[photo by Explosion Sound System]
“If you want to distribute flyers, either you pay a licence to distribute flyers for gigs, or it’s about politics and religion. If it’s for politics and religion, then it’s free. if you want to do it for culture, you have to pay. That’s how much religion and politics there is in Belfast.”
The Explosion crew very kindly accepted to have a chat with me before their first ever session in Glasgow alongside Crucial Roots.
So how did explosion sound system start and when ?
Neil : Well i’ll answer this question I supposed. It was myself,another guy, Paddy, who has since moved on. We started up about 2002. And we kind of started it up as reggae nights really, because there were no reggae nights in Belfast at all.
I used to be into a lot of hip-hop, punk kind of stuff back in the day, and then I just got into reggae one way or another.
I moved down to London for a few years, and loads was happening obviously.
So that’s kind of how we started up. We used to just play bars in Belfast at the start.
And when was that ?
Neil : 2003. Well before that we were playing unofficially as Explosion, 2002. And we played a bit of everything at the time. A bit of ska, rocksteady, Roots… Just a kind of crossover. Because there was nothing at all at the time, not that I knew of anyway.
Well that was the next question, what is the sound system scene like in Ireland ?
Neil : In Ireland there is. In Northern Ireland we are the only proper sound system. But in Ireland, from Dublin you’ve got guys like Firehouse.. Worries (Outernational) as well.
Dub Foundry : I think Rootical Sound, since ’95 as well. Rootical from Galway.
Neil : Yeah, they’re from the west coast. Then you’ve got Revelation down in Cork. There was another sound, Community came from there too. I like them, they run nights in London as well.
Dub Foundry : there is another one as well but I forgot the name.
Neil : And especially with things like Electric Picnic, and Body and Soul festivals, the guys from Trenchtown, they set up reggae areas in those festivals. And they set up a couple of stages and set up a sound system arena and stuff, and that goes down well. And there’s loads of people now who are really into it.
Okay. But in Northern Ireland it’s mainly just you ?
Neil : Well that’s badly said.
Dub Foundry : well with a sound system yes, we are.
Neil : With a sound system yeah. We are the only crew with a sound system. We’ve just moved venues, to the Mandela Hall, which is Queens (University) Student Union. So for our first night we had an « All tribes gathering », with all the other reggae nights and crews, and got them all together, and play through our sound system.
I think we’ve kind of evolved now that we’re not just going out to play,we are physically promoting reggae now. I think we are trying to push the scene out, you know. Hopefully.
And how long have you had the sound system for ?
Neil : In one shape or form, about six or seven years. I don’t know, i’m really bad with years (Laugh)
Gumbo : Since about 2008-2009.
Dub Foundry : But the first scoops were in 2010.
Neil : Yeah, what you could call a sound system was more recent.
Gumbo : The original boxes and amps that we bought were from this guy, we used to rent them off him. Once a month, to do the shows. We’d pay him 200 quid, come and collect the boxes with my brother in a van, pick up the boxes, pick up the amps. It was a simple enough set-up. Two double 18inch kicks and then a top section. Just 4 boxes and 2 amps. And that’s what we used for a year.
But we got pretty friendly with him, so we approached him and said « we’re giving you 200 a month for this, how much would it cost to buy it ? ». He was like « i’ll sell it to you for 2000 pounds ». So i asked him if we could continue to pay him th 200 a month, and bring it back each time, but it would go towards buying it off. He was up for it.
So after like a year or so you had the sound system ?:
Neil : It didn’t even take a year.
Gumbo : Well some gigs we would give him 500£ if we could, if we had the money. But we paid it all through gigs, the original boxes.
Neil : But that’s the thing with Explosion. Everything just gets put back into the sound. We’re still upgrading. But we were talking about it with Ranking Fox the other night, about how we’re always fine tuning, and that’s not a bad thing.
Well it never really ends does it ?
