Monthly Archives: January 2014

Argonaut Sounds interview


[Photo: Bartosz Madejski]

“Actually you’d be amazed at how many people come up to us, or send us emails saying “I was down at your night, so great to see someone playing vinyl”. I bet no-one that plays on a laptop gets emails saying “I was down at your night, great to see someone playing with a laptop.”

Here’s a really interesting (and long) interview with Argonaut Sounds, about the early sound system scene in Glasgow, reggae music in europe, and about the role the internet played in the growing popularity of sound system culture.

How did you first discover reggae ?

I would guess the way most people do. Like some Bob Marley tunes. Because that’s the thing that everyone’s exposed to kind of first of all, when you’re small, especially when don’t really know much about music. You’ll probably hear more Bob Marley than a lot of other things anyway. But other than that I don’t know. I like toots and the Maytals, and jimmy cliff and stuff like that, you know all the more obvious stuff.

But then I got kinda more into it when I moved to Glasgow and I went to a reggae night, Unity reggae. And that was the first reggae night I went to, and it just got me more and more into it. You start to find it more from going to different nights. Unity reggae was the first sound system I went to. It doesn’t run anymore, but it used to be at the sound house which was by the Clyde, just across the expressway. Afterwards you’d sometimes run across the expressway to get home to cut off about half an hour off the journey [laugh].
But they didn’t have speakers or anything, but they had quite a big PA in there. And they would put on nights once a month and it wasn’t all that busy, but you could have a smoke in there.

And when did you decide the start your own sound system?

About 2002. Well I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to start a sound system. How it was, was that Neil was in a band called the Argonauts, who were a reggae band. For their pretty much last ever gig, he got a few mates of his, including me, and played reggae music of vinyl basically to DJ at it. And afterwards we were like “hey we should put a night on or whatever”. And we kind of did down the line, but also about the same time we started doing a radio show on Subcity radio, me and Neil, called Argonauts sounds, after the band. So yeah, it kinda all grew out of that.

But I don’t think it was ever first a conscious decision like “oh let’s build a sound system”. It was more just like, let’s start putting on nights and it quite quickly grew into building a sound system.

This is a fun question. How would you describe a sound system session to someone who has never been to one?

It’s like trying to explain it to your parents or something [laugh] I don’t know, I almost think it’s like… You could flip it over and say it’s a cross between a nightclub and karaoke. But it’s not because it’s more than that.

It’s different from to a nightclub in the sense that it’s much more of a community thing. You don’t just look up a list and say “oh that’s on, or that’s on, and we’ll go to that”. It’s more a thing where you know that it’s on, and you keep more in touch with the scene. For a sound system session, well I guess you’ve got to have your own speakers. I mean that’s kind of integral. Not many other events would do that.

I’m thinking what else kind of defines it… It’s a really difficult one to get your finger on.
Yeah it’s the speakers, it’s the crowd, it’s the way that the people follow it. It’s also the way that it takes a lot more people than just the DJs to run it. See you’ve got the people who run the sound, but you’ve also got all the others. You have your crew and then you’ve got all the people who kind of help out doing little bits and pieces, and they kind of are brought into feeling part of it. And then they bring their friends in, and they feel part of it. And it’s more of a sort of thing that grows out, I think, as it gets bigger, rather than just being like a strict relationship between the people who come to the night and the promoters or the DJs. It’s not like one and the other; where one’s just playing to the other. It’s more like the thing kind of grows out of someone saying “oh I can do that, and I can get involved in it that way”, and someone says “well I’ll work the door for you” and things like that.

Plus probably the fact that it’s not necessarily a business enterprise for a lot of people. A lot of people just do it for leisure, you know. So that takes away that kind of more commercial aspect.

It’s true there’s not that much money in it, so you have to have a passion.

Yeah, I mean you’ve got to do it for the love of the music basically.

I know in the last few years reggae in Glasgow has gotten pretty damn big. How was the reggae scene before?

It was small when we started. I came to Glasgow in 2000, and then as I say, my first reggae night in about November 2000 was Unity Reggae. And I don’t think that even Mungo’s has started then. I think there was another sound system just before I got here, I know the guy Stevie who used to run it, called Rampant Sound. Stevie from that helps out Bass Warrior now.

But when I came there was basically Unity Reggae and a couple of really small things that you would struggle to find out about, and they weren’t really sound systems.
Unity always promoted itself as Unity Sound System even though they didn’t have speaker, and I still to this day kind of see them as being a sound system because of the way it was.
And yeah, pretty soon after that I guess Mungo’s must have started because I remember going, certainly when I was in second year at uni… So that must have been 2001-2002. I’m not exactly when they would say they started.

And so we started in about 2002, and for a while there wasn’t all that much else, that I can think of. I mean Kenny started doing Bass Warrior nights, and before he had built his sound system he used to do nights in the art school, like ragga and dancehall nights. But I think they were often quite quiet.

That was the thing, I mean back then it was hard to get a crowd out. We would put on our first nights just in pubs with a small sound system, and you’d be doing well to get 30 folk.
And I remember going to Mungo’s nights, and it was not quiet because they always got a pretty decent crowd, but it was nothing compared to these days. And then, they didn’t have a big sound system either. I remember going to the first night when they got subs… It was amazing [laugh].

But the crowd was quite different then, because it was more like, what you would call “crusty” kind of folk. Folk who are into protests and would set up peace camps and stuff. And I remember Mungo’s used to live on a farm, and they used to have farm parties and stuff. Because I think the crowd has changed quite a bit, it’s gotten a lot younger, and it’s also gotten more… I don’t know, it’s hard to say. It was smaller back then. It was a lot of crusty folk, a lot of punky folk and things like that. And it’s stayed at that level for ages, and then I can’t remember when we noticed. We started to find that we were getting a lot more people in about 2007. That’s when we noticed that it really started to pick up. And when we moved to the Ivy bar downstairs in there. We did nights in there for a year, and I just remember some of them were packed. One night we had people dancing on the stairs, because it was so rammed. It was amazing in there.

