Wickedest Sound

Roman Mars [00:00:00] Whether you’re listening to us at home or on the go, T-Mobile keeps you connected to what matters most. With T-Mobile, you get more 5G bars in more places, and they cover the most highway miles with 5G. That means you can quickly research those architectural details and questions that pop up while you’re out and about in real time. T-Mobile’s got our 99% Invisible listeners covered. Visit your local T-Mobile store to make the switch and join the leader in 5G coverage today. See 5G device coverage and plan details at T-Mobile.com. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. When Herbie Miller was growing up in East Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1950s, he and his friends would put on their best outfits and head into the city. From blocks away, they could hear music pumping out through giant, powerful speakers set up at dance halls, bars, and social clubs all over downtown. The sound was irresistible–and so Herbie and his crew would just follow their ears. Along the way, they’d run into other kids like them–everyone looking for the exact same thing: the perfect dance party. 

Herbie Miller [00:01:10] Packs of boys or groups of boys walking from community to community, unable to go inside clubs and dance halls because it was perhaps two shillings and sixpence. That was the entry fee to a dance. 

Christopher Johnson [00:01:26] The guys would collect scrap metal and recycle empty bottles just to earn enough cash to pay the door. But sometimes they’d still come up short. 

Roman Mars [00:01:34] That’s 99PI producer Christopher Johnson. 

Christopher Johnson [00:01:37] These parties were the hottest dance scene on the island, with deejays spinning the latest tracks by artists like Alton Ellis, Don Drummond, and Roland Alphonso. That music made the party so live that things were even popping out on the street. 

Herbie Miller [00:01:55] So that you dance outside, and you listen to the tune outside. Then you have the Orange-Man, the Juice-Man. All of these were on the outside of the dance. So, you buy a piece, and then you go on eating your piece and your juice or whatever your pocket can afford. So, you know, it was a lot of fun. 

Christopher Johnson [00:02:15] And then if they got lucky, a sympathetic bouncer would eventually open the gate and wave Herbie and his buddies through and… Oh, my God. That’s when Herbie really felt it. 

Herbie Miller [00:02:26] One of the first things that happens when you walk inside… the weight of the music hit you in your chest. The bass–like an earthquake–you feel that bass inside of you. If you don’t feel the bass, there is no bass. 

Roman Mars [00:02:42] Herbie loved that muscular sound system. His bones rattled and buzzed from those driving dance beats coming from the R&B, soul, jazz, and ska records that the deejays were spinning. He’d find a spot next to a refrigerator-sized speaker box called A House of Joy, and just take in the crowd. 

Herbie Miller [00:03:02] To watch the nice birds come into the dances in their dance to the door. And to watch the bad man walk, or bad man talk, or bad man profile. 

Christopher Johnson [00:03:16] As the men and women walked into the dance, young Herbie took note of what everyone was wearing. These folks were sharp. 

Herbie Miller [00:03:23] It was just a colorful scene to see the people decked out. People were just at their best. But these were working people. 

Christopher Johnson [00:03:44] For Herbie, one of the best parts of the night was when the crowd would form a ring and the expert dancers would enter the circle. 

Herbie Miller [00:03:51] A man dance until the clothes stick onto him. He has to abandon the nice continental jacket and dance down to shirtless–the way perspiration is oozing out of his body. 

Christopher Johnson [00:04:05] They get so hot that onlookers would splash the dancers with cold beer until the floor was a slurry of sweat and red stripe. 

Herbie Miller [00:04:13] Come on, man. It just was an amazing spectacle to behold. 

Christopher Johnson [00:04:21] When Herbie was growing up, these amazing parties–sometimes called lawn dances or blues dances–they were happening on the regular all over downtown Kingston. And one of the things that made these jams burn so damn hot was the technology that powered the party. 

Roman Mars [00:04:39] Jamaica is famous around the world for its music, like ska, dub, and reggae. It’s tempting to think that those powerful amplifiers and giant speakers were designed to perfectly capture Jamaica’s indigenous sounds. 

Christopher Johnson [00:04:54] But it’s actually the other way around. Those speakers and amps came first–and the electricians, mechanics and engineers who built and adapted that technology would then play a decisive role in the creation of Jamaica’s modern music. They helped pioneer approaches to making and performing music that would spawn whole other scenes from the Bronx to the UK. 