Neil : No it doesn’t. As I say, I started doing the reggae nights, and the guy who started them with me – Paddy – he moved to Berlin, and I was kinda knocking on my head. And actually then through his cousin, we [Gumbo and I] hooked up, and we decided to keep Explosion going. And it was through Martin joining that we started the idea of putting a sound together. It always a dream of mine, but i’d never had the resources or the inclination.
Gumbo : He was playing on bar or club systems before that. And then we came along and started renting, and then bought one.
It’s not really the same is it, a bar PA and a sound system. You don’t really get the same vibe.
Gumbo : no not really (laugh)
Neil : and then a year after that, we met Damien (Dub Foundry), after a Sly & Robbie gig actually, in the Deer’s Head where we ended up having a residency. And at the end met Damien, and he wanted to do stuff with us. And then Fox came down one night and took the mic. We’d had mic men before, but not like Fox.
Are there quite a few MCs in Ireland then ?
Neil : Yeah there are.
Dub Foundry : There’s Cian Finn. He’s producing an album with Prince Fatty at the moment. It’s finished, I think it’s to be released.
Neil : He’s from outside Limerick.
Dub Foundry : Then there’s Ras in Dublin There’s Revelation’s old MC Benji… There is Larry. But there are very few, not enough.
So isn’t the scene in Ireland quite new ?
Dub Foundry : not really because in ’95 there was Firehouse with their sound system.
Neil : But there was another small sound system that operated in the 80s in Dublin.
Dub Foundry : The difference is you don’t get the Jamaican-English people who moved to England and spread (the culture) there, even in Scotland, but they didn’t come to Ireland. There are no Jamaican communities in Ireland.
Neil : very few.
So there is no West Indian community
Neil : Very little.
Gumbo : Especially if you are talking about where we’re from – so Northern Ireland and Belfast – there is very little immigration there. In the 70s, 60s, when immigration became more popular in the UK, it didn’t happen in Ireland. It didn’t happen in Belfast specifically. It probably did happen in Dublin a lot more. But Belfast wasn’t seen as somewhere to go to in those times.
So how are the crowds in Ireland, do people know about reggae and sound system culture ? or is it still quite obscure ?
Neil : In Belfast, more and more.
Dub Foundry : it’s taking time but it’s building up.
Neil : There hasn’t been anyone setting up sounds like we have, and even so far, we’ve been renting the sound out to drum & bass nights and fricking techno nights, and they’re loving it. It’s a small place if you know what I mean.
The guys from Rampant were saying that the problem with glasgow for a long time is that it was a techno city.
Neil : So is Belfast
Dub Foundry : yeah, so is Belfast.
Neil : That’s a kind of northern UK, maybe European thing. I think the colder it gets the more into techno people get.
Dub Foundry : the way I see it as well is, because of the history of Belfast, of the Troubles and all that, there was no immigration, and very little places for culture, so there was no development of music and underground activities and culture. There was some, There was punk.
Neil: There was a huge punk scene during the Troubles, and it’s always been a big rock & metal crowd in Belfast. And I think that’s kind of bred from the Troubles.
Dub Foundry: But also in Ireland you have a lot of club music because it’s mainstream.
Neil: yeah there is all the other crap, the generic crap.
In France a lot of people who are involved in sound systems came from the free party and techno scene. But there didn’t seem to be that loop as much here (Scotland). It sort of stopped at techno and raves.
Dub Foundry: were there raves and free parties in Ireland?
Neil: Yeah there was. There was always raves. And even free parties outside and stuff.
Dub Foundry: But that was all in the 90s right? So there was no bridge between the raves scene and the sound system scene..
Neil: no there is no bridge.
Dub Foundry: Like in France, in the early 2000 when the raves started, there were [reggae] sound systems already. So people could move into the scene. But I think maybe we arrived too late [in Ireland] to catch those guys.
You were talking before about places to play, as in there were no community centers to play in and stuff.
