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Bass in the City: The event celebrating Jamaican sound system culture in London

Music writer Lloyd Bradley previews his day of talks at City Life festival this weekend

Written by
Manu Ekanayake

As part of City Life festival, music writer Lloyd Bradley will host a day of talks celebrating Jamaican sound system culture. He tells us how it’s fed into some of the city’s favourite genres.


‘There were as many Jamaicans in London in the ’50s as there was every other islander put together – and they had the sound systems [homemade bass-heavy speaker sets and DJ equipment]. Plus they had the culture of putting on dances and selling tickets and drinks. And from the end of the ’50s they had ska from back home, which then developed into rocksteady and reggae. Before that, black British music was more about jazz and US R&B, but the sound systems moved Jamaican music culture to the fore in London.’

Jungle and drum & bass

‘Guys like DJ Hype, Shut Up and Dance and Congo Natty [AKA Rebel MC] came out of the ’80s sound system culture. They followed the same DIY ethos: getting records cut, selling tickets and records out the boot of your car, and making your own equipment. If the mainstream won’t play it, you don’t need them anyway. This was what the reggae sound systems had been doing since the ’50s – the pattern was already there for the new kids to follow with the new music they were hearing and making.’


‘I wasn’t surprised to see some grime guys had older brothers or even fathers who’d been with a sound [system]. They already knew how it all worked. Jammer [MC ]used to sell records out of his dad’s cellar and Wiley’s dad was involved too. But when you look at the history of black music from the ’50s to now, there have been so many changes of genre: from lovers rock to rocksteady to jazz-funk to whatever. Mainstream rock hasn’t moved on since The Beatles, but black music still reinvents itself on virtually a monthly basis.’


‘This music is great because you could never explain it at a record label A&R meeting – it’s come out of live music, out of things that happened in the dancehall. It’s so far from the mainstream that it makes no sense in theory, only in practice. You could try to explain dubstep to an alien and fail, but that freedom only comes in dancehalls.’ ν

Bass in the City is at Second Home Spitalfields on Sat Oct 13 and Sun Oct 14. 

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