Roman Mars [00:05:17] These dance parties first emerged in Jamaica in the decade following World War Two. That’s when the deeply underdeveloped British colony started to grow economically. One big boost came from U.S. tourism. 

Vintage Announcer [00:05:29] This then is Jamaica, an exotic blend of old world and new. 

Roman Mars [00:05:33] Americans came in droves to visit the resorts that were popping up all along the sublime north coast. 

Herbie Miller [00:05:40] You would have to go a long way to find anything to compare. Planes from New York, 1,600 miles away, land at Montego Bay Airport barely 6 hours later. 

Christopher Johnson [00:05:49] As U.S. visitors flocked to the island, hotels scrambled to meet their demands–which could sometimes be a little particular. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:05:56] Because I don’t mean to be rude about Americans. 

Christopher Johnson [00:05:59] Lloyd Bradley is a music historian–a British music historian. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:06:03] But every American I’ve never met–except for two or three, actually–who have been abroad, are essentially looking for America with a more agreeable climate. 

Roman Mars [00:06:14] U.S. vacationers wanted something familiar, especially when it came to entertainment. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:06:19] And so as the north coast hotel business started booming, so there was a demand for dance bands, big band jazz, swing–essentially American music played by Jamaican musicians in the hotels. You know, because the idea of recreating something as American as possible in these hotels would make it very easy for tourists to sort of slip into it. 

Christopher Johnson [00:06:45] Other tourists came to Jamaica, wanting to hear music from Jamaica. So, lots of hotels also hired bands that specialized in the island’s folk music. 

Roman Mars [00:06:54] The demand for artists in the resort towns was so high, it sparked an exodus of musicians out of the capital city of Kingston. Many of them packed up their saxophones and guitars and struck out for tourist hotspots in search of higher paying gigs. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:07:09] Places like Port Antonio, Montego Bay was a big draw for trained musicians. And it was also at this time that many of the trained musicians left Jamaica. 

Christopher Johnson [00:07:21] Music historian Norman Stolzoff says that lots of Jamaican artists also joined a mass migration of West Indians who headed to the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. Trained musicians were leaving the capital city, and that left the average Kingstonian in the late 1940s with few options for live music. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:07:40] There was kind of a dearth of entertainment–musical entertainment–literally a shortage of band music available to the masses of Jamaicans. 

Christopher Johnson [00:07:51] But look, those folks still wanted to dance and party. 

Roman Mars [00:07:57] So, a handful of small businessmen, inventors, and audio engineers across Central and West Kingston began to improvise a way to give the people the dance parties that they craved without any live musicians. 

Christopher Johnson [00:08:10] It all started with shop owners who were connecting record players to very basic PA systems. They place the speakers outside their stores and play recorded music to try and attract customers. 

Roman Mars [00:08:21] And it worked–sort of. Because instead of going inside the store, some folks would just gather on the street and dance. A few other entrepreneurs saw real potential in this. So, they put together their own PA turntable units, and they took those set ups around Kingston, hosting little dances in open air lots or maybe in the yard behind the bar–wherever there was space. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:08:43] They started playing house parties–small gatherings–with their record players and small speakers. And they became quite popular, filling in that role that bands would have played in an earlier time. And musicians weren’t available, so the sound system band kind of stepped in. 

Christopher Johnson [00:09:04] As small as they were, these parties would soon inspire some big advances in technology. And that tech was going to help West Kingston’s nascent dance scene explode. 

Roman Mars [00:09:16] Right around 1950, a Jamaican inventor named Hedley Jones used his knowledge as a former radar engineer for the British Royal Air Force to build a new kind of powerful, dynamic amplifier. It was designed specifically for deejays. The amp had what’s called a three-band equalizer, which could separate out and then emphasize high, mid, and low frequencies. 

Christopher Johnson [00:09:40] So–practically speaking–when you wanted a deejay to pump that bass, he could now pump that bass. A hardware store owner whose name was Tom “The Great” Sebastian was one of the first to wire Hedley Jones’ new amp to his turntable and speakers–and he gave that powerful rig a new name: “the sound system.” 

Roman Mars [00:10:06] West Kingston’s dance scene expanded from cozy house parties to larger affairs in social clubs, empty buildings, and large open lawns. To keep all those people dancing it now took a robust operation–and everything in the sound system just got bigger and bigger. The amps, the speakers, and the speaker cabinets. 

King Jammy [00:10:26] Yes. Because, you know, in those days–after that era–I’d gone with one speaker box. People started to make two speakers in a box, so I made the box bigger to make it more powerful. 

