Sweet Reggae Music Pon di Attack: A History of Soundclash

The Blueprint
November 6, 2019

Jamaican culture is defined by competition. Athletics is a national virtue, showcased in force on track at the 2016 Olympics. The country has also managed to make a sport out of music. From lyrical contests to dance competitions to car stereo standoffs, there are numerous musical battles held in Jamaica, but none as fundamental to the culture as the sound clash. Serious enough to be minted with titles such as “Game Over” or “The Final Conflict,” these are WWE-esque competitions between groups of people flexing major musical muscle. A soundsystem is often defined as a mobile discotheque, but it’s more than just speakers connected to music.

Whereas traditional stereos emit bass and treble, a Jamaican soundsystem provides two or three times the number of frequencies. This all-encompassing range of sound is broadcast through enormous walls of speaker boxes designed and built to shape the sound clash arena. In the clash, the competition plays out between two or more soundsystems, who face off before a crowd acting as judge and jury based on the competitor’s selection and performance prowess.

Luciano, the roots reggae singer, notes the role of the clash in Jamaica’s proud sporting culture: “From ever since, Jamaicans in whole, they love the competition. They love to prove themselves that they can really outrun someone. It’s just our nature of ‘I and I’ people. That’s why you have so much creativity and so many great singers, because the competition level is so high, right here. [Sound clash] is a form of sports, but some of these brothers turned it into more serious sport, like bloodsport.”

Just imagine, dubplate play from seven o’clock in the evening straight back to seven o’clock in the morning and nuttin’ can play back. That’s what clash was. - Gary Exodus

In soundsystem culture, you don’t lose. Rather, you die an often embarrassing, metaphorical death at the hands of your opponent: “sound bwoy fi dead.” Whereas Trinidad and Tobago, among other Caribbean islands, have carnival traditions, this is arguably carnival, Jamaican-style. The origins of carnival in religious custom from Europe combined with traditions maintained in the face of slavery and colonialism come together to create a cultural product that represents resistance, emancipation, life, death and anything in between. It’s about challenging social norms and questioning borders and boundaries. Sound clash has done the same, mostly by removing said norms, borders and boundaries.

The soundsystem actually predates dancehall, reggae or ska. Before any of these genres, there was soundsystem culture. Early soundsystem owners like King Edwards, Duke Reid, Count C and Sir Coxsone took names that reflected their position in the community. Competition, or clashing, was required in order to maintain status.

Fats Domino - Going to the River

The clash was, at first, an informal rivalry. Two sounds set up near each other would naturally compete to draw the biggest crowd. Some soundsystems bred sabotage. In the 1950s and early ’60s, American R&B records sourced from sailors passing through Jamaica’s ports became “sound killers,” with their labels scratched off and renamed for soundsystem competition. Cyril “Count C” Braithwaite, owner of the ’50s era West Kingston sound, The Wizard of the West, recalled how his small sound was a bulldog that could bite at the heels of larger systems, using songs like Fats Domino’s 1953 “Going to the River.”

“You know what did it?" he said. “The record. It wasn’t the big sound, it was the record.” King Sporty, who was Count C’s DJ, or the person who talks on the mic, before moving up to Duke Reid, Sir Coxsone and Prince Buster in the ’60s, highlights a cordial atmosphere in which “we didn’t kill each other, [but] we meet and laugh about who had the most crowd or who had the less crowd.”

Moving into the 1970s, clash was waged increasingly by DJs and selectors, or those who selected the tunes. Sounds were flushed with new reggae songs cut locally by folks like King Tubby. As Jack Scorpio of Black Scorpio sound explains, “Tubby used to voice an artist. And when he voiced the artist, if you were the first to get that song, you got that song exclusive to play.” Called “specials,” these were recorded onto temporary acetate records, and not meant for commercial release. The late Sugar Minott remembered, “Songs like [Barry Brown’s] ‘Far East’ and my ‘Babylon Mash Up My Life’ weren’t real songs. They were just for soundsystems. I can’t give same four tunes that I gave to Jack Scorpio to King Jammys. It’s like traitor. They alone are supposed to have that.”

Tenor Saw - Ring the Alarm

The rise of ’80s dancehall and DJs like Yellowman, Tenor Saw, Admiral Bailey and Burro Banton signalled a change in the music and the clash. Pairing dancehall DJs live with a soundsystem became known as the authentic form of soundsystem competition, a style that would be dubbed “rub-a-dub.” Using live vocals, the DJs were able to directly address rival sounds. Selectors would play the studio or vocal version before switching to the instrumental track for “part two,” or the section where the DJ would get shine. Although not exclusive to a certain soundsystem, dancehall DJs made a name for themselves representing and clashing with other sounds. The biggest dancehall songs of the ’80s were often tested or created first in the clash arena, like with Tenor Saw’s classic clash anthem “Ring the Alarm,” the first verbal missile thrown at rivals in an infamous four-way clash held in 1985 featuring Arrows, Scorpio, Jammys and Youth Man Promotion.

Tenor Saw was not the only dancehall DJ whose clash lyrics were recorded. The clash arena was an obvious boon for producers who wanted the latest hype tune. Yellowman, the original King of the Dancehall, recalls that producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes was quick to flip these kinds of opportunities into commercial success. “Junjo would come to the dance, hear a lyrics and say ‘Let’s go to studio,” says Yellowman. Releasing a tune meant that the song was no longer associated with a particular sound – it could be played by anyone. A business opportunity, it disrupted the clash format by removing the notion of exclusivity – as well as the live element. Why bother having Yellowman perform if you can kill a sound with a recorded special featuring the King himself? The solution set the stage for the modern clash format.

There was no score card, no time limit and no point system for awarding a sound the crown.

“So what we, the artists, you know what we did?” recalled Minott, referring to when, in the late 1970s, artists began mentioning soundsystem names on specials, as they had done as rub-a-dub artists. “So now Stur Gav, the first sound that did that, we said, ‘Stur Gav is the champion!’ in the song and they couldn’t put that out. It had the sound name.” So the era of the modern dubplate – recordings of existing songs that are personalized for specific soundsystems – began. Since the 1980s, the dubplate specials in which the lyrics “big up” a particular soundsystem have been the weapons of choice for sound clash participants.

The transition did not happen overnight. There was significant overlap between dubplates and live performance. A 1988 confrontation at Skateland in Kingston between Silverhawk, a dubplate sound, and Killamanjaro, a notorious rub-a-dub sound, was a “big clash” for Father Romie, founder of Exodus Nu-Clear: “Silverhawk was a dubplate sound and Jaro was live DJ. Jaro never use no record to say the tune kill Silverhawk. Ninjaman [repping for ’Jaro] singlehandedly killed Silverhawk.”

Although Jaro won the clash, the writing was on the wall. At the 1989 staging of Sunsplash, then reggae’s premier music event in Jamaica, it took Inner City, a dubplate sound, allegedly eight hours to beat Electro Force, a rub-a-dub sound, for the title in front of tens of thousands of people. Gary Exodus explains just how long these clashes could last: “Just imagine, dubplate play from seven o’clock in the evening straight back to seven o’clock in the morning and nuttin’ can play back. That’s what clash was.” There was no score card, no time limit and no point system for awarding a sound the crown.

As sound clash entered the ’90s, clashes continued to end in controversy. Enter the “world clash” format, essentially the Olympics of soundsystem competition, with countries from around the world squaring off with dubplates on “one single lawn.” The first of its kind was most likely the 1993 “World Sound Clash” held at Rollers Express in London between Bodyguard (Jamaica), Saxon (UK), Coxsone (UK) and Afrique (USA), featuring another controversial win by Bodyguard over Saxon. The following year, UK-based Saxon took the crown to become the first international sound to win.