But that was a complete change. And it seemed from when we’d done nights before that, for about a year before then it had started to get a lot bigger. And I remember Mungo’s were starting to get a lot bigger, because that’s around about the same time that they moved to the art school. And it started to really take off then. That was the start of it getting a lot bigger. But I don’t know how or why.

Ah, Well that was the next question actually

Well it’s popular partly I think now, because people have become exposed a lot more in the way that, that music gets a lot more… How would I put it… It’s almost like a snowball effect as well. The more the people come to it, and they bring their friends, and then they tell someone else, and then someone here’s from two friends independently “oh I was at this night and it was great” and then they decide to go the next time. I think that has got a big impact on it.

And as it’s happened that more people have started putting on nights or sound systems, I think it’s become that people have made more links and realized that the scene is bigger, so that means that they go to more things as well.

But I find it hard to know why it actually did kind of explode. Because you know, the late 2000s weren’t a classic period for new reggae stuff. I mean I think there’s loads of good stuff from then, but loads of people don’t.

Yeah the 2000s aren’t known for really being a time of great productions.

I mean, I don’t know if the net has had an influence in that way. Because I remember when I was younger, and I mean like in my teens, the music that you could get exposed to, you had to search quite hard to find stuff that was different to your mainstream music.

Whereas now maybe a lot of stuff is more accessible because you’re not restricted as to where you find out about stuff. Like it would have been impossible for me to download say, well I literally couldn’t have downloaded an Anthony B album in 1996. Like that to find out about that would have been so much work. Whereas now I think it’s quite easy, someone says “here’s a mix that my mate made, it’s full of reggae and dancehall” and that gets someone into it.

That’s a good point. Because 2006-2007 is about the same point when social media started to really kick off as well.

Yeah, that’s true. Because social media I think has a big influence in getting people out to nights who haven’t been before. Just say on Facebook you make an event for a sound system night, go on and invite loads of mates, people who are like fans of Argonauts sound say on Facebook. And then someone who has been invited accepts it and invites all their friends, maybe some that have never been to a reggae night before. And so they might just suddenly realize that there are reggae nights maybe.

I don’t know how much the internet has to do. I think it’s really hard to quantify, but it must have had an influence.

Yeah because it is about that time, even back in France, a lot of people started building their systems around then. There were things before, but a lot of the recent ones all started around 2007-2008.

Yeah, and whether it’s access to information about running a sound system, and easy access for parts to building it. Whereas I remember before we had these old Celestion bass speakers, they were pretty horrible, they were all covered in felt and stuff. They had big 18” drivers in them, they sounded not bad actually, they just were really old. And then one of the drivers got blown, and this was about 2004 or something. And we hadn’t really twigged on to the internet enough to think to on there and get things, we didn’t know enough about it. And actually we had to find this guy, who was a Pioneer speaker cone dealer in Glasgow, and we went to his house way out in Cardoland I think it was. And it was like something from back to the future, the guy stumbles out of his garage with massive white hair, and all these pioneer drivers. And the thing is, that was quite hard to get hold of this guy and work out a god deal; Whereas now, you can just look at this driver that cost that much, this one cost this much, and this one will come tomorrow if I buy it now, but this one is more expensive.

There was this debate in France last year, about what makes a sound system’s identity. What would that be for you?

Well there’s got to be two factors I think. One is the identity that you kind of want to portray, because you make conscious choices about what you’re doing.
But the other side has got to be the way about how you are sort of perceived, I guess. Like the way that people think about your night, and see it.
Music must come into it as well, the music you play, and what sort of style you play. But I think that, a lot of sounds, newer sounds particularly, especially when go to like Garance or something and see European sounds systems that are really dubby sounding. They have got that kind of new dub sound.

What do you mean new dub sound

You know like, almost that sort of semi digital dub sound. Rather than playing your classic 70s Tubby’s, Jammy’s, Scientist kind of dub, more that sort of new sound – yeah steppers… And I don’t know, that seems really popular there, and that often gives a sound its identity. But then also say we play a lot more major key stuff, so that’s quite different.
But you get a lot more sounds like that in London I think.

So music can play a part in the identity… I don’t know, that’s a hard one. It’s really difficult to pin that down. It’s funny because you can almost imagine what it is, but it’s really hard to pin down in words. It’s a conglomeration of a whole load of different factors.

There’s the music you play. Also the music you choose not to play. There’s that whole aspect of tunes with homophobic lyrics, and we’ve always though it’s a strict thing, we’d never play that. If one slips in by accident we’ll take it off, you know. Stuff like that, that contributes to your identity as well. Because there are sounds I’ve heard who do play it, and you think “oh fucking hell, don’t play that shit”.
And you hear one or two in London and stuff, whereas I don’t think you’d hear that here. But maybe that’s more kind of a social norm amongst sound systems, or well anyone with a reasonable moral outlook would see that as the right way to go.

I don’t know, a sound system’s identity. It’s a really tough one. I’m going to be thinking about it for days [laugh]

Well we can pass on to the next one. And actually you kind of touched on it a bit. You said you went down to France a bit, have you noticed any particular differences between the UK scene and the French scene.  You mentioned the music a bit, but is there anything else?

Yeah, there is a bit. But there are also a lot of sounds now that play in Britain stuff that they would play in France I would say. I think that a lot of sound systems in France play stuff that’s not that dissimilar to Mungo’s. I don’t know what side has influenced what, but I think those are becoming a lot closer.

What, so like more recent ‘bass music’?

Almost yeah. Or like, more when you hear Mungo’s playing, you know. That sort of stuff I was talking about, with those french guys playing that kind of steppers dub, things like that.
So I do think you hear Mungo’s play a fair bit of that. And I think you get a fair amount of that in France. The difference would be I think maybe that you don’t get as much of the – is that true actually, I don’t know. See sound system, new roots and things like that. We play a lot of new roots, and we play a fair bit of new dancehally stuff. We also play a lot of 80s digital dancehall. And then you’ve got Kenny and stuff, and he plays soca, ragga, dancehall, new roots. And you go down to London, if you go to the carnival you see all these sound systems and you realize they’re completely different to what it’s like in France.

