“If you leave vinyl behind, as a reggae sound system, you can forget all the tunes that say “burn Babylon”, because you did the first thing Babylon told you to do: forget vinyl and buy mp3.”
Around a couple of drinks in his garden in Pelissanne, interview with Benoit from After All sound system: discussing the current state of the sound system scene in France, the problems facing reggae sound systems, as well as his relationship with free parties and raves.
(On the issue of free parties)
Even if I spend a lot less time in free parties, the last one I went to did not go well at all, I will always come back to them.
Even if it’s to come back a bit differently, a bit more legally or better organized, but I will always come back to them. Because you can’t take away the idea that when you organize a free party, you have a vibe that you can’t find anywhere else.
The fact, why I continue to do free parties, and not concentrate on festivals or nights organized in venues, it’s because you can’t take way my feeling that to be able to bring 500, 600, 700, 1000 or 6000 people together with only a phone call or a text, it’s magical.
To meet up , only with a phone call or a text, in some place lost in the wilderness where initially there isn’t even any water or electricity and suddenly you have music, food, drink.. It’s really magical. And there are only free parties that can do that.
As if to create a completely different place, a different world?
To create something… how did they call it already? Timeless? It wasn’t there, it’s there, it’s not there anymore.
A temporary autonomous zone?
Right, as they used to call that in the golden age, but that doesn’t exist really anymore because now, free parties have lost one thing, and that’s autonomy
I mean the free parties, and actually like the reggae sound system scene, have been victims of their success at the beginning of the 2000s. I think the reggae sound system scene is not far away from being victim of its success too. We’ll see in 4 or 5 years if I’m wrong or not.
Already it’s started to become ridiculous, especially with Blackboard Jungle’s 24 scoops. For me that’s the beginning of the end. In that kind of atmosphere… We are in a scene for amplified music, and we are starting to hear a lot of reggae system organisers – whether it be inside or outside, venue or festival – say that they are more and more categorized […] When you are looking for a venue, even if it’s with a reggae sound system, and you announce “sound system”, “speakers”, “turntables”, people automatically think of “rave”, “not good”, “noise”..
So the sound system side is already viewed as “noise”. And next to that you have those that turn up with 24 scoops. There aren’t any suitable places to host us. We are victims of that problem. We don’t have enough venues that can host us, allow us to organize nights that are legal, safe… That aren’t “free” or underground. So we have that problem, and everyone still wants to have the biggest system, the most speakers, even though its hell to bring out even 2 scoops.
That is why I have a lot of respect for Stef’, of Lion Roots Sound. He sold me some good equipment, old scoops of his. When I asked him why he was selling them, he told me: “I have 12 scoops, I’ve taken them all out once in two years. Bringing out 10, that happens probably once every two years as well. When I take out 8, they think I’m crazy, they don’t want to invite me anymore. I don’t see why I should keep 4 of them when they’re just going to sit in my garage”. […]
And even then, the difference, what creates the competition between sound systems, it’s not the number of scoops, it’s the power of the system, the place you play in.
Find the good place, where you can have your nights, and if that place can take in 10 scoops, 12 scoops or 24 scoops, then build your 24 scoops. If you have a space to bring them out, in that case do it. But to build 24 scoops just to say that you’re France’s biggest system, I think that’s a shame. They (blackboard jungle) had 12 scoops, it was more than enough for their nights, even to provide the sound for the Garance [reggae festival].
Invite sound systems that come from places no-one’s heard of, that nobody knows. Meet, exchange, do something new, instead of concentrating on the number of scoops. That’s what I mean by the dub scene is beginning to be a victim of its success. If you look at the line-ups, the more it goes, the easier they become.
It’s one of the reasons I had a couple of debates with Musical Riot. Musical Riot are at a phenomenal level today. There is no-one in France, even in Europe who is at their level. Had they not started the Tribute and Musical Riot, reggae culture in France would probably be 10 feet underground, buried beneath the free parties.