Neil: Nah, there”s nothing like that. As we were saying, we would play in bars and stuff, but we’ve actually outgrown a lot of venues. We would get involved with the city festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and the do a sister festival called Out to Lunch. And we brought over Sir David Rodigan.
But those are the only places in Belfast that we can play with the sound. And even those gigs, we get complaints from the hotel next door and stuff. That’s why we’ve ended up at Queen’s now. Because there’s nowhere else for us to play. We get noise complaints everywhere.
Gumbo: In the East of Belfast, or on the other, when we play in one (side) it’s almost like you’ve made a decision. I mean we’re not that way at all, so we try to stay neutral.
Neil: they wouldn’t be into reggae anyway, up in those neck of the woods.
Well there is the idea that reggae is quite political.
Neil: It’s not to say that we don’t care about it, but none of the politics out there, for me personally, isn’t representative of anything that I think or that i fell. But I still care about it.
But is there a political ideal or message through Explosion sound system?
Gumbo: yeah there is. it’s fuck politics (laugh)
Neil: No I don’t even thing it is a political thing. We just want to send good vibes out, really. That’s pretty much the bottom line.
Gumbo: There’s enough politics in Northern Ireland. You can go over there and experience it yourself. It’s too much. So we stay away.
Dub Foundry: something we’ve learned recently. If you want to distribute flyers, either you pay a licence to distribute flyers for gigs, or it’s about politics and religion. If it’s for politics and religion, then it’s free. if you want to do it for culture, you have to pay. That’s how much religion and politics there is in Belfast.
Neil: They’ve obliterated flyposting, there’s nowhere to advertise your dances or anything.
It has to be online or in cafes, but there’s no designated area or anything. Licencing laws as well are really shit. everywhere closes at quarter to 1 for last orders, everywhere is out no later than quarter past one. Clubs are 3am, but the bar shuts at 1am. So we’re doing night at Queen’s where we can go on until 3am, but we don’t, we go on until 2, because who’s going to stay around when the bar is shut.
We used to do all nighters and stuff before with BYOB, but that’s past now.
We found Mandela Hall, which is a basement hall, in a big massive stone building so there are no noise complaints, so that’s perfect for us.
What would you consider makes a sound system’s identity, or what makes your identity?
Neil: I think it’s a combination of everything. Tunes… I love playing tunes, pretty much always loved playing tunes so i’d be playing them off my laptop speaker if that’s all I had. So for me it’s tunes. And now, because we’ve relentlessly been getting our sound right, it’s the sound as well. And we’ve been running with Ranking Fox for a while as well, and he’s an extra element as well. And also, just the vibe as well. There’s a lot more to it than just those who play.
It’s a vibe that can kind of carry through, which is a whole combination of everything.
Gumbo: We do it because we enjoy it obviously, and that’s the only reason really.
Neil: We’ve all got full time jobs.
Have you ever had any productions or releases?
Gumbo: Well that’s something we’re working on at the moment. We’ve got a couple of ideas. it’s something we’re working on. Probably a fair bit off yet (laugh).
There are ideas, there is definitely something there. We’ve got a vocal from Ranking Joe, who we had over at the start of the year. And we’re looking at a couple of other guys too.
There is a project, but it’s not near. Things could change a lot.
You did a gig recently with an all girl crew?
Neil: Legs Eleven yeah. That wasn’t our session. There’s a Dj/Promoter back home and he runs kind of afrobeat nights, and afrofunk. But he’s also involved in a lot of music workshops and stuff with schools.
He’s friends with them, and he’s brought the girls over to do workshops about females in the music business and stuff. And he wanted to put them on. So he asked us to bring the sound out.
They were good, they’re a good crew, man. They have a good selection and you get a good vibe off them.
Well that is a comment in the scene, you don’t get that many female run sounds, or crews.
Dub Foundry: there are a couple
There are a couple. You get a few singers, but you don’t get that many female soundsystems.
Neil: yeah. They are the daughters of Joe 90, who’s a North London Sound system, from the 80s. they’re his daughters I think. Or else two of them are.
