Jamaican music and sound systems


 A historical survey of Jamaican popular music       

             The Jamaican popular music tradition is unique in the Caribbean musical landscape.  Its sound can be clearly discerned from other styles, such as meringuezouk, or the Martinican beguine (Desroches, 1999), whose African and European influences might be more easily perceived.  With respect to many other Caribbean styles, the peculiarity of reggae relates to its familiarity among North American audiences.  In order to understand the uniqueness of a phenomenon like reggae, one must appreciate that most Jamaican popular music after World War II owes a significant part of its style to a relationship with the United States.  This is not to say that African influences do not contribute to the Jamaican sound.  It is simply a fact that those influences are more subtle, especially to North American listeners who readily focus on the intelligible aspects of the music, those closer to styles created in the U.S.  This relationship with the U.S. is what makes Jamaican music unique in the Caribbean.  More specifically, it is the relationship between Jamaicans and African-Americans that has shaped the evolution of Jamaican music.  Black American musical styles, such as jazz, rhythm and blues and soul have had a tremendous impact on early Jamaican music, while some Jamaican creations later managed to influence American styles such as hip hop.  This back-and-forth exchange should be the stepping stone to understanding the complexity of Jamaica’s popular music evolution after World War II.

            The next important concept that should be linked to the Jamaican music world is the role of the sound system.  It must be understood that the sound system has played a crucial role both as a mediator and as a creative force throughout the evolution of the various styles of Jamaican popular music.  During the late 1960s, the sound system’s role came to differ from its beginnings as a mere outlet for music when producers began incorporating sound system techniques (performed in the dancehalls) into their studio pieces.  Thus, the various features of some Jamaican musical styles only fully make sense when considering their relationship to the phenomenon of the Jamaican sound system.

Early influences: jazz and blues

            Popular music first wafted into Jamaica on radio waves from the United States during the post-WWII era (late 1940s).  This music took the form of black America’s two greatest traditions: jazz and blues.  These exciting musical expressions found a highly receptive environment in Jamaica’s newly urbanized black community.  Early indigenous styles such as mento, although still somewhat popular and respected, were losing touch with the realities of urban life.  American jazz, whether in the form of hot, swing or bebop, became extremely popular in local dances and concerts, spawning many indigenous Jamaican jazz virtuosos.  These individuals would later play a significant role in shaping Jamaica’s first unique urban music.  Blues seized the Jamaican public’s spirits when it was manifested as jump-blues, later called rhythm-and-blues or r&b.  This style was energetic, exuberant and deeply emotional, having an edge unseen in earlier musical styles.  It later evolved into the sweeter sound of soul which also took hold in Jamaica.  This “Afro-American invasion” of Jamaica’s musical culture resulted in some attempts to locally duplicate American style blues singers and was met with initial acceptance.  However, the popularity and respect of Jamaican blues or soul bands and singers such as Jackie Opel or Laurel Aitken could not hold a sustained battle against the influx of “authentic” black American records.  The public knew what it wanted and that was not what the Jamaican singers ultimately provided. The focus remained on the original source of this music, on artists like Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner .  Meanwhile, the Jamaican jazz community composed of an elite group of trained musicians, provided talent for local big-band or r&b style dances across the island while steadily gaining individual notoriety.  One of these musicians, the legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin, went on to become an integral part of Jamaica’s musical history along with a host of his peers from the jazz community.

            In 1962, Jamaica gained its independence from Britain.  The generalized identity crisis that accompanied this event manifested itself within the island’s musical culture.  The 1950s had been a decade of musical exploration and appreciation for Jamaican audiences but the local creative forces had not yet come up with a suitable Jamaican answer to the invading American styles.  With independence, the lack of originality in its music threatened to send Jamaica further into cultural crisis.  The rural had given way to the urban, ghetto realities grew more dismal every year, and old values including music, didn’t answer any cultural needs.  Jamaica had entered into the international community as an island in flux. 


            Fortunately, a group of musicians led by a famous sound system promoter and producer, stepped into the cultural void and gave Jamaica its first local popular music sensation: ska.  The producer’s name was Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, operator of the famous Downbeat sound system.  The group of musicians, which included icons such as Don Drummond, Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alfonso, became known as The Skatalites (or Ska-talites).  This was Jamaica’s first all-star supergroup composed of musicians who had made their name in the jazz circuit.  Although short-lived as a group, the Skatalites along with their most famous producer, Coxsone Dodd, were responsible for laying down the foundations of the first uniquely Jamaican modern sound.

            Ska, like many names of musical styles in Jamaica, is a word with obscure origins.  Some say it comes from corrupted hipster expressions of the day like “skavoovie,” or that it is a word that imitates sounds in the music itself, such as the “ska-ska-ska” accents of the saxophone on the upbeats (ibid.), or the “skank” sound of the chunky guitar chords on that same accent.  In any case, ska can be seen as a mixture of jazz and blues in a Jamaican context.  Early ska borrows its rhythmic pattern directly from rhythm and blues.  The characteristic “shuffle” feel of this rhythm is clearly illustrated by the Ska-talites’ Scandal Ska(track 2).  However, some rhythmic reorganization is already taking place at this early stage.  Essentially, all changes in the rhythm from America to Jamaica involve an increased emphasis on the “weak” or after-beats of the rhythm.  In addition, the “upbeats,” that is the and in 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, are emphasized in a stronger fashion by the piano, guitar and sometimes saxophone. This gives ska, and later reggae, its most unique “feel.”  It is important to note that these upbeats exist in African-American music from swing to rhythm and blues, but they are more intensely isolated in the Jamaican context.  While the 2 and 4 beats of a 4/4 structure are also re-emphasized in ska, this is often done by omitting the bass drum’s hit on the 1 and 3, while keeping it on the weak beats.  The classic Skatalites pieceOccupation clearly illustrates this rhythmic pattern (track 3).  Blues often emphasizes the bass drum on every beat creating a more consistent “riding” effect.  Ska has rearranged this pattern to create a tension-buildup-and-release feel that is at the essence of Jamaican music.  It is important to note that at this point, the bass guitar (or contrabass) is still locked into the classic “walking” pattern of blues or boogie-woogie music.  Ska’s jazz element can be heard through its horn arrangements.  The instrumental style of the Ska-talites mirrors the classic head-solo-head pattern of American jazz.  Call-and-response is also apparent, highlighting African-American and ultimately African, roots.