Thanks to that, French reggae woke up. So for me, when you are at that level; when you can organize events at the Trabendo [in Paris] and the docks des suds [in Marseille] –which are probably the 2 best venues in France for these kind of nights – when you organize dub stations at the Garance, at Rototom, at Outlook, in Lyon, in Portugal… When you have reached that point […]what does it cost you, at each dub station or at least half the time, to invite small local sound systems that are starting up to do the warm up. To refuse that in the principle that they don’t have enough experience… That’s talking like a true Babylonian! If you don’t give the opportunity for small sounds to show themselves, get experience, how are they going the make it?
I’m not criticizing the dub stations – they are very good. It brings together 800 people, a good line-up, they bring nice systems. I’ve got nothing to say about the concept of the nights. Simply, for an outsider’s perspective, it’s a comment that I’ve allowed myself to make.
Originally, sound system in Jamaica, what was it. A studio, a sound system, and new tunes that came from the local guys, from the ghetto and that you played. The basis of a sound system for me, the basis of a people’s radio is to promote new singers, the new talents. The aim is not to have a closed collection of dubplates. That collection of dubplates, you have it because you’re the one who discovered the artists. On that issue I’m 100% behind King Shiloh who says he doesn’t agree with the dubplate business, even if I’ve payed for most of mine. A dubplate is supposed to be a contact. The artist digs what you do as a sound system, you dig what he does as an artist…
It links back a little to what David Rodigan said concerning clashes: the old sound systems who have dubplates from legendary artists, but who are now dead. From that point on, a newer sound system that enters a clash with them will not have those, and will never be able to be have the same ‘quality’ of dubplates. What Rodigan was saying was that in clashes, especially those opposing a new sound to an old one, to only allow dubplates from living artists, like that both have the same chance. You need to have ‘new’.
That’s it. You need the new. Of course you mustn’t forget the foundations , the roots. But the basis of a sound system is to discover new talents. You can’t go on playing the same dubplates from the same artist, invite always the same singers, even if they’re amazing. There is a point where you have to give way to the new ones, or even combine the two.
When I did my event with Marina P and Steppa Style, how many people would have come just for Steppa Style. Few people know him, except those who are into the ragga-jungle cross-over. So I couldn’t do the night just with hem. And even then, Marina P is still quite underground, not hype enough. But that’s new talent.
So since when have you been involved in the reggae scene, and what made you get into it?
I discovered the sound system scene through techno and free parties, because I had friends that had a techno sound system. I became interested not really because of the music, I didn’t really like techno, I was a big reggae fan. I went to those parties more for the spirit and the vibe that was behind them […]
From there, well it’s good to go to an event that you like, but you know. I still want to participate in them, so I found my place in the setting up of the amplifier and the speakers, and I learned with the techno system, but after a while I wanted to do music myself.
Techno music is not my music, I didn’t manage to make any, and there I discovered that reggae existed also in vinyl. And especially I learned that the sound system scene of techno did not emerge from techno, but from reggae. So I got interested, I discovered reggae sound systems. 10 or so years ago. I bought records, and in the early mornings I would play reggae on my friend’s systems at free parties. Then we set up our own thing in 2003
So ten years old this year
Yup, ten years! The birthday should be in September normally
And so what does your sound system consist of?
One stack, four scoops, 2 W-Bins for the dry bass, 4 Cerwin VEGA columns for the mid-tops. 3 way system, no pre-amplifier like most of the other systems. Crossover techno set up, 2 turntables, one mixer, 2 active filters, and that’s it for the moment. We rarely play with one turntable. A lot of people tell me: “yeah but the signal, the pre-amplifier, the digital processor…”. For the moment I have 2 cross-overs, and last week end we had some of the best feedback we have ever had for the quality of the sound.
The system work well, I have very little adjustments to make for it to run well. I have an ear that doesn’t work well so that’s perfect. I don’t see why I should invest hundreds and thousands in things that will become obsolete.