Gumbo: I’m not sure they’re his daughters, but they’re connected. But they grew up around sound systems. But they’re cool. There’s one operator, one selector, and one on the mic. They have a pretty tight operation.
I mean the only one I know who’s in a crew is Lylloo from I-Skankers, and I know there’s Bliss Zion and stuff down south, but there aren’t that many in the spotlight.
Dub Foundry: Yup, Lylloo is number 1!
Neil: Yeah man, she knows how to run a sound, serious selections.
Gumbo: But you could say the same about the dance scene, and the techno scene. I wouldn’t say that’s specific to reggae.
Neil: Actually, i got asked one night from a female DJ why there aren’t any girl on our crew. And said well nobody’s come up, or showed interest. I don’t know anybody who’s come up to me and said “can I get involved”.
So she says ‘well I can get involved’. And I say “okay, can you give it 100% of your time. And i mean not go and play other gigs if you’re playing jungle or techno all night. It’s 100%”. And she say’s “I can’t”. I says “well sorry then, but no”.
I don’t think it’s anything to do with gender.
Gumbo: I think it’s across the board. Specifically with DJs.
Neil: But it’s wierd, you see things on facebook like some big house party with a female DJ and she’s standing there in a bikini. You know what I mean? it’s like page 3 Djing. How is anybody meant to take that seriously.
Gumbo: you close your eyes and listen to the music
Neil: even the music is just… But then you get the likes of frickin Paris Hilton.
Dub Foundry: But it’s a tough job for a woman, the reggae sound system.
Dub Foundry: yeah i think so.
Neil: Well physically yeah, i suppose. But that’s the thing with Legs Eleven, they’re lifting boxes even with their nails done and stuff. I don’t how they do it.
They really had a good show.
Are they based in London?
Neil: yeah they’re based in North London, Tottenham I think.
Another question which is quite interesting is how would you describe a sound system dance to someone who has never been to one.
Dub Foundry: It’s a physical experience.There is some sort of trance to it. You don’t get it after 15 minutes, you get it after a few hours, when you get into the vibe. You really understand the mindset you can get into when you really get into the vibe, and start just to forget about everything and just get into some sort of trance.
You don’t get that when you walk in the room and start dancing, you get that after a few hours.
And the bass of course, which everyone knows about i think, but which is more than just bass. It’s something else.
Neil: I’d even like to think that lyrically we try to put a message. I mean we play a lot of songs, and a lot of Ranking Fox’s lyrics and stuff all try to be positive lyrics.
Gumbo: We don’t play slack.
There is a conscious idea behind it?
Neil: yeah completely
Gumbo: It’s the fact that we like it, i don’t really think of it as trying to make a statement or something. it’s more than we like playing it, and people enjoy it.
Dub Foundry: Talking about sound identity, one of ours i think is, we don’t play UK steppers like 90% of the sound system in the UK. Or in france, in Europe.
We play lots of 70s roots, most of it now. But then we are a bit more open minded and we can go 80s digital, we can modern roots, we can play some more steppers stuff as well. But more open minded than just a UK stepper sound system.
So there’s not that much of the London influence?
Dub Foundry: No. There’s the Belfast influence.
Neil: I’ve been to a couple Jah Shaka session and that’s probably about the only influence from there. But there have been bigger ones.
Gumbo: At the start we started playing everything, a bit of ska, a bit of roots, a bit of 80s, whatever. Even more modern tunes. But i guess it’s more of an evolution. Because a couple of years ago I would of put on big ska tunes. And I guess that we’ve kind of evolved and fine tuned. But as he says, it’s not a steppers sound.
Dub Foundry: We narrow it down. We started very large and we are narrowing down. We quite like the influences. We have 3 different selectors, with 3 completely different tastes.
And we’ve been trying to merge everything together and find common ground.
Neil: we’ve all come from different directions really, which is the really interesting thing.
It’s true steppers does create, another vibe. It’s very techno.