World Cup Sound Clash 1993

However, few clashes have had the impact that New York City promoters Irish and Chin achieved with their World Clash events, first launched in 1998 at Club Amazura in Queens. The 1999 version saw Japanese soundsystem Mighty Crown beat back Jamaican competitors Tony Matterhorn and Killamanjaro (at this point a proper dubplate sound) to become an international soundsystem sensation.

Soundclash culture went outernational. No longer was it strictly the dominion of the Jamaican diaspora, as scenes sprung up in Japan, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany and Japan. Irish and Chin took World Clash to Jamaica, Toronto, London and Antigua. According to Garfield “Chin” Bourne, the goal of World Clash was to minimize the no-rules tendencies of clash events. The introduction of a referee and implementation of rounds similar to boxing were specifically designed to increase expectations for fair play.

At the end of each elimination round, the referee asks the crowd to choose which sound must “go home.” At World Clash, Chin played the role of referee, calling each soundsystem by name and inviting the crowd to show their hands. The soundsystem with the least amount of support is eliminated after each round until two soundsystems are left standing. This last round in World Clash is always the “tune-fi-tune” round. Each soundsystem plays one song in a best-of situation. There’s one chance, one song, to connect with the crowd. The crowd votes after both sounds have had a chance to play their selection.

Jamaica has been creating success from rivalry. The clash is very important in bringing the best out of anyone. - Cleveland “Clevie” Browne

"Before Irish and Chin, it was a free for all,” says Chin. “You had soundsystems that would do battle or clash and just play dubplates. There would be tune-for-tune until someone runs out of dubplates or someone drops dead, right? And then the crowd decides. We come in now and we say, ‘OK, we doing the best of ten’... There is no need for us to do dubplates for an hour. This was a way to create structure, fairness, and a way to introduce some type of civil competition into the arena.”

This “civilization” of the clash earned Irish and Chin some criticism for watering down the style of play. To hardcore fans, World Clash cooled down the vibes. “Irish and Chin dem come mash up sound clash because them come deal with this microwave clash thing – meaning set rules and regulations. Music doesn’t have no rules, no borders nor boundaries,” says Gary “Exodus” Braithwaite. “The only rule me feel you should have in certain venues ’n ting is no slackness, or no indecent language, we can understand that.”

So did many of the most hardcore clash participants who signed up for the Guinness Sounds of Greatness made-for-TV clash series in 2009 and 2011. With classic panache, on November 4th, 2011, battle-tested Ricky Trooper (formerly of Killamanjaro) knocked out the younger Rich Squad to win the televised competition. Filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, Sounds of Greatness presented soundclash to the island and to an even wider audience online.

In the end, neither World Clash nor GSOG nor TV could maintain the sport singlehandedly. Irish and Chin have held “final” World Clash events in New York and Jamaica, though they still toss World Clash Reset events into the international ring every once in a while, and GSOG has not returned since 2011. Though clash events continue locally and the Boom Energy Clash in downtown Kingston over the last two years has featured international competitors, clash is not drawing the same interest in Jamaica, from young or veteran fans and participants, as it used to.

The displacement of soundclash in Jamaican popular culture means more to the culture than just sport. Indeed, without being awarded any medals, clash has quite the track record. Technical, performance and musical milestones have been reached and breached, only to be set again. The sound clash is like the Formula 1 of automobile culture. The desire to win – to triumph – pushed all involved in clash culture to innovate and improve. It’s where new techniques like dub, sampling and, eventually, even the foundation of hip-hop were established. Extend this to rave culture, through to various forms of electronic dance music. It’s not hard to argue that all stem from sound clash culture, where exclusive music and DJs created communities of sound.

As Cleveland “Clevie” Browne, co-founder of Silverhawk soundsystem, which ruled the Jamaican dancehall in the ’90s, said, “Jamaica has been creating success from rivalry. The clash is very important in bringing the best out of anyone.”

By Erin MacLeod and Joshua Chamberlain for Red Bull Music Academy.