"Reggae Sound Systems"

"Reggae, Rasta, Revolution" by Chris Potash

Written By Andrew C. Campbell (aka Prince TuFFiE)


This is the full version of my essay, which was published in edited form in "Reggae, Rasta, Revolution - Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub" (Chris Potash, 1997 Schirmer Books, US$22) (page 198).  This book  contains a series of essays that chronicles the history and development of reggae music over the past several decades.  For a copy of this book, check your local Barnes & Nobles.  If you have any comments or would like more info, feel free to email me. To learn more about Black Majesty Intl, Click Here!



          This essay attempts to capture and relay the essence of reggae sound systems through the eyes of one who grew up around his father's sound and now owns his own.  It's offered as a primer for those who seek knowledge and understanding of this continuously evolving subculture.

          The phenomenon of Reggae Sound Systems (also known as "sounds" or "sets") is one that has long intrigued many observers in Jamaica and around the world for decades.  No where else in the world can there be found a culture that operates quite like that of sound systems. First started as an underground movement in the reggae industry, sound systems have risen to become a very integral part of reggae culture.  In fact, the roots of Dancehall Reggae can be traced to the formation of local and nationally known sound systems (some formed as early as 30 years ago).   (Tuffie's note - Killamanjaro Sound from Jamaica was formed more than 35 years ago)

What makes up a Sound System?

         People are often surprised by the amount of staff and components that go into the make-up of a sound system.  Although there is no set composition to a sound, an ideal sound is made up of the following : a Selector, Mike Chatter (MC), Owner/Manager, Technicians, Moving Staff, Equipment, Sound Followers, and last but definately not least....the Records, CDs, and Dubplates.  It is important to note that while not every sound has all of these components, some of them are indispensible; for example, a sound without a selector or records is like a television without electricity  - "it jus naw go work!"  It is also important to realize that some roles may be shared as well (for example, the selector might also be the MC and owner of the sound). There are generally three classes of sound systems :- home sounds, mid-size sounds, and professional sounds.

The Selector

         Probably one of the most important roles on a sound is that of the Selector. The selector is responsible for managing the turntables - selecting and playing the records & CDs.  The immense knowledge and skill required for this role (at least if you want to be considered any good) and the difficulty of this position is often under estimated. A good selector has to know hundreds of records and Cds (including the name of the artist and record/CD's location in the record box) off the top of his/her head.  Playing the records in an order and manner that is pleasing to the crowd (or selecting) requires a high level of diligence.  A selector must also be skilled in making a smooth transition from one record to the next (mixing). These skills often take years to develop, but are done with such style and ease by the good selectors that they often go unnoticed.  A bad selector, on the other hand, can be easily pointed out, and a displeased crowd will usually not hesitate to make their disapproval known (those who know what the Shandi Bottle routine is can attest to this). (Tuffie's Note - Rory (one of the pioneers of the popular "radio personality voice" ) from Stone Love Movements is said to be the best Sound System Selector in the world, but with the rise of so many young selectors - such as Squingy from Bass Odyssey Sound and Ricky Trooper from Killamanjaro- this can be easily be disputed.)

The Mic Chatter (MC)

        The Mic Chatter (or MC) is the selector's right hand man (and visa-versa). He is responsible for introducing the records being played (intros), hyping up the crowd ("building vibes"), encouraging crowd participation in singing the popular tunes ("conducting choir"), and requesting that a record be stopped and played again immediately (also referred to as a "forward" or "wheel").  The MC duties at a dance are much like those of an MC at a live stage show - forwarding the records immediately upon indication by the crowd (much like an  MC at a concert requesting an encore).  The crowd requests a forward by screams, shouts, chants, whistles, holding up lit lighters, pounding on the walls, waving hand kerchiefs ("wipers"), lighting fircrackers, using airhorns, or even the firing of guns in the air (called "gun salutes").  The MC may also make announcements of upcoming events, tell jokes, control the crowd in the case of a dispute, and in some cases even make political commentaries.  In a Sound Clash, the MC's role becomes even more crucial. In this setting he/she is responsible for verbally ridiculing his opponents (the other sounds) by taunting them (this practice is called toasting), or telling embarrasing jokes which may be true or not true (also called "drawing cards").  (Tuffie's Note - It is disputed in the biz that one of the following three - Ricky Trooper who selects for Killamanjaro Sound , Pink Panther from Black Kat Sound, and Tony Matterhorn (formerly of King Addies) from Tony Matterhorn Movements - is the best MC in the world.  Rory from Stone Love Movements remains a favorite among the females).

