Channel One Sound System has been a reputable institution for nearly four decades, trailblazing the spirit of reggae from all four corners of the globe with a clear ideology of breaking down barriers via its rich, heavyweight sound blasted from hand-built custom speaker stacks.
Channel One Sound System has been a reputable institution for nearly four decades
A defining tradition of reggae culture, sound systems became popular in the 1940s in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. Not only were sound systems a means of making an income, the poorer communities that were without TV or radio relied on them to hear about news in the district. They would go to dances and listen to the DJ and MC, who would sing about what was going on in the streets, as well as further afield in Jamaica.
Nitelife had the pleasure of chatting with sound system music legend Mikey Dread about his life in front of the speakers, the traditions of sound system culture, as well as what to expect from his performance at The Downs Bristol on 1 September.
Originally brought over to the UK as Admiral Bailey Sound by veteran selector Mikey Dread’s father in the 1950s, the sound system has passed down a generation to Mikey’s older brother Jah T, with Mikey coming on board in 1979.
‘I’ve been exposed to sound systems from a very young age’, Mikey explains, ‘I grew up with them in the house. It’s like a jumper, it became a hand-me-down. I took it on, but I took it to another level.’
Blasting bone-rattling bass from its monstrous system of speakers and amps ever since, Mikey renamed the sound system as a homage to the legendary Jamaican record label, whose tunes featured heavily in their early selections. Today, Channel One Sound System consists of Mikey and MC Ras Kayleh, and is regarded as one of the best in the world alongside the likes of Jah Shaka, Sir Coxsone and Aba Shanti-I, permeating generations with a bass-centric musical ideology that has influenced popular genres such as jungle, garage, grime and dubstep.
…permeating generations with a bass-centric musical ideology that has influenced popular genres such as jungle, garage, grime and dubstep
‘A lot of these genres of music wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for roots reggae music’ explains Mikey. ‘A lot of these guys who mix up jungle and hip hop or whatever come from reggae, but as far as they’re concerned there is no money in it. So they go over to the mainstream and see if they can make four, five, ten grand on a tune. But it’s not in our belly, we don’t want to do something that’s not in our hearts, so we stick to what we know and do our best. Sooner or later, maybe not in my lifetime, reggae and roots music might move to number one, who knows? We’ll have to just keep on tapping at the door.’
As we are all aware, popular music styles can be fleeting, yet Channel One have been operating a clear devotion to their roots for almost 40 years, a true testament to the enduring power of reggae music.
‘Reggae is resilient because of its words, sound and power. A lot of kids these days want to know where music comes from because they listen to the words. With reggae it’s not fighting words, it’s not tension words, it’s words about Africa and Jamaica, words about the street, the community. It’s not words about killing and doing bad things to one another. When you get people into that positive frame of mind, they want to come to reggae dances all the time.’
When you get people into that positive frame of mind, they want to come to reggae dances all the time
As well as being unfazed by passing trends, Channel One have also tirelessly championed the Rastafarian traditions that serve as reggae’s unifying creed. People go to Channel One Sound System dances because of the music they play; it is steeped in spiritual, feel-good vibes. The lyrics contain themes of peace, unity and happiness and Channel One Sound System are conscious in their selections to steer well clear of the misogynist and homophobic lyrics sometimes associated with modern Jamaican music and in particular dancehall.
Channel One Sound System are conscious in their selections to steer well clear of the misogynist and homophobic lyrics sometimes associated with modern Jamaican music and in particular dancehall
‘You can go to a reggae dance by yourself. If you have problems during the week, at work or whatever, you can come to a sound system session on a Friday or Saturday night and it can just blow your mind and allow you to meditate in your own little space. A lot of people used to tell us when they came to our monthly sessions at Village Underground that they love coming to our sessions to switch off from their problems and just enjoy the music. Music does take you away from your problems, especially reggae music.’
Channel One’s ability to bring people to their dance and keep them there is a trait that has been mastered over decades. Their commitment to promoting a positive message and uniting people through their love of reggae is evident in their involvement with London’s biggest cultural event, Notting Hill Carnival. Having played there for 36 consecutive years, Channel One have impressively occupied the same corner of Westbourne Park Road and Leamington Road Villas for the past 22. However, this tradition came under threat by Westminster Council a few years ago when Channel One Sound System – along with Killawatt and Sir Lloyd – were told with little notice that they would need to apply for a premise license rather than their usual temporary event notice. A petition to keep Channel One Sound System at Notting Hill Carnival garnered over 8,500 signatures, and luckily all three sound systems were granted a licence – although the cost of the pricier documents and the barrister hired to ensure they would get it left Mikey out of pocket.
‘They’ve realised that Carnival is a commodity to England and to the UK’ explains Mikey, ‘I think the future is looking bright, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fight. Up until the government says we have to shut it down, we’ll just have to see what happens. It would have to be something drastic for us to stop.