We have a sound system that’s efficient, and we wouldn’t change it for the world.
You mentioned that you bought the scoops from Lion Roots. Is there a part of the system that you built?
The 2WW bins were built by a friend of mine. The rest is factory made.
The scoops I bought from Lion Roots, it’s Shortman an English boxmaker that made them. In the reggae scene it’s still considered as ‘home-made’; mainly because he’s a craftsman. Very few people know him in the techno scene […]
We are not the most ‘home-made’ system there is. But at the same time, I don’t really care about the home made cliché. I am here to spread music in the best possible way, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have done better with my own two hands, so I’m happy with what I have.
We are probably going to change, the system will evolve. We are going to try to do a bit more ourselves. But I’m going to try to stop doing lots of things ‘sort of ok’, and start doing less things better.
For wood works, we might all be quite handy, I still think there are people with a lot more skills for those kind of things. It’s like producing music – I would really like to do some, I’ve got loads of ideas. But firstly, I’m not a musician, secondly I suck at music, and thirdly I don’t have time. I prefer to concentrate on organizing dates and taking care of the system and playing records. That’s already enough work for me.
But again, to come back to the ‘home made’ cliché, it’s the same as dreadlocks: nobody has dreads in our sound system, because in the end, it’s in the heart that you’re a rasta.
And does the way you set up your system change according to where you play?
A little, even if most of the time we try to keep the stack in one block, as the impact from 4 scoops together is stronger than with 2 stacks of 2 scoops, it has a better sound quality.
Then if we need to cover a wider space, but with less power, we can do it differently. Because we have a lot of friends that make techno, from time to time we rent our system for more electronic night, and in that case we’ll have to change, or tweak the stack, as it’s not designed originally for electronic music.
For the turntables, generally we have an “after all reggae night” set up: the stack in one block, the turntables opposite 12m away, if possible a little to the right. Then it changes slightly according to whether we are inside or outside. But generally that’s how we set it up.
But when we organize events where there are different genres, or a bit more techno, we can be brought to have to control areas. One control deck in front for the reggae, and one behind for the more electronic DJs, because they mix a lot more – and if they are too far away there may be a lag between the time the sound takes to get to their headphones and when it comes out of the system.
Reggae had many political elements; it’s very political, very social. Do you think these elements are still there – in your sound system and in general?
In general I think a lot of it has been lost. But because we live in countries where life is relatively easier than in Jamaica. It’s social and political troubles in Jamaica that allowed that music to become political.
In England, I went there when I didn’t pay much attention to reggae, so I can’t really say. But I think that over there, you have a bit of both. There are dances and sound systems that are very involved, not necessarily politically, but culturally and socially; that are there mainly to spread a message, be it religious, political, spiritual… And I think there are also other sounds who are more there on a festive basis. In England both of them play a lot.
Maybe that is why England remains THE center for sound systems?
Possibly. In France it must exist a little as well – I’m thinking especially relating to recent debates, about Critical HiFi, from Toulouse. They seem to be very politically engaged.
I’d like to be a bit more active too, but I’ve realized – through the free parties, and a little bit through reggae nights – that unfortunately the message you want to spread, whether it is a message of peace, love, political or anything else, in the end only very few people pay attention.
Even in a very individual dance, 100% reggae roots, either there are only 40 people all ready to understand and spread your message – but in those cases you can’t make much out of it because there are only 40 people. Either you start to do events with 150-200 people, there might still be the 40 that you are trying to politicize, but people are mainly there to party and take in the music.
After, I mean it’s normal. It’s a Friday or a Saturday, people spent a shit week working, and they’re here to relax. It doesn’t mean they are completely uninterested, or that you can play homophobic Sizzla or Buju songs all night. But the main focus of their attention won’t be on the message. It’s going to be on the music, on the dancing aspect rather than the message.
Then again, I have played quite a bit of homophobic Sizzla and Buju songs because I liked the flow and the melodies behind it. But now it’s the kind of tune I ban form my system.
