System Clash: Massive B

In the lead-up to the 2013 edition of Red Bull Music Academy’s Culture Clash in New York, we asked noted reggae writers to weigh in with their pick for the best sound system of all-time in a series of articles we’re calling “System Clash.” Here, Rishi Nath puts his vote in for New York’s Massive B

On Empire Boulevard, in the heavily West Indian section of Brooklyn, posters with powder blue print plastered on scaffolding announce The Best of the Best 2013 – a huge annual reggae festival in Miami. It is near midnight on a Sunday, and in front of The Buzz nightclub there are two lines that spill out in opposite directions. Passing cars, many blasting Hot 97, slow down. The long, snaking line of women draws the eye.

The event is Fire Sundays, a promotion of the Massive B sound system and a weekly ritual for diehard dancehall fans. The party starts around 11 PM – but it really turns up around 1:00 am, when Massive B selectors Bobby Konders and Jabba arrive, straight from their weekly Fire Sundays reggae program on Hot 97.

In a sense, Fire Sundays is where so many forces that make Massive B such an important sound system intersect: the consistent and longstanding connection to the dancehall community, a massive radio presence, high-quality promotion (Jabba is a key figure in the Best of the Best festival) and a record label. Two of the last tunes dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel recorded before he was imprisoned in 2011 – “Ghetto Road” and “Get Gyal Easy” – were Massive B productions.

In the late ’80s, Bobby Konders was known more for his involvement in the club and radio scene in New York. He was working at the urban station WBLS, under the legendary DJ Frankie Crocker. It was there, as an intern, where Bobby helped break Soul II Soul – now-canonical UK soul artists of West Indian ancestry – in New York City. Konders also produced. Fusing his love for reggae and underground house, he released a series of up-tempo records, including a remix of “Dis Poem” by dub poet Mutabaruka. “Somehow he found a way to take reggae dub and turn it into house,” said house music legend Kerri Chandler.

In 1990, however, Konders began to release traditional dancehall music under his own label, Massive B. The first 7-inch he released was “Winner Takes All” by Half-Pint. Shortly thereafter, he decided to start a sound system. He asked Jabba, a Bronx-bred promoter and personality in the dancehall scene, to join him. “He became the voice of Massive B,” according to Konders.

Super Cat - Ghetto Red Hot (Live) @ Yo MTV Raps 1992

Konders then began to fuse dancehall with hip-hop. He started with the inimitable vocalist Super Cat. Already a star in Jamaica, the hip hop remix of “Ghetto Red Hot” propelled him to the top of the urban charts in the U.S. Bobby, often with the help of a young Salaam Remi, produced a slew of hip-hop reggae hits with artists like Mikey Jarrett, Cutty Ranks, Jr. Demus, Jamalski and Bounty Killer.

We play what the people want to hear. You don’t play for yourself, you play for your crowd.

Bobby Konders

Konders’ support helped dancehall artists like Supercat and Bounty Killer find new audiences. He also changed the face of hip hop as well. Salaam Remi would go on to produce multi-platinum albums for Nas, Fugees and Amy Winehouse and readily admits that this was his start. “Bobby would call and say, ‘Come to the studio and do a remix with me, I’ll throw you a G.’ As a college kid at 18, I’m like ‘What?!’”

Soon after Funkmaster Flex began working at Hot 97 in 1992, he pulled Massive B onto the station. A primetime Sunday evening slot on New York’s hottest hip hop station changed the game for Bobby and Jabba – and for dancehall. “Everyone came through our show before they could make it to regular rotation,” Konders says. By everyone, he means artists like Shaggy, Bounty Killer and Sean Paul, who would eventually become superstars.

More recently, Vybz Kartel, Mavado and Gyptian have all seen commercial success through Hot 97, due in large part to Massive B. “First of all, I have to thank Bobby Konders,” said Johnny Wonder, a veteran radio promoter, after the young lion Popcaan reached Hot 97’s rotation last year with his song “Only Man She Want.” In a recent video Konders claimed that his philosophy for success was relatively simple. “We play what the people want to hear. You don’t play for yourself, you play for your crowd.”

Popcaan - Only Man She Want

On the label side, Konders has fostered, produced and promoted many overlooked but talented artists. “I’d have a certain amount [of 7-inches] sitting in the living room, and then the others would be in the car, and I would carry them around to mom and pop record shops... [It was] 13-14 hour days, [you’d] start at 8 or 9 AM, walk around with a receipt book and collect your bread. I was rolling like that for 12-13 years,” Konders explained in The Bobby Konders Story.

Try to imagine reggae without Massive B? You can’t.

Junior Rodigan

I asked veteran Boston selector Junior Rodigan about the Massive B label. “Bobby doesn’t just record an artist once, he sticks with them. For example, he was recording Chronicle – the father of Chronixx – for years,” he noted. The label, without the constraints of commercial radio pressure, has often pushed socially conscious roots and culture reggae. It’s a discography that includes veteran singer King Kong, Chezidek (with whom Konders had worked when he was Chilla Rinch) foundation deejay Burro Banton (often called the third member of Massive B), Trinidadian reggae-soca artist Bunji Garlin and members of King Jam, a Japanese sound system.

Konders and Jabba cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble ’90s Brooklyn scene, where clubs were constantly shut down. There is one story of Bobby and Jabba watching from the DJ booth as a man walked past security in a trench coat, pulled out a shotgun, and started shooting. “Security came in and there was a shootout. Eventually the dude was laid out. Crazy.”

They finally settled in on the Buzz – formerly known as Caribbean City – for their Sunday night residency. Now, a decade later, Fire Sundays is a must for every dancehall artist passing through New York City. I later ask Konders about the sound system there, since Massive B doesn’t “string up” its own boxes. “From the Caribbean aspect, they have the best sound. It bangs,” he says.

Elephant Man - Wave Your Flags

The sound of the Massive B truck on the road for the Labor Day carnival does the same. The big rig filled with towers of speakers started on Labor Day in 2000 with Bounty Killer and Elephant Man. (You can see the energy captured in the video for Elephant Man’s “Wave Your Flags.”) How did they build the larger-than-life sound system for that truck? “It used to be me and Jabba nailing wood together with a bunch of guys. Then we hooked up with my man Peng from Trinidad, who took care of us,” he explains.

It is nearing 4 AM as I depart from The Buzz nightclub. My body feels massaged from the powerful basslines. As I step out into the drizzle, I notice that there is still a crowd huddled under the canopy, waiting to get in for the final few minutes. I marvel at the longevity and consistency of Massive B over the years. Later, in my conversation with Junior Rodigan, I realize he sums it up best, “You can’t just think of Massive B doing good things for New York. You have to think in another way: being from New York, look what they’ve done. Try to imagine reggae without Massive B? You can’t.”

By Rishi Nath on May 7, 2013

On a different note