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…


Happy Birthday Passa Passa!

Last night was Passa Passa’s 6th birthday. In light of this auspicious occasion, I thought I’d post a piece I wrote about the now legendary dance. Pictures by the great Roy Sweetland. Favourite line: “This music was born outside.”

Every week, on Wednesday night, Spanish Town Road in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, Jamaica, transforms into Passa Passa. Five thousand people gather to dance and listen to music played by the soundsystem Swatch International—for free, outdoors and as loud as possible. Passa Passa is not just a local street party. Since its inception in 2003, it has grown to attract corporate sponsors in Jamaica, and also to attract the world. And the world has attracted Passa Passa—this coming weekend, Nico Skill and Maestro, two of Swatch’s top selectors (the Jamaican term for DJs), are coming to Montreal to bring a taste of what they do to our winter wonderland.

To get a sense of why this weekly dance is not your average party, it’s important to take a look at exactly where it happens—yes, Jamaica in general is important to reggae, but West Kingston, an area notorious for violence, is specifically important to dancehall. Though many of dancehall’s biggest stars hail from neighbourhoods in West Kingston, it’s still known as a dangerous place.

As Nicholas “Nico Skill” Smith explains, “Before Passa Passa, there was crazy war going on in Kingston, in the Denham Town, Tivoli area and all these places. Every minute, we had something flare up. But since Passa Passa came about, we’ve been playing and it’s been drawing such a huge crowd, the violence in the community is no more. Communities have been fighting, but not in Tivoli area.”

Carl “Maestro” Shelley agrees. “Jamaica was on the verge of a dancehall breakdown. Fun and unity had deteriorated. Different people from different areas, different communities that shared different political views, did not cooperate. We introduced Passa Passa and it became a way of unifying the garrisons, the communities that make up Jamaica’s inner city.”

Excite and unite

It was convenient for Swatch International, who, at the inception of Passa Passa, had been around for over a decade. “Swatch wasn’t born big,” laughs Nico. “It started with one speaker box and one amplifier. And we would get bookings within our communities and you have to know that you’ve got to play well to please those people!”

In addition to having the reputation, the sound, run by O’Neil Miles, proprietor of Miles Enterprise at 47 Spanish Town Road, had a venue—the street in front of the business.

Maestro provided the name. “Generally, in Jamaica,” he says, “the words ‘passa passa’ mean excitement, mix up—anything can be termed as ‘passa passa.’ So we decided we would create a little passa passa where people would enjoy themselves and try to work out their views, and even if they come from different communities, they can party together.

“This is a place known as an area where no one wanted to go—it’s been like rags to riches, but rich in the sense of positivity. People admire that—no one used to want to go there and all of a sudden, everyone wants to go there because it is safe. Nothing can happen. Your car won’t get broken into, nobody is going to rob you. Stuff like that doesn’t happen. It is generally safe overall because this is an area where you have not only Passa Passa but other big events. Passa Passa is the one that opened the gate for all these things to be positively accepted. Everyone wants to party here.”

RESPECTED SELECTORS: Nico Skill and Maestro

Here come the clones

When Maestro says everyone, he means it. Passa Passa doesn’t just draw folks from different communities in Kingston. Any weekly round-up of Passa Passa’s crowd might also include visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, Ireland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, England and Japan.

Swatch has also taken their night on the road. “International audiences appreciate the music, just like when we are downtown,” says Maestro. “They watch the tapes, they go on the Internet to all of these Web sites and they download all these DVDs. When I go to Japan, all the parties that we talk about in Jamaica, they have them in Japan. Every night. They have a Passa Passa and a Maestro down there. When I see this, I think, they are literally cloning us! It’s amazing.”

But what makes Passa Passa what it is are the people who make it their own every week. “Passa Passa is kept in the ghetto and ghetto people love excitement,” Nico explains. “These people are fun people. They love to dance and they do crazy stuff. They come up with all these ideas. It’s just mad. They come together as one and listen to music to the fullest. We play the music and if someone comes and says to us that they have a hot song, we’ll play it to see if it has a vibe—if it does, it could turn out to be number one next month!”