Last time we were at a free party, and my mate in the morning mixed a remix of Buju Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’. I let him do it because he rarely plays on our system and he mainly plays hardtek […] he put the disc on and I let him do it, but it’s the last time that will be heard on our sound system.
Even if people are here mainly to dance, we can’t forget that the few who do understand English or who know those songs, well let’s say it may offend some people, and I’m not here to offend anyone.
I try to promote Peace Love Unity Respect, so one has to be a minimum coherent. I’m ready to let a few things slip from time to time when we have fun, but we are still here to spread a message and educate to an extent the masses. If we can educate them while making them dance – I don’t play only political tunes – but reggae music touches on a lot of issues: women, love, politics…. You have to play a bit of everything, without slipping into extremes. Extremes in reggae music or anywhere else are not a good thing.
When I was young, I was very extreme in my ideas “my values, my thoughts, blablabla, I stand by them”. In then end: no. In life it’s good to have values and principles, but it’s also good to know how to put a bit of water in your wine.
So in the end, during your dance what do you try to bring other than the music?
Already, I try to bring a minimum cost to our sessions, seen as we come from the free party scene, and that is proof that you can organize musical event of high quality for free, or almost.
I think it’s possible, on varying scales, depending on the venues and the possibilities, but you can play with entry fees in a good way.
That’s why when we got Marina P and Steppa Style we had the night at 8 euros, the same price as most of the events in Aix where you only have a sound system. Because the artists weren’t too expensive in this case, the train and plane tickets either, so I don’t see why I should put the price at 10 euros just to keep a bit more for myself. I prefer 8 euros with a full venue than 10 euros… Well, that time we did 8 euros with an empty venue (laugh)
But it’s the same thing with the festival last week end, “Y’en Aura Pour Tout Le Monde”. Well I challenge you to find another festival in France and even in Europe, with 24h of music, more than 30 artists maybe not mainstream, but recognize in their area, for 15 euros. It’s the kind of festival that elsewhere would cost 40-50 euros or 30 if it’s subsidized. It doesn’t exist.
So again, it’s possible if you really want to do it. We are part of a lifestyle a little bit on the margins of society. We don’t want to be completely different; we just want people to understand that we live a little differently, with other values than the ones of the shit society in which we live in.
That means […] living healthy, working in a healthy environment… If we can recycle we do it. When it’s too hard, we don’t. We are like everyone in this society, we’re really lazy – but we try to do at least the minimum so that the microcosm around us can be as we want it to be, a little nice, a little better.
Some will say those are hippy values, but you know what I mean. They are values we believe in. Through the free party scene, the independence, the autonomy of a small group of people I find that wonderful, and by trying to respect nature a bit more – which isn’t always the case in free parties or festivals.
On a festival like YAPTLM, it’s really hard. We try to recycle, but not even half of the people there do it. We put it in place, and in the end it’s not respected, but we’ll continue to do it. They are values that are within the general concept of the festival. I’m talking about it because it was one of After All’s biggest events to this day, a really good line up, one of the best human, artistic and technical experiences. That festival represents values that are key to our sound system. That is what all the members have in common, it’s the image we want to give to sound system.
[…] even the name says it all [Y’en Aura Pour Tout Le Monde translates as: there will be something for everyone]: to be open to everything, being alternative is good, but being open is better […] We are different, but that doesn’t mean the festival wasn’t 100% legal. It’s not a free party, there wasn’t anything professional about it, but it wasn’t completely amateurish either.
From the feedback we got, everyone seemed to be happy with it, the artists and the crowd. So once again, it’s possible. Even if the balance sheet won’t be positive – because of the weather we had- but whatever, the human and artistic balance sheet is there. […]
That kind of event cannot be done without the locals. And that is something we try to bring in to all our events. A thing as simple as consuming local products but at all levels. If at all my events I can promote the best I can local products, local associations, I will always do it […]
Is there an association in your village? Are you organizing a night in your village? Then invite that association to your event, to set up a stall, so it can be heard. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, well if say 1 euro par entry went to the association, you had 50 entries, well they can get go for some food. If you had 5000 entries, then they will have 5000 euros. Whether it is for a humanitarian cause, a global cause, or for your local Emmaus.
