Dub-Stuy soundsystem. Photo by Seb Carayol. I'm standing at the entrance of a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the rumbles of the subterranean L train aren't the only vibrations coursing through the bottoms of my feet.
Inside, Brooklyn scenesters in threadbare coats are huddling for warmth, while trustafarians smoke herb in the corner and a gaggle of Japanese reggae tourists are staring at the stage, grinning ear to ear. West Indians are out in full force too, layered in winter hats and scarves, clustered near a wall of dark wood-paneled speakers as though it were a toasty fireplace. We're all out here on this January night to experience some of the world's greatest reggae selectors and their featured MCs, who are juicing one of the most impeccably tuned soundsystems in New York City.
"Dub-Stuy is the first soundsystem I've heard in the US and it sounds niiiice," says Mikey Dread, one-half of the legendary Channel One Sound System, who are visiting all the way from Londontown to share their incredible cache of roots reggae and dub records with an eager New York crowd at their US debut. The two brothers, Mikey and Trevor, have been carrying the roots and reggae torch for over three decades across the pond. And in case you thought reggae was all Bob Marley and Snoop Lion, the legend and the Johnny-come-lately are just the tip of the iceberg for the genre, which marries skanking guitar riffs, tuned-up snares, and heavy, heavy, low-end frequencies with protest lyrics and praise to Jah almighty.
Dub-Stuy are Channel One's hosts for the evening, and they've rolled out the red carpet with their 15,000-watt sound system. The handsome, handmade rig is a labor of love assembled piece by piece and nicknamed the Tower of Sound. It's higher fidelity than hi-fi; its sound is warm, bright, and never, ever distorted. Quoc "Q-Mastah" Pham, one-half of Dub-Stuy, stained each piece in his tiny Brooklyn apartment. "I almost lost my roommate, and I definitely lost a lot of brain cells," he recalls. But the result was worth it: Even the specks of dust on the vinyl sound crisp.
The obsessive attention to detail and the emphasis on finely tuned soundsystems harkens back to Jamaican music culture of the 60s and 70s, when innovative producers at the island's hotly competitive recording studios began tweaking reggae songs on the mixing board, dropping out vocals to emphasize the drums and bass while playing with delay and reverb. What resulted was the deep, echoing sound known as dub, and its creators were pioneers in treating the mixing board as in instrument, unintentionally laying the technological groundwork for modern dance music.
With its serious bass, dub maximized the potential of soundsystems, which were the arsenal in Jamaica's audio arms race, built and customized by passionate music heads. But in the 1980s, a digitally produced, uptempo reggae variation called dancehall began to shift the emphasis from the soundsystem operators to the MCs, ushering in the modern Jamaican party scene. Think Vybz Kartel, Mavado or, if you must, Sean Paul. Dancehall soundsystems these days tend to go for pure volume, lacking the sonic finesse and precision that were once the hallmark of Jamaican sound engineers.
"You want dancehall? You're in the wrong place. You want bashment? You're in the wrong place," preached Mikey Dread while making us wait for the first record to drop. Plenty of dancehall parties bumped across Brooklyn that Friday night, but Mikey Dread wanted us to know this was not one one of them. When that first record came on, it generated frequency waves so powerful they blasted through you like a full body massage.
A roots revival has taken hold in recent years, with a younger generation discovering the genius of vintage Jamaican music—and Dub-Stuy hopes to use their Roots of Sound System parties to provide something of a history lesson. Channel One, of course, has never strayed from the roots-and-dub gospel, flexing a full array of classic records and extremelely rare, one-off acetate discs (referred to as dubplates) pressed on-demand.
We can't tell Channel One's story without taking it back to the 1950s, when Jamaicans flooded England's shores, packing dub in their suitcases as they embarked on "colonization in reverse"—in poet Louise Bennett's tongue-and-cheek phrasing.
The West Indian enclaves in London experienced a 1970s golden era brought about by soundsystem operators like Coxsone Sound, Fatman Hi-Fi, and especially Jah Shaka, the Warrior. "Everyone doing the roots sound now is following in his footsteps," marveled Valentine "Digital English" Saunders, who was invited by local reggae squad Deadly Dragon to "singjay" (a combo of playing records and chatting on the mic at the same time) over a few of his own tunes at the party. These legendary selectors, MCs, and soundsystem operators helped cook the post-colonial stew that lurched fish'n'chips London into its cosmopolitan present, where the local Subway sells a Reggae Reggae Chicken Sub and a former member of Parliament called chicken tikka masala the British national dish.
Integration didn't come easy, though, from the likes of racist chants ("There ain't no black in the Union Jack") to the infamous 1958 race riot in Notting Hill. But out of the ashes emerged Notting Hill Carnival, held for the first time in 1959 and now the largest street party in Europe. Channel One has commandeered a corner at Carnival for three decades now—a "cornerstone" they call themselves—and proudly told the Brooklyn faithful, "We've been fighting the government to keep soundsystem culture alive." The same can be said of what Dub-Stuy is trying to do for us here in New York City.
Quoc Pham, aka Q Mastah, founder of Dub-Stuy Records. Photo by Seb Carayol.
Channel One certainly respects the past, still playing off of one turntable in a nod to the scene's pre-mixer days. But even old school can sound new, as Dub-Stuy DJ and soundsystem artisan Q-Mastah has discovered. "We've never heard the system play that heavy," he said in amazement a few days after the party. Showing off the custom-made soundsystem controller that Channel One used to adjust frequencies and produce the night's otherworldy effects over the records, he explained, "They played the system like an instrument."
In other words, it was far more than just a DJ spinning records and adjusting a few EQs. Rather, Channel One had a whole gamut of technical tools they could use in real time to accentuate certain tones or do live remixing on the spot. While they ran through plenty of tired-and-true tunes by the likes of Junior Delgado and Black Uhuru, Pham was still in awe of "just how well they know the records" to throw an effect at the right time, not to mention Channel One's special dubplate mixes that prove you can teach an old song new tricks.
With EDM storming the charts—fueling a multi-billion dollar festival industry—electronic music mavens would do well to heed The Roots of SoundSystem's lesson. The yeoman's labor of soundsystem culture—marathon studio engineering sessions, mixing board wizardry, deep-crate DJing, nuts-and-bolts speaker mechanics—was DIY and often done on a shoestring budget, but with room-shaking results. No slight to Serato, Ableton, CDJs, or other technological wonders that have brought the music to the people, but every upstart youngster should know where they came from—and how good the music can sound if you take the time to get to know your roots.
On February 25, Dub-Stuy will drop Battle Cry, the first full-length from Pham and Jay "Double Tiger" Spaker's production duo Tour de Force. The launch party is March 8 at Echo Chamber, Part IV. Follow Dub-Stuy on Facebook for more information. Greg Scruggs is a freelance writer on music, culture, and cities with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. He lives in Brooklyn - @TROPICALISMOrio