It’s not just hit tunes that get their break at Passa Passa. It’s dance styles too. “If I were to explain everything that Passa Passa has brought to the forefront,” laughs Maestro, “it would take us days! Passa Passa is the one that invented many of the styles in the dancehall. Passa Passa is where we see Thunderclap, Dutty Wine, all of these dances. That’s where they started. Downtown.”

Nico concurs. “Before, it was the DJs and the sounds making all the money, but right now, where dancing is concerned, it opened a new door for a lot of young youth who never dreamed they could have a life like this. And it’s ghetto youth, because all ghetto youth can try to dance and make a style. It happens. They dance and dance and go to more parties and do the same dances. We, the selectors, endorse it and it just gets big.”

In defence of daggering

Still, some commentators think that some of the sexually inspired dancing, called “daggering,” is a bit much. Maestro thinks that these people should change their focus. “They used to say that dancehall creates too much violence. It was a problem, so we said, ‘Alright. No more gun talk.’ Daggering for the girls—why is this still a problem? They need to make up their minds about what they really want in the dancehall. As a selector, I can’t see daggering starting trouble. There are so many things that can come out of this thing called dancehall. They need to appreciate it. A whole heap of people eat food, youths go to school, all just because of daggering! You know how many youths used to kill people and then stop kill people just to become a dancer and bust a new style, get lucky, get a visa and go in foreign countries, travelling as a dancer?”

Even with the recent crackdown on night noise in Jamaica, Passa Passa keeps going. “Passa Passa’s roots are in the ghetto,” says Nico. “Uptown, you cannot play your sound outdoors and have an outdoor party. The Noise Abatement Act means that your neighbour can’t hear your music. If he does, he’ll call the cops and the cops’ll turn it down.

“In the ghetto, it is totally the opposite. You just play until daylight,” he laughs. “You have a sound, outdoor music, big amplifiers, three huge columns of boxes and we just blast it so that whosoever come to that party, Passa Passa, it’s not like the club.”

But, as Maestro explains, “Passa Passa is really the only street dance that is left on a high level right now because the law is cracking down on the night noise. It is really hurting dancehall music. People come to hear the music outside. To see the men cooking jerk chicken. To see the man walking around with a big bunch a’ herb. They come to see the big tower of boxes outside. And the cane man. The corn man with his soup. This music was born outside.”

P.S. If you want more Maestro, check his single out: “Up Inna Di Tings”.

A ride on the other side…

Erup, of “Click My Finger” fame, is back and showcasing a different side of not only his own talents, but dancehall in general. I posted Perfect’s rock/soul turn a month ago and my sense of the raggapop stylings of Mavado, among others. Now, Erup presents a rock and roll-ified view of things. Accompanied here with a lyrically topical side of Jamaica that the reggae, beaches and sunshine crowd might not know too much about, it’s a refreshing bit of niceness for a spring day.

With “How We Ride” coming out at the same time as Deseca’s Genesis riddim, Truckback Records took the same tack and has attempted to build on exclusivity as opposed to the “email blast” that those of us who like this type of stuff are used to. Of course, there are also some who might be disappointed with this new approach, as it places a fair amount of value on intellectual property. Larisa Mann, who studies issues of copyright in Jamaican music, shared Dancehall.mobi’s reporting on the riddim with an attached comment reading: “property right enforcement being made a big deal of. Seems a pity to me, somehow..”

But blogger Erin Hansen (of Imagelala), referencing the infamously poor sales of recent Jamaican albums, had this to say:

With “Genesis”, it appears that dancehall may be trying to reclaim some of that revenue. Riddims have long been freely passed around by every internet herb with basic file sharing skills (me included), but with a marketing scheme like this one and some additional regulation, artists might actually start earning their keep. Particularly if the promotion goes global, which is what the “Genesis” project was aiming for. Still, can “Genesis” maintain that buzz? After listening to it in full– and most likely supporting it with a purchase– I’m not sure if it’s mind blowing enough to fracture the freeloading pattern. While producing strong drops from Charly Black, Aidonia, and Mavado, it still might not be enough to carry the international platform and facilitate a reclamation of the digital riddim.