Christopher Johnson [00:10:39] This is King Jammy, a legendary sound system operator and music producer. He was still a kid when these first sound systems were reigning. 

King Jammy [00:10:48] So, you had most of the big sounds in those days going with double speakers. And they start to build bigger amplifiers to drive the speakers more–so they get more power. 

Christopher Johnson [00:10:59] By this point, the meaning of the phrase “sound system” had also expanded. It wasn’t just the equipment. A sound system was also all the people it took to operate it–the owners, the deejays, and the engineers. By the early fifties, there were close to a dozen professional, top-ranking sound system crews in and around Kingston. And these crews–sometimes just called “sounds”–were locked in a full-on technological arms race to see who could build the biggest rig. 

Roman Mars [00:11:30] If you’ve seen pictures of sound system rigs–you know, the towering walls of speakers–this is where it begins. 

Christopher Johnson [00:11:38] Guys who were trained in electrical engineering and cabinetry mixed and matched imported equipment with miscellaneous spare parts–tinkering, soldering, hammering, wiring, and rewiring all in the quest to build amp and speaker units that pumped out sounds so clear and so powerful they’d crush every other deejay crew in town. In his book on the history of reggae music–called Bass Culture–Lloyd Bradley relates a story that he was told about one deejay who was out to pulverize the competition. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:12:09] Yeah, it was some guy. I mean, again, this might be apocryphal, but it’s something that–you know–it’s just too entertaining to ignore. 

Christopher Johnson [00:12:17] As the story goes, a sound technician flew from Jamaica to Miami, and he stopped at a marine equipment dealership–the sort of place that supplies boats with all the things they need for seafaring. After browsing for a bit, he told his eager salesmen what was on his shopping list: nautical grade loudspeakers. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:12:36] And he bought a couple of speakers that were used to warn ships in fog–you know–and all he was concerned about was would it take 5000 watts, which is what he was going to put through it. It was a real big deal, you know?

Roman Mars [00:12:53] These guys would do anything–go anywhere–to get their hands on the biggest and most powerful sound systems. 

Christopher Johnson [00:13:01] As vital and impressive as the tech was, there was–of course–no sound system without the actual music. Records were the lifeblood of the sound. But while the early sound system operators had reconstructed their equipment to make it their own, virtually none of the actual music was Jamaican. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:13:20] The first sound system dances were R&B–were imported American records, because there weren’t any records being made in Jamaica. You know, it was easier to have a relative send boxes of records from New York or something. 

Monte Blake [00:13:34] Well, we used to import records. When I say “we,” I mean the sound system people. You know? 

Roman Mars [00:13:41] Monte Blake is sound system royalty. His dad started Merritone Sound in 1950. Today, Monte operates Merritone, the oldest active sound system in Jamaica. 

Christopher Johnson [00:13:51] When Monte was a kid, he and his brothers would climb up on their roof with a receiver and an antenna that was big enough to pick up R&B, jazz, and blues radio shows in the U.S. They were listening for songs that they could order by mail just to feed the family sound system. 

Monte Blake [00:14:07] We used to tune in at nights–like 12 o’clock at night–when it’s clear, and we would pick up, you know, the stations in Nashville. Then we would listen and import the records. So, we used to get records from Ernie’s and Randy’s in Nashville. Now, this was before vinyl, no? They were shellac records, 78 RPM–breakable stuff. 

Christopher Johnson [00:14:29] Jamaicans love this stuff. The music was heavy on bass and drums, and it sounded really good on the sound systems that were growing more and more powerful every day. 

Monte Blake [00:14:44] We used to import a lot of music out of New Orleans–the Louis Jordans, the Rosco Gordons, anything by Dave Bartholomew, Smiley Lewis. 

Christopher Johnson [00:15:07] Sound system crews also found other ways to get their hands on the records they needed. Many of them relied on men like Clement Seymour Dodd. As a kid, he’d earned the nickname Coxsone after a well-known British cricket player. 

Roman Mars [00:15:20] In the early 1950s, Dodd did some brief stretches as a migrant farm worker in the American South. Those gigs gave him lots of exposure to Black dance music and to Black dance parties. He saw how lucrative an outdoor jam could be. Dodd returned to Jamaica with boxes of records for sale. He became a lifeline for Kingston sound men who relied on him for a supply of fresh music. 