Dub Foundry: It can go very techno.
Gumbo: there’s some nice stuff too, but for me a lot of it can be just too much too hard. Too repetitive. It doesn’t break down really.
So there is a certain vibe you try to set through your sessions.
Gumbo: yeah definitely.We try to build it a little bit to be honest. We start off with some slower rootsy tunes, 70s stuff. Then we’d go into some early 80s digi stuff as well.
Neil: That’s the idea. It’s not as if it’s a narrow genre to play. There’s a vast amount. You’re always finding something new. And that’s the just old stuff. And some of the new stuff as well, some of the news Tuff Scout stuff is quality. And even some of the Partial reissues are really nice i think. Although I think he’s a bit all over the shop in what he releases. But there’s a couple there that I really like.
So yeah, we try and always kind of play some of the modern stuff as well as the classic stuff.
I think that’s about it, unless there’s anything you’d like to add?
Gumbo: Maybe just one shot from Foxy? warm up those vocal chords.
Neil: You’ve been very quiet Fox.
Ranking Fox: i’ve been very quiet indeed. Listening to you guys talk.
Well for me, i’ve always loved the music man. Always loved it from when I was a young man, and meeting these guys with the sound was just the best thing that happened. Now, with Dub Foundry we are doing some mad work in the studio, got lots of productions coming in. So from my side, coming in and being able to get a record out -well, Big up Explosion Sound System!
I’ve always loved it, and meeting people with likewise minds. And getting something like this forward.
It’s nice to know that it’s all about the ‘one love’. All the tunes that I try to write myself as well, it’s just all enrichment. So for me that was the big call, meeting these guys, getting this sound, getting on with the works.
Dub Foundry: The first night I played with you guys Foxy showed up.
Gumbo: So we’ve had two more people, it’s an injection of energy.
Neil: We’re pretty much a six man army.
Ranking Fox: You know going around trying to be an MC and getting a mic, its not difficult, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. That’s what I found out. I was going along in Dublin trying to jump on the mic but the mic is not always available (laugh). But the first time i met these guys, there was an MC there, and he was just like “yes man, jump onto that mic”. That was how it started wiith Explosion.
And I was asking myself why didn’t I know these guys the last few years i’ve been here.
It has all been genuine, and now we have to keep on going.
Dub Foundry: The night we met, when he took the mic after one minute i was like “wow, he’s wicked”. So I got his phone number and a week later he comes to my studio and does what became “Don’t You Worry“. That was one week after we met. The very first tune we did together straight after the first session.
And how long had you been MCing before that?
Ranking Fox: Before that, it had not really happened before. Growing up, I always liked writing my own lyrics. I come from a dancehall scene you know. Elephant Man, Beenie Man, that was me growing up, dancing to all that.
And then coming to Ireland in 2002, listening to reggae, but still always writing a little bit here and there. I always wanted to sing. Then by listening to more reggae in Ireland, I used to go to Outer Worries Outernational. They used to play every sunday night in the Temple Bar Music center.
Dub Foundry: For 10 years or something. One of longest going reggae nights
Ranking Fox: I went there for 6 years. And they knew that everytime I could get a chance I would get on that mic.
That’s when I became more into roots/reggae. And my first recording was actually in a house with the mic tied to a broom (laugh). My friend who is in Cork now, the first time he heard me sing he went and bought a mic and a computer straight away, and plugged it in the flat, downloaded some software to record, and he said “We have to record that song”.
So it was always in the background, I just never reallty got to put it out. But I came to Belfast, met Explosion Sound System, Damien (Dub Foundry) with his studio, and this is how it’s been going since.
Okay, well that’s about it.
Dub Foundry: Big up Crucial Roots for getting us over!
Ranking Fox: The men like Laurie and Cammy.
Dub Foundry: and Big up I-Skankers
Ranking Fox: And everybody out there promoting the sound system culture.
Many thanks to the Explosion Crew for their time, and thank you to Crucial Roots and all those involved in the event.