Hip hop (Before It Had A Name) Vol. 3:Jamaican Sound System Culture by Rouge Une
The Bronx is the home of hip hop, Yes indeed but like the godfather DJ Kool Herc a large part of it was born in Jamaica. Many of the tropes we associate with old school hip hop, were imported wholesale from the Jamaican sound system culture that has existed as part of their musical tradition since the 1940‘s.
For those unfamiliar with Jamaican music here is a brief history
Rocksteady / Ska
Selling your soul to Babylon for a guest appearance on some half assed R&B track or “dance” along anthem.
This rich musical heritage has always been supported by the sound systems, originating in the poorest areas of the Island where access to live music was limited due to politics and monetary concerns. The sound system is a collective made up individuals with very specific roles. You have the BOXMAN, who makes the enormous speakers, the STRINGER who wires up the powerful amps, pre amps, effects boxes, and microphones, the SELECTOR who chooses the records to play and the DJ who speaks to the crowd on current events, local stories or urges audience participation.
At points during a “performance” (and make no mistake this way of playing music was a “performance” the selector would “jack it up” or “hitch it up”, that is stop the record (if the song was getting a good reaction) and start it again, it was at this point or during instrumental passages that the DJ would talk to the crowd using catchphrases or echoing the singer to lead the crowd in their reaction. One of the first to transfer this energy of the DJ to disc was U-Roy (often called the godfather of “toasting” which is just another name for DJ’ing or MC’ing i.e. to deliver the “toast” at a formal dinner). On a track like Wear You To The Ball from 1969 you can hear him preempting the lines sung by the Paragons as he weaves in and around their performance, or on Wake The Town you can hear him extorting the audience to appreciate the music. He was also able to make political and social commentary on tracks like Natty Rebel from 1976, his contribution to the development of what we now call rap should not be underestimated, although most have never heard of him one person who surely had was Kool DJ Herc.
Kool DJ Herc grew up in this environment and he pioneered its development in the Bronx when he moved there ,his MC Coke La Rock although not from Jamaica, was influenced by Herc to follow In the tradition of artists like U Roy and created the template that defined the first school and by extension all rap.
However it does not stop at rap, if you have ever scratched the labels off your records to stop people from finding out what you’re playing then you got that from sound systems. The pre-eminent role of the Selector or DJ in hip hop is a testament to Jamaican sound systems because while it was the DJ (MC) (boy this could get confusing!) who got most of the acclaim it was the selector who kept the crowd moving and influenced their mood and carried them on a musical journey. We may have lost that in recent times but the DJ is king in hip hop because without him/her there aint not jam and without a jam you just talking or rolling on the floor.
The Bronx IS the home of hip hop, because it was there that many disparate ideas, practices and folk arts were brought together and distilled into what would become the art form that we all love.
In these times when some MC’s are (to my mind) badly copying the styles of dancehall ,too much acclaim it is perhaps good to remember that,
“sound bwoy hip hop from way back, bloodclat, now who wan come tess?”