Other Staff Members

        In addition to the selector and MC there are several other people behinf the scenes making sure that the sound operates the way it should.  The Owner/Manager owns the actual  equipment and is in charge of hiring and dictating the duties of the other members.  This person is also responsible for arranging contracts and booking dates for the sound to perform (or "play").  The Technicians are in charge of assembling (or "stringing up") the electrical components of the sound system, and making sure that everything sounds perfect.  If a problem arises with the sound before, during, or after an event, it is the technician's duty to fix it or arrange to have it fixed.  The Moving Staff (or "box bwoys" as they are called b/c they lift a lot of speaker boxes) are in charge of transporting and setting up/positioning the equipment. (Tuffie's Note - some sounds go as far as purchasing a truck and hiring a permanent truck driver to haul the massive amounts of equipment.)

Sound Followers

        The Sound Followers (fans) are what makes or breaks a sound.  These dedicated fans support ("follow") the sound much in the same way a congregation supports a particular church.  Sound followers attend the dances where the sound system plays, collects and trades the sound system's cassettes (cassette freaks), and supports the sound system during a Sound Clash.  Although most dancehall fans are casual sound followers (that is, they simply acknowledge a certain sound as their favorite), there are others who take this more seriously.  These "Crews" or "Massives" support the sound in such a way that their name sometimes becomes synonymous with the sound itself.  Case and point : anyone who listens to Stone Love Movements cassettes regularly will the selectors acknowledge (or "big up") the Black Roses Crew - including Bogle (the famous Jamaican dancer from whom the dance of the same name originated).  This crew's allegiance to Stone Love is so great that on many occassions, the members actually accompany the sound when it plays overseas (the set is based in Jamaica but tours internationally from time to time.) (Tuffie's Note - other such crews include the Ouch Crew, Nuffies Crew, Mad House Crew, 90's Crew, 50's Crew, Flatbush Crew, Vandervere, UK, Parkside Crew, FTC, Get Mad Crew, Hotti Hotti Cherry and the Crew, 3 Girls Massive, Gold Bless Crew, British Crew, Chubby Dread & Crew, and the list goes on.)

         So what's in it for the Sound Followers? Answer: Getting recognized on the mic ("bigged up") at the events where your sound plays, free entrance to events, popularity and respect, a proud feeling when your sound wins a clash, or simply a feeling of identity with something ("providing support for something one enjoys can be a very rewarding experience"). (Tuffie's Note - Afrique Sound (dubbed The No.1 "Girls Sound" in the US) from Brooklyn, New York is said to have the largest following of devoted female fans in the world (from hairstylists to lawyers.) I saw a Granny <Grandmother> of at least 65 yrs old in an Afrique dance once, and I have the video-tape to prove it).  So extensive is Afrique's following that once a year, Afrique holds an awards ceremony where Trophies are given out to their celebrated sound followers in a show of appreciation.)

The Equipment

          The Equipment of a sound system consists of all the hardware (electronic and otherwise) that make up the sound.  Combined, these components are also called the "Set".  A set can easily consist of thousands of dollars worth a hardware, including turntables, mixers, equalizers, mixing boards, DAT machines, reverbs and synthesizers, amplifiers, crossovers, speakers, tape decks, CD changers, power supplies, wires & cables, storage and travel parcels, and back-up equipment.  Each sound has their preferences of brands they use for particular equipment, although there are several brands that are known in the industry for making the best of a particular equipment.  For example Technics 1200s (and the new 1210s) are the turnatbles of choice for about 90% of the sound systems.  Likewise Crest amps have built a name for sounds who like heavy bass.  While most sounds own their own equipment, some sounds opt to rent.  This eliminates the time, effort, and especially the costs associated with having to buy and maintain their own equipment.  Many successful sounds (such as Kingston's Renaissance) started out by renting equipment or playing on other people's sets before they bought their own.  Some big sounds such as NY's Afrique still opt to rent equipment.   (Tuffie's Note - Metromedia Sound in Jamaica is said to have one of the largest sets.  Stacked side by side, their speakers can span atleast one city block. Furthermore, when Metromedia plays, it can be heard by some neighboring parishes (Jamaica has fourteen parishes - similar to boroughs).