I mean you’ve got your classic old system, like Channel One, and Aba Shanti and They’re all playing, you know, kind of classic roots and dub. And then you’ve got your newer ones who are all playing brand new stuff, whether it’s ragga or new roots or conscious stuff.
And maybe in France, I mean I don’t know enough, I’ve only really ever been to a few nights, and the Garance three times.

But I don’t remember really hearing too many of the sound systems playing brand new stuff. Although I do remember at the Garance hearing one or two. There was one, Jumbo Rock sound, I remember playing really good stuff. They played some news stuff and I really enjoyed it, but I don’t know where they were from, they might not be French.
I think maybe, this is only a conjecture, but maybe they don’t play much brand new stuff out of Jamaica in France, as you might find a lot of system in Britain playing. But then I know a lot more Jamaican artists come to France to play.
It’s hard to gauge whether maybe sound systems would in another environment, you know. I get the impression that a lot of German sound systems play a lot of new roots and stuff, and dancehall.

Really? This is going to sound really weird, but I can see germans playing new roots a lot. In the sense that it has a similar sound, or esthetic to the kind of rock and electronic music they produce. I don’t know..

Yeah I know what you mean. I mean there’s a big scene for that in berlin and stuff, there’s a few labels and shops there as well, so I don’t know… I would be interesting to see the differences in that in Europe, but I don’t know enough about that. Obviously the main places are France, Germany, Italy and Spain in Europe for reggae. And it would be interesting to see the differences, because Spain, they’re beginning to get quite into the new stuff, and so are Italy.
I mean, I say that about France but some of the biggest, you know Irie Ites is one of the biggest European new roots labels. And there’s so many labels in France that, I don’t know, a lot of the stuff must be getting played in France. But I guess I just haven’t heard it

The thing is, I’ve not been to a lot of dances – well a lot in France, but just in one area – but even a lot of the new sounds that have come up, they are very attached to roots and steppers, more like Iration and stuff like, and a bit of digital. Whereas in Glasgow, Mungo’s, and CC sound or Chungo Bungo, what they play does seem to be a bit more dancehall, or Jamaican orientated.  More digital and all, and then Mungo’s and the others often go into bass music. Whereas in France, well to the sessions I’ve been to, they are a lot colder to dubstep.

[Laugh] that’s kind of how I feel.

That’s the main difference I seem to have noticed, that there is a lot more roots and stepper in France, while in Glasgow it’s a lot more dancehall, new roots and newer stuff.

Yeah. Someone once told me there was a theory along the lines that it’s just colder here, so you want something that will keep you going, and a bit more upbeat [laugh] I don’t know, sometimes you read too much into these things, but you wonder if that might be true, if the further south you go you just get a slower bass. You know like in the south of Spain they just listen to nyabinghi drummers or something [laugh]

A friend told me another theory he had – he was a bit wasted at the time – but he argued that the periods where reggae and sound systems peaked was in times of crises. Like you had 50s and 70s in Jamaica, then 80s in UK, then it came back a little in the late 90s, then now since 2007 it’s become really popular. I’m not sure how much it stands up but I found it interesting.

Well there might be something in that. I mean, it is often seen as a protest music. Protest music is a funny phrase, but it is that way that it’s about people quite often, and it concerns how life is being lived. A lot of it is about reality. And yeah, maybe that would have something to do with it.

Well that brings on the next question. Originally reggae was very political in Jamaica, and even in England in the 80s. Has reggae kept its political element today?

Yeah. Certainly Jamaican stuff I think still retains a lot of that strong, political… like a strong political force. And all the rasta stuff you get still contains a lot of that religious weight. And a lot of it I think is still about society and things like that. I mean there’s obviously parts that aren’t. You get a lot of stuff that’s about nonsense, but you’re always going to get that. But compared to most other kinds of music, you get way more stuff that is socially and politically, trying to either have an influence or say something about the situation.

I mean stuff that’s produced in Europe. Again it’s a funny one. Because a lot of these guys who are producers in Europe are going to be using Jamaican vocalist, and they’ll still do that on the European productions. I don’t know if a lot of the European guys kind of mimic, or maybe not mimic because that’s harsh and I think a lot of the European guys are great, but take their lead from the Jamaican tradition.

I remember actually one time talking about this with Neil years ago, and we were saying that one of the things that gives reggae an extra dimension, that social and political and quasi-religious sort of punch to it. It really seems to give it some depth, more than just the music.
It’s a whole other layer than can be interesting, to see what people are saying about stuff. And a lot of stuff must come from the history in Jamaica as well, with like Mento and Calypso being musics that were basically just a way for people to tell news and stuff like that. If you listen to a lot of old Mento it’s amazing how it’s all about how this happened in this town, or there was a fire here. It’s amazing when you listen to it, it’s just stories about stuff that’s been happening. Some of it is hilarious too.

When you do a session with your sound system, is there something you try to bring to your night, aside from just the music? A particular vibe or message?

Well message, kind of. Sometimes you fall into play loads of tune which give out a certain message. Kind of by accident. Sometimes you have a plan to play a few where you feel like you’re spreading a message. But also, I’ve got a really strong belief that there’s a sort of energy in nights, somehow. That you can try and create the right conditions for that, so that everyone is really enjoying it, and then everyone kind of feeds of that and it gets bigger and bigger. So it’s all about that sort of thing, of setting the right lighting, setting the right tone, making sure it all sounds perfect – isn’t too loud at points, isn’t too quiet.

There are times almost where selecting the music… I don’t want to say you could do it without looking or whatever, but sometimes it’s not the most important thing at all. One thing that I think really gets energy going is when people see more than one person picking the music. So if you’ve two or three selecters who are doing a tune each  and we do that often at the end of the night – and it’s like a challenge to the next person, like a soundclash within the sound system And I think people can see that, and you can get an energy building up from it…

And that way as well that having an MC obviously helps, in that even if I’s not an MC that’s going over riddims but is just kind of hyping it up, keeping it chatting so that everyone feels involved. Because I find it funny how DJs who don’t play reggae don’t use mics. I don’t like going on the mic because I’m not very good at it. But if you’ve got an MC, it makes everyone feel so much more connected to the people who are playing.

