The Advent of Soundsystem Culture: The Roots of Bass Music

It all started in a small little island in the Caribbean, popularly known as Jamaica, with the rise of a movement calledSound System Culture.
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We’re all familiar with the popular sub genres of bass music, particularly dubstep, drum and bass, and grime. These off shoots of bass music have taken the world by storm, especially with the advent of the EDM bubble. But how did bass music originate? Where was it born? How did it catch on? We take a look at all of these.

The Birth Of SoundSystem Culture


It all started in a small little island in the Caribbean, popularly known as Jamaica, with the rise of a movement called Sound System Culture. In the context of Jamaican popular culture, a sound system is a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music. The sound system is an important part of Jamaican culture and history. The music of Jamaica includes Jamaican folk music and many popular genres, such as mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub music, dancehall, ska jazz, reggae fusion and related styles. Jamaica’s music culture is a fusion of elements from Africa, and neighboring Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Tobago (calypso and soca).



The sound system concept first became popular in the 1950s, in the ghettos of Kingston. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. In the beginning, the DJs played American rhythm and blues music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavor. The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the few sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area. The promoter or DJ made his profit by charging admission and selling food and alcohol; often thousands of people were in attendance. By the mid 1950s, sound systems were more popular at parties than live musicians, and by the second half of the decade, custom-built systems began to appear from the workshops of specialists such as Hedley Jones, who constructed wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as “House[s] of Joy“. As time progressed, sound systems became louder—capable of playing bass frequencies at 30,000 watts or more, with similar wattage attainable at the mid-range and high frequencies—and far more complex than their predecessors.  Besides the DJ, who rapped over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks.



The popularity of a sound system was mainly contingent on one thing: having new music. In order to circumvent the release cycle of the American record labels, the two sound system superstars turned to record production. Initially, they produced only singles for their own sound systems, known as “Exclusives” or Dubplates – a limited run of one copy per song. What began as an attempt to replicate the American R&B sound using local musicians evolved into a uniquely Jamaican musical genre: ska. This shift was due partly to the fact that as American-style R&B was embraced by a largely white, teenage audience and evolved into rock and roll, sound system owners created – and played – a steady stream of the singles the people preferred: fast-shuffle boogies and ballads. In response to this shift in supply, Jamaican producers introduced to their work some of the original elements of the Jamaican sound: rhythm guitars strumming the offbeat and snare-drum emphasis on the third beat, for example.

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This was not simply just music played on the radio for a few people to hear, but a culture that involved many people was developed out of being consumed by sound through large sound systems.




An important part of sound system culture is the sound clash, a sound clash is a musical competition where crew members from opposing sound systems pit their skills against each other. Sound clashes take place in a variety of venues, both indoors and outdoors, and primarily feature reggae, dancehall or jungle music. The object is to beat or “kill” their competitors.

The first round is no elimination, each sound plays a set time. Second round each sound system plays but one sound system being eliminated by poor performance, poor quality or by playing back a song. Elimination continues until two sounds are left. The time interval gets shorter and shorter, with the introduction of television clashes, so when playing returns to one sound again, they may only play a shorter time, 15 minutes. Near the end of the clash they go song on song or “Dub fi dub.”

Traditionally, all dubplates must feature the DJ’s name, marking it as exclusive for that particular DJ, otherwise the DJ faces instant disqualification. Also, if a DJ were to play a dubplate based on a “riddim” already played during the clash he/she could face disqualification.

Where only two sound system are playing, winning is based on 10 dub plates in tune for tune, regardless of who leads all night.

Jamaican Immigration To The UK


With its poor economic performance and high rates of crime, between 1948 and 1970 nearly half a million people left their homes in the West Indies to live in Britain in search for a better life , however, the course of West Indian and Jamaican assimilation into a British society was not one without similarities to the poor urban life and struggle of the Jamaican ghettos; living in Britain was no different, just on a smaller scale; they still had to struggle for basic things, opportunities were denied and downplayed because of their perceived inferiority.

Since taking root in the 1950s when Jamaican sound system owners Duke Vin and Count Suckle arrived in England, sound system culture has massively impacted British musical history and has also became a powerful force in the encounter between black Britain and racism.


From its inception in Jamaica to its emigration to the UK we can see recurring themes of class, poor economy and politics being central to the inception of Jamaican soundsystem culture. Through the developing music scene it became apparent that different forms of reggae were the musical driving force of the movement. With the immigration to the UK we can see how soundsystems became a part in a struggle against racism and how Jamaican music and soundsystem culture ultimately started to influence other subcultures such as punk.

The Influence of SoundSystem Culture on The UK Rave Scene and The Birth Of Jungle.


The sound system subculture has also greatly impacted on the British electronic musical scene, resulting in the rave or free parties, namely events held outdoors or in disused buildings. These events can be compared to both the use of “massive sound systems for outdoor parties” of native Jamaican soundsystems  and also to the immigrant UK/Jamaican soundsystems which used shebeens – a private house or squat taken over and installed with a sound system.

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The early 1990s in the UK gave rise to Jungle, and although a Billboard article states its roots can be traced back to 1989, when rave/techno tunes featuring reggae cutups first appeared. Ragga jungle (a mixture of Jamaican ragga and jungle) is a prime example of the Jamaican influence on the freeparty rave music. The double time drums against the slow bass-lines and the Jamaican or Jamaican-influenced vocals against the dark, contemporary rhythms of young UK producers.



