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.


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