            While ska’s lyrics dealt mostly with love and relationships, some songs touched on social commentary, such as the Wailers’ Simmer Down (featuring the Skatalites).  Violence and gang activity grew as the ghettoes did, and this ultimately got reflected in Jamaican music as it did in American urban centers.  The relationship between gangster imagery and music grew with the advent of rocksteady, a slower, more intense version of ska.  The word, describing the drummer’s necessary solidity,  refers to a dance as well, as most Jamaican music names do.  The bass in rocksteady is emphasized a bit more as its pattern begins to loosen from the strict walking-blues bass arrangement.  Rocksteady’s most noteworthy aspect relates to its extra-musical character.  It so happened that gangster types, called rude boys, were gaining notoriety in Kingston ghettoes at the time and became the subject of many a rocksteady-style song such as Desmond Dekker’s 007 (Shanty Town).  This style gave the gangster image its dual character, that of both hero and villain.  While most songs involving rude boys contained a warning or denouncement theme, the elevation of the gangster into a creative icon in both music and film (The Harder they Come, 1973), set the stage for a sort of acceptance of the rude boy phenomenon as a powerful and revered outlaw.  This idea is taken to the extreme in later Jamaican musical styles.         


            Rocksteady can be seen as a transitional style between ska and Jamaica’s most famous creation, reggae.  Making its appearance in the early 1970s, the reggae style is thought by some to start with Toots and the Maytals’ Do the Reggay.  This song refers to a dance called reggay or reggae, from the words “raggedy”  or “ragamuffin”both implying an ill-fitting, or unorthodox character.  In this style the bass is strongly emphasized and free of its strict “walking” bond.  It is also amplified to a higher degree than it has been so far in Jamaican music.  The characteristic “stutter” or drive in the rhythmic pattern of the highly amplified bass later becomes synonymous with a specific type of reggae, known as the rub-a-dub style.  This sub-style is distinguished by other reggae types such as “vocal,” “rocker,” or “lover’s” by its heavy, driving bass in that stutter-stop pattern, as well as its bass-drum emphasis on the 1 and 3 beats, an innovation by drummer Sly Dunbar . The rub-a-dub style is significant when sound system deejays of the late 1970s/early 80s are considered. The general rhythmic pattern of reggae is sometimes more drawn-out as compared to rocksteady (due to omitted snare accents), giving the illusion of a much slower tempo.  This creates more space for expression and improvisation around the beats.  In reality, reggae’s tempo is not much slower than rocksteady’s (~75 compared to ~80 bpm respectively), but its atmosphere has a spacious, fluid character which makes it unique in the Jamaican musical spectrum.  Reggae is commonly associated with Rastafarianism.  It did not necessarily arise from Rasta action or beliefs as many early reggae songs have no mention of the faith at all.  The relationship between reggae and Rastafarianism is due to the conversion of some artists, such as Bob Marley, to those beliefs.  In this way, the reggae style became an expressive vehicle for the Rasta message and gained a more “conscious” or philosophical edge in addition to its role as social or political commentary.  With reggae, the African roots of Jamaican popular music seemed to come to the forefront, whereas earlier styles wove these influences with more subtlety.   West African drumming styles such as nyahbingi and buru, can be said to be the chief African influence of reggae in terms of musical patterns.  This exploration of traditional rhythmic movements was combined with a general sense of Africanity or “return to the roots” concepts which deepened the power and meaning of reggae music.  With this spiritual awakening in Jamaican music through reggae, a dichotomy was created in the musical culture which exists to this day.  The spiritually active, politically subversive, and socially conscious messages of certain reggae songs are typically foiled by a more down-to-earth, humorous, sexually charged, and violent lyrical style, known as slack or slackness, popularized by sound system deejays in the 1980s.          