Coming back to raves and free parties. They have a lot in common with reggae sound systems. But are there also differences? Going to free parties and going to reggae dances, there are similar values, but what would be the main differences?
I would have a tendency to say that as both are starting to be victims of their success, there aren’t that many differences any more: most people who to them, whatever the line-up, go there to listen to music as a low price and high (volume). I think are less and less differences between the two, because both have become more and more aseptic. This has pros and cons. It might be easier for us to live from our music, but in the other hand you lose your authenticity.
Originally there was one big difference, even only a couple of years ago, between a reggae dance and a techno one: and that was concerning the message.
The techno message was understood. Essentially it was “the state can fuck off”, we can organize our nights without help from anyone. The spiritual side was understood by most of those involved, people knew where they were going and why. And the reggae nights were the same in the end, but with a different history and a different message. The politics of reggae nights were much more centered on real things, real fights, everyday life, cultural and social. The techno scene was a lot more utopic. The message was more… you know, kind of the elves, the forest… (laugh). Very utopic.
In the end, I feel more and more that in both scenes, the crowd is a lot younger. They are becoming more and more aseptic, and so both scenes are becoming more and more similar.
And you can see it. I remember the first reggae sound systems I went to 8 or 10 years ago, where people stayed away from the speakers… When there were 3 stacks, people would stay in the middle, not stick to the speakers. They went in the middle where the point of impact is the best.
And the more you go to reggae nights, the more people are glued to the speakers, like in the techno nights.
On the musical side, the advantage and the inconvenient of ‘bass music’, that is becoming really popular, is that is blends both scenes, for better or for worst.
I have a tendency to say that both scenes will take the worst from one another. So the reggae crowd that didn’t keep their heads stuck on the speakers, well by seeing the techno crow do that, they will begin to do it too. And… I’m having trouble finding an example the other way round, but it must exist.
Often we say that each sound system has its own ‘identity’. What does that identity consist of, where does it come from?
I think first of all that it comes from the music, and the musical tastes of the selector(s). A little from the philosophy of the members too. Again, even if we started saying: ‘right, we are bored of techno, we are now playing only roots”, you can’t take away that having lived in a truck, having gone to raves, having lots of punk or tattooed friends, you’ll never see me denying those roots. Yes I’ve got my rasta side, but I’m tolerant. A lot more that many rastas I’d say.
So yes, the identity comes from the music, but also from the philosophy and the state of mind of the members.
I did a session with Bass Explorer where the guys from Mahom came to play. It wasn’t planned that I would bring out my system, so we linked up the two.
The guys from Mahom, when we had a chat the next morning and I said that I came a bit from the techno scene, told me that you could really feel that in my selection.
So the music and the philosophy are closely linked. So of course we have a strong identity that is very digital, very electronic… Having said that I don’t really dig dub-electro, strangely enough. But on the other hand we are great fans of more punchy sounds. For example with Riddim Tuffa, a lot of people prefer the old rubadub style things he’s doing with Little John. But at the moment I’m really digging the Buju Banton “champion” remix, that has very techno bass. And why? Because that tune I’ve heard tons of time on jungle remixes, and when I hear it I jump as if it was techno.
I think the philosophy influences quite a bit our sound. But once again, we play music that we like. That’s even more important today, in the age of mp3 where you can play any kind of music relatively easily.
Talking about records. Today there is Serrato, CDs… what is it that has made records stay so important to this music?
On one hand it’s a bit of a resistance to digital, on the other hand it’s also a bit the cliché “this is how we do”. There is a little of that aspect, it’s not worth denying.
But there is also the fact that fucking hell, I’ve been buying records for 10 years, it has cost us a fortune. I’m not going to convert them to digital in order to only play serrato.