For myself, I understand how one might be attracted to a means of promotion that creates a sense excitement around new riddims and tunes. After all, that’s one of the things that soundsystem culture has always been rather good at. It’s obvious that this desire for excitement is part of the reasoning behind the mighty David Rodigan’s take on the situation:

This is David Rodigan and I am delighted to have read your press release regarding a “new beginning.” This is a heartfelt cry from me and thousands of other “reggae” fans in Europe who have become utterly disillusioned by the state of the Jamaican music industry and the lack of thought behind its promotion.

I am delighted that you have seen fit to return to the ethics of traditional music promotion, whereby only certain dee jays and radio stations are able to preview your productions, and in doing so are able to create a demand for a new song. I am happy to know that from now on you will be professionally selective in choosing who has your new productions.

You are a young, imaginative and creative production house in Jamaica and the music desperately needs young people with new ideas. Reggae music must rise up again and that means positivity and a return to melody and harmony. Much of what is now being produced in Jamaica does not export outside Norman Manley Airport.

It would seem that Rodigan’s enthusiasm has more to do with the issue of demand for a tune–the sense of selectivity in promotion. The role of the selector has been and continues to be paramount in Jamaican music. It’s as much a concept as it is a position. The notion of selecting music extends to promotion–who gets to hear the tune, when it’s introduced, and then who gets dubplates. It’s the stock and trade of successful sounds. Maybe instead of the main issue being about property rights and money making (which, of course, is obviously still a part of this strategy), it’s about reinstating the importance of selectivity. Picking and choosing who gets the premiere and letting people know about the importance and excitement of something new. And that, to me, deserves a forward.

Sleng Teng dominate bad, bad.

Thanks to Gabriel Heatwave for reminding us all of the significance of the 23 February.  It’s been 25 years since the Sleng Teng was first dropped. I think there is no better way to celebrate this moment than to turn to reggae historian, photographer and all-round terrific writer Beth Lesser. She was there and, I think, her words really do capture the significance of the occasion to the history of Jamaican music. Read below and then go and buy her books. The Jammy’s book is truly fantastic and, also, one of the (for lack of a better word) coolest projects I’ve been ever involved with. And Beth still has so many more stories to tell. I always thought reggae and dancehall great, but I credit Beth with firmly establishing and reinforcing my love of the soundsystem.  Now, over to Beth:

The night of the 23rd, people began to gather on the Waltham early. The sounds were warming up with the apprentices while the big artists were arriving. Black Scorpio opened the showdown with the full compliment of Sassafras and Trees and regulars Shukahine, Culture Lee, Wayne Palmer, and Michael Jahsone. Jah Screw, the selector, was armed with dubplates by Frankie Paul (the Scorpio productions) like “The Closer I Get to You,” as well as Earl Sixteen’s “Sweet Soul Rockin,” and “Making Tracks,” Bobby Melody, Little John, and Johnny Osbourne. On Jammy’s side were John Wayne, Echo Minott, General Leon, Screecha Nice, Tullo T, Junior Reid, Tonto Irie, and Pompidou. Tupps was selecting with confidence knowing that he had a bag full of Sleng Teng to thrown down. Every name entertainer was there from U-Roy to Leroy Smart to witness the confrontation.

By nine o’clock the yard was full and more people were coming through the door. Scorpio was getting hot with Johnny Osbourne’s “Reasons” and “Show Me Your Sign.” After an hour, the current went over to Jammy. Wise Tupps opened right away with Sleng Teng and the crowd went wild! People were cheering and throwing their hands in the air, blowing noise-makers and whistles. The bass sound that was coming out of those boxes was like nothing that had ever been heard before. It was absolutely clean—powerful and pounding. It just stopped your heart. And it had all come out of a “music box,” as the unfamiliar electronic keyboards were referred to then. Tupps was putting on Sugar Minott’s “War and Crime” when suddenly the melody was interrupted by the entrance of armed police officers, M16s on their shoulders. For over an hour, the dance had to stop while police ordered everyone to the side as they searched each person, one by one, for weapons. John Wayne was heard to say something unacceptable about the police over the mike and was hauled off (he later returned intact).