But that’s what I would say, it’s more about trying to create the right atmosphere as much as iit is playing the right tunes.

You mentioned lighting, but even in setting up your system as well, is there a particular way you have of doing it or does it change according to where you are?

It depends on where you are but you’ve always got to think about the actual space that you’re setting up in. It depends where it is but you’ve got to t about it quite carefully I think. I mean there are technical reasons and there are reasons for making it a good night.
For technical reasons, if you set up wrongly, you’re going to be plagued by feedback and all that sort of stuff, so that’s the first consideration because the night’s going to be a disaster if the technical side isn’t right.

But after that you’ve got to think about where you have your speakers, where you have your decks, making sure that there’s space for people to get in and out of the dancefloor, because no one wants to be stuck. And if people feel that they might be stuck they won’t go on to the dancefloor I think. If it’s too bright people won’t dance, you know, you have to make it quite dark. And décor and stuff like that makes a huge difference.
I always prefer the decks to be quite close to the sound system, because what you tend to find is that a lot of people tend to congregate around the sound system. And our system isn’t huge, we’ve only really got one stack. So if you have it that close to you it makes it quite natural. You almost have a corner thing, the system and decks on each side of the corner.

I’ve seen people put the decks on one end of the room, and the sound system on the other. That could really work because you could almost book in the crowd, but I think it’s harder, because it puts people in two as to where they want to be. Some people like to be close to the decks, or close to the sound, or some like to be both.

Having the system at the other end of the room works well if you have a big system I think.

Absolutely. I mean two or three stacks and you’re laughing. That’s the thing: if you’ve got loads of stacks what everyone classically does is try to make a sort of enclosure, so that everyone can be inside a big triangle or square area. There’s a sweet spot right in the middle, so you get the decks halfway between the two stacks or whatever.  I mean all these things come into it sometimes you’re stuck by what venues you can get. You always think that one of the best things to do to only have a blank canvas for playing your sound. Like venues with unlimited possibilities.

But even the street in the Jamaica and you see it at the carnival how they do. On the street typically on the two sides they’ve got a stack on one side and a stack almost diagonally across from it. The decks will normally be set up sort of just inside that square. So you almost make a sort of square, as you’ll often put a van in the other corner. And I think that’s classically how folk would do it when they’ve got more stacks. And that works particularly well on a street, because ten the street becomes the dancefloor.

You play as well strictly vinyl, compared to the others that tend to also use laptops. Was that a conscious decision, or it sort of just happened?

Partly because we just had vinyl collections, but I do genuinely think that it sounds better. Actually you’d be amazed at how many people come up to us, or send us emails saying “I was down at your night, so great to see someone playing vinyl. I bet no-one that plays on a laptop gets emails saying “I was down at your night, great to see someone playing with a laptop”[laugh].

Again it’s talking about the energy. I think people pick up on the fact that there’s someone flicking through records, and finding one and putting it on. Compared to someone scrolling through their laptop or something, it’s a thing where people see it’s someone who’s really paying attention, and putting effort into it.
I mean, there is that element of it, I think it helps in that way. It’s annoying because there are a lot of things that you just can’t get on vinyl. But I like the fact that maybe you don’t find the record you’ve been wanting for ages, and then finally you find it and it’s like “holy shit, I’ve got it”.
Whereas I don’t think it’s the same if you say “oh I really like that tune, I’ll just download it”. It makes it a lot more throw away, and maybe people take a lot less care over what they’re playing. I ‘m not sure if that’s true. Good DJ probably don’t. But it means anyone can have anything, and I think it takes away the specificity of certain tracks.
I mean I don’t have all that many that are really dead expensive, I’ve got one or two, I’ve got a a few singles that I’ve paid over the odds for. I’ve got one album that is worth about 300 quid, but I didn’t buy it though: about 15 of my mates chipped in and got it for my 30th birthday.
But there is that element to it. I like it, because I really like vinyl. I like holding it, I like touching it, I like having the sleeves. I like the fact that you take the record off and on. I also find it a lot easier to find what you are going to play. I think if I was flipping through a laptop, I would kind of be stuck thinking “what am I going play”. Whereas, I mean I never take all my records obviously, but I take a selection and sometimes you’re just going through and you’ll think, “oh that will go well now”. It’s a very tactile thing, you know, you get more of a chance to interact with it I think.
But the main reason, as I say, is that I think people appreciate it. People pick up on it.

It’s true that as well because in sound system you’re on the same level as everyone else, anyone can sort of look at the record, or come up and ask you or have a chat.

Yeah, we get people asking to see stuff, and when people are trying to look over to the decks and you just tell them “hold on, I’ll show you at the end”.
The funny thing about all that is that back in the day in Jamaica they would scratch the labels off the records, because no one wanted other to know what they were. But there’s no point in that anymore because all music is so accessible. I mean I don’t think I would really want to hide what I was playing, I’ll always be happy to show it to someone. Because there isn’t the same rivalry for it. You don’t get proper sound clashes here. But even that rivalry doesn’t exist here because all the sound systems here try to help each other.

That’s true, it’s quite a difference because until the 80s, the rivalries were quite brutal – like they would rip your speakers apart and stuff.

Yeah. In Glasgow, I don’t know how it is in London or in the rest of the UK, but in Glasgow I know that because when we started there wasn’t much, everyone was just trying to have a go and help each other. And that’s just continued, to be honest. There have never been any disagreements between sound systems. Everyone is always, as far as I’m aware, been up for helping each other, and that whole aspect of collaborations and stuff.
I guess back in the day, in the Jamaican tradition, it was run by guys who were definitely businessmen as well. And one or two of them were gangsters probably. But you’re not going to get that here. I guess that the difference. You know there’s almost that kind of mock rivalry that you sometimes get. People sometimes get dubplates that say “we’re gonna kill your sound” or whatever, but no-one is going to come to a night and break up our speakers.
And as I say, there’s that care. I think maybe in Glasgow, and this includes everyone who comes to dances, but everyone kind of knows that they’ve built something up, so you don’t want to go around wrecking it. Everyone’s put so much effort into it that it wouldn’t seem right to go around breaking stuff out.
And everyone tries to help each other out. Kenny [bass warrior] helped us build the subs that we have. Whenever Kenny puts on a night I’ll go and give him a hand setting up; or I’ll go and ask Jerome [mungo’s hifi/bass alliance] for advice and get a lift in the van, or speak to whomever else about this stuff. Everyone does kind of help each other.