‘People come to our Channel One corner year after year and stay until 7pm when we shut down’, explains Mikey, ‘We are obviously doing something right. People have grown up with Channel One Sound System.’
As Mikey explains, there is more to sound system culture than just the music, it’s also about the experiences it provides as well as staying true to itself and its culture. The reggae scene is doing well for itself currently, despite it not getting a mention on large organisations such as the BBC, ITV or the likes. Reggae music is always there and it has a huge following in the UK, especially here in Bristol. I asked Mikey why sound system music isn’t prominent in mainstream music today, considering that it’s so popular.
Reggae in the mainstream just doesn’t happen
‘It’s not popular as we don’t control the big companies’ Mikey explains. ‘Look at things like X Factor, they don’t ever sing reggae music. Reggae in the mainstream just doesn’t happen. Now and again you might see one or two programmes about sound systems on the TV, but other than that you have to source it on YouTube and things like that, which is wrong really. Reggae should be in the mainstream, it’s part of our British culture now.
‘There are young kids coming to reggae dances and wanting to listen to and build their own sound systems’ Mikey continues. ‘You’re getting kids with money in their pockets wanting to build sound systems, not just the ones that come from down trodden cities in London or wherever. That’s why sound systems are still important – they’re teaching people from all kinds of backgrounds what we’ve known for years.’
That’s why sound systems are still important – they’re teaching people from all kinds of backgrounds what we’ve known for years
Staying true to the musical spirit of his forebearers as well as the traditions that define sound system culture, Mikey follows a strict DIY approach to his set up. Nowadays, he says, people are happy to go and buy pre-made systems from a shop, whereas Channel One continue to modify and maintain their own sound system by hand.
‘We’ve always built our own system and that is why Channel One is the way it is – it stands out from the rest. If you want to do it properly, it’s just like a being mechanic, if you were an apprentice you would start from the bottom and you would start building your own stuff, it’s as simple as that. I know times have changed now and anyone can go on the internet and buy this and that, though as Channel One we still make our own stuff by hand.’
A true master of his trade, Mikey has had the pleasure of listening to reggae and dub for decades. He’s also noticed a change in the way music is made and distributed by some artists, with more and more people taking to the internet to promote themselves.
‘You get all these people making dubs in their backyard and kitchen now, or in their bloody toilet – all you have to do is go on your phone to make a dub’ Mikey says, laughing. ‘Whether it’s any good or not is a different thing. People making music nowadays make it in the morning and then are playing it in the afternoon.
People making music nowadays make it in the morning and then are playing it in the afternoon
‘When I get a tune or somebody gives me a tune I make sure it sounds good first, for a start, and then I make sure I give it a certain amount of time to mature on the sound system. Now it seems that people have to try and make a tune and put it out within the day, because as far as your ears are concerned, it’s a good tune. That’s not really progressive and that’s not how you progress reggae music, you’re just making money.’
As we’re all too painfully aware, grassroots music venues, particularly in Bristol and London, are having a hard time staying open, while festivals appear to be flourishing. Fortunately, it seems like the number of traditional sound system groups being asked to play at festivals is also on the rise. Having already played a handful of festivals this summer, Mikey Dread and MC Ras Kayleh will be also making an appearance at The Downs Bristol. I asked Mikey if he thinks festivals are the future for the more underground styles of music like reggae.
‘Yes, because they give it an outlet, especially in the summer time’ says Mikey. ‘When you have good weather like this it’s a good outlet for all kinds of music, but especially roots and reggae music. You can go to a park or a festival, especially Notting Hill Carnival, which is free, and have a chance to listen to reggae and roots all day.’
That special carnival atmosphere will likely be in full effect when Mikey takes to the stage at The Downs Bristol on 1 September. Since launching three years ago, the festival has always made room on its lineup for sound system artists and Bristol itself has a rich reggae heritage owing to the city’s Afro Caribbean communities and St Pauls Carnival.
You can expect roots and reggae music from foundation to old school, right up to the new dubs
‘You can expect roots and reggae music from foundation to old school, right up to the new dubs. Channel One has some good new stuff that we are working on at the moment, hopefully we can get the tunes out by the time The Downs festival comes along. We’ve been playing in Bristol since the 80s when we used to come and play at St Pauls and Easton. Older heads will remember a venue called Ventures, a big venue we used to come and play at. Bristol is beautiful, it’s part of the reggae music map.’
Even though Channel One Sound System are celebrating forty years next year, Mikey’s passion for the music remains palpable and it’s clear that he won’t stop working to drive the reggae sound system scene forward any time soon, finishing up our interview with an important message for all of us –
‘The most important thing I would like to say is that everybody needs to support reggae music and help keep it going – particularly sound systems because they’re a means to listen to reggae music properly and they bring everyone together.’