Finally, after a luckily fruitless search, the officers retreated (with a few timid patrons) and the clash proceeded, but the verdict was already in—Sleng Teng had won the day. What was it about a chance combination on a tiny Casio keyboard that could mesmerise an entire nation and change forever the course of reggae music? Once this “Computer” rhythm appeared, there was no turning back. Even Jammy had to reluctantly shelve over fifty “human” rhythms he had made with the High Times band and not used yet, because no one wanted to hear them. All they wanted was Sleng Teng—literally. Album after album of pure Sleng Teng versions were released and every single one sold. It was Jammy’s very first number one record in Jamaica (although he had had several abroad). Yes, “the Sleng Teng dominate bad, bad,” as Tupps recalls.

Renaissance states its case…

Coupla weeks (months?) ago there was a bit of a discussion on Twitter about sounds versus discos. @bigblackbarry argued as follows: “Disco is Disco an Sound a Sound. Stone Love, Swatch a sound. Coppershot, Renaissance a disco. no disrespec but doan confuse.” I’ve also heard the argument that discos juggle, while sounds clash. I’m still thinking about it…interested in anyone else’s thoughts on the matter too. But while you’re thinking, listen to this big dub that makes an argument for Renaissance. It’s a big tune. You gotta give ’em that.

Guinness! Guinness! Guinness! Sounds of Greatness Final

I’ve been keeping up with this live and direct as well as via vimeo and direct (thanks to On Stage). While the Sounds of Greatness competition is itself a brilliant marketing strategy (my favourite thing being MCs who, immediately after telling the crowd to drink responsibly, advertise super-cheap deals on buckets of six bottles and lead the crowd in a chant of “Guinness! Guinness! Guinness!”), it’s also a great thing for the clash, which has popped down in recent years. One of the problems, from my perspective, is the reliance on dubs and the connected expense of said dubs. Sometimes it’s interesting to see what a sound can do with straight tunes. It really does provide a significant marker of not only musical knowledge, but understanding of the massive at a particular moment. The Sounds of Greatness division of rounds made this possible with a juggling round followed by a tune fi tune round and then a dub fi dub.

The rules of the Sounds of Greatness competitions seemed to change a little throughout the three month contest, and the judging was somewhat confusing. Fact was, in the final analysis, it was always 70% crowd and 30% judges, meaning it was all about the forwards. And the crowds were terrific. The final, held at Mas Camp in Kingston was packed, but the events leading up to the showdown between Bass Odyssey and Sound Trooper often drew huge crowds in country-Port Antonio being a particularly memorable occasion. Folly Oval is just a great venue.

The fact that each clash was broadcast (albeit in abridged form) nationwide in JA on CVM tv, was a great way to get the word out about Guinness, but also to hype up the clash. Thing is, the televising could have let some of the energy of the competition speak for itself. There’s simply too much zoom, and too much movement. As well, I would have appreciated a little more interaction with members of the crowd-after all, they’re the most significant element of the clash.

p.s. I also have to say that I’m a fan of the Guinness Girls. They beat America’s Bud Light Girls any day of the week.

Thanks to seen and Burden Clothing for bigging up the clash too!

The report I’ve been waiting for…

If you’re interested in the Guinness Sounds of Greatness competition, the coverage you have to read is by Mel Cooke. Thankfully, he was there to witness the carnage and presents his take on Saturday night’s final showdown in the Jamaica Star today. Apparently the Star will be printing reports all week. I’ll try and link them all together for convenience’s sake. Until that time, take a peek at the winning sound, here up against Bredda Hype in the semi-final: