Part One Of Maliika Walker’s Interview
I witnessed my first Soundclash on the Welcome to Jamrock Cruise in 2015. I always fashioned myself a “roots” girl but witnessing my first soundclash led me to research the Soundclash movement and such greats as David Rodigan, Kilimanjaro, Stone Love, Mighty Crown and Tony Matterhorn. I recently saw my second Soundclash onboard this year’s Welcome To Jamrock Cruise between David Rodigan, Tony Matterhorn and the soundsystem that won their 3rd Soundclash at sea, Mighty Crown. You could barely move in the venue it was held on the ship because the room was filled to capacity. Soundclash attendees eagerly participated in the event. I was mesmerized by the experience and couldn’t wait to edit my hour and a half conversation with the amazing Chin for a series on Soundclash culture and Dancehall music. Watching the Soundclash live was an amazing experience. It was easy to see why Kool Herc brought the Soundclash type competition to the Bronx in the 1970’s and birthed the global culture that has taken hold of America and the World, hip-hop. The Soundclash movement birthed hip-hop and was the precursor to today’s dancehall music.
Irish and Chin are the creators of the World Clash competition and managers of the great soundsystem known as Mighty Crown. The World Clash was created in New York City in 1998 and continues to be held today. The most recent World Clash took place in Canada with defending champion, King Turbo Sound being declared the winner once again.
Recently Irish and Chin included a selection of dubplates from sound systems worldwide during their exhibit at Art Basel 2017. Those who attended the exhibit were able to read the contributions of sound systems and get the feeling of when sound systems used to play dubplates. Some of the sounds that were featured in their exhibit were David Rodigan, Bodyguard, and Mighty Crown.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chin, of Irish and Chin, about starting out as a selector, the beginning of Soundclash culture, and the birth of hip-hop and dancehall music. This is part one of a series.
Maliika: What was your trigger to become a selector? What got you to get involved with the culture of DJing from the very beginning?
Chin: I got involved in the early 90’s. At that time, growing up here in New York, the culture here was very dominant and vibrant. Selectors like Babyface, was for many of us like the first hero of dancehall for those growing up in New York City in the 90’s.
There was an overwhelming influx of dancehall audio tapes because that was the culture back in the 90’s. If we was to keep up with the heartbeat of the culture, we would all listen to these tapes coming from live dances in Jamaica. Whether it would be a dance with Stone Love and Metro Media, Gemini, or it would be hardcore clashes, with Kilimanjaro and Bodyguard and the kings of the 90’s.
The culture was really vibing in the US (in the early 90’s) and I think that’s what drove most of us, not only myself, but most of us into hardcore dancehall. Just trying to maintain that connection even though you’re here on the dance floor, that connection to what’s going on in Jamaica as far as dancehall is concerned. The cassette industry was dominating every corner. Every car that passed was playing these lives dances from Jamaica. It was a powerful global movement at that time. It wasn’t only happening here in the States. It was also happening in Canada,and in the UK all at that same time.
Maliika: You mentioned tapes were critical to taping the dances in Jamaica so those outside the country could experience Soundclash culture. Who were “tape men”?
Chin: The connection was those live audio tapes so there was a whole culture in Jamaica where every time a dance was held, especially with the major sound systems, there were selective tape men, as we called them, and they made sure that they followed these sounds across the island. Their occupation at the time was to take these dances and then they would sell these dances and somehow these dances would make it across the Atlantic and across to America. Other cassette men used to then distribute them for sale here in the States and all over. It became a huge industry. Sound systems played in Jamaica, cassette men in Jamaica sold those cassettes, whether someone was in Jamaica on vacation and they bought a bunch of cassettes and brought them back to the States or cassette men in Jamaica swapped cassettes with the cassette men here in the States. That’s what it was all about.
There were dances that were happening here like with our popular sounds like Freak Sound Station and At Ease and Downbeat, where our cassette men would sell back to the people in Jamaica so they could also expose Jamaica to the foreign culture. It became this big cassette trading thing that got all of us involved in that momentum and that vibe of the music. Then of course, our ambitions was to recreate that energy that we heard on these cassettes in the diaspora.