Christopher Johnson [00:15:45] Dodd wasn’t the only migrant farm worker doing this, but his involvement in the scene went way beyond just transporting records. He would soon play a decisive role in the shaping of modern Jamaican music. 

Roman Mars [00:15:56] In the 2002 documentary The Studio One Story by Soul Jazz Records, Dodd describes how in the early fifties, he started doing deejay guest spots with one of the biggest sound system operators at the time–a guy named Duke Reed. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:16:11] Duke Reed was a friend of the family. So, I had the records. So, I used to go around, play them on the sound system so as to see if the dance fans would accept it. 

Interviewer [00:16:27] On his sound system?

Coxsone Dodd [00:16:27] On his sound system. This was doing a lot for him because I was playing records that he didn’t even know. 

Christopher Johnson [00:16:37] Dodd was a huge music fan. He was very familiar with these records, and he knew how to get more from the U.S. But he didn’t really play any instruments himself. He was a trained auto mechanic and carpenter–a left brain technician with experience building speaker cabinets for other sound system crews. And he realized he had all the skills he needed to start his own sound system. 

Roman Mars [00:16:58] Which he did. He called it Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat. And Sir Coxsone quickly became one of the premier sound men of his era, known for dropping bebop and blues cuts alongside the more predictable R&B dance tunes. 

Christopher Johnson [00:17:14] By the mid-fifties. Kingston’s sound system dance scene was getting very crowded. The guys who ran them came from all different walks of life. Dodd had been a migrant farmer and an auto mechanic. Duke Reed was a former cop, known for openly carrying loaded guns at his dance parties. 

Roman Mars [00:17:30] Duke Reed, Coxsone Dodd, and other soundmen often found themselves spinning right down the block from one another, vying for the attention of partygoers looking for the best place to dance. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:17:42] So, initially it would be two or more dance hall performances competing in the same neighborhood, and it was who could draw a bigger crowd. And the expression is–if all the crowd went to your dance rather than to another–you “flopped” the dance of the other soundman. 

Christopher Johnson [00:17:58] It wasn’t long before some promoters decided to make things a little more interesting by having sound systems go head-to-head. Kind of like a battle of the bands. 

Roman Mars [00:18:07] And these became what are now called sound system clashes, where two sound systems or more would play against each other in a competitive musical battle. 

Roman Mars [00:18:19] At a clash, each sound system would typically get a set amount of time to spin. They’d go back and forth, trying to win the crowd’s unequivocal love. Early in his career, Coxsone Dodd won clashes against veteran soundmen like Duke Reed. These victories were crucial because they helped establish Coxsone as one of the best sound system operators in the game. 

Christopher Johnson [00:18:41] Winning sound clashes and throwing unforgettable dances was bigger than just bragging rights. In just a few short years, the sound system scene had become incredibly lucrative, supporting not just sound crews, but security details, drivers, venue owners, and more. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:18:58] It was bragging rights for the sound system and their supporters, but also economic survival was wrapped up in who was going to eventually win a clash. 

Roman Mars [00:19:08] Fruit and fish hawkers, jerk chicken vendors, all sorts of people who were dependent on this homegrown scene would flock to the gates of the dance. 

King Jammy [00:19:18] The sound system plays a very important part in a lot of industry. 

Christopher Johnson [00:19:23] This is King Jammy again. 

King Jammy [00:19:25] It plays a vital part in people selling things at the dance. It played an important part for the weed man selling weed… And a lot of things, you know?

Norman Stolzoff [00:19:36] So, it became a kind of informal economy for people who were chronically underemployed and looking for ways to earn extra money. 

Roman Mars [00:19:46] When it came to staying ahead of the competition, sound system crews could be relentless. At a clash, one crew might even stoop to sabotage–cutting speaker wires or starting fights just to derail the competition. 

Christopher Johnson [00:19:59] And there were other ways that deejay crews fought to stay on top. See, lots of Kingstonians relied on sound system parties to hear new music. Most people didn’t have record players, and Jamaican radio wasn’t playing the edgier party tracks they wanted to hear. So, if that’s the kind of stuff you liked, you had to go to the dance. 

Roman Mars [00:20:18] And that’s exactly what Kingstonians did. They headed to sound system parties and looked to the deejays to spin the freshest cuts. 

Christopher Johnson [00:20:27] And this is why the most precious thing that a soundman could have was a song that was new and that nobody else had. They were known as “exclusives.” A lot of that music was imported or brought to Jamaica by people like Coxsone Dodd. And for most deejays, those records were priceless. 