In the end it’s a community

Yeah. Because everyone’s got different areas of expertise.

You released your first 7” last year now – which was really cool. Do you have any more releases planned?

Just before I came down here, I arranged for it to get sent to the pressing plant. It will be coming out probably in the end of February or something. I got it mastered in December but because the pressing plant was shut over Christmas we held off to get the lackers cut. So the lackers are getting cut tomorrow and it’s getting delivered to the pressing plant in France. The place that presses the vinyl, they’re not the cheapest but they’re really good quality. And they’re cheaper than any in Britain as well. Britain is just overpriced for all that sort of thing.
But yeah, next one is two 7” at the same time, all on the same riddim, but with 3 vocals and the version. One of the vocals will be from a duo from St Lucia. We are actually going to go to St Lucia with Babascum, maybe in March. Partly to record vocalists, because I think there’s a lot of untapped potential there. To be honest everyone I’ve heard from there is really really good. But they don’t have a lot of facilities, and it’s untapped, there are no labels or anything like that.
But yeah, that’s one thing I’d actually consider doing with the label, is just making a link with St Lucia, since we’re kind of in there.It’s a very expensive process and we can’t really afford to be paying huge advances to artists, because as a sound system we don’t make anything. Trying to break even until you get to a stage where you do start to make some money and then you maybe think about starting to pay advances, and folk can start to earn royalties and things like that. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that stage.
But again, I think having a label – it’s one of those things that are traditional amongst sound systems. When you think back to all the Jamaican sound systems that became labels – like Treasure Isle, Coxsone Dodd became Studio One. And the later ones, you’ve got stereo one, Stone Love… All these started off as sound systems and became labels. And it was just a natural right of passage in a way, that you would eventually have a label as well.

That brings on to the last question. Having your own sound system, your own label, your own productions, essentially means you are completely autonomous. You don’t rely on anyone else.

Yeah well I think that is the key thing for sound systems, is that they stand apart from everything else. You get booked occasionally by promoters, but by and large we promote our own things, we run our own label, it’s not like you’re just an act that’s there to be booked. You’re doing your own thing.
You lean on people for favors, and help and that kind of mutual exchange of information. And maybe that’s partly what makes up a sound system’s identity, is that they do stuff by themselves, without relying too much on other people. Being able to run a night, a sound system night from scratch, however you do that. All the different aspects like booking guests, getting them somewhere to stay, arranging the sound system, making up flyers. We always just design our flyers. Most club nights would just pay someone to design stuff like that.
I think you can realize a lot more what you want to do that way, when you’re in control of more stuff. Because there’s so much different bits. I remember actually, you know our crew has changed a fair bit over the past few years, we got more folk involved. But I remember sitting down and drawing a diagram of all the different aspects, and it was huge! There was so much stuff in it. I wrote Argonauts sound system in the middle of it, and drew a mind map chart of all the different things, it was a massive thing. It was amazing actually when you looked at all the different stuff, and there were things that you realized linked.
All the different things that you did, or had to look after as part of it. And what that would entail, and how they would link. Like there was Argonauts sound, then there’s the sound system, so that linked to the warehouse where we keep our sound. The maintenance aspect, and then you have sound system nights that link up to the sound system but also go with flyers and guests and all these different aspects. And then of course our radio show, and how that links to PR and promotion.

Was that the subcity radio show?

Yeah, we’ve done it for 12 years now.

You also do the Sunny Govan one as well?

No Neil used to do that with Craig, but he’s not done it for a while. Craig that puts on gigs at Mcsorley’s and places, he’s more a promoter. But the show was pretty good.

I mean, when we started doing Subcity, it was only on 4 weeks a year on FM in the Glasgow area, because there was no internet radio. So we had a 4 week local FM license, and it cost that like six grand or something for those weeks. And that was the things, 4 weeks of shows, you’d get so hyped up for it and so excited. All your mates would listen to it on the radios.
But it all changed when we started to get internet radio, because we realized that the costs of the FM license doesn’t really make sense anymore.
The internet radio works – I mean I was really skeptical about it at first. Because I didn’t think at first that there was that many listeners, but it gets a fair amount of listeners now. And the fact that people can listen back to it as well.

At this point we finished the interview, but we kept on talking and it got quite interesting so I put the recorder back on:

I tend to think that in Europe the music goes off in tangents, like you get dubstep.. In Britain it went off in tangents from Jamaican stuff in the 80s as well, when they got lovers rock and stuff like that. And that tends to happen quite a lot, it goes off in tangents. But ultimately the path of reggae is still dictated by Jamaica. Whether that be dancehall, or new roots or whatever. And Europe takes ideas off that and goes in different directions. But reggae is always dictated by what is popular in the dancehall in Jamaica. You know like in the 80s they were into digital and so that’s what came over here, and so people took from that and made other stuff – they made this kind of digital dub and things like that.
And in the 90s they got really into their ragga dancehall, and the kind of slackness stuff. And supposedly people didn’t get so much into that here, although I think you see elements of it.

Well jungle kind of brought in elements of that

Yeah. So that all went into that.
And now in Jamaica, for the last 10 years it was all Sizzla and Anthony B. And that has come across and people have taken that… I don’t know if that’s actually caused too much of an impact here, in terms offshoots… but it’s gone now again in Jamaica where they’re just going down their own path.
They went through that phase where it seemed like Mavado and folk were going to get huge, and then they faded away and it’s come back more into this kind of… well they’re all talking about this reggae revival. With Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid, and I love all that stuff, I think they’re all really really good. But it’s interesting to see, they’re not paying attention to all this dubstep stuff. You don’t hear dubstep in Jamaica. There’s more like of feedback loop on it. They send stuff over here to Europe, and Europe takes it in its own direction and places, but there’s no feedback to Jamaica where they say “oh we love that”. No we like what we like, you know, and we are going to do our own thing.