The rise of deejays and “dancehall” music

            This slack-style is considered to be somewhat of a reaction to the heaviness of the reggae message and came to dominate the crowd’s interest through the 1980s and early 90s in Jamaica.  Throughout these decades, Jamaican music became heavily influenced by hip hop, a style which in fact arose in New York City with the help of sound system deejays from Jamaica (ibid: 137).  This roundabout pattern of influence is characteristic of the close relationship between black communities in the U.S. and Jamaica.  Through this relationship a new form of music called dancehall emerged in the 1980s.  Essentially all popular Jamaican music owes its life to the sound system and the dancehall, yet the term “dancehall” came to describe a particular style which arose post- “roots” reggae.   The musical label “dancehall” illustrates that the sound system played a significant creative role in shaping Jamaican music by the 1980s.  Although most styles can be called “dancehall music” beginning in the 1980s, the expression currently tends to be used to describe a more modern (late 1980s/early 90s) form of Jamaican music which is a popular staple to this day at sound system events.  It is characterized by a heavy, syncopated drum beat , often electronically generated, fast-flowing, with an aggressively delivered lyrical content.  Synthesized bass or keyboard sounds often accompany the rhythm in a somewhat minimal fashion. Sampling is common in dancehall, underlining its connection to hip hop music.  The vocal style is akin to rap in that the rhythmic aspect is often more highly developed than the melodic statement.  The terms ragamuffin or ragga are sometimes used to describe songs with this type of lyrical flow, which are more modern in origin than “dancehall” songs from the early 1980s, whose lyrical flow is closer to a sung tune and contains less aggressive messages.  Lyrical content that was commonly “slack” in the mid-80s reaches a distribution pattern from slack to conscious in the current scene.  A “roots revival” occurred in the early 90s in which some dancehall artists started to incorporate conscious or Rastafarian messages in their lyrics.  Many artists, however, fall somewhere in between alternating between a gangster-type persona and a spiritual leader or sometimes combining both in one song.  A good example of modern dancehall music is Buju Banton’s Champion, a song whose violent-sounding tone is nevertheless broadcasting a positive message of power and confidence in relationships.  Early dancehall represents a crucial turn in Jamaican music’s evolution. 

The legacy of dub

            From the inception of what is now called “roots” or “roots and culture” reggae, a sub-genre of Jamaican music branched off and became known as dub.  As a style in its own right, dub was spawned from instrumental versions often simply called versions, of reggae songs in which the vocals were “dubbed out” for the purposes of mastering.  It can be understood as a musical expression involving the creative manipulation (or re-mixing) of instrumentals.  Its sound is akin to an esoteric, effects-laden voyage through the reggae soundscape and may include vocal snippets.  Dub’s main producers are notorious for pushing the envelope when it comes to making a musical statement and often bring the earthy sound of reggae into the realm of science-fiction.  The two most important dub producers are King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, along with his band the Upsetters.  Perry’s Alien in Out a Space clearly illustrates his modern techno-magical indulgences.

            Dub is important because it was the first type of Jamaican music whose creative statements were based on existing records, whether they be entire instrumental tracks or samples.  It also brought studio and sound system manipulation to the forefront of the creative process exposing Jamaican music’s crucial link to studio producers and their technology.  Dub music ushered in an era where the sound system became an important creative factor in Jamaican music’s production. 

The anatomy of a Jamaican sound system

             Isolating the different aspects of a sound system can be rather tricky, so it is best to approach this task with a few basic concepts in mind.  It has already been stated that in the Jamaican sense of the expression, “sound system” (sometimes written soundsystem), includes human beings as well as machinery.   A Jamaican sound system can be thought of as a musical group or band.  In such a group there are essential roles that must be filled (playing instruments, singing, etc.), but in the broadest sense, the members are not limited to a specific number, nor must there be a strict minimum (perhaps at least one person).  A sound system requires that certain roles or “jobs” be taken care of by any number of individuals.  Thus, rather than thinking that each role demands one person, one should appreciate the flexibility and potential for multi-tasking that occurs within the human aspect of a given sound system.  Stricter requirements exist when dealing with the material aspect of a sound.  In this arena, one encounters more consistency throughout various events.

Material components

            The simplest aspect of a sound system to understand is its material composition.  No matter who owns it, brought it, rented it, or set it up, a typical modern sound system setup consists of the following: turntables (at least two), DJ mixer, headphones, microphone (at least one), public address system/amplifier, and an array of very large speakers, especially for the lower frequencies (these are known as boxes or bass bins).  A record collection is obviously the final material component needed to make a sound system function.

            Behind the scenes of the material, the ownership of the physical sound system and records is slightly more complicated.  Historically, the equipment and record collection were acquired and owned by the sound system’s promoter (ex. Coxsone Dodd), and traveled from dance to dance.  Any operators of the sound system at a given dance were hired by its promoter.  The sound as a whole was hired through the promoter as well, who collected most of the profit.  Thus, the quality of the sound (physically) and the record collection were symbols of the promoter’s prestige.  In modern times, at least in Montreal, the non-record materials (speakers, etc.) are not typically part of a given sound system.  It has become the duty of the venue management or the event organizer to provide and maintain the physical setup.  The individuals that are part of a sound are now simply responsible for bringing records and performing (some might prefer to use their own turntables or microphones).  Therefore, when one currently refers to a sound or sound system, one can be talking about a group of individuals with records and various talents that perform at various events.  One could in fact be talking about a single individual.  The record collection, while still being a symbol of prestige, is typically owned by whoever is playing it.  Any managerial or promoter type person who might be associated with a modern sound system occupies a primarily administrative/marketing role.  The creative input of a modern sound system promoter is thus reduced.           

Human components

            With respect to the human element of a sound system, several roles can be isolated which are necessary for a proper performance.  These are: sound man (or box man)selectormixer (or disc-jock), and deejay. Some sound systems also include dancers as part of their performance, but the core roles are the four listed above.  It is important to keep in mind that these each of these roles need not correspond to a specific individual on a one-to-one basis.  One person may fill a combination of several roles.  In essence, the human element features the connection to the sound system’s audience, bringing static media alive in a unique performance. 

Sound man       

            The sound man (or box man) role involves the setting up and maintenance of the physical sound system.  In the early days, promoters hired sound men to specifically take care of their equipment at dances.  This involved checking connections, making sure sound could be heard and was balanced, and protecting the equipment from damage (although in some cases, this last role was taken over by armed guards).  A sound man could become a permanent member of a sound system, being exclusively associated with it and its promoter.  Today, this role is almost entirely absent from a typical sound system, as the maintenance of the physical setup is usually the responsibility of the venue.  Some places have a sound man as a permanent member of their staff that stays on the premises to take care of the performance, while others hire a temporary one or leave it up to the promoters.