Producers like Ragga Twins, who came from soundsystem backgrounds, were the few who are largely credited to being the pioneers of jungle. Flinty Birdman of the Ragga Twins says:“When we left from reggae we were the first artists to come over into the acid house; we came over in 1990, the acid was playing and we brought the reggae influence into the acid music. When we done that, people started to hear it… everybody started bringing reggae into the music and it turned into jungle”. Within the UK jungle scene there seems to be a wholesale import of elements of Jamaican soundsystem culture. Amongst these cultural influences are MCing, soundclashes and “custom built soundsystems”; while the “booming heavy reggae basslines” sampling of records and the idea of the remix are direct musical influences . The idea of “experimenting with the mix parameters”was also reminiscent of the technique pioneered in Jamaica as far back as 1967, initially in the quest for sound-system exclusivity . This exclusivity in the form of ‘dubplates’ is also shared by both the jungle and Jamaican soundsystem cultures.

The Influence of Jamaican Soundsystem Culture On EDM.



The influence of Jamaican popular music like dub, reggae and ragga and the wider soundsystem culture does not stop at jungle.  Many of dub’s concepts lay at the heart of what today is labelled as electronic dance music. One of these concepts is the “stripping down of rhythm to its essentials and remixing them” which is the underlying philosophy of dub.  Dub developed in a recursive process of serving the soundsystems for the purpose of dance then we can assume the same motives of electronic dance music culture (EDMC) with dub being the “progenitor of dance remixing”.

One genre of EDMC music heavily influenced by dub is dubstep, a hybrid of dub reggae and 2-step which became popular in the UK in the mid 2000s. Dubstep made heavy use of heavy sub basslines and drum beats and although it is dominated by these factors, “they are softened by a dub-reggae influence use of echo, reverb and panoramic stereo to add depth and space”.


Successful artists like Massive Attack have also “fed directly on the classical Jamaican dub style” working with Mad Professor on their Revolution Dub, album, while the Prodigy “transmuted” Max Romeo’s ‘Chase the Devil’ for their massive ‘Out of Space’ track in 1992. These are just a couple of examples of the “spread of reggae”.

Perhaps the “globalisation of Jamaican culture” has been recently exemplified in the Red Bull Culture Clash when 20,000 bass-hungry fans descended on Earls Court in London in a clash that involved a soundclash between soundsystems playing a mix of reggae, hip hop, grime, jungle and drum and bass from the UK and USA . Once a “niche scene” the Culture Clash has evolved, it’s branched out to let different musical styles face off, and let fans of all kinds of genres immerse themselves in the art form.

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The Soundsystem Culture in India


Taru Dalmia has been pushing the sound culture of Jamaica in India for years as Delhi Sultanate, BASSFoundation Roots or when he’s fronting the ever-popular ska, reggae and rocksteady band – The Ska Vengers.

Part of his ambition in pushing the sound system culture within the country has encouraged him to undertake a new project that results in providing India with its very first, mobile sound system with a special emphasis on bass so that the sound is above par as compared to the sound systems in existence. He wants the audience not to just listen to the music but to feel it.  He’s already built the essential wooden framework with his own resources and is now seeking the help of music lovers across India to turn his vision into a reality.

The basic driving force behind his vision is what the actual objective of music should be; experiencing it as an open community. Dalmia states in his video that “this severely effects where music is being performed and who gets to hear the music”. If funded, the mobile soundsystem could potentially bypass those problems and open music to anyone who wants to listen, anywhere in the country.

Check out Delhi Sultanate’s Indiegogo campaign in more detail here and if you’re on board with their idea, you can contribute (starting with the humble sum of $1). The campaign goal is to raise $16,300 in the next 60 days.

The Bass Culture In India


This bass heavy mania also made it’s way onto Indian shores. The first time DJ Jon Jaggi aka Jon Jay unleashed dubstep to Indian ears, at the 2007 Barish Festival at Delhi’s Garden of Five Senses, it was the festival’s biggest surprise. A year later, DJs Kris Correya and Ritesh D’Souza spun the first sets of dubstep in Mumbai to clubbers who’d never heard the crazy sound before, and they didn’t know how to react.

However, today Correya – part of dubstep trio Bay Beat Collective – tours across the country and has gigs in Mumbai at least once every month. From underground clubs in South London to packed dancefloors in Indian metros, dubstep is gaining momentum one wobble at a time.



There are even pure bass-heavy only events that take place all over the country and are usually choked full of enthusiasts of this sub-genre,  such as Mumbai based event and artist managing company, Krunk’s Bass Camp Festival, that have featured the likes of London Elektricity’s Tony Coleman, Koan Sound, Calyx & TeeBee, to name a few.

The newest edition of Bass Camp, takes place in 4 cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune & Bangalore and features headliners Gaudi (UK) and Soom T (UK) among the international acts. Other acts include  Chicago based live electronic band Alo Wala, UK based DJ Nerm and Indian acts B.R.E.E.D, Su Real, Gautham Reddy, Oceantied, The Untitled One, Anushka&Agent, Profound, EZ Riser, Kumail, DaktaDub, Shantam and Tarqeeb. 

If you’re keen on experiencing the closest thing you can to proper Soundsystem Culture, with its elements in Bass Music, this is where you have to be. You can grab your tickets here.


Sources: WildCity,  Cathal McCaffrey

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Source: The Advent of Soundsystem Culture: The Roots of Bass Music

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