Maliika: Can you talk a little about dancehall music in relation to DJ’ing and the Soundclash movement?
Chin: Sound clashing is the core of dancehall. One has to understand that way before dancehall became a genre, it was considered a space. We defined the dancehall as the actual space where we went to enjoy a particular type of music. We’re talking early days.
In the earlier days, a lot of dancehall music could not be played on the radio. Maybe because radio stations at the time wasn’t into this new, faster paced dancehall vibe or some of the music was probably not radio friendly.. The radio stations rejected playing it. However, there were many producers in Jamaica producing this new music and it was catching on. Their vessel to get their productions out was sound systems. If you can understand and kind of just picture that every top producer in Jamaica started their own sound system. Now, the sound system was used to produce their music throughout the island. They would travel through the island doing these parties in the dancehall space, featuring their music. This is how it became popularized.
At the same time they were featuring their music, they were also featuring talents that they were producing. The early dancehall era started off with live artists. It wasn’t much DJing. A lot of it was vocals and the DJ’s were live. The selector would play a vocal from maybe one of the top vocalists at the time and then right after the vocal was done, somebody would toast (voice) over that particular riddim and pass the mic around and so forth.
Maliika: This is how hip-hop was born. Kool Herc brought that to NYC. MC’s toasting live on the mic and tape men recording and selling the recordings of the parties.
Chin: It is the birth, it is the birth of hip-hop. Even though American people don’t want to give the credit, but it is where it came from.
In an effort to get their music out and popularize their music, producers built sound systems. Then, they would travel with talent because they were producers who owned their sound and they were traveling around the island. Artists working with sound systems was a win for both the artists and producers. Say you’re an artist who wants to get your music out there. You’re going to gravitate towards producers. Artists started to pick sound systems, whether they came from the area or they would travel to other areas, just to be affiliated with other sound systems. They would then travel with those sound systems and toast on the mic live and get their talent out so the general public could hear it in an effort to hopefully become a recording artist. Or, if not a recording artist to become famous in the dancehall.
Maliika: We already established that the soundsystem culture birthed hip-hop. How was the Soundclash created?
Chin: Sound systems started to get popular. Everything in the western culture is competitive. You have a sound system and you’re a producer, your name is King Jammy. I have a sound system and my name is whoever. We end up getting good traction on the island and then people tend to want to see both of us play together. The birth of the sound clash culture is born.
Now, the original sound clash culture was My Crew versus Your Crew, just like how hip-hop started. It’s exactly the same thing. This is just how the original culture in the dancehall space from. You would have a sound crew named King Jammy, who would have tons of artists, and you now know that as a patron or as a promoter, when you book King Jammy, the likes of this person and that person and that person are going to come. Back in those days, it would be like Admiral Bailey, and famous people like that.
Then you also would have another famous movement like a Kilimanjaro. You know when Kilimanjaro came to town, it would be Super Cat, and it would be Nicodemus. These are the early giants of the culture lyrically. You would have Aces Sound System, when Aces came, Yellow Man is coming and Brigadier Jerry, and Sister Nancy. So, back in those days, similar to the starting of hip-hop culture, and this is the interesting part of our culture that many people don’t really zoom in on, back in those days, the most important component was the DJ, which was the sound system. So, in the American culture, we call it the DJ.
In Jamaican culture, it is called the sound. The sound had a name, Kilimanjaro, but you would have a popular selector. The selector’s name didn’t stand out. It was the name of the brand, Kilimanjaro, Stone Love. It would be common knowledge that Stone Love is played by Wee Pow, Rory. It wasn’t Wee Pow and Rory. The brand was Stone Love. If you parallel it with the sound system with hip hop culture, you will then see the similarity where it was DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince or Eric B and Rakim. The DJ was more important than the actual artist.
Maliika: Artists had to rely on a soundsystem to be known back then. It was nothing like today where an artists can launch a career without a soundsystem. Boy have times changed.
Chin: The only way for them to ever become a successful artists, at that time, was to challenge through the dancehall, which means that they have to perform live and align themselves with some sound system on the island.
Some artists went to the popular sound systems and sat and did their mentorship and waited their turn. Other artists went to sound systems that were unknown and used their talents to make those sound systems known. At the end of the day, the channel, the road to fame was the same. You had people like Lieutenant Stitchie who was definitely one of our lyrical giants back in those times. He was aligned with a sound system called Stereo One. He also had Papa San who was his arch rival, also a lyrical giant and he came from another area in Jamaica called Spanish Town. His sound was Creation. What I’m saying is all of these big dance hall monsters in the 80’s, they were all aligned to sound systems.
You had Peter Metro, who came from a sound system named Metro Media that still exists today. He was directly named after the sound because that’s where he came from, that sound system. This was the road to fame. Then clashing became part of it because western culture is very competitive and not only do we want to know that he’s good, she’s good, and he’s good, we want to know who the best is.
That’s how the culture started in Jamaica. Getting back to what you’re saying, this became the birth of the culture. Once these producers started to expose their music through the mode of sound systems, then it was only the next step for it to become competitive.
Maliika: So the only way it can be experienced outside of the dancehall itself was via the tapes sold by the tapeman.
Chin: Every time you would walk up in a dance hall, it became a competition and the fans loved it. They would go to these dances in the dancehall and they would see who’s going to win today. The tape man played a role because while these competitions were going on, the tape men, who made their living off of this, would be right there to tape these dances. By the next morning, or two days later, three days later, these cassettes would then be available for us here in the US. Remember there was no internet or nothing like that.
Maliika: The original mixtape.
Chin: The original mix tape. So these things would come to us and we would hear, “Oh wow! Ninja Man dissed the hell of out Papa San last night on his sound!” And there we would say, “Well, you know the next time that Papa San is going to play on Creation Sound System, Ninja Man is going to get dissed.” We would then hunt and wait for the answer. This is how these sound systems and artists became popular.
The early dance hall was about having someone who knows how to select good music and also having a team that had great lyrics and great vocals. That’s what made a team.
Maliika: Artists were exclusive to that system at that time? So artists were not providing their talents to multiple systems.
Chin: Artists were exclusive to that system for the time being because, when this thing started to get popular and become the pulse of dancehall, you then had sound systems who started to build their systems in other parts of the island. They would then hire sound systems to come defend their sound, artists to come defend their sound for a one night show. You would then have maybe Super Cat and other people who would go to the country. When they would go to the country, they would be, for that particular night, that promoter or that sound man had a battle, as the Americans call it, a battle with another sound man in the area. But he sent to Kingston, and he bought the talents of Cutty Ranks, Pinchers, and all of these people who maybe that night, weren’t working on their own sound systems, so they came to sing there.
There was a sense of exclusiveness, but then came the work for hire as well. Now you had some artists who would never do the work for hire. They wanted to stay exclusive to their sound and then you had some who only did work for hire. It depended on what artist it was.
If you look at an artist like Pinchers, he was a work for hire artist. He didn’t get in the midst of any battles to defend any sound system. He really didn’t get involved in the battles, either. You would just hire him and he would come to the battle and he would perform on the sound system but he was so good and so popular that his performance would be credited to that particular sound that he was representing that night, but he would not diss the sound system or compete where it was like verbal exchange with the people that he was competing with.
You had Super Cat and Ninja Man and they directly defended their sounds, which meant they deliberately when you come, you’re going to get dissed. They’re going to try to disgrace you lyrically.
Then you had a selective few that they were just great performers. They were doing well. Their names were calling and their ambition was just to get paid, DJ, and sing on a sound and then go home. That is the early heartbeat of the dancehall. That happens for a few years, and then the next transition of dancehall happens which makes the dancehall thing in this story so interesting.
Stay tuned for part 2 in our interview with Chin.