Frank Broughton [00:20:46] The musical side was really about having exclusives. 

Christopher Johnson [00:20:50] Frank Broughton is the coauthor of the book Last night a DJ Saved My Life: A History of Deejaying. 

Frank Broughton [00:20:56] The sound system guys would go to America to get rhythm and blues records. And it would be all about which exclusive tracks you could get that would really make the crowd go crazy–that your opposition didn’t have. And they had signature tunes–something that might be the only copy on the island. 

Roman Mars [00:21:16] The competition became relentless between the sound systems. They were sending people up to the United States to go on scouting expeditions to find records. And then there was also a lot of detective work to try to sleuth out what your competitors’ records were that they were keeping secret. 

Monte Blake [00:21:38] To be exclusive, you have to scratch off the label. 

Roman Mars [00:21:41] Monte Blake, whose father started the Merritone Sound System, remembers the extreme measures soundmen took just to keep the records super-secret. 

Monte Blake [00:21:49] Because those days, you had spies. They knew the color. Once they see a yellow and black, they know it’s specialty–and they see a red and black noise, they know it’s Atlantic. 

Christopher Johnson [00:21:59] King Jammy says this practice was pretty common for guys who ran sound systems. 

King Jammy [00:22:04] You scratch out the name–you know–nobody don’t really know who’s singing or what’s the name of the song. So, they play an exclusive song, and they’ll play it for months–you know–until the other guy finds out who is the singer or what’s the name of the song. 

Roman Mars [00:22:21] And after erasing the name of the artist and the record label, soundmen would sometimes even rename the now anonymous tune. Then they drop the new cut at a party and folks would go nuts. At least, that was the dream. 

Christopher Johnson [00:22:36] This whole process was one of the earliest iterations of a thing that would become really familiar in deejay culture. The one who got all the love for the music wasn’t the person who actually created it. It was the deejay. The props were for his skills in reading the crowd, his taste in music, and his access to the best dance cuts. 

Roman Mars [00:22:57] But by the second half of the 1950s, the U.S to Jamaica, a pipeline that for years kept the sound system deejays’ crates filled with jazz, blues and R&B records was starting to go dry. And this was about to be a problem for the dance scene. 

Christopher Johnson [00:23:12] Blame it on rock and roll. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:23:15] In America, the rhythm and blues was kind of fading–dying out. Then came the rock and roll. But the rock and roll didn’t go over strongly in Jamaica. 

Christopher Johnson [00:23:28] Rock and roll exploded in the mid 1950s, but–with its pushy, whining guitars and no discernible dance beat–West Kingston’s party crowd was not feeling it. And as rock and roll became king in the U.S., soundmen like Dodd found it harder and harder to get their hands on the kind of bottom-heavy jazz and R&B that Jamaicans loved and that sounded amazing on those giant speakers. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:23:54] Actually, America’s running out of this stuff. Tastes were shifting by that point. There wasn’t so much Louis Jordan and all of that. 

Roman Mars [00:24:02] At the same time, there were just more sound systems around and everybody was drawing from this dwindling pool of fresh American R&B. 

Christopher Johnson [00:24:11] Dodd and others could see the writing on the wall. They poured a lot into their sound system businesses, and it was paying well, but only if you could maintain your competitive edge, which was getting harder and harder to do. They needed recorded music from somewhere that would give their fans the kind of fresh, exciting, bassy dance music that they wanted. 

Roman Mars [00:24:34] And Coxsone Dodd became one of the first soundmen to make a decision that was pretty simple on its surface but would transform Jamaican music. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:24:42] About that time, we realized we had to really make some music of our own to keep the people happy. So, I went in the studio and started recording. 

Roman Mars [00:24:57] Although a lot of artists had migrated out of Kingston, there were still some great musicians around, and Dodd corralled a few of those artists into whatever studios he could rent around the city. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:25:07] We did some rhythm and blues–tried to copy the rhythm and blues with that driving beat. And after a couple of sessions, you see all the people accept it–you felt that, you know, you had done a good track. 

Roman Mars [00:25:22] These sessions were recorded on a plasticky material called Acetate. The recordings were not meant to last. Dodd just needed something good enough for a dozen or so spins on his sound system. 

