61 years ago, a man named Duke Vin stowed away on a boat from Kingston to London. In Jamaica, he’d been a selector, spinning records on a prominent reggae sound system—a truck loaded with a generator, amplifiers, and turntables. In the U.K., he found a job cleaning engines for British Rail. But the spirit of sound system culture traveled from with him from Jamaica, and a year after his arrival he’d built his own, using second-hand equipment he’d bought around west London. In 1973, he helped found Notting Hill Carnival, the famous British West Indian-led street festival that’s going stronger than ever to this day. His biggest legacy, though, was being the first to introduce the belly-rumbling power of a sound system to Britain.
Today, the scene has its stalwarts: sound systems such as Aba-Shanti-I and Jah Shaka that have been making the ground shake—and laying the groundwork for U.K. genres like garage, grime, and dubstep—in the 60 years since Duke Vin first bought his second-hand turntable and £15 speaker. Among them are Channel One, one of the most consistently renowned and revered dub reggae systems, who maintain a crowded corner at Notting Hill Carnival and a residency at Shoreditch club Village Undergound to this day. Channel One was started by selector Mikey Dread along with his brother Jah T (today, it includes MC Ras Kayleb). Dread grew up in north east London in the 1970s, and was just old enough to witness the beginnings of Vin’s influence on the capital. Now, Channel One is one of the U.K.’s biggest systems: Dread has toured the world, and won the 2010 Red Bull Culture Clash (becoming the first sound system to play the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena in the process). As Channel One prepare to tour the U.K., The FADER asked Mikey Dread to tell the story of how he built his own sound system from the ground up—and how it’s stayed constant even as the world shifted around him.
“Just because something else comes onto the market doesn’t mean you have to chase after it. Learn to build with what you got.”—Mikey Dread
MIKEY DREAD: It started from the family—from the old man really, because he had a sound system [Admiral Bailey Sound]. He used to play at parties and weddings; we've always had it in the family. I saw a sound system at home, so I always knew what a sound system was. Older guys used to come around and fix my old man's equipment, fix up his amplifiers and things like that, for the parties. I was seeing inside amplifiers from the early days.
I started wanting to build my own sound system when I was at school. In our school, there were about three or four from all around the community, from the streets of east London, and we used to always go into community centers and play one or the other, on a Friday night. I was good with my hands because I used to do a lot with wood, and then I started building boxes [speaker stacks to amplify audio, as found on traditional sound systems]. I first had a go at building a box in my mother’s cellar. [It was] a Saturday afternoon, and my mother didn't know where I was. I was downstairs, cutting up wood and putting wood together, and making up a box. [I] built it by hand, nothing got off a production line. Back then, you had to build things by hand, and you didn't have electric drills and electric saws, you had to do everything by hand, hand saw and all that.
I was about 11 or 12 when I started going [to Notting Hill Carnival]. My earliest memories of carnival are seeing a load of sound systems, and a load of police, all over the place. There was also the early stages of the troubles in carnival—it’s good that they're not really there anymore. There was always a lot of police standing on every corner.
I first started touching a sound system out in the public in about 1973. The earliest parties [we played] were wedding functions and things like that. We used to just go and play in community centers. Everyone was doing the same thing, there were a million sounds the same as mine out there at the time, so it was [competitive]; some people were further down the line, and some people were not. We didn't really stand out, we were just another sound system. You just go with the flow and play what you can. Everybody was on a level playing field then, depending on what equipment you had...you're doing your thing, you get your following as you're going along.
I first started to play [at Notting Hill] 33 years ago—so that was ‘82, I think. We basically just got invited by a guy who used to live around the area. He said, “You have a sound system, if you want to come play on the corner, [I’ll] give you power,” and we just said “Yeah, why not?” That’s how the legacy started. The first time was good, we weren't playing to a lot of people, we were playing to the people who were passing.
We wanted to try and get a decent enough sound system to go and play in bigger venues, so in the ‘80s, we started getting bigger sound systems, bigger boxes. We'd have a garage, because you couldn't bring it into the house anymore, it'd be getting over-sized. So we had to go get a garage that we'd lock it in...At the same time, you need transport. So we decided to meet the man down the road, who was selling a little truck, and we bought this little truck off him. That was our first truck. You can't play a sound system until you get it to the venue first, and you can't have sound systems in a house, you need a garage or a lock-up to keep it in.
1980 to ‘83, that’s when we started touring around the country, colleges and polytechnics and universities. We did that for a good 10 years. Northumberland Polytechnic, to Middlesborough University we used to play in quite a lot, all the way down to Brighton. If you wanted your sound to branch out—there was obviously no internet or anything like that—so if people were going to hear you, you had to go to them.
The scene changed...later in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, [universities] started to get their own discotheques. They wouldn't let you take a sound system into these places anymore. [So] we started to go out to the continent. Our first job on the continent was in 1990, and we first went there and played about three dates, and then we'd have a tour of four dates three months later, and that was in northern Italy, Milan, Rome, Bologna, and a place called Ostia. I'm sure we made a good contribution to the continental [popularity of sound systems], because that’s when sound systems were beginning to blow up on the continent, and that’s when DJs were beginning to play reggae music on the continent.
The audience [at Notting Hill Carnival today] is more European, more worldwide; back then [in the ‘80s] it was obviously more black-orientated, but now everyone from the four corners of the earth is coming to Channel One’s corner. At carnival, we can be playing to 8,000 people a day—when we started we would play to 30 people.
Everyone knew when we won Red Bull [Culture Clash 2010 at Wembley Arena], what it did was highlight what sound systems can do—it basically put it up on a higher level, especially Channel One, and reggae music as a whole. What it’s doing, it’s making other youths now want to be involved in reggae music, want to be involved in sound systems, and that’s the whole idea—from generation to generation, when we go around the world, they want to build a sound system. It’s a cycle: what we used to do back in the ‘70s, as school kids, at all these community sound systems, is happening in all different countries now. You might go somewhere like São Paulo in Brazil, and there’s three or four sound systems.
For a long time we had the same boxes [I built at the beginning], they were in there for—until we got the ones we have now—about 15 years. We played with some of [the original boxes] in Canada just the other day. They still sound how you want. With Channel One, we’re still trying to keep up an analog sound; that’s the key to what we do, is trying to keep up the analog sound. Because of the way components are now, everything’s gone to digital, and they're not making the analog stuff anymore. So it’s either you try and keep up and go with the flow, or basically you get left behind.
A lot of sound systems bring brand new stuff in, but at the end of the day, people don't really care, as long as your system sounds good. You have to learn to do with what you got—just because something else comes onto the market doesn't mean you have to chase after it. Learn to build with what you got. [I learnt that] from the old man.
It’s a spiritual feeling. It’s not just the way the sound system sounds. Every time I play something, you know the difference between a sound system and DJs; DJs will come along, and you might have five DJs in one evening, on the PA system or whatever, [and] everyone wants to play the Top 10. But I don't need to play the Top 10. What you do is you just take your time, play some Bob Marley—because a lot of people might hear Bob Marley on the radio, but not on the sound system, so that’s the thing. You take your time, build it up, people go get something to eat, something to drink, listen to tunes that they probably haven't heard from years ago. It’s a spiritual evening, where you take your time.