Records & CDs

          Last but not least are the records , CDs, and dubplates. A sound system may own thousands of vinyl records and CDs.  A good sound system usually may also own very valuable out of print records (such as classics on the Studio One, Treasure Isle, and Coxone labels). Generally, the amount of records a sound has in and of itself is not a reliable indication of how good the sound is (although volume does help if you are playing for a very diverse crowd).  However, in a Sound Clash, the amount and quality of records a sound has becomes very meaningful.  Records and CDs are treated as priced jewels and are handled with the utmost care.  This is becuase once a record or Cd is scratched, this usually renders it useless.  Records are usually carried around in specially designed cartons that cost more than the average suitcase.  (Tuffie's Note - David Rodigan, sound system selector and radio dj from England  (and veteran in the business for over 15 years), boasts one of the most comprehensive reggae record collection in the world.)

Records usually come in 4 formats:

1. "45s" are small records 7 inches in diameter (called 45s because they can only be played at 45rpm) that require an adapter to be played on the turntable.  45s usually contain a song on Side A and the instrumental (also called "rhythm" or "version") or acapella of the song on Side B.  For example, Bounty Killa's 1998 smash hit "Can't Believe Mi Eyes" would be on Side A of the 45 record.  Then the rhythm to the song (called the "Bruck Out") would be on Side B.  The average 45 plays for approximately 5 minutes and costs about US$3.50.  When a producer releases a rhythm, it usually comes on 45s first.  In fact a producer usually releases several 45s featuring diferent artists on the same rhythm.  That way selectors can mix the records  smoothly.  45s is also another name used for any record (song) that is not a dubplate. Often times during a Sound Clash, a selector will say "45 shop lock" indicating that from that point onwards only dubplates are to be played!

2.  "12 Inches" are the larger records (12" diameter) that do not require an adapter to be played on the turntable.  The typical 12 Inch record is also played at 45rpms, but because its larger than a 45, it usally plays for closer to 8 minutes.  12 Inches can feature a song on Side A and the rhythm on Side B just as 45s do.  However the typical coniguration is to have one song and its rhythm on Side A, then another song on the same rhythm again on Side B.  If a 12 Inch features only one song, then it may contain  the remixed or Hip Hop version of the song as well as an acapella.  While almost any 45 can be bought on 12 inch, the reverse is not so.  There are certain songs that are released only as 12 Inch.  Because of this, any comprehensive record collection today that starts out with 45s must inevitably contain 12 Inches while a 12 Inch collection need not contain 45s.

3.  "Albums" are also 12 Inches in diameter but usually feature songs exclusively by one artist (such as Bob Marley's "Legend").  They can also feature a compilation of various songs from a year or era (such as the "Strictly the Best" series).  Albums can only be played at 33rpms and usually plays anywhere from 1/2 an hour to 45 minutes.  

4.  "Dubplates" are specially created records that are tailored to the sound system they are being produced for.  They are larger in size than a 45 but smaller than  a 12 Inch.  However their importance probably surpasses both.  See Dubplates for an in depth explanation.

          Most songs can be purchased on either 45 or 12 Inches, and which ever one a selector decides to buy is determined by his/her own personal taste as well as the availability of the record. 45s generally are easier to mix (their small size allows easier manipulation) and easier to sort (since its a simple one record one tune format).  12 Inches on the other hand are generally more convenient because if you have all the the songs on 12 Inch, you dont have to lug around with an extra 45 box filled with ten 45s for each rhythm you dont have in your 12 Inch crate.   Some selectors also like 12 Inches because of the fact that you get two songs on one record.  Of course you are paying for this advantage since a 12 Inch  typically costs twice as much as a 45.  Still the new trend is for producers to release album compilations featuring all the songs they produced on a certain rhythm.  For Example the 1997 "Showtime" rhythm compliation album features songs by Bounty Killa, Beenie Man, Baby Cham, Frisco Kid, Mr. Easy, Wayne Wonder, Professor Nuts, and more all on one album.  These compilations offer perhaps the best of both worlds.  You can buy two compilation albums and mix them back and forth on two turnatbles with ease, and they only take up the space of two records in the crate.  Yet still there is a drawback.  It is very rare that you will find the rhythm or version in its pure form on a compilation album.  Therefore if you want to play just the rhythm (usuall for remixes) or have artists "chant" (or "deejay") on the rhythm you would probably have to buy the 45 or 12 Inch in addition to the compilation album.

