World’s biggest reggae fan? If you’ve never heard the term “sound system,” then we are sorry to break it to you, but you really don’t know Jamaican music at all. Not at its core. A sound system is, first of all, an object: a massive set of speakers stacked in the corner at just about every party in Jamaica. A good system will have the bass pulsing through your body.
A sound system also refers to a group of selectors (that’s Jamaican for “DJs”), engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady and reggae music. A generator, turntables and a sound system are the three main ingredients of a good street party.
Where two or more sound systems gather, a “sound clash” is bound to occur. A sound clash is an organized sound battle between the two systems. The crowd acts as the judge as the two systems play electrifying songs and remixes. The sound system that evokes the liveliest roars of approval from the crowd is deemed the winning system of the night. Clashes aren’t for the faint of heart: They can last up to four hours, and the energy level is high as everyone literally dances the clash away. It is here that music becomes popular before hitting radio stations anywhere else.
Sound system is also a culture, which originated in the 1950s in the grittier parts of Jamaica. It has since spread throughout the Caribbean, and flourished around the world—most notably in London and the United States—where the culture is credited as birthing Hip Hop. “It’s a lifestyle,” says Tony Myers, owner of popular Kingston sound system shop Jam-One.
Earlier this month, Outpostings spent the afternoon with Myers at his shop, also a bar and restaurant. Myers is a renowned sound-system manufacturer, and as he walked through his sawdust-dusted shop among hollowed-out shells of sound systems, he shared his deep knowledge and love for his craft.