Selector  (Selecta)          

            The selector (or selecta) chooses the records to be played.  Someone who fills the role of selector must provide a proper flow of songs based on the relationship between the musical statement he wants to make and the will of the audience.  This role is perhaps the most subtle, as it must rest on the negotiation of crowd reaction and personal expression.  The poles of intention and expectation clash through this negotiation, and subsequently feed off each other.  A good selector should not act as if he is detached from the audience’s desires, nor should he let the audience completely dictate the sequence of songs.  Thus, two levels of appreciation are set up: that of the performer (selector, other members of sounds) and that of the receiver (audience).  Rarity, originality, and sequence or thematic flow of records are all factors which heavily influence appreciation by “professionals,” that is, those involved in the performance.  Popularity, “danceability” and content (both musical and lyrical) tend to figure more prominently in the spectator or layman’s appreciation. These features are not strictly associated to either of these levels.  For example, a selector might be impressed with another’s performance through observation of the crowd’s reaction.  In essence, the selector must string together the thematic flow of the dance while navigating time limits, mood changes and observed behaviours.


            The mixer (or disc-jock) aspect of the sound system is commonly combined with the role of selector into one individual.  Nevertheless, it can be isolated as a necessary role distinct from the selector, and has been known to be the sole domain of one particular person within a given sound system.  The word mixer simply refers to the role of stringing or mixing together various records in sequence.  Disc-jock  (a more modern term commonly used in hip hop), a derivative of disc-jockey, describes one who physically manipulates records according to various techniques (mixing being one of them).  The word mixer is flexible and can be used to describe one who does a variety of technical manipulations as well (described in the next section).  In essence this role builds on that of the selector by adding a technical level of creativity to the mental work of the selector.  A good mixer must essentially make the chosen records flow into each other nicely.  This can be done in a basic way by pitch-shifting the record (using a dial or slider on the turn table) which speeds up or slows down the tempo of a record in order to match that of one currently being played.  This procedure, known as “beat-matching” is currently used in many different musical scenes, from funk to techno.  Since many reggae songs have similar rhythms,  beat-matching provides a smooth, almost imperceptible transition between songs, contributing to the establishment of a “vibe” or atmosphere.  Since song selection obviously contributes to the “mixability” of two given records, the selector must keep in mind the job of the mixer when selecting a sequence of records to play.  This intimate relation between mixing and song choice is perhaps the main reason that the mixer and selector roles often coincide with one individual.  When this occurs, the label selector is the one that is applied.  Therefore, it is common to associate technical manipulations with the selector of a sound system.  Within the sound system community various selector-types can be known as “better mixers” or “better selectors,” that is, one person’s stronger point is their record selection, whereas another’s is their technical ability.


            Last but not least, the deejay role is the sound system’s direct connection to the audience.  The expression “MC”, used in hip hop culture, is equivalent to the Jamaican deejay, but is more informative.  As aMaster of Ceremony, the deejay’s role is to animate the dance, keep the atmosphere interesting, and “bring alive” the recorded music.  This can be done by adding toasts, thematic commentary, “nursery doggerel” or even percussive mouth-sounds to records being played.  Toasting is a form of salute or recognition and is important in that it connects the audience with the performance.  Moreover, it can convey respect or admiration for certain performers whether they be present at the dance or heard through records.  Thematic commentary (talking about what is being heard what is being seen, or what has happened in the world) serves as a self-reflexive narrative which can crystallize emotions, trends and symbols in an entertaining and potentially subversive way.  Nursery doggerel is a form of altered nursery-rhyming and is indicative of the post-modern nature of the deejay performance.  It can be combined with lyrical snippets, slogans, “nonsense” words (scatting), movie dialogue, and advertising to form the content of a deejay’s spoken-vocal flow.  An important part of a deejay’s prestige comes from the references he might use in his performance and the crowd’s familiarity with them.  A common strategy is to use lyrical references from popular songs and reformat them into one’s own performance.  The way in which he strings these references together, perhaps twisting their meaning in order to form an incisive comment, also contributes to his appeal and respect.  If all of this can be done in a humourous or entertaining way, the deejay’s success at the dance is almost assured.

Division of labour

            While all of these roles are necessary for a successful sound system, it is important to remember that they need not be filled by separate individuals.  With the separation of equipment and talent, it is currently possible to have a sound man, selector, mixer and deejay in one person (although forcing the talent to be the sound man is often indicative of poor club management).  This solo manifestation can be seen in sounds around Montreal such as Little Thunder.  However, groups of individuals called crews are more commonly associated with sounds.  Earthquake Sound Crew is a local example of this.  Because of this modern emphasis on the talent rather than the audio equipment, the word “system” is more commonly dropped from the original expression leaving the word “sound” to describe an individual or a collective.  Therefore, the material “system” is no longer a part of a sound’s prestige.  The only material element which is important for today’s sounds is, of course, the record collection.

            Typically, individuals involved with sounds fall in either of two categories: selector or deejay.  Here, the selector is the multipurpose technical guru who usually owns, chooses, and manipulates the records.  The deejay handles the microphone and directs the proceedings of the dance.  This dichotomy is apparent in other musical cultures such as hip hop and jungle, where performers are either musical-types or vocal-types (DJs or MCs).  Some crews have multiple people in each domain who take turns as the performance flows.  For example, having two deejays in a sound system creates another level of interaction which entertains the crowd.  The use of alternating selectors (sometimes called a “versus”) also causes intrigue and heightens the competitive aspect of the performance.  The interplay between the two different selectors and their material adds another dimension to the performance which further draws the crowd’s attention and participation. The competitive aspect is especially highlighted if one of the selectors is clearly favoured over another.