And because ultimately what it comes down to in Jamaica, what’s popular is what’s popular in sound system dances. And they don’t really care what is going on elsewhere. They’ve got stuff made locally that is popular… They like a lot of American stuff too I guess.

Also reggae is essentially their music, it’s Jamaican, so they don’t really care about the reggae that’s out there, because it’s not theirs in a sense.

I think a lot of the artists have got a lot of respect for the European scene. But I don’t know that your average man or woman on the street that goes to a sound system would give a damn about what’s happening in France or Britain or Germany.

It’s true I would be a bit surprised if local Jamaican sound system would be playing French dubs or productions.

Yeah, I would be pretty surprised. I think you might get one or two coming through because of how many Jamaican artists are recording there. But a lot of this reggae revival, new roots kind of ties with a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Europe as well at the moment. But you never know how that’s going to split in a couple years’ time.

Yeah it’s the one thing that I am a bit surprised with is the whole dubstep , bass music being so big in sound system nights recently. I mean I can see why, sound systems are best for bass, and dubstep and bass music rely on that, but a lot of reggae sounds tend  to now blend both.

Yeah, I’m not really into dubstep. I’m always a bit amused by dubstep rooms at reggae nights. I kind of feel like the dubstep stuff… I’ve actually enjoyed it at times when I’ve been really really wasted, I don’t so much like listening to it. But I would almost prefer it if it wasn’t at a reggae night, because I really enjoy listening to reggae and then someone puts dubstep on.

Although that being said, the first dubstep nights, DMZ and all that, I do enjoy that kind of dubstep – with a slow bass, really quite minimal.

Yeah I mean I’ve heard some stuff that is a lot closer to classic dub. If I was going to be into any of that, I guess I’d be into that. But I’m not really. But I can see where that’s coming from.
But again, dubstep you know, most people in Jamaica would be oblivious to it. To be honest I feel kind of jealous of them [laugh]. You’ve got to have a certain respect for a place that is so sure of itself that it just doesn’t really give a damn. I mean that’s also why they’re wrong on some things, I mean some of their lyrical stuff. And you know, it doesn’t really affect them that millions of people in Europe see something wrong about it.

Check out their website for all the information on their radio show and gigs, and here’s a promo of their last 7″ release ‘Down Inna Di Ghetto‘ featuring Babascum.

Earl Gateshead interview


[photo: Bartosz Madejski]

“Another thing which you don’t get now but you did get then, was that we used to look for pitch black everywhere. We’d tape up the windows with drapes to get it as black as we could, so that you could only feel the sound. So your concentration wasn’t directed away from the sound in any way.”

I had the wonderful opportunity to have a quick chat with the legendary Earl Gateshead of Trojan Sound System before his set at Walk n Skank. Here’s the transcript of the short conversation we had about how he started DJing, the growing popularity of sound systems, and the early house and rave scene.

(Thank you to Mungo’s HiFi for making this interview possible)

I heard the story about how you started DJing in between punk Bands, but how did you first discover reggae :

Well, I mean it’s like everybody else. I heard ska, then I heard Bob Marley, and I quite liked reggae. But it wasn’t until I heard sound system that I loved it really. Well… That’s a hard one, I can’t remember the order of things happening.
I mean the album “War Ina Babylon” by Max Romeo was a big album for me, and I played it again and again and again. I really played it a lot. I didn’t know at the time, I just knew I loved it – and this would have been around ’79 or something. And it’s a sort of definitive roots album. But I heard a sound system in Bradford, in about 1980… Around that time. I can’t remember actually. 1979, 80s… Some sort of time around that. And I absolutely loved it.
I don’t know. I liked the way it operated, and I started steering myself that way around that sort of time, after I heard the one in Bradford.

How would describe a reggae sound system session:

Well it’s a big team thing…

Essentially, the signal from the record is colored at the pre-amplification stage, switched into bass, middle and top, which produces a unique sound. If you switch the signal, If you take the bottom end of the signal, and send it only to the bass speakers, only the bottom of signal. Previously the whole of the signal would have gone to every speaker. So that was the big technical change that sound systems made. There is a filter at the pre-amp which cuts of the middle and top, so then you’ve got only the bass. It splits the signal again.

So it’s bass on the bass speakers, middle are the mid-range speakers, and tops on the bullets. And nobody had ever done that before. If you do that, you can get much better sound, because you’re not going to get such a big range. You’re letting the speakers specialize sort of.
So you get a different sort of sound. And then it’s colored again by the pre-amplifier. It colors the sound, makes it slightly different.

Then there’s the sensibility of Jamaicans, who don’t mind distortion, and that adds to the difference in tone.
It’s vocal led. There’s by and large somebody on the mic for almost the entire session as opposed to a nightclub where you might get a DJ who doesn’t speak for the whole set. It’s very involving. It involves the crowd, the crowd are always involved. I supposed it comes from African call and response, in the sense that you get a caller and a responder, but the participation of the crowd is a big thing, much bigger than in other forms of music. It’s a team effort. It’s very much a team effort. You’ll get a selector, an operator and a soundman. A sound system is a whole team.

In our first big sound, in my own little sound it wasn’t like that, but the first big sound I was in, there was about 12 of us, and everybody had a role, and everybody had a voice. Right from the people who did the publicity, to the flyers, to the people who sold the food. We were all part of the sound.
It was egalitarian – nobody had extra responsibilities, it was a team thing, and I think that’s reflected in the dance, as a whole team operating the sound. And everything around the sound is being operated by the people in the team, in a good sound. Right from the doorman to the crew, they are all part of the sound, and that produces a sort of oneness that the crowd can feel. In a well-run sound everyone is on the same level.

Another thing which you don’t get now but you did get then, was that we used to look for pitch black everywhere. We’d tape up the windows with drapes to get it as black as we could, so that you could only feel the sound. So your concentration wasn’t directed away from the sound in any way. That was another sound system thing.

