it’s really ripe for Scotland to get lots of sound systems on the go, and more MCs and things happening.
One of the first things I was thinking of looking at was how reggae moved from Jamaica where they had ghettos and poverty, to England where there was racism and poverty too. And now it’s grown to places like France, or Italy or Scotland, places that don’t really have that, or not on the same levels in any case. They assimilate with the history even though they didn’t experience it.
Yeah, well people approach it from very different angles. For a lot of people, and including ourselves, it was mostly about building a sound so we could play when we wanted and where we wanted without anyone else controlling the sound and the music policy.
And I suppose to some degree just the frustration with poor quality sound in so many venues we’ve played in. It’s always a pleasure to turn up with our rig and play somewhere because you know what you’re dealing with straight away.
You’ve incorporated dubstep and electronic music to the reggae ethos, how did that come around?
It came naturally. I mean partly because, like I was saying before there isn’t a set of rules established in Scotland for how reggae sound should be, and it doesn’t have to be an orthodox strictly rasta based sound. And also just from having played in various jazz and funk bands, and having made electro and techno before, I don’t see any point in leaving these styles alone.
And importantly in order to connect with young people and people who aren’t reggae heads already, you have to be playing them tunes that make them move. And that’s not going to happen if you always stick to strictly old school roots.
And I think it’s something that’s always been happening. I mean the whole ‘Sleng Teng’ thing when digital arrived. A lot of people were really against it, and yet it became the most popular thing and really gave reggae a big boost at the time.
Many new sounds in France appear to come from free party backgrounds. There are some similarities between both, but are there also some differences?
Well there are differences yeah. I would say from an outsider point of view and from having been to both kind of dances, the free party and techno and that kind of scene is more strictly hedonistic in a way. It’s strictly for having fun and release, which is totally valid. But it doesn’t have the more integral, positive message that reggae and dub has.
It’s just my opinion, but for me it would seem people are more there in an individualistic way, in a techno free party. Taking drugs or whatever, and still obviously having fun with their friends.
But for me a reggae sound system dance has deeper underlying currents somehow.
I’d have to think about it, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is. The closest thing I could say would be about the positivity thing which I keep coming back to. And the ability for people to get on, for strangers to get on well, no fussing no fighting.
Another thing I’d like to add, it’s a little bit more about the DIY things, with regards to sound systems. For us when we first started, we did play a lot more roots, and rasta style tunes. And although there’s still a great deal about the rasta side that I admire, I don’t feel like it’s part of my culture. Not part of my immediate culture anyway. I think, as well as the positive vibe of the dance, there’s also something really valuable in showing people that it’s possible to build up something from nothing, and do what you want to do in life, and earn money from even if it’s not much.
And I do see a lot of other sounds being inspired by that, that it is possible to do full time music and run a sound system if you work hard enough.
From an outsider to that, it seems that it is, well maybe not a resistance, but maybe some form of counter culture?
Yeah I think it is. I definitely think it is. It’s one of the few ways where you can get involved in music and do exactly what you want to do. If you’re a talented producer or singer in the pop industry, you’re still basically a lot of the time going to be working to a certain set of rules that have been defined by a label or a taste maker of the time that thinks that a certain sound is going to make a hit record. Of course we would like to make music that becomes popular, but that’s not the main point of it.
So does the sound system scene run parallel to the traditional music industry, or does it go completely against it?
It’s not completely against it. But it kind of acknowledges how much rubbish there is in pop music (laugh). And it’s more that music that’s been engineered purely to make money, like a chemical a lab, they’ve got this much of the chorus, and this much of that, and a certain formula to try to make money.
Does vinyl link into that too? In the sense that pop music seems to have abandoned it?
Yeah that’s right. That’s definitely a kind of underground counter culture thing. Well, counter culture suggests it’s against culture, which it isn’t really. But it’s kind of making a point about being autonomous I’d say, by pressing vinyl.
You have a lot of stages at festivals, like Outlook, Glastonbury, Dimensions… how does that change from organizing your own dances.
Well we’re not programming the acts you know, so sometimes there will be music that we don’t like (laugh) But I mean that’s part of making a living from a sound system sometimes. You have to do things that aren’t your style. But that’s like any job you can’t always be completely what you want.
It depends on the festival. We always try and have a say, especially in the placement of the sound and of the stage, because that’s really important to any festival. It’s often put second to like the décor or whatever, but people don’t realize that that’s going to affect the quality of the night for the DJs and the crowd. So we always try and talk to the festivals about what we’re looking for. Then things like the details of the décor are generally up to them.
But it’s always good fun doing a stage where there is a wide variety of music, because for example at outlook, it’s all nearly kind of bass music, and most of it I really like. And there are very often MCs involved so we still try and run the night in a sound system style. Even the sound of the mic, and the power of the bass compared to the rest of the music.
For example at Outlook there’s nearly always someone on the delay of the mic, waiting for the last word in an MCs verse, and so it goes “OUTLOOK… outlook… outlook”. And they love that, they really appreciate it. You have to be careful with it of course, you don’t want to annoy MCs as well. If you put too much delay and they’re doing a fast chat then you’ll cut it right out.
And finally, about the décor. Many sound system nights have very little décor, or lighting compared to other club nights or gigs.
Yeah, it is often like that. Sound systems seem to like it raw. Personally I like a bit of décor. We do try and avoid loads of bright lights, because it does give a completely different vibes. And I’ve seen so many times where we’ve been playing in a more standard nightclub, and there’s loads of bright lights on, and as soon as you turn the lights off, people will start going on the dancefloor, you know. They feel free, and not under the spotlight.