Christopher Johnson [00:25:34] Dodd wasn’t the only producer doing this. Other soundmen started pulling together artists and renting time in one of several studios around Kingston. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:25:42] Sound system owners would hire some musicians to record their own versions of American music. You know, so there’s a bunch of early Jamaican recordings, which they call “J.A. Boogie.” Essentially, it’s R&B–jump, jive–you know, being recorded in Jamaica with a few Jamaican twists, but not much. Essentially, it was a fairly faithful reproduction of what had been recorded in the U.S.

Christopher Johnson [00:26:12] But things were changing fast for Jamaica as a nation. In the mid 1950s, the British colony hit the gas on a campaign for independence. A real air of national pride was emerging–a faith in Jamaicanness that you could feel everywhere. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:26:27] People wanted to express themselves as Jamaicans, and people were far more determined to create their own culture than to import it from America. 

Roman Mars [00:26:38] The musicians and soundmen decided it was time to make something that felt less derivative. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:26:44] They were thinking, “Well, it’s kind of all right, but we’ve been playing this stuff for ages. We ought to be making something look a bit more of our own. You know, we ought to be putting our own twist on it.” 

Christopher Johnson [00:26:55] One Sunday morning–sometime in the late fifties–Coxsone Dodd invited some of the top artists at the time to huddle in the back room of his family’s liquor store in Kingston. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:27:05] Coxsone had a meeting with a bunch of musicians and said, “Look, we’ve got to do something, you know?” And they all felt quite excited about, “Oh, at last we can express ourselves a bit.” 

Christopher Johnson [00:27:16] They wanted to add to the music what one of the artists called “a Jamaican feeling.” For Dodd’s powerhouse team of engineers, musicians, and producers, that meant futzing with the rhythm structure. Dodd really liked that classic shuffle beat found in American R&B. But the musicians decided to change the emphasis from the first and third beats to the second and fourth beats. What’s known as the “afterbeat.” 

Roman Mars [00:27:42] So, from something like this… To something like this…

Christopher Johnson [00:27:51] At first, they called it “Upside Down R&B.” Now, it might seem like a small tweak on the surface, but with this shift to the offbeat, Dodd’s team was about to conceive a whole new modern sound in Jamaica. 

Roman Mars [00:28:07] The day after that backroom meeting, they did a song with pianist and singer Theophilus Beckford called Easy Snapping. It’s widely regarded as the first recorded song in a genre that would later be called ska–a style that echoes American R&B, but it is clearly its own thing. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:28:40] People talk about Easy Snapping as the first ska song because it inverted the emphasis on the beats. 

Christopher Johnson [00:28:59] That new ska rhythm made the dances at sound system parties go totally nuts. They loved it. And songs like Easy Snapping helped make ska immensely popular all over Jamaica. 

Roman Mars [00:29:11] But if you were into this new music, the dance parties were still pretty much the only places to hear it. And when Dodd made those first recordings, he was focused only on supplying music to his sound system–not selling it to the general public. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:29:26] When we started, we didn’t have any idea this could be a business. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:29:33] Up until that point, people are only making records to play on their sound systems, and the uniqueness of a record was what made it important. Its value lay in its uniqueness. If there was even half a dozen copies of it knocking about Kingston, then it wasn’t nearly as valuable as if there was only one. So, the idea that you could sell the records was ridiculous to most soundmen. It just went against everything; they thought, “Well, why on earth would I want more copies of this out there, you know?” 

Christopher Johnson [00:30:07] But Dodd soon changed his mind about keeping everything exclusive. He’d been hearing buzz about the music that he was making for his downbeat sound system–folks here and there saying if he did record that stuff and sell it to the public, there was definitely a market. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:30:22] It was so strong–people saying, “Make a record of that!” I said, “You think it would sell?” They said, “Yeah, man.” So, I gave it a try. 

Roman Mars [00:30:35] So in 1959, Dodd pressed up copies of Easy Snapping and started selling them. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:30:41] Dodd took it round and was astonished that it actually sold. He was one of the first. 

Coxsone Dodd [00:30:47] And that was a start in the business because then we realized, you know, it could be a business because records like that sold a lot. 

Lloyd Bradley [00:30:58] And that’s how the industry started–with, you know, a couple of guys on motorbikes going around selling these things to jukebox owners. 

Christopher Johnson [00:31:07] This music, which the soundmen had helped bring to life, marked the beginning of the island’s recording industry–borne out of the needs of the dance hall. 

Roman Mars [00:31:16] The musical revolution that the sound system had ignited in the 1950s got more intense over the next couple of decades. 

