Sound systems began in the late 1940s to early 1950s as somewhat of an underground movement. It all began shortly after World War II, when Jamaicans began buying radios in increasing numbers. They were able to use the radios to tune into the American military broadcast, and hear rhythm and blues music from the states. This gave rise to an influx of American R&B music in Jamaica.
In order to meet the demand for this music, a number of entrepreneurs made the first sound systems. These sound systems were much more basic than the modern ones. They usually consisted of a turntable, a modest amplifier and pre-amp, and contain large speakers they could find.
They would frame up all of their equipment and set up at parties and other live events. At first, sound systems would play the R&B music from America, but over time local music took over. Sound systems are in great demand, and more popular, than live musicians. The sound systems basically functioned as the radio station for the people of Jamaica.
They provided the people with the latest music on the scene. Eventually, the equipment used by sound systems got much better, and more importantly, much louder. A sound system is usually comprised of Disc Jockeys, Engineers, and MCs, typically playing dancehall reggae, rocksteady, ska, dub, reggae fusion, and other Jamaican music genres.
Over time, as the scene evolved, competition between different sound systems became intense. Events called sound clashes are held, where different sound systems would compete for the crowd’s support. The sound clashes are usually held in outdoors or else in dance halls. Commonly featuring reggae dancehall music, these sound systems try to beat or “kill” their competition by getting a better response from the crowd.
To get more of the crowd’s approval, the sound systems mainly play exclusive tracks, or dub plate specials. The main element that determines a sound system’s popularity is having new and exclusive songs.
Recordings of the competitions, called sound clash tapes, have helped globalize these sound clashes, and has spread reggae dancehall music all around the world. The sound system scene, and sound clash tapes are an important part of Jamaican cultural history and have been a catalyst in the rise in popularity of many Jamaican musical genres.
The most common genres associated with Jamaican sound systems, is reggae dancehall. In 1980, reggae dancehall music gained much popularity and spread to clubs across America, and the world. Dancehall comes under some criticism for the vulgar, or “slack” lyrics of some reggae dancehall songs, as well as the often sexual nature of dancehall culture. But most music experts see slackness as a valid and relevant expression of what is essentially an oppressed culture. most of those who attend dancehall events and participate in dancehall culture, find it liberating.
Sound systems had a major role in the evolution of Jamaican music. Without them, many genres of Jamaican music wouldn’t have gotten the exposure that sound systems would have offered them. When it comes to exclusive music, it would be a tough one to top sound clashes, and thanks to sound clash tapes, the music can be shared all over the world.
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