So you didn’t have any décor or lighting and stuff?

No. We used to have one light around the deck. One tiny little white light, would be the only light in the room. The windows would all be taped up. All the big sounds did that.

I remember the first proper big sound system dance I went to was aba shanti at the university of dub, and that was one hell of an experience, and when you come in it’s true that there is nothing else there is just sound.

Exactly. Yeah Aba does it proper.
It should be pitch black as well but they’ve changed the health and safety laws so much it’s difficult to get pitch black in a public place, they won’t let you have pitch black anymore. They’ve ruined it really, in that respect, because the pitch black was a wonderful thing.

It’s true you don’t dance the same way in a lit area than in a darker one.

Exactly, you’re distracted by your vision. It’s supposed to be about yourself. It’s a mediation.

When you do a session, is there something else you try to bring aside from the music itself.

[laugh] Well you know I do. I see reggae as a spiritual music, and try to introduce this spiritual vibration, I try to get under another plane, a redemption plane. I think reggae is directed really at people who feel like they are outsiders and that this society isn’t really for them, and they’re outside of it. And I try and bring comfort to them, and show them that they’re not alone. I try to emphasize that side of reggae.

About that, I read an interview, well, a discussion you did with Mala a couple of years back, and in it you said “the way people like music is the way they interact with the world”.

Oh I said that. Bloody hell that’s clever [laugh].

What you explained was that people that are more apathetic will listen to music that comes to them, so more of the chart music and all. While people that are a bit more interested in what is going on will tend to look for other thing, so maybe more underground and eventually come to reggae.

That’s it.  I mean Bob Marley’s “them that feels it knows it”. And he also said that the music would find the people it was aimed for – he didn’t say black or white – I take that as being the outsiders, the people who don’t fit in.

What would say is the main drive for building your sound system?

Just seeing somebody else’s and loved it [laugh]. That’s what happened to me, and I think that’s what happenes to most people. You get in front of the sound system and “God this is fantastic, I want to do it, I want one! I want one!”.
Once you see one and you hear it you’re just, fuckin’ hell, it’s fantastic. It’s the best way to hear music, this is what I want to do.

Last year there was a debate in France after the Garance Reggae Festival, which was about what makes a sound system’s identity. What would you say makes a sound’s identity?

Well, a combination of the culture, attitudes, and history of the people involved. The culture and the attitude, and the emotions of the people involved. It’s a reflection of those.
And the crew obviously.
Well the identity… I mean, it’s how you want to hear music. It’s about how the people who run the sound want to hear their music. Which in turn is a reflection of their culture, emotional feelings and their history. The first sound they heard maybe for example.

Last year as well you wrote an article about how more and more new sounds were being built. I know in France and in Glasgow I’ve seen this happening. What would be the reasons behind this?

Yeah, it was an article in the Huffington Post I think. Well I mean I said in the article – I quite like what I said was that it’s a reaction against miniaturism [laugh]. Everybody wants smaller and smaller, like Ipods and everything. [The sound system] it’s like the opposite of an Ipod isn’t it.

Maybe when it was mainly black people running it, white people didn’t think they could do it or whatever. And now there are so many ’white’ sounds, that white kids are inspired to build their own.
But I don’t know really. The music has gone that way as well. The music has moved towards bass, for a start. And since it’s such a great way to hear bass music, well, people start building them.

The first idea I had for this dissertation was looking at how sound system culture has moved, mainly since the 2000s, to continental Europe especially France and Italy, despite most of the sounds being run by people who have no or little links to Jamaica, and had not really experienced the hardship in Jamaica or even the 80s in UK.

Well, like Bob Marley said, the people who feel it want to do it. You can’t say you’re not repressed and isolated just because you’re white. All I can say is, whenever I play a sound system anywhere, I’ve expected people to like it. It sounds better than any old sound, it sounds better than a nightclub sound, it’s more compelling, it’s got more personality, and it’s got more weight than any nightclub sound, so why wouldn’t people like it.

Also, I guess you’ve played in a lot of different places, venues, festivals, warehouses… Does how you play or the vibe you manage to set, does that change according to where you play?

I try to bring the same vibe, but I’ll play different music according the sound system I’m playing on. If I’m playing on one that hasn’t got much bass, then I’ll use melody to get to what I want, to where I want. Or you know if it hasn’t got much weight I’ll use a vocalist, and what he’s saying to create the vibe I’m looking for. It’s about creating a vibe, and really for me, it doesn’t really matter how you do it. I mean I love a bit of bass, but really, it’s about how you make people feel – that’s the end game. You’re trying to make people feel something, it doesn’t matter if they feel it with bass or some other way.

In interview you’ve often said you prefer to stick to vinyl. What does vinyl represent in sound system culture?

It represents a better sound. I don’t like that tinny… I mean it’s all personal taste, but for me digital sound tinny, I don’t really like it. It’s empty, it sounds a bit empty.

More broadly, have you noticed any differences between the sound system scene in the UK and the sound system scene in mainland Europe?

For me, I think what’s odd about the mainland Europe ones, what’s a little bit odd, is they’re so obsessed with specials. With dubplates. They are obsessed with that. It was never the original point of sound systems, it was never the dubplate. People would drop them, but they would drop them occasionally. And now a lot of the mainland Europe sounds, they sort of miss the point and think it’s about how many dubplates you can get that makes you a better sound. That was never a Jamaican thing. It was good to have good dubs, and especially in soundclashes, where you’d have to use them a lot. But in general not really. The European ones, in general, seem to think it’s all about the dubplates.
But you should be dropping the odd one of course.

I know in France and here a bit, a lot of people associate sound systems with raves and free parties. There are some similarities, but what would you say are the main differences?

I mean, yeah sound systems were used in the early raves. We had on our sound system some of the earliest house raves, so yeah there would be a link up.

And the earliest raves were very spiritual places really, to be fair. There was a link. Not so much now, but the early raves were outside of things, people were feeling a lot of joy, they had a new music, it felt like a new world to them. They didn’t want to do it in nightclubs, so they loved to hire reggae sounds. That’s how you got it in hardcore as well. When it moved into hardcore, you know house moved to hardcore and then to drum and bass. That was a lot of the reggae vibes that came into drum and bass.