Christopher Johnson [00:31:23] In 1962, Coxsone Dodd brought in some of Jamaica’s best sound system engineers, and they helped him build a production hub for the island’s music scene. Dodd named it The Jamaica Recording and Publishing Studio, but no one ever called it that. To the many famous artists who would record there, including Lee Perry, The Skatalites, and The Wailers, it was simply “Studio One.” 

Roman Mars [00:32:15] Lots of other soundmen followed Dodd’s example, opening studios across the capital city. 

Christopher Johnson [00:32:20] This was the early sixties, and Jamaica had just earned its independence. A strong current of Black cultural pride and even Black nationalism–led mainly by the explosion of the Rastafari faith–was sweeping the island. It became a definitive part of what local artists were recording and now selling. 

Roman Mars [00:32:37] Jamaicans were hearing themselves and their ambitions reflected back to them in their music. And the public could not get enough. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:32:45] It became increasingly about cultural pride and then ultimately, I think, about an assertion of a political autonomy over their own cultural forms. And they wanted things that were created at home and that reflected the Jamaican reality. 

Christopher Johnson [00:33:08] And then in the late 1960s, Jamaica hit the world with songs like Do the Reggae by Toots and the Maytals, showcasing the island’s most definitive sound ever. Reggae grew out of ska and a subsequent style called “rocksteady.” But reggae quickly surpassed both as the country’s single most popular musical form. It was album-oriented; it was radio-friendly. Labels in the U.S. and the U.K. picked it up and packaged it for international markets. 

Roman Mars [00:33:46] And by the time I went to college in Ohio in the early nineties, just about every student in my dorm had a copy of Bob Marley’s Legend and a poster of him on the wall–as if they were handed out at orientation. 

Christopher Johnson [00:34:06] The culture that emerged when those first humble sound systems popped up in West Kingston– playing American jazz and blues–that same culture had spawned Jamaica’s first recording industry, and it led to modern music styles with global reach. 

Norman Stolzoff [00:34:23] Many people think that the Jamaican recording industry grew up and that the sound systems were there to popularize the records. Well, it was actually quite the opposite. The sound system men actually went into the studio to record records so that they could have exclusives for their sound systems. So, the recording industry was actually a byproduct of the sound systems and not the other way around. 

Roman Mars [00:34:50] Sound systems made Jamaican music an international sound. Coming up after the break: how a sound system culture has influenced a lot of other music that we love, from hip hop to reggaeton to EDM. None of us are just one thing. The Lenovo Slim laptop was designed to give you the power and mobility to just be you. The Yoga Slim 9i, designed on the Intel Evo platform, is a carbon-neutral and Energy Star certified laptop made from recycled materials. A stylish, thin, and light comfort-edged chassis–accented by 3D glass–provides optimal and comfortable using and carrying. Move forward with a powerful soundtrack and flawless visuals–with an up to 4K OLED, PureSight touch display, coupled with the majesty of Bowers & Wilkins speakers. Get the power to create from anywhere–any time–thanks to 12th Gen Intel Core processors. With the Lenovo AI Core 2.0 chip, you’ll enjoy smart features like a zero-touch login and adaptive screen brightness. Plus, Lenovo Premium Care is included on all Lenovo Slim devices. Get holiday shopping. The Lenovo Slim is available now at lenovo.com. That’s lenovo.com–and all major retailers. Now, a word from our sponsor, BetterHelp. When you’re faced with challenges in life, it can be tough to train your brain to stay in problem-solving mode. But when you learn how to find your own solutions, there is no better feeling. A therapist can help you become a better problem solver, making it easier to accomplish your goals–no matter how big or small. If you’re thinking about giving therapy a try, BetterHelp is a great option. It’s convenient, accessible, affordable, and entirely online. It just lowers the bar so that you can get started or get back into therapy. And that’s all you need. Just get back to it–and you’ll notice it helping. Get matched with a therapist after filling out a brief survey, and switch therapists at any time. When you want to be a better problem solver, therapy can get you there. But visit better help betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. Since the 1980s, sound system culture has reached way beyond reggae. The innovations of soundmen are deep in a lot of the stuff that we listen to now. 

Christopher Johnson [00:37:38] One of the best examples: dub. Producers invented dub by taking reggae recordings and chopping them up, shuffling instruments, adding sound effects, and then reconstructing everything into entirely new songs. Dub music turned studio engineers into arrangers. They relied heavily on advances in audio technology, especially multitrack recording. And at first, dub was created exclusively for sound systems. 

