8 UK sound systems that are keeping the culture alive
Across the UK, sound system crews are reinventing the rules to keep local scenes thriving.
The Caribbean sound system is an integral part of our island DNA. When the Windrush generation settled across the UK, the country started to transform from a rain-soaked crusty rock floating somewhere off the mainland into the adopted home of roots culture. Bass bins began appearing on street corners and inner city youth clubs became hotbeds for imported 7 inch records played at high volume.
Today, the beat of the Caribbean is embraced by millions of people at Notting Hill Carnival and Jamaican-influenced riddims now inspire pop music’s upper echelons. But over the years sound system culture has diversified as ambitious crews across the UK create their own rules. Here are some of systems and selectors shaking the foundations across the country.
1. Cosmic Slop, Leeds
Home to the West Indian Community Centre and the stomping ground of the Iration Steppas crew, Leeds boasts a rich but criminally overlooked sound system legacy. Carrying that torch today are promoters and MAP charity fundraisers Cosmic Slop whose crisp-clear sound system has become a northern institution. Built by Tom Smith (and praised by Floating Points) the Cosmic Slop system is inspired by the disco systems of David Mancuso and crafted from imported rotary mixers and vintage amplifiers.
2. Sinai Sound System, Sheffield
In a city historically known for its industry, today Sheffield’s steel pulse is found in Sinai Sound System. “As a collective we own over 40 bass cabinets and over 30 mid tops that are powered by approximately 200,000 watts of amplification,” boasts Huw Williams, Sinai Sound System owner. “Sinai Sound Systems could be many different cities in one night thanks to a hard working team.”
Growing up in Wales in the ‘90s, Williams was first introduced to sound system culture through his dad, inheriting his old band PA that he’d drag to school discos and birthday parties as a kid. Now, after debuting in 2014, Sinai has become a northern powerhouse for chest-rattling dub and reggae, and he can usually be found making the walls of Electric Brixton or Sheffield’s Yellow Arch Studios rumble with their gargantuan rig.
3. Unit 137, London
Recording studio, record label, sound system and dub and reggae institution who trace their roots back to South East London, Unit 137 have long represented London’s Caribbean heritage from their Lewisham postcode. “Appreciating diversity has helped us give space for each artist in the collective to bring their own style to the mix,” says 137 DJ, producer, soundman and engineer Hylu. “And the dance is where that positivity comes together.”
For the techie, Unit 137’s hand-built, wooden system comprises of eight 18″ super scoops, four HD 215 kick bins and four DMT 210 tops that emit 20,000 watts of power. For those less versed in system technicalities, simply put, few do it better than Unit 137. Just ask the likes of MC Iron Dread, Mistafire and Vivek who’ve all put their towering racks to the test.
4. CAYA Sound System
CAYA Sound System’s Sound system operator and selector Thali can trace her sound system roots back to when she was a kid in the mid ‘80s, listening to the lover’s rock and R&B-toned rare groove that filled the air in her childhood home. Now, originally guided by godfathers like People’s Sound, Channel One and Young Warrior, Thali urges dancers to ‘Come As You Are’ as the head-honcho of CAYA Sound System. Founded in 2016, Thali has already showcased her sound throughout the UK’s epicentres of rastafari riddims, from Leicester and Bristol to the streets of Notting Hill.
5. Reggae Roast Soundsystem, London
Known as the undisputed dons of the Sunday session, with 52K watts of system power, the Reggae Roast crew came from humble beginnings in 2007. First debuting in a Kentish Town pub with the offer of roots reggae and a Sunday roast, now they’ve cemented themselves as one of London’s premier collectives. “It was always a pipe dream to have my own sound since going to see Jah Shaka and Solution Sound back in the ‘90s,” says James Harper, who is part of the 12-strong crew including Al Cree, Adam Prescott, Brother Culture and Natty Campbell that forms Reggae Roast. “Sound system is a team sport, you can’t do it alone.”
Connecting the musical diasporas of UK and Jamaica from their Hackney homestead, Reggae Roast embody the modern sound of dancehall and dub. “As a Londoner, whether you like it or not, you’ve been influenced by sound system,” thinks Harper. “I live in Hackney, where many Jamaicans settled during the Windrush and where so many of the original sounds started, so it’s great to be able to continue that cultural heritage that has been handed down to us.”
A bass-heavy system needs something equally as turbo charged to play through it, and rest assured that the Reggae Roast label have that covered as they usher in the next wave in names like Shumba Youth and Brother Culture.
6. Maasai Warrior, Bristol
Bristol is the source of Massive Attack’s granulated electronica and was ground zero for trip-hop, jungle and DnB throughout the ‘90s, but the city would be an entirely different entity if not for sound system culture. One of the many crews continuing Bristol’s pioneering legacy today, alongside the dub experimentalists Bokeh Versions, are Maasai Warrior – the seven-piece self-proclaimed ‘Thunder Weight Sound’ born in the St. Paul’s area (which hosts a much-loved carnival) in 2010. Made up of sound clash veterans, MCs and selectors loaded with one-of-a-kind dubplates, Maasai are a longstanding source of pride for West Country sound Warriors.
7. Arcadia, Bristol
A sound system can come in many guises, from the bicycle mounted speakers that roll through the streets of Jamaica to Nik Nowak’s Soundtank, a restored Panzer tank fitted with MPC samplers and military-grade bass bins. Arguably, however, few sound systems are as famous or absurdist as the Arcadia spider that illuminates the fields of Glastonbury every year with billowing flames and strobe lights. For Bert and Pip however, who founded the rig in Bristol in 2007, Arcadia wasn’t always the behemoth it is today.
“When I was 16 I had a rig called the Soviet Sound System inspired by some communist ideals, which was pretty funny,” laughs Bert on his first venture. “As teenagers we were doing free parties with sound systems in the countryside and our journeys have been a process of scaling that up. It's gotten ridiculous now but it's the same sound system culture, it's just been magnified.”
Arcadia now travel the globe throughout the year and pitch up in any vacant space free of fire hazards going, but Bert and Pip’s success is owed to their DIY ethics. “The DJ and the music are just one part of a whole experience at Arcadia,” says Pip. “And that's definitely come from our free party roots. It’s proof that this culture which started 30 years ago isn't just a flash in the pan, it's transcending the generations.”
8. Dub Forward, Bristol
Sound system culture can sometimes be a purist pursuit, following a strict rulebook penned from the system generals of old. Occasionally, though, someone comes along and disrupts the order, and we find that in Kai Dub’s experimental productions as Dub Forward. Formerly a member of Maasai, as a solo producer Kai Dub crafts his niche from the Casio rhythms of digi-dub and dark, brooding basslines drenched in space echo. As operator of Dub Forward, though, Kai can usually be found behind walls of equalisers, compressors and turntables, fuelling the dance in his native city of Bristol.