What are Dubplates?

          Dubplates (also called Dubs, Specials, or Samples by laymen - although there are distinct differences among these) are another unique thing about Sound Systems.  A dubplate is basically a recording on which an artist mentions the name of the sound (in effect identifying it as a top sound and pledging to back it or support it). This is also called "bigging up" the sound.  A dubplate usually comes in the form of a n extra thick vinyl record (that looks much like a plate, thus the name) with two songs (dubs) on each side.  Dubplates are unique because of the fact that they are usually renditions of popular hit songs that particular artists has made.  My friend Scrapy D gives this comprehensive example - "Buju [Banton] may do a [dubplate] for Stone Love saying "Stone Love sound like a champion, play like a champion, what a piece a sound, Rory [Stone Love's selector] tell mi where you get it from."  This dubplate is a rendition of Buju's popular hit song "Walk Like a Champion."  The effect is similar to Michael Jackson singing in a Pepsi commercial - that is, a celebrity is associated with the sound, thus giving it increased popularity and credibility!    Because of the difficulty in obtaining these dubplates (cost, locating artists, etc..), the crowd at a dance or Sound Clash holds them in high regards, making them one of the most important assets of a sound system.  (Tuffie's note - Sound Systems have been successful in getting a lot of popular artists out side of reggae music to do dubplates. Some honorable mentions include The Temptations (Bodyguard), Mad Lion(King Addies), The FuGees(King Addies), and Elvis (many sounds have stated this, but who knows....)

Specials and Samples

Now for a point of clarity. Laymen usually confuse the difference between a dubplate, a special, and a sample. A dubplate is a song that any sound can get from an artist, if they can afford it. A special is a song that the artist agrees to make only for one particular sound, thus the saying "No other sound can play this!" A sample is similar to a special, except that it is usually unique and unlike anything any other artist (or the artist himself/herself) has ever done before. (Tuffie's Note - When Beenie Man did his hit song "Maestro" in "opera style" for a Killamanjaro Sound dub months before the song was released, it was considered a "wicked" sample because the "opera style" had not yet become popular in Dancehall Reggae. Of course that sample eventually evolved into his hit single...)

The Role & Cost of Dubplates

           In addition to providing an additional source of income, dubplates also provide a means for artists to return to their roots (especially after going off to sign contracts with international record labels).  In addition, many artists we know and love today got their start by doing dubplates for local sounds (Spragga Benz and Mr. Vegas are two shinning examples). The cost of a dubplate varies, and although I am not permitted to quote the prices that any particular artist charges, lets just say that dubplates from an artist with a No. 1 song on the charts can go for over a $1000.   If you are friends with the artist, you can negotiate a cheaper price, and if you are close enough, possibly get it for FREE!!.  $1000 may seem like an outrageous price at first, but dubplates are an important way for a sound to remain in the top ratings. Furthermore, in a Sound Clash, dubplates are of the essence!   For a more indepth discussion of dubplates, or information on how to obtain them in NYC, you can contact Don One Studios in New York City.   (Tuffie's Note - Reggae Mega-star Beenie Man was performing live on Black Scorpio Sound  more than 10 years before he got his big break.)

What determines a Superior Sound System?

          So what then determines a superior Sound System?  No one factor, but rather a series many things, make a sound top notch (or "Number One" as we say).  For starters, the sound system must be technically on point (with clean sounding tweeters, clear, solid mid-range, and deep, heavy bass).  The selectors and MCs must be competent in their repective roles as well.  Furthermore, it doesn't hurt to have a strong  following of attractive females and handsome men.  Even the cost of entry and frequency of events a sound puts on in a particular vicinity may affect its popularity (after all, a sound system must remain accessible - especially to the locality from which it originated).  If the sound attracts a lot of celebrities and crews that brandish a lot of new styles (clothes) and latest dances, these can also be important assets.  The quality , quantity, and diversity of dubplates a sound produces is perhaps the ultimate factor in determining which sounds are the best in the biz (generally, the more popular the artist, the better the dubs).  Although all of the above are very important, probably the single most important factor used to determine if a sound is in fact a number one sound, is its performance in a Sound Clash.

