Ring the Alarm: Is it Game Over for the Soundclash? Part 1

(Thanks to the awesome Who Cork the Dance for the photo)

Supposedly, just a few days ago, the last Death Before Dishonour soundclash was held at Pier One in Mo Bay. Black Kat took home the big prize at the supposed “Final Warr”–you can read the play by play in the Gleaner. But all this hullabaloo about this being the last time seems a little overstated, especially since Irish & Chin, promoters of World Clash events like”Death Before Dishonour”, were supposed to have cancelled the whole circuit two years ago. At that time I gave a presentation at the EMP’s Pop Conference on the topic (EMP is coming up next week–if you’re in the Seattle area, it’s well worth while). Given that the demise didn’t happen then, but is happening now, I think that my argument still holds water and is just as relevant today. The title should perhaps more correctly be “Is it Game over for World Clash”, as I really am addressing the development of world soundclash competition. I’m hoping to expand on this sometime in the (hopefully) near future, so any comments and suggestions are welcome! Since it’s a little long, I’ll split it in two (and see if I can get some of the media I used working on this here blog) . Here we go:

On November 24, 2007 the world’s best dancehall soundsystems fought tune fi tune at the last ever World Clash New York, and this past weekend, at the 2008 UK World Cup Clash, the best of the best competed for domination. World Clash New York was dubbed “Game Over”, the 2008 UK World Cup “The Final Conflict”. 2008 is the 10th anniversary of the World Clash circuit as run by promotion team Irish and Chin and they plan to put a stop to the show. So is this the end of the soundclash?

Irish and Chin insist that the demise of the World clash circuit is not the end of everything, but simply the end of an era. Certainly, soundclashes have changed over the past few decades. This paper will take a closer look at the state of the soundclash in 2008 by looking at the ways in which clashing has changed and evolved over time.

Dancehall scholar Carolyn Cooper sees clashing not just as the term for contests between mobile discotheque soundsystems to see whose selectors can play the best tunes and get the massive onside. She calls the clash “a trenchant metaphor for the hostile interfacing of warring zones…both literal and symbolic”. If the clash is a metaphor, how has this metaphor changed over the years, if at all? Does the clash still have the power to address the border clash issues Carolyn Cooper insists it does? What is the future of one of the most exciting competitive cultural forms in the world?

Soundclashes began, according to Lloyd Bradley, in his book Bass Culture, in the mid to late 1950s. For various areas of Kingston and the rest of Jamaica, the soundsystems served as local entertainment. And many still do. They are especially valuable for those inner city communities where people were and still are able to afford little else.

In their early history, soundsystems were exactly that: soundsystems. Through the 1980s, this meant that, according the Beth Lesser’s book describing one of the greatest sounds of all time, King Jammy’s Super Power, the speakerbox carriers were important members of the soundsystem crew. Of course, this is because we’re talking giant stacks of speakers and huge, overclocked amps. Clashing between sounds was therefore based much more on sound quality than anything else and this was created by the power of the soundsystem and the abilities of the soundsystem owner and crew to maintain and build the sound.

Though the music was important, the sounds that came out on top were those who had the clearest sounding top end, the boomingest, heaviest bass and, of course, ridiculously loud volume. They’d need to keep it that way for the hours necessary to sway the crowd and thereby lock off another sound.

Soundsystem operators took this to extremes. Bradley retells a story of a “sound man going into a marine equipment dealership in Miami and trying to buy the type of loudspeaker that ocean going liners would use to herald their approach in foggy conditions”. Because of this need for huge and stable sound, soundsystems would need to drop out of clashes if their sound simply couldn’t technically keep up.

Then we entered into what might be referred to as the era of the artist. Soundsystems were accompanied by a series of artists—these artists would allow the sounds to compete with each other and create new versions of songs live. Essentially freestyling, the artists of various soundsystems would directly address and insult rival sounds. Sounds would compete to have the best artists representing their sound.