The sound clash

            The competitive level rises considerably if these alternating selectors are from different or rival sound systems.  This phenomenon is often organized and referred to as a sound clash (or DJ battle in hip hop terms).  In this event the crowd becomes the collective judge of the overall performance, declaring a winning sound based on the criteria of each role described earlier.  It is interesting to note that this “clashing” aspect can be found in some West African musical traditions such as that of the Anlo-Ewe of Ghana.  It has become an important part of many record-based musical scenes, namely reggae, hip hop and electronica from house to drum ‘n’ bass.  In the dancehall world the clashing aspect is an important tool for drawing in crowds and building up prestige.  While it symbolizes a battle, it is not necessarily a simple reflection of the violence inherent in a given society.  For the Ewe as much as the Jamaicans, musical clashes are a good way to establish power relations within the musical community as determined by the tastes of the crowd.  Thus, sound systems ritualize their inherent competition in a way that includes their audience.  This gives the receptors an opportunity to influence the production of the performance.

Specific techniques of the sound system

          Each basic creative role in the sound system has certain specific strategies or techniques associated with it.  The set of these techniques can be divided into two domains -one that is technical and the other vocal. These correspond to the selector/mixer and deejay respectively.  The various techniques used by these members of a sound system occur through a relationship between the selector and deejay which is the backbone of the dancehall performance.  Communication is important between these actors as it would be between members of a live musical group.  However, while a typical band’s on-stage communication might often be implicit or hidden from the audience, the deejay-selector exchange is explicit and an integral part of the performance. 

The deejay often acts as the “voice of the dance,” expressing his particular thoughts and desires with regards to the progression of the performance.  More than just idle chatter, the deejay’s comments can serve as a litmus test for the state of the dance.  They can also fill a more creative role when then are focused on the selector.  Deejay chatter which involves “directing” the selector’s actions is codified into recognizable commands or requests which correspond to a technical procedure which is executed by the selector/mixer.  Some of these are listed below:

Haul and pull up! (haul and pull)

            This command requires the selector to physically pick up the needle off the record and return it to the beginning of a song.  This is perhaps the oldest technical trick that emerged in the era of single turntables.  In order to replay a song from the beginning during this era, one had no choice but to stop the record and physically place the needle at the beginning.  Nowadays, the dual turntable setup allows for more sophistication in this procedure, as one record can be playing while the haul and pull is executed on the other.  The significance of this procedure relates to the idea of crowd pleasing.  In the early days, crowds who reacted strongly to a particular record were treated to a second hearing through a haul and pull.  This, combined with anticipatory deejay chatter of the  “Are you ready for it again?” type built up the energy at the dance.  In some cases, a haul and pull can be thought of as a teasing maneuver when only the beginning of a song is heard before the needle comes off the record.  This creates tension and anticipation as the crowd’s appetite is whet with a brief musical tidbit.  In some cases, tension can be heightened by playing a snippet of a recognizable song, and then replaying the whole piece only after a couple of other songs have been played.


            Also known as a backspin, this technique involves spinning a playing record backwards with one’s hand.  The actual sound of the reverse-spinning record is meant to be heard clearly, and is part of the mixing procedure.  For maximum effect, the rewind must be done in time, so the rhythm is not broken from song to song.  The rewind typically refers to a controlled, slow manipulation of the record which causes it to rotate backwards.  In order to achieve this, the selector simply places his fingers near the center of the record and rotates them in a reverse direction.  This creates the same effect as the haul and pull, but in a more dramatic fashion.  The idea in both cases is to return to an earlier part (or the beginning) of a record.  The deejay often lays down chatter on top of the rewind, adding to the tension buildup.  Another way of rewinding a record is to do it in one fell swoop, creating a much faster backward sound.  In this technique, the selector appears to slap the record back in one motion.  This is most often used as a sound effect or transition between two records.  Again, timing is crucial to the flow of the mix.

Deejay-selector interplay

            It is important to remember that the physical techniques mentioned above are ones which are associated with deejay commands having the same name (for example, the deejay command “rewind!” asks the selector to execute that manoeuver).  This does not necessarily mean that they can only be executed at the request of the deejay, but it usually means that if the deejay tells the selector to perform any of them, it should be done.  The relationship between the deejay and selector is underlined in the way the requests are phrased.  If a haul and pull is desired by the deejay, he would typically refer to the selector as “my selector,” in the form “Haul and pull up, my selecta!”  This way of speaking tends to reinforce the bond between the two roles, while affirming the deejay’s position as that of conductor or director.   It should be noted, however, that historically the deejay’s role has evolved considerably from the beginning of the sound system to the present.  In earlier times, the record playing aspect was most central to the performance and the deejay’s job was to add flavour to it.  By the time of dancehall music, the deejay became the central focus of the show and assumed a more directorial role.  In some cases, the records came to serve the lyrical performance, as in the use ofversions, that is, instrumental versions of exisitng songs.  These provided a base for different vocal performances in the dancehall.  The Jamaican sound system’s use of versions has also structured other music scenes where the separation between music and vocals is at their core (hip hop, for example, with the split between MC and DJ).  This dichotomy resulted in the development of each craft in a relatively separate way.  However, in order to complete a performance and fully please the audience the two worlds must inevitably merge.  A smooth interplay between the deejay and selector is as crucial as the harmony between musicians and singers.  A disjointed performance where the selector’s manipulations clash with the deejay’s chatter or requests, quickly destroys any kind of “vibe” or energy at the dance.