What is a Sound Clash?

         A Sound Clash is a musical competition where selectors and MCs from opposing sounds (two or more, but usually two) match wits in selecting, hyping up the crowd, and toasting (ridiculing the other sound's members).  The object of the clash is to "kill" the other sound or sounds, leaving you the winner.  It usually takes place in a large building or open arena (such as a skating rink or lawn), with the sounds set up at opposite sides, facing each other.

The "Early WarmUp"

          At the very beginning of the clash (called the early warm up), the opposing sounds take turns (usually an hour each) to play music for the crowd.  Each turn is called a "segment", and a pair of segments (one from each competing sound) is called a "round."  During these early rounds, little if any reference is made to the clash that awaits later, and the sounds usually acknowledge each other and big up the massives and crews in the dance.  Sounds usally play 45s (songs that are not dubplates) and play out their "regulars" (older dubplates which hae lost some oftheir appeal because everyone already heard them before).   (Tuffie's Note - At this point in the dance, the guys are usually checking out the ladies and visa-versa and there is a lot of dancing.)

Later Segments & Rounds

          In the wee hours of the morning, the clash begins to develop and the sounds now begin to use their dubplates to toast and musically chastize (as the reggae artist Lt. Stichie puts it) each other.  The segments now become shorter (usually each sound gets to play two rounds of half hour each, then two rounds of fifteen minutes each).  In each segment, the selector tries to discredit the songs played by the opposing sound in the previous segment by playing more popular songs or dubplates, or even dubs directly addressing the songs or artists played by the previous sound (called a "counteraction").  In the mean time, the MC is hyping up the crowd by toasting, ridiculing, and making jokes about the opposing sound in order to foster discontent and disapproval for that sound.

          While the selector is dropping tunes on the turntable, the crowd (usually led by the avid sound followers for that sound) is cheering, hollering, showing lighters, beating down the walls, lighting torches, and waving hand kerchiefs ("wipas") in support of, or against the songs and dubplates that are being played.   If the song or dubplate was an extremely good choice, the people will shout for a forward (to have the record played again).  Good dubplates usually get forwarded 3 or 4 times (although I've seen a Bounty Killer dubplate forwarded 9 times).  Sometimes the selector plays only a couple of seconds of a dubplate and that's enough to drive the entire crowd into a frenzy. Tuffie's Note - Interestingly enough, this is usually one part of the dance where you rarely find any males and females interacting because they are all caught up in the competition.

The Climax - "Dub fi Dub"

           After a couple of rounds back and forth of this, the clash finally simmers down to the moment of truth, the Dub fi Dub round (also called "one fi one" or "steel fi steel").  In this final round, the sounds are allowed to play only one dubplate at a time, then the other sound immediately attempts to counteract it with a better choice of dubplate (also called "answer").  This round is very important because if the selector makes a bad choice, it is usually hard to recover, since the opposing selector is going to find a counteraction to answer with immediately.  This can be compared to the longer segments of earlier rounds, where a bad choice can skillfully be covered up by subsequent better selections.

           In Dub Fi Dub, the motto is do or die!, take no prisoners!, and the selector and MC now play the very best and original of the dubplates they possess.  If you slip yu slide, and sooner or later the superior selector causes the weaker to play all of his hardcore dubplates ("play out his belly"), leaving him with no more dubs worth playing (this is called "running a selector out of tunes." ).  The superior sound must now ask the people if the other sound has lost ("Him Dead?!!!)  If the crowd answers "NO!", then the clash continues and the losing sound is offered a chance to regain momentum.  But if the crowd screams "YES!!", then the selector of the winning sound plays a final tune (or "burial" ) to officially do away with ("kill") the losing sound and discredit the selector ("flop him career like dranko (crow) wings"), thus ending the clash.  