Following the artist era, began the era of the dubplate—recorded versions of top tunes, personalized and pressed on demand. Sure, there had been dubplates previously, but when a live stageshow is available, why rely solely on dubs? But full ranks of artists become expensive over time, especially if one wanted to travel with one’s sound because competitions became more and more international. Getting dubplates made makes artists increasingly unnecessary.

This era has continued to this day, in as much as dub plates are now the backbone of the clash arena. The development of the clash has also involved the format of these records, the involvement of soundsystems from what might be referred to as non-traditional homebases as well as the staging of the clash itself.

As the internet took hold in the 90s, the industry moved from dubplate to download; mp3 dubs and soundsystem culture went from one side of the planet to another. Soundclash culture went outernational; no longer was it strictly the dominion of the Jamaican diaspora, but scenes sprung up in Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany, and Japan, the home of Mighty Crown, the most successful non-Jamaican sound who bust onto the scene in 2000.

The movement of soundsystem culture worldwide meant that it was difficult (and expensive) to travel not only with artists, but with the sound itself. Experiments with clashes in which one sound made use of their own system while the other, incapable of bringing speaker boxes and amplifiers overseas, had to settle with a borrowed system, met with obvious complaints. “It just wasn’t fair,” explains Garfield “Chin” Bourne. Hence, the sound itself became unnecessary, and promoters simply provided one system for all rivals in an attempt to even the playing field.

As for the switch to digital, any resistance to the new technology was eliminated in 2002, when Toronto, Canada’s Rebel Tone became the first sound to win a World Clash using CDs instead of vinyl. Interestingly, the switch to CD was a specific choice for selector Newby–he wanted something that would set him apart: “At the time, I wanted to try a new thing. Everyone was bringing two turntables—the regular set up in a dance. I wanted to be a unique thing, so when people come to a dance they see something special. When I first started, I sat down and burned every single record and every 45 I had. I still had to buy the 45 to burn them.”

Newby, the one man show that is Rebel Tone, made a decision to switch to CD, not because he had to, but because it would give him an advantage in the clash. As he says, “With a record box, you have limited options. With CDs, you can play ‘till next year.” Another obvious advantage is that if anything is “scratched, I can just burn the next one right away and play it. If a dubplate is scratched, you have to wait for the studio to open up in the morning.” Newby took advantage of this by throwing CDRs into the audience, flaunting his ability to make copies of his dubplates, something that was at the time unheard of, based on the care required to keep a special ready for battle and the desire to keep one’s weapons secret.

The thing about dancehall, as Newby puts it, is that “you could even have a mixed CD. As long as you’re introing the songs and it’s going right to the people.” As a selector who gained success in what might be called the World Clash era, this statement is significant.

With soundsystems simply bringing music as opposed to a whole system, you would think that the music would become more important.

The World Clash creation of Irish and Chin changed the whole focus. Though world clash competition existed before Irish and Chin, they really took the event to a different level, both literally and figuratively. Not only were sounds representing a number of different countries, but the sounds were no longer performing at the same level as the crowd. They now moved up—on to a stage and in front of the massive. Whereas the selector had always stood behind the soundsystem gear, even when it was not owned by his (or, very rarely,  her) sound, now the selector was front and center.

As Chin says, “Selectors started becoming bigger names than the sound systems. So this is why people now identify Squingy and Panther—saying Panther won five world clashes instead of Black Kat. This leads to situations where selectors become bigger than soundsystems and leave to start independent careers, such as Violence leaving Bodyguard and Tony Matterhorn leaving King Addies and becoming independent entitites. This was a turning point—the soundsystems losing credibility to the selectors. We put the selectors on the world stage and we made the selectors into superstars. Once upon a time it was unheard of for a bunch of selectors to be attracting more attention than artists—not any more.”

Stay tuned for part 2…

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3 thoughts on “Ring the Alarm: Is it Game Over for the Soundclash? Part 1

  1. Pingback: Slow down, you move too fast « Soundclash

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