Then again, we are going to have to move towards serrato, myself included. I’ve been saying shit about serrato and digital for 10 years, but now we are starting to have a lot of dubplates, a lot of original tunes made only or us or made by friends that haven’t been released yet. Now, half or even three quarters of my set is one vinyl turntable and the laptop.
Again, serrato and digital is a matter of costs. It’s a question of Babylon and finance. If I was living a bit more from my sound, or my sound would be working a bit more financially, I would press all my dubplates onto records, I wouldn’t even think about serrato. I would just have my laptop for pre-releases or unreleased stuff, that’s it. Even exclusives, if you know it’s a killer, I would have it pressed.
With vinyl, it’s really about the idea that ‘it’s the roots’. And if you want to go on and fight a minimum against Babylon you have to keep vinyl, otherwise it’s over, and you’re completely in it.
If you leave vinyl behind, as a reggae sound system, you can forget all the tunes that say “burn Babylon”, because you did the first thing Babylon told you to do: forget vinyl and buy mp3.
That is something that comes back very often, and even the aspect of building your own system, it’s still a resistance – whether it’s in the techno scene or the reggae scene. It’s the independence, the autonomy, the system you built or set up yourself.
That’s it – managing to control from A to Z, having your small space. In the end what is it; it’s building your empire within the empire.
I‘m not stupid, I’m like everyone else. You can’t fight. But it doesn’t mean you have to put your arms down either. It’s up to everyone to create your own recipe, and I think that my own recipe is good enough to struggle with Babylon. I didn’t do it with the home-made system, but I did it by taking my truck and playing in Portugal; fuck Babylon by burning 2000 euros worth of petrol to go set up a free party in Portugal.
Everyone has their own idea of how to “burn Babylon”. It depends on the means and the ideas you have, and your way of seeing things. I don’t consider myself a carpenter, I don’t think the home-made speakers are essential. For me the aim of speakers is not to fuck Babylon, it’s to spread my music and my message.
I prefer to fuck Babylon through my music and my message, and by organizing events that cost 10 or 15 quid instead of 50 quid if Babylon was organizing them. Everyone does what they can with what they have. As long as you do it with the heart, with passion, a minimum level of respect for others and values, it’s good.
What I can’t take anymore with the techno scene, it’s the “I don’t respect anything”, “fuck everything” side. Dude, no…It doesn’t work that way. If you want to fuck everything well, have a minimum of respect and values, then we’ll see. The hardest is to keep your values.
Last question: how would you describe a sound system session to someone who has never heard about it. How would you try to explain it?
It’s very very difficult. Without saying “you have to go”. I would say watch “Musically Mad” (laugh).
I asked myself that same question, especially regarding friends of mine, who have already been to some events, such as the Dub Station, but who don’t understand my obsession for “home-made”: that I want to organize my night at the Korigan, with my artists, on my sound system, not need to rent any equipment… I showed them Musically Mad. They understood quite well. Then they went to a night with the sound system, and the power of the bass completed their understanding of what was a reggae sound system session.
Another example is with a friend of mine. He’d already been to the Garance, but he’d never gone to the Dub Station corner, he must have watched from a distance. So after watching Musically Mad, he began to understand why I was so obsessed with the whole thing. After the session with Marina P and Steppa Style at the Korigan, the bass made him understand a bit more.
Then the festival YAPTLM outside, the sound system takes on its true value because it isn’t constrained by a room. The bass regains its value, and then you have the vibe, the utopian aspect: we are in a field all together, for 15 quid, the day, the night, then again the day, that made him understand what it was all about.
Then for people who have no idea and want to understand… honestly, it’s very very hard. There is a song that came out recently, every time I play it I get goose bumps: Schizo from Balle Bacce Crew. They describe their life as sound boys. The lyrics are exactly spot on. It’s really what I feel, before, during, and after a dance. Because that’s what they describe. Work during the week, the session on the week end, and the come down after that.