Roman Mars [00:38:06] Frank Broughton says that dub and the sound system culture that created it had a huge impact on the way that music is made and performed today. 

Frank Broughton [00:38:14] It laid down the principles of remixing. It made an artist and a star of the producer. 

Roman Mars [00:38:20] Here’s Frank reading a little bit from the book he co-authored, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. 

Frank Broughton [00:38:26] “It transformed playing records into a live performance, and it showed how music could be propelled into whole new genres by the needs of the dance floor.” 

Christopher Johnson [00:38:34] And even though these kinds of ideas developed independently in other music scenes, Broughton says Jamaica did them first. 

Roman Mars [00:38:42] Soundmen were among the first deejays to be seen as celebrities. Behind the sound system turntable, the deejay–maybe more than the artist that they’re spinning–becomes the hero. 

Christopher Johnson [00:38:53] And over the last 50 years, the influence of sound system culture has gone way beyond Jamaica. In New York City, artists with roots in the Caribbean were heavily influenced by Jamaican music trends–especially this hugely popular part of the sound system scene, where Jamaican emcees like Big Youth, Prince, Jazzbo, and I-Roy toasted in patois over instrumental reggae records. In the Bronx, artists like Funky Four Plus One More picked up mics and rapped while deejays spun disco and funk breaks. 

Roman Mars [00:39:37] And then there was England. 

Frank Broughton [00:39:41] Sound systems in the U.K. were really the initial gene pool that created all the dance music that is indigenous to the UK. 

Roman Mars [00:39:51] By 1968, nearly 200,000 Jamaicans had made the post-World War Two migration to England. Many brought with them the culture of sound systems, which took deep root in places like Bristol and Birmingham–spawning some legendary deejay crews. 

Christopher Johnson [00:40:07] British and Jamaican producers continued to make reggae and other music designed especially for those sound systems. Engineers kept building more and more powerful rigs to blow everyone’s minds. There’s a direct line from U.K. sound systems to other British music that emerged from the eighties on. 

Frank Broughton [00:40:26] The sound system was more than just reggae; it could be this thing that transmitted other music. And without that, you wouldn’t have–you know–the indigenous British dance music, like Jungle, bass, and garage. It was all from the sound systems. 

Christopher Johnson [00:40:41] Frank also says that the way sound system engineers, deejays, and dub producers have always been willing to play–the way they experiment so freely with sound and technology–all of that has really influenced British dance music. 

Roman Mars [00:40:59] Even little techniques that West Kingston deejays first dreamed up decades ago–some of those are now cliches in electronic dance music. 

Frank Broughton [00:41:07] I mean, one of the cheesiest tricks of an EDM record is that you drop the bass line out–and there’s that expectation that you really want that to come back. So, after this long break, it suddenly comes thundering back. And that’s fundamental. You know, those sorts of things are fundamental to most dance records and first done in sound systems. You know, that all came from Jamaica. 

Christopher Johnson [00:41:45] When Herbie Miller–our party chaser from the intro–was growing up in Kingston, he enjoyed seeing the couples at sound system dances move together to the music. He might see a girl he liked, invite her out into the dance floor, and feel how those awesome speakers made the whole place just shake. Herbie has had a long career in music. He was once Peter Tosh’s manager. And today he directs and curates the Jamaica Music Museum. And he gets a big old smile when he talks about seeing his country’s music go global. 

Herbie Miller [00:42:17] Can you imagine? When sound systems came into being in Jamaica, nobody imagined that the world would be a sound system world, regardless of where in the world you are.

Christopher Johnson [00:42:35] But it still kind of blows his mind that so much of it came from this little party scene in the middle of the Caribbean. 

Herbie Miller [00:42:42] And that–you know–that’s the dumb thing about this. How the hell did they come up with this big old box? You’re running some music through it… and take over the world with it. I cannot answer that question. What some of my brethren would say–“Jah.” The works of Jah. 

Roman Mars [00:43:19] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Christopher Johnson, edited by Emmett Fitzgerald. Sound mix and additional production by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound, Swan Real. Additional music by a former superstar intern, Keiko Donald–with production help from her sister, Kayla Donald. It’s so nice to have you back, Keiko. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Carter Van Pelt from Coney Island Reggae and VP Music Group for editorial assistance. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.

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