Other Possible Outcomes to a Clash

          The "death" of a sound is the climax of the dance, and what everyone has paid there money to see.  However, in a sound clash, this is not always what happens. Sometimes a sound loses in the early rounds (usually the case with an inexperienced sound for example, or one experiencing technical difficulties).  Sometimes a sound quits ("walk out") the clash and the opposing sound wins by default.  At other times, an act of God (or man) causes the clash to end prematurely (for example, rain in an outdoor clash, or the rare case of an eruption of violence ).  In addition, a sound might win a sound clash, but by such a small margin that the victory is considered a "lucky win." In this case, the other sound merely lost, as opposed to being "killed"!  But probably the most interesting ending of a clash is a "draw."  This is where both sounds have played so excellent that the crowd is split 50/50 as to which sound is the victor. In these cases (somewhat rare), the sounds usually agree to a rematch at the same location at some point in the near future.  Both sounds get credit for the dance, although the underdog coming in usually gets more ratings (widely accepted approval).  (Tuffie's Notes - It is important to note that even though a clash can get extremely heated, after the clash the members of the two sounds are still friends everything is back to normal ("everything criss!")...after all, its only a "musical murder.")

Some Interesting Facts

          Here are some interesting facts before I conclude.....The last credible tie in a clash that many acknowledge was King Addies versus Black Kat (from Jamaica) in 1993 at Biltmore Ball Room in Bklyn where the entire world was split 50/50 after the match......... If I was to choose which clash was the biggest clash ever, it would be a very hard decision, as I can think of tens of clashes that fit this description.  Here are a few examples:-

...........1).....Killamanjaro Sound (from Jamaica) versus King Addies (Bklyn's #1 Sound Killa) at Portmore (for sure!) in Jamaica (1995).  New York's number one clash sound, King Addies with Baby Face and Tony Matterhorn, was pitted against Jamaica's undisputed sound killa Killamanjaro with Ricky Trooper and the Crew.  There was widespread  controversy with the world split 50/50 as to who was the better of the two, but this time Killamanjaro put an end to the the confusion (by a slight margin though)

..............OR ...........

...........2).....Killamanjaro Sound versus Silver Hawk (Jamaic) (1987) Dubbed forever as the dance that made the "Hawk" stop fly, this dance is a favorite among sound system tape collectors (cassette freaks) that were not fortunate enough to have been their in person.  Killamanajaro - armed with the likes of Ninja Man, the Late Great Early B, Professor Nuts, Junior Cat, Major Mackeral, Little John, and more - put a murderation on Silver Hawk that has perhaps never been repeated in another sound clash since then!! 

..............OR ...........

...........3).....Saxon Sound (then England's undisputed #1 sound) versus Third World (NYC's Champion Sound back then from the 90's Area in Brooklyn) (1985).  The UK and USA have always been looked upon as the stepchildren of sound system venues, with the main sound venue being Jamaica of course.  However this dance dubbed USA versus UK opened up the US (and New York City in particular) as a legitmate venue for international sound clashes.  This clash was held over a decade ago and is still talked about today.

To order any of the cassettes mentioned above, as well as Reggae CDs, DVDs, Tapes, & Videos, visit:

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          Sound Systems are much more than meets the eye.  They are more than just sources of new music and the latest dances; they can also be viewed as a sport, or even an art form.  As for what makes a sound No. 1... it's a personal choice I guess - an abundance of whatever particulars a listener feels are important!  

          As a selector on Jamworld Movements and Black Majesty Intl, I can appreciate what goes on behind the scenes in making a sound, and what goes into making a sound number one.  It is a full time job filled with stress and burdens.  But I'll tell you this, there is no other feeling in the world that can be equated with the feeling you get when you stand behind your turntables in a clash, and the crowd cheers you on and annoints you with the ultimate final command that you have sorted records all day to hear, played dubplates all night to hear :- "Murder di tin pan Sound!!!!!!!"  It is at that moment when your sound is crowned  the Victor, that you realize why you play a dance for 12 hours straight at a time, spend thousands of dollars on records and equipment, and come out in the cold to play a dance....ITS FOR THE LOVE OF REGGAE MUSIC!!!

Thank you for reading my article and I hope that it has increased your understanding of, and respect for Reggae Sound Systems...Nuff Respect, PrinceTuffie.

(This Article is copyrighted... Please do not reproduce w/o expressed written permission from the author.)

"Reggae Sound Systems" Article - Copyrighted 1995-2003 by A. Campbell for JAMWORLD MOVEMENTS ENTERPRISES. All Rights Reserved.
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