Bass Drop

            While it is commonly accepted that the deejay is responsible for conducting the show, some technical manipulations are more dependent on the will of the selector, and do not necessarily correspond to deejay requests.  In fact, the selector can have input on the course of the performance by subtly manipulating the records in conjunction with deejay’s vocal flow.  An example of this type of technique is the bass drop.  This essentially involves taking away the bass from the record by turning a knob on the mixer.  This leaves the song quite thin, especially since the bass frequencies are typically amplified to the extreme at sound system dances.  A variation of this technique is to “cut” or take away the music entirely using the mixer’s fader, leaving the crowd in a state of greater suspense.  The idea is then to reintroduce the bass or music at a moment of maximum tension, such as just before a verse begins.  During this break in the song, the deejay can embellish the sense of tension with chatter and anticipate the striking return of the song to its full range.  This is typically a live technique but it has worked its way into the studio to be featured on recordings since the late 1960s.  When it was first played at a dancehall, the format of dropping out bass or rhythm and having deejay chatter come in before reintroducing the song caused a sensation among stunned crowds who were not expecting to hear sound system techniques on record.  This phenomenon is important because it is one of the first instances where the influence of the sound system was clearly heard on recorded media produced in the studio.


            Another important and influential selector technique known as “juggling,” involves stringing records (that have the exact same rhythm) together in a seamless fashion.  This creates a continuous flow or “groove” that extends the rhythm indefinitely.  This is akin to American disco dance mixes whose nonstop groove is meant as a service to the dancers.  Juggling is important because it shifted emphasis away from the deejay and back to the selector as the efforts of the sound system became geared to the needs of the dancers.  It also included the crowd in the performance on a greater level through its emphasis on a non-stop dance beat.  This type of dance eventually replaced the vocalist-driven dance in the late 1980s.  Juggling also came to be featured on recordings and spawned the phenomenon of one-rhythm albums, in which one instrumental track provided a nonstop back-beat to various vocal “versions” of the same piece.

Calls and sound effects                                                            

            Other sound system features which eventually found their way onto records include calls and sound effects.  Calls made by the deejay are forms of toasting that involve expressions of respect.  These are interspersed throughout the performance and are used in reaction to people, records or events that the deejay feels deserve special mention.  Such expressions which include shockout!, big up! and legal!, are shouted in order to convey some sense of respect or admiration.  For example, the deejay might call shockout! to some members of the crowd whom he feels are worthy of being singled out for praise.  This essentially conveys the feeling of “you’re special” (this specific call is an older one according to Prymtym).  Big up is a common expression that has worked its way into mainstream language among the youth.  It is commonly used in conjunction with someone’s name in the form of a respectful salutation, as in “Big up to Prymtym.”  It can also refer to objects or places which the deejay feels the need to mention and to praise.  Legal! is a unique expression common to the dancehall that has specific historical origins.  It derives from the presence of police or military personnel at dances in Jamaica.  Originally, the deejay would call out a respectful legal! (as in members of the law) to the militiamen around the dancehall, inviting a gunshot salute in return (or vice-versa).  The call was later used as a metaphor to suggest that something reflects the power of a police or militia officer.

            Sound effects which can be commonly heard at dances and on recordings include firecrackers, air horns and gunshots (real or imitated).  These are essentially used to heighten the energy of the dance and reflect the celebratory nature of these events.  They can also serve as a communication tool for the audience in reaction to the performance. Historically, gunshots either came from lawful persons as a salute, or from gangsters seeking to disrupt the dance (referred to as licking a shot in Jamaican slang). Their inclusion on the records serves as a reminder of live events and adds to the intensity of a piece.  Imitation of a gunshot, through the expression boh!, is commonly used by deejays and crowd members alike in order to convey appreciation for a particular thing.  Certain expressions in the dancehall dialect link the concept of lethality to the quality of the music or vocals.  In this way, a performance or piece of music that “kills” or is “murderous” is a good one.  The association of violent imagery with quality or success is common in dancehall culture, as illustrated by the expression “I’m like a gunshot heading toward a target” in Stolzoff’s book on the career trajectory of a dancehall artist.  The expressionmash up, used to describe a successful performance which gained much crowd support, further illustrates the association of success with violent imagery in dancehall culture.

Development of vocal styles in the dancehall

            As the vocal part of the sound system deepened into a performance in its own right, different categories of vocal style emerged giving rise to some basic classifications.  In terms of a vocal performance with a sound system, one must distinguish between the singer and the deejay.  By the 1980s, singers came to be featured at dancehall events, singing over versions as opposed to live bands.  These individuals became known as “dancehall-style” singers.  Their style is more melodic than that of the deejay, whose emphasis is more rhythmic in nature.  Furthermore, the singer’s lyrical language was closer to standard English than that of the deejay who employed Jamaican patois.  This reflects the fact that a dichotomy had been created between the deejay style which was only locally popular, and the sung style which had more international or “crossover” appeal.  An example of a dancehall singer is Sugar Minott (see track 10).  Singers are vastly outnumbered by deejays but their conversion to the dancehall setting underlines the importance of the sound system performance in Jamaican music.  Because of the proximity of the dancehall singer to the craft of the deejay, many singers’ style contained hints of deejay-like improvisation or commentary.  In some cases the rhythmic, rap-like art of the deejay became equally fused with the melodic range of the dancehall singer.  This mix of styles produced the hybrid sing-jay.

            Whatever their particular style, sound system vocalists’ performance essentially consisted of various combinations of singing, rhyming and toasting laid over instrumental versions of existing songs (which had originally featured vocals).  These instrumentals eventually acquired a life of their own, being produced, bought, sold and traded solely for the purpose of deejay-type vocal performances and other versioning.  They came to be known as riddims, a term which underlines their role as rhythmic accompaniment to vocals.

 The legacy of version: specials, dub plates

            The legacy that U. Roy had begun by using versions had blossomed into a Jamaican music staple by the 1980s.  The song Pass the Dutchie by Musical Youth contains a deejay-style introduction based on U. Roy’s famous quote that clearly illustrates version‘s expanded status at the time: “This generation… rules the nation… with version” (emphasis added).  As the new craze spread, support for more traditional acts such as Bob Marley and the Wailers’ brand of live roots reggae, diminished.  Marley’s death in 1981 is considered by some to be the symbol of the decline of roots and culture music and the rise of the deejays.  These new heroes of Jamaican music offered the crowds songs rife with humour, sexuality and violence, woven with threads of rapping, rhyming and word-play.  In addition, this was all done over instrumentals that the crowd could recognize as existing popular records. However, this dimension also created the expectation of original riddims. Thus, the element of surprise with respect to instrumentals became an important addition to the deejay’s performance.  This need to dazzle the crowd gave rise to specials which are recordings that are made exclusively for use by a sound system.  These had come about earlier in the development of the sound system, as producers sought to increase the prestige of their sound by creating truly exclusive records.  Specials fit the needs of the deejay extremely well in that they allowed for truly unique performances, many of which often talked about the quality of one’s own sound system.  Today they dominate the performances of the most popular sounds.

            It was not long before deejays or singers who had accumulated much respect in the sound system scene were brought into the studio to record their talents.  The early 80s saw a boom in dancehall-inspired records, many being re-mixes of classic records featuring the new vocal style of sung-rapping and commentary.  Original riddims were also created, adding a fresh wave of instrumentals for use by Jamaican music’s new superstars.  In this era, dub plates, or acetate records, became a popular medium for disseminating original tracks for use by sound system deejays or record producers.  These were a quick, cheap way to spread instrumentals around and could end up in record shops along side the quintessential vinyl 45s.  A sense of do-it-yourself performance permeated the Jamaican music scene in this era due to the fact that any aspiring deejay could buy instrumentals and sing over them.  At the same time any producer could make an impact by producing his own riddims and by inviting deejays to add vocal tracks.  Thus, an important precedent was set in Jamaican music which would later go on to profoundly affect other musical cultures such as hip hop: the separation of music and vocal recordings, mirrored by the split between the deejay and selector arts.  This opened the door for the re-mix to become an important musical phenomenon.

Version, vocalists, and the rub-a-dub style

            It so happened that one of the most popular instrumental styles of reggae which coincided with the rise of deejays and versions was rub-a-dub.  Because of this timing many early deejay/singer recordings were laid over tracks of this style.  In addition, many of the lyrical themes of these recordings dealt in a self-reflexive way with the concept of rub-a-dub, its popularity, its appeal and its international status.  Therefore, the vocalists who recorded over this style encouraged its spread not only by using it as an instrumental basis, but by elucidating how, why, and where it is so popular in their texts.  The style became so popular that early dancehall events were sometimes referred to as “rub-a-dub dances” . Two perfect examples of this phenomenon are the songs Rub-a-Dub Market by the legendary deejay-singer Tenor Saw, and Rub-a-Dub Sound (Tune In) by the equally prestigious dancehall singer Sugar Minott.  These pieces both clearly illustrate the rub-a-dub instrumental sound with its heavy, stutter-stop bass pattern and “one-drop” bass drum emphasis.  Furthermore, the lyrics of both songs deal with rub-a-dub itself and its status at the time.  The lyrical style, particularly in Sugar Minott’s song, is also typical of early deejay/singing vocals in that it contains tidbits of what is called “nursery doggerel” or nursery rhyme references, specifically from The Butcher, the Baker and The Candlestick Maker in this case.  These types of references were often tied into the song through word play and illustrate the “mental sampling” that occurs as deejays weave together lyrical flows from disparate elements of their knowledge and experience.  In this golden age of the deejay some artists became known for their stage presence and crowd-working skills as much as their vocal talent.  Outrageous performers such as Yellowman and Eek a Mouse gained notoriety for their humourous, often teasing remarks, as well as their manipulation of scat or “nonsense” words.  Amidst all of this levity some “conscious” messages worked their way into song lyrics but these were not as heavily associated with Rastafarianism as in the case of roots reggae.  More general messages of awareness and spirituality came through in songs like Lots of Sign by Tenor Saw.           

Particularities within dancehall music

            All of the version-driven music described so far falls into a category which could be called “early” or “classic” dancehall.  This style is markedly different from what would be referred to as “dancehall” today.  Early dancehall recordings featuring deejay-singers whose sound system experience was translated into the studio, tend to feature vocals which have an important melodic quality to them in addition to their unique rhythmic emphasis.  Being a contemporary of rap, modern dancehall features lyrical flows in which the rhythmic aspect has taken over the melodic development.  Thus, an early dancehall vocal performance is typically closer to a song, while that of a modern dancehall (or ragga) is closer to a rap.  Throughout dancehall’s development in the 1980s electronic riddims emerged and all but replaced the use of “classic” instrumentals recorded by live bands.  Initially, digital equipment was used to duplicate the classic reggae rhythm.  However, the rhythmic emphasis shifted in modern dancehall/ragga in the late 80s.  New riddims contained a more syncopated, heavy bass-laden pattern which caught on rapidly (see track 5).  The basic patterns of these new rhythms were drawn from traditional Jamaican styles such as buru and mento.  These form the basis of most records played at sound systems to this day as well as that of aspiring deejays’ performances.  This electronically generated, sample driven riddim style created an explosion in the sheer number of instrumental tracks available as production became easier and cheaper.  Re-mixes now swamp the sound systems as the crowd’s expectation shifts to include quality, as well as originality, in the highly post-modern production arena. The sound system still remains the testing ground for new talent, new instrumentals and new re-mixes, and acts as a connection between the studio and the people. 

Ethnicity, music, and values           

            Within the (Anglo) Caribbean community, it appears that Jamaica has a unique status.  This status happens to be best illustrated in the realm of music.   It is important to note that despite the fact that ethnic origins seem blurred in the panorama of nations under the Caribbean banner, musical traditions are easier to isolate, and represent a more direct tie to their land of origin.  Jamaican music illustrates this fact quite well.  Whether or not the actors in a typical sound system dance are actually of Jamaican descent, one can always tell that a type of music is of Jamaican descent.  This is not to say that it was made in Jamaica by Jamaicans.  It could have been produced elsewhere, but if it is good reggae, people will hear it as such and it will evoke Jamaica and its values.  However, this does not imply that anyone can make Jamaican music and have it well-received by the audience.  It is still subject to all of the aesthetic expectations in the Jamaican music world.  In essence, the “Jamaicanness” of music can be heard through its use of certain rhythmic patterns, recording techniques and lyrical styles.  In this system, the crystallization of certain norms in the production of reggae, which are cultural products of the Jamaican environment, act as a communal forum in which people from varied backgrounds can talk about similar things, behave in similar ways, and make judgements according to similar criteria. 

            Jamaican culture has negotiated its place among the Caribbean and the world community in large part  through its music .  Through its music, Jamaican culture has also reached a more general level, in that it interacts with the black community and popular music cultures such as hip hop and r&b.  Finally, it has also reached the “outward” level of interaction with society at large, through forays into highly popular music such as rock and punk.  Using music as a key, Jamaican culture has had the opportunity to enter various spheres of social consciousness, from the local to the global.  But what happens at each of these levels?  How is Jamaican music/culture perceived and received?  What is read into Jamaican music by a society that says something about who is producing or consuming it?  What status does the music give those who are associated with it? 

The spread of the Jamaican sound system framework: hip hop 

            As much as the unique composition of a sound system and its performance has influenced Jamaican music and culture, it has also contributed in a significant way to other musical genres, the most famous of which is hip hop.  By analyzing how this occurred, the most crucial aspects of the Jamaican sound system will be isolated and highlighted.  This process will also show how they have spread into both consciousness and practice in the modern world.  This process necessitates putting Jamaican dancehall in perspective with hip hop music. 

The link between reggae and hip hop

            Referring to the back-and-forth model for understanding Jamaican music’s relationship with Afro-American styles, the emergence of hip hop represents Jamaica’s input into American music.  Initially, American jazz and blues infiltrated Jamaica’s musical environment causing a major impact.  However, Jamaican sound systems later came to New York City, reciprocating the exchange.  A Jamaican deejay known as Kool Herc, emigrated to the U.S. in the 70s bringing along with him the knowledge, techniques and talent involved in running a sound system.  Kool Herc played records and talked over them and filled the role of the selector as well as that of the deejay.  He brought the technique of juggling to America which created an extended rhythmic flow for lyrical improvisation.  Coming from Jamaica, Kool Herc’s musical base was reggae records.  However, the use of reggae music in this fashion didn’t catch on in an expanded way despite the popularity of his fresh techniques.  It so happened that the New York audiences which he played for were sensitized to American urban music such as funk and soul at the time.

            Funk music is important in this framework because it contains the basis for a successful juggling performance: breaks.  Breaks (or breakdowns) are movements of funk songs in which the melodic aspects (vocals, horns, etc.) drop out, leaving the rhythm section (often only the drums) to play for a few bars.  It is important to note that a break is not a solo in the classic sense, in that there is usually no improvisation: the rhythm is simply left to play out for a short time.  This concept essentially stressed the role of the rhythm section, especially the drummer, in sustaining funk music.  During this part of a song breakdancers (hence the name) often expressed their particular style of acrobatic dance at clubs and parties.

            Kool Herc thus increased his popularity tremendously by shifting from reggae to funk for his musical base.  In addition to providing a creative window for dancers, breaks also proved useful for talk-overs.  When Kool Herc applied juggling to funk breaks, dancers and vocalists could extend and refine their performances.  Thus, juggling or looping a funk break became a musical basis for vocal performance in America in the same way as version did in Jamaica.   When extended breaks became available in the live setting, the idea of talking over records in the manner of a Jamaican deejay deepened into the Afro-American lyrical art known asrapping

            Rapping was not new in America at the time, as it emerged from earlier sources such as beat poetry, prison songs and jazz scatting.  Playing music through a sound system at a dance hall was not new either, as discotheques were increasingly popular in the 1970s.  However, the idea of rapping over extended or looped instrumentals (breaks) in a live setting was very new at the time and created the sensation known as hip hop.  In this culture the vocalist became known as an MC, while the record-handler as a DJ.  Thus, the Jamaican sound system framework had influenced the structure of the live hip hop performance with the separation between MC and DJ, or vocal and instrumental at its core.  As in Jamaica, this framework eventually reached the studio where samplers often replaced the classic method of juggling breaks in creating instrumental tracks.  One of the most used (if not the most used) funk breaks in the history of sampling is found in the song Funky Drummer by James Brown.


(Source: Abstracts from a thesis from John Constantinides (M.A) – Faculty of Music, Montreal University – department of Ethnomusicology, 2002)


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