Sound Clash Resurrection

Last week Cluster Mag probed the future of dancehall music in Jamaica and abroad, asking who would be the next generation’s island superstar in the wake of Vybz Kartel’s incarceration. This week we return to our discussion of Jamaican music to look at the art of sound clash, present and future, and the recent revival ushered in by two landmark events series on the global reggae landscape—Guinness Sounds of Greatness, and Irish and Chin’s World Clash. 

By Erin Macleod and Joshua Chamberlain

Calling clash a Jamaican musical competition is like calling Usain Bolt a runner. This is serious business. Playing the right tune at the right time is a challenge for any dj, but in Jamaican soundclash the stakes are especially high. Its clearest cousin is boxing; each tune is a sharp jab to the opponent, and the next one could be a knockout blow.

On November 4, 2011, battle-tested Ricky Trooper knocked out the younger Rich Squad to win a share of $1M Jamaican at the Guinness Sounds of Greatness competition, a televised series filmed every week in Kingston. But what the corporate sponsorship and slick, revamped TV program hides is an anxiety around the health of sound clash in Jamaica, and this weekend, related events in Montego Bay and New York confirm that sound clash might be OK.

Although the roar of horns during filming meant that it was difficult for the crowd to hear all of the tunes, fans—many first timers—were ready to see a soundboy get buried at this year’s Guinness Sounds of Greatness. Each week, two sounds would compete to move on in the competition through a series of specific rounds that include a Serato DJ software-sponsored “three-tune challenge” of the week, requiring selectors to play only singers to only ska. Best selections are met with forwards—flag waving, horns, and the sounds of pot covers clanging—and bad choices met with the deadly disdain that is clapping.

Soundclash competition started in the 1950s, before dancehall, reggae or ska. Original sound systems would compete by pointing speakers at each other. Whoever drew the largest crowd won the day. Even then, sound system culture balanced on the same three pillars: the music and its “selectors” who decided what to play – usually American soul and R&B sprinkled with calypso, latin music and gospel; the speeches made on the microphone by “deejays”; and the sound. You could have killer tunes and a talented deejay, but if you didn’t have a massive sound system, you’d be on shaky ground. In Beth Lesser’s King Jammy’s, she describes how systems with the most gloriously booming bass and crystal-clear high end—all at top volume—would have to keep it that way all night long in order to walk away champion.

Clashing was in part a means of defending one’s property—as in intellectual property. The rivalry between Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid and Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd in the 50s and 60s was as much a reflection of the commercial competition between their two record labels as it was a battle between sounds. Reid’s assistant, Osbourne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddick took over the top spot in the 70s, helped immensely by U Roy on the mic, and made sure the period was remembered as the decade of dub. It was Ruddock’s protege, Lloyd ‘Prince Jammy’ (later King) James who vied for top sound and studio honors in the 80s with Black Scorpio and Volcano. In each case, while good music helped a producer stake a claim to musical and community respect, a sound system was needed to
maintain it.

In the 80s, individual deejays like Admiral Bailey, Chaka Demus (King Jammys), Yellowman (Aces), Charlie Chaplin (Stur Gav) or General Trees (Black Scorpio) stepped out front and became just as well known as the community-oriented sound systems that provided the all-important platform. A talented deejay and his peers brought a crucial improvisational vocal element and seemingly endless reservoir of lyrical ammunition. Essentially freestyling over music, “rub-a-dub” sound systems employed deejays to directly address and insult rivals.

But deejays can only be in one place at a time, a problem that was solved with the rise of “dubplate specials,” custom records pressed on the spot for sound systems that had good money to spend or even better personal links. Making a one-off recording was a practice exploited since the 60s when, given the lack of radio access, temporary pressings of Jamaican music were first tested at sound system dances.

By the mid-80s it was commonplace for singers to record tailor-made songs for each sound that would be played later while the deejays toasted, rapped or simply deejayed in person. But the deejay trade was based on live performance, and anything else was simply unacceptable. That began to change in ’84 and ’85 with deejays like John Wayne, who broke the dubplate special ceiling by recording one for Klassique Disco, a sound system from East Kingston.

According to Senor Daley, owner of Klassique, John Wayne “kept bothering me and singing to me and I said, ‘No.’ We about to leave [the studio] and John Wayne beg some money. So I say, ‘I don’t want to give you money.’ I say, ‘Deejay a tune for me… same as singer, call our sound name in the song’ and everybody laugh…From there the deejay special take off.”

Klassique didn’t work with rub-a-dub deejays because it was a party sound, holding down RaeTown Old Hits – the dance at the time, and still popular today. “When we played that [John Wayne dub] in RaeTown the place packed up,” remembers Daley. “Everyone thought he was there. That changed the whole thing.” Dubplates won out. They simply travel a lot cheaper than artists, first on platters and later CDs and USB drives.

In the 80s and 90s, clash went international. Cassette tapes of now legendary clashes at Skateland in Kingston or the Biltmore Ballroom in Brooklyn made it to Germany and Japan where the clash scene grew along New York, the UK and Jamaica. Cementing the international reputation of clash, Mighty Crown, a Japanese sound system, relocated to New York in the early 90s and won the heavyweight title, World Clash, in 1999. World Clash had only just been launched the year before by Irish and Chin, two sound system operators from New York. Adding events in Antigua, Toronto, Montego Bay and London over the years, World Clash brought the best of the best together until 2010.

This year Irish and Chin restored their signature sound system competition on the Easter-weekend dancehall calendar, announcing consecutive editions of World Clash in New York City (April 7) and Montego Bay (April 9). Promoted as World Clash R.E.S.E.T. (Restoring, Exciting, Sound System, Entertainment Together), these events differ from Guinness in specific ways.

“The difference between Chin’s clash and Guinness,” says Bass Odyssey’s selector, Dameon, “is Chin’s World Clash is a hard core clash where dissing selectors and bad word cussing is the flavor… Can’t try to change that. It would be like trying to change Bob Marley from being a Rastaman. I think people maybe accept one or two 45 [records], but I think after a minute people will want to hear who can go out spend their money and cut the best customized dubs. Dubplate is soundclash and hard core vibes.”

Introducing new challenges and formats, new competitors in top events and the inclusion of 45s alongside exclusive dubplates all serve to shake things up a bit, and everyone seems to agree something is needed. Whether it’s because of the international economic recession and its effect on the dubplate economy—meaning less new ammunition—or because soundclash’s aggressive nature is alienating today’s fans, the cause is unclear. What is certain is that the soundclash is not as popular an outlet for creative expression as it used to be, and a reset is in order.

Will Rodigan’s exciting 6-5 victory over Bass Odyssey in the wee hours of Sunday morning pump new energy into clash culture? Will the fight between new competitors like Code Red out of JA, Canada’s Rootsman sound system, Heavy Hammer from Italy and more experienced Killamanjaro, Black Kat and Black Blunt, in Montego Bay tomorrow draw new fans to the sport? Clash junkies can only hope. Either way, sweet reggae music is back pon de attack.

Photos from 2009 and 2011 Sounds of Guinness competitions by Erin Macleod.