On Saturday, June 7, New York’s dancehall fans are in for a treat. “Roots of Sound System,” the innovative concert series that recreates and explores vital moments in the evolution of sound system culture, presents its third edition. The fruit of a collaboration between Deadly Dragon Sound, a vinyl-only selector crew that runs their own record store, and Dub-Stuy, a record label dedicated to exploring global bass culture with their hand-crafted “Tower of Sound,” the concert promises to be another fascinating entry in an already impressive series.
Prior incarnations of “Roots” have highlighted legendary periods in Jamaican music: the first covered the ska and rock steady sounds of the ’60s, and the second featured the era-defining sounds of Channel One. However, the third edition, featuring a cast of MCs including Shinehead and Screechy Dan toasting over the ’80s dancehall of Mini Mart Hi-Power, is drawn from lesser-known chapter in Jamaican musical history. To get a better understanding of Mini Mart’s importance, as well as the idea behind the series as a whole, we spoke with Scratch Famous (Jeremy Freeman) from Deadly Dragon and Damian Ashton from Dub-Stuy.
According to Jeremy, “Mini Mart sounds started out of Brooklyn in the 1980s with a group of artists who performed with the sound system. And that was Sleepy Wonder, Bobo General, Curry Don, Sluggy Ranks, Errol T and Willow Wilson. When they started, all of those performers were young, great Brooklyn lyricists. And the sound system itself followed a real pathway that was forged by the original rub-a-dub selectors that was based on having a selector play records with DJs chatting over the mic. That was the way that the original sound system events happened. The live performance was integral to the overall system performance. And Mini Mart was one of the New York sounds that really perfected that.”
This live performance aspect is an incredibly important point. Not only did it allow younger DJs a chance to gain experience in front of a live crowd, but it gave the system a powerful and immediate connection to its audience. This tradition began to disappear as systems increasingly turned to dubplates as a way to distinguish their sound, a trend arguably initiated by the highly successful Stone Love Sound from Kingston. Dubplates, personalized tracks recorded for individual sound systems by popular artists, had long been a part of Jamaican musical culture, but the newer systems began to rely on them almost exclusively, turning away from live DJs chatting on the mic.
It’s precisely because of this decline that Jeremy believes it is important to highlight the role of live DJs in the event. “One of the aspects of real sound system culture was always the DJs. That’s something that the sound system revival of right now has kind of left out. People have gone back to building great sound systems and having great selectors, but there’s been a forgetting of the place that the DJ had in sound system culture. All the great sound systems from Jamaica—in the beginning and into the ’70s and ’80s—they all had DJs.”
If live DJs are one part of what makes Mini-Mart special, the other is the system’s deep connection to Brooklyn. While cities like Kingston and London are famous for their reggae, New York’s contributions to the genre are far too often overlooked (although Afropop has explored the overshadowed NYC reggae scene ourselves). By bringing together a stellar cast of DJs and selectors from the area, the event promises to recreate the cultural richness of a time when Flatbush was a reggae mecca filled with systems, labels and performers. Jeremy believes that highlighting this is perhaps the most important element of the show. “As all kinds of things in New York have changed, including the gentrification of Brooklyn, there has been sort of a wash-over of how intense and how influential the New York reggae scene was at one point. When I was growing up, the number of record labels and record stores in New York was unimaginable…it’s important to remind people that all of these artists are still here, they’re still vibrant and active. So it’s not a nostalgia thing at all. It’s part of our history as a city.”
Damian Ashton from Dub-Stuy Records agreed with this, pointing out that as two of the groups really engaged in pushing sound system culture forward in the 21st century, a collaborative investigation of the past made a lot of sense. But also, on a slightly less-rarified plane, these veteran performers can seriously deliver in a concert setting. The fact that the whole show is focused on live toasting only raises the bar. “Sometimes, a veteran will just come in, and basically re-tune elements of the sound system to reflect his personality, his vibe. We’ll see! We’ll see how hands-on the Mini Mart folks get, and get in there and actually start tweaking with the levels.”
Roots of Sound System: Sat., June 7 @ Paperbox, 17 Meadow St., BK, NY. Doors 9:00 p.m. Tickets $15 in advance, $20 at the door.
More info HERE.