I wouldn’t go to the rave scene, obviously there’s music I like and I don’t like, but the early house raves were quite spiritual things. And I suppose the problem is if they still can be. I don’t go to them anymore. But there is a certain amount of community, in a different way. You don’t get the vocalization that you get in reggae.
But yeah that was it, I mean they didn’t want to go to nightclubs, they hired spaces and they hired sound systems. That’s what happened in London anyway, where I was at the start of it.

A lot of what seems to come out of this, is wanting to be autonomous

Yeah exactly, yeah, that’s why they hired sound systems. They would just hire a space, hire a sound system, and be autonomous as you say. You could be free. People could feel free. Do what you want there.

A funny thing that I noticed was that several sounds in France anyways, the people that started them did a sort of circle – started out in free parties, and then techno, and all that, and then discovering that reggae existed as well in that medium, and then came back to building their reggae sound system.

Yeah a lot of people have done that in England too. That’s quite a common thing. Quite a lot of people came in that way. For free parties you need a sound system, once you have a sound system you start investigating out all the other sides of it.

So to sum up, has reggae managed to keep the political element it started with?

Yeah absolutely. It’s the only music that has, really. None of the other music is as political as reggae.

Even like techno and raves and all that?

Techno? [laugh] not really

I guess some would argue

Well, some would argue that it’s available, and sort of Do It Yourself. But nah, I thing you’ve got to have a vocalist to be political.

That comes back to the interaction, the conversation you can have in sound system. The artist and the public are together. It is more egalitarian like you said.

Yeah it is. It is much more egalitarian. Everybody there should be involved. That’s what it’s all about. That was the big attraction for me. Because before that, I mean, watching a lot of band but I didn’t feel that vibe. You know, just staring at the band, no exchange. There was a sense that it was refreshing, the involvement of everybody.

Not even with Punk?

Well punk at its best, in the early days yeah, it was involving.

I mean punk was quite political as well

Well it was certainly Do It Yourself. It was political in the way that it said you can do whatever you want. And you should do whatever you want. It was like the world is open to you, you’re not held back. All you have to do is do whatever you want to do. That is a political statement.

DIY to the extreme

Yeah exactly.

There is also the whole DIY part of sound systems. A lot of friends mentioned that’s what they enjoyed about sound systems – they made it on their own, from scratch.

I suppose that must give people satisfaction. Well I suppose it must be satisfying. Personally I don’t care about that [laugh]. For me it’s about how you make people feel. I don’t care what speakers I use, or where I got them from. I built my own speaker, but I didn’t care about that. I just cared about how they sounded.

So did you have your own system at some point?

Yeah I did. I Built a system, yeah

What happened to that?

Well I had it ten years. And actually, I couldn’t store it anymore was the problem with it. I had it ten years stored. Then I got a smaller system that I could store much easier. But that was a big mistake; I don’t even like talking about. It was a big mistake, I should never have gotten rid of it. My first system was good. It was beautiful. It shouldn’t have been beautiful I didn’t know what I was doing when I built it [laugh] but it had a beautiful sound.

Mungo’s HiFi NYE 2013 Podcast series


If you’re into reggae and haven’t heard of Mungo’s Hifi by now, then you must living in some remote cave and are still marvelling at this new invention that is fire.
In addition to setting up their powerful sound system in some of the biggest festivals in Europe (Glastonbury, Reggae Sun Ska, and Outlook among others), touring the world from Japan to South America, and organising weekly and monthly nights in Glasgow; the Mungo’s crew have been releasing a steady stream of heavyweight singles and albums on their own label. In preparation for their New Year’s Eve party at Stereo, they put together a series podcasts from each of the crew and some of the extended mungo’s family.

Podcast #1 is from the Chungo Bungo crew, who have been organising alongside Mungo’s HiFi the monthly events at chamber 69 and SWG3, and have been a regular feature of the Walk n Skank nights every Thursday.
Podcast #2 is put together by Stalawa Sound. Originally from Le Havre, France, he is no stranger to Glasgow and has set up nights alongside DJ Kokoro under the Hunt Them Crew banner. Having freshly moved back to Scotland, he presents a heavy selection of old school dancehall and digital.
Podcast #3 has Craig from the Mungo’s crew brings the 80s back with some classic early dancehall from the likes of John Wayne, Cocoa Tea and Barrington Levy.
For podcast #4, Breezak, the main man behind the Mungo’s/Bass Alliance Sound System rig, brings here a selection of heavy stepper tunes, including a number of dubs from the French scene such as OBF, High Tone and Stand High Patrol,
Youthman outfit CC Sound take care of podcast #5. Since last year they have been organising their own sessions, building their sound system and took over Walk n Skank this summer while Mungo’s were on tour. You should definitely keep your eyes and ears out for these guys, and the serious selection of killer tunes and dubplates in this mix will illustrates my point.
Podcast #6 is from Mungo’s Hifi’s Doug, where he presents his best of 2013. In his own words: “I had 30 minutes before I had to go get the kids from Capoeira class, and i had only just collected some of my favourite tracks from this year, so this one take is a little rough around the edges. However, on listening back I think it will do as a taster for some of what I’ll be playing at stereo this Hogmanay.”
Podcast #7 might not be a favourite for anyone who has a preference for roots or more classical reggae. Put together by Tom from Mungo’s, it covers some of the more recent tunes of what one could call the (very wide) ‘bass music’ genre.  Expect hints of dubstep, carnival/soca and bass heavy dancehall.
And to wrap up the series, podcast #8 is a mix by Mungo’s Hifi’s newest recruit, James. As he describes it, “This selections brings in tunes from nowadays and way-back-when, mixing some of my favourite grime & dubstep records from my collection along with some bang up to date new releases, dubplates & studio productions. These are the styles of music that led me to start digging for dancehall & rub-a-dub records, I hope you can appreciate the connection and enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it. Cheers.”

Mungo’s HiFI:

Scotch Bonnet Records: