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The roots of UK soundsystem culture

Sixty years on from the building of Britain's first soundsystem, Channel One's Mikey Dread and Ras Kayleb tell us about their influence

In 1954, ‘Duke’ Vincent Forbes stowed away in a boat from Kingston, Jamaica, looking for a better life in London. He left behind family, friends – and, in the ghettos of his hometown, an emerging musical culture centred not on live performers but on massive amplified soundsystems.

Within a year, a homesick Duke Vin had built his first system from cheap parts and a second hand turntable. 
A fire was lit: Caribbean soundsystem culture had arrived in the UK and the ways we made, played and raved to music was changed for ever.

Over the decades that followed, British systems such as Jah Shaka, Sir Coxsone, Aba-Shanti-I and Channel One would become regarded as some of the best in the world. They imbued generations with a bass-centric musical ideology that would go on to influence almost all UK music and become an integral force in the genesis of homegrown genres like jungle, garage and grime.

Simply put, soundsystem culture matters, and the sixtieth anniversary of its arrival on UK shores is a moment to celebrate and savour.

Channel One was established in 1979 in east London. They played Notting Hill Carnival for the first time in 1983 and have been a fixture there ever since. Now comprising selector Mikey Dread and MC Ras Kayleb, the duo and their monstrous system of speakers and amps play roots rock reggae music across the globe and at their two regular London dances at Village Underground and Tooting Tram & Social. Ahead of their appearances at Soundwave and Outlook festival, Time Out met with the pair to hear what to expect and why soundsystem culture matters not just to them but to all of us.

Why, in your eyes, do soundsystems matter?
Ras Kayleb ‘It’s about more than just the music. Back in the day in Jamaica, poor people didn’t have a TV or a radio, so the soundsystems brought the news to the district. It was the same for our communities in the UK; in the ‘70s, we never knew what was going on in Jamaica. When the music came over here, you heard about the hardships, the sufferings, and learnt about Rastafari. The music is a great teacher.’

Mikey Dread ‘The only way to hear the latest music was through sound systems. Sounds like Coxsone and Fatman would go to Jamaica, load up on records, come back to England and play them in a session. That’s how you discovered the music and, of course, heard it the way it was supposed to be heard.’

What makes a system so special?
RK ‘A system has to allow you to feel the music. It should embrace you, engulf you, make you feel warm.’

MD ‘Reggae music has always been there, but these new sounds come and go, jungle or grime or whatever, and they sound best on a proper system. Reggae music and soundsystems are the foundations of all these things.’

How influential was Duke Vin? 
MD ‘Duke Vin was a soundsystem guy just like us, but he was the first to make the mark. We have to pay homage to a man like him for planting the seed of sound system culture in this country. We really respect Duke for what he did, but now it’s our job to keep it moving. And it will keep moving, because it’s growing. People talk about bass culture these days: that is sound system culture. This is what the tour is all about – a celebration of our music, our culture, through Channel One and Mad Professor.’

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