In the ’80s and early ’90s, the Saxon Soundsystem crew inspired many young Britons to get involved in music. Among these were Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson and Carl ‘Smiley’ Hyman, who would find fame as Shut Up And Dance. Growing up in Hackney in the late ’70s and ’80s, they were surrounded by soundsystem culture and by the age of 14 were building their own soundboxes. “That was the done thing then,” says Smiley. “Everyone was trying to get into soundsystem culture in the early ’80s. If you were into music, you’d have to have a soundsystem of some sort.”
If you were into music, you’d have to have a soundsystem of some sort.
PJ and Smiley would see Saxon perform, often at bi-monthly dances at their Brooke House school in Clapton, and at local outdoor summer events. These were free events where, Smiley says, the youth would run riot. Friends taught them how to make systems, and they stole the wood to build speaker cabinets. “Some people would break into houses and become burglars, but not us – we broke into wood yards and stole the wood,” Smiley says. “We saved up the money to get speakers and amplifiers.” They also squatted in empty warehouses.
Relations between raving and the law hadn’t yet come to a head and as Smiley’s twin brother was an electrician, he knew how to get the power working. They would openly publicise the time and location of their dances on flyers, and if the police came there’d only really be trouble if they found out they were selling drinks. As well as seeing Papa Levi, Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie and Maxi Priest, who would all become stars, PJ and Smiley took in roots systems such as Jah Shaka, King Tubby’s and Saxon Unity, who came up in the late ’80s.
The MC duo Demon Rockers and Flinty Badman were part of Saxon Unity, and when Shut Up And Dance started a label they signed the pair as The Ragga Twins, releasing a series of seminal, birth-of-jungle tracks in the early ’90s. The system with which Shut Up and Dance put on their parties was called Heatwave and was co-owned by DJ Hype. With PJ and Smiley producing and Hype DJing, the three pioneered a new style called breakbeat. Smiley says it was a direct result of the wide mix of music they’d play: “Lots of hip hop, soul and R&B. The music we made, we put it all in the pot. No one else did that.”
Despite their influence, PJ and Smiley weren’t really part of the acid house explosion. In 1990, Shut Up And Dance charted with “£20 to Get In,” a bleep-ridden comment on the soaring rates of entry at club nights. But their biggest tune was “Raving I’m Raving.” This combination of a happy hardcore piano riff and a soulful vocal (a parody of “Walking In Memphis”) interrupted by dark breakbeat stabs soared to number two in the UK singles chart before the pair got into hot water over an uncleared sample (the label was eventually bankrupted). Nevertheless, they rode the later jungle and garage crests with labels Redlight and New Deal.
Hype became one of the biggest jungle DJs, starting the Ganja label that released Ganja Cru’s jump-up classic “Super Sharp Shooter.” He also formed the True Playaz crew with DJs Zinc and Pascal and Rude Bwoy Monty. Meanwhile, in west London, Norman Jay had been stirring up a different kind of melting pot through a combination of his Good Times soundsystem at Notting Hill Carnival and his show on pirate radio station Kiss. Jay was the first DJ at to play jazz and soul alongside Jamaican music at Carnival and called his DJing style “rare groove.” He also came from an illegal party background. By 1990 he’d been part of the team that got Kiss FM a license and he went on to work with Gilles Peterson on Talkin’ Loud, as well as on BBC London and Radio 2.
Elsewhere in the capital, under the guidance of frontman Jazzie B, Soul II Soul made a name for themselves as a soundsystem playing house and street parties. They took the UK’s ’80s street-soul tradition to another level with transatlantic chart-toppers “Back to Life” and “Keep on Moving,” and popularised a look known as funky dread. “When Soul II Soul came out, we pledged our allegiance to one chart,” says Jazzie B. “You’d go a club and you’d hear everything. That was one of the great things about clubbing in Britain. I was a soul boy and I was a punk. Punk was interesting because my early days in the warehouse scene was very punk, very anti-establishment.”
In the late ’80s, soundsystem culture spilled out of the streets and into the British countryside. Danny Rampling’s Shoom club opened in 1987, and by 1988 Nicky Holloway’s Trip at the Astoria was the place to be during what became known as the second summer of love. Around this time, soundsystem parties began being referred to as raves. If dealing with after-hours illegal raves in the West End wasn’t enough, Britain soon had to contend with thousands of ravers gathering in the countryside. Soundsystem crews such as Sunrise, RIP, DIY and Tonka, all credited with bringing house over from the US, sprung up all around the country, each determined to assert their right to rave as the law got tougher.
Yet for some reason it was the Spiral Tribe crew that copped all the flack. Spiral Tribe played techno and their name espoused their love of nature and desire to connect with the universe as well as wildly inclusive membership policy, countless faces passing through over time. After they set off on the road in the summer of ’91, “it was pretty non-stop,” says Spiral Tribe stalwart Simone. The crew were dedicated rave organisers and also spread apolitical statements about their refusal to abide by the rules of contemporary society, capitalism and a 9-5 life.
In the winter of 1991 they returned to London and ended up at The Roundhouse for New Year. By Easter they’d notched their first serious run-in with the police in Acton that Easter, who turned up at a two-day rave with JCBs and “smashed the place in.” It wasn’t Spiral Tribe’s first brush with the law, says Simone, “but that was the first time it had got heavy. It was like, ‘Hello, we’re just dancing to music and you wanna come and beat the crap out of us?’ This is a bit insane!” Spiral Tribe carried on. In May 1992, they were among many systems who turned up at Castlemorton Common in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire.
Look up Castlemorton on YouTube and you’ll find people talking about how “it was a set up.” An estimated 40,000 ravers who’d turned up for the annual Avon Free Festival were redirected to Castlemorton by the police. Simone says Spiral Tribe heard about the event, left a message on their answerphone saying they were heading to Castlemorton and set off. As the weekend wrapped up, the police moved in with truncheons. There were a number of injuries and 13 members of Spiral Tribe were arrested and charged with conspiring to cause a public nuisance. Whatever side you were on, Spiral Tribe were undoubtedly scapegoated for what had become a hot political issue. “I think it was just the time,” says Simone, “and that’s what was happening. Every colour, creed and race was coming together and having a laugh on the dancefloor.” At the trial, the 13 were acquitted on all counts, though they’d had to wait 18 months and all their possessions, including their soundsystem, were impounded.
By 1994, the infamous Criminal Justice Act was passed and included a section on ‘Powers In Relation To Raves,’ which gave the police powers to arrest without warrant where there were open-air crowds of more than 100 people playing music. Music was famously defined to include “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” It also gave the police powers to impound “audio equipment.” These powers still operate today. “I think what happened in the summer of love was that this culture from the black dancehalls and this culture from the house scene first came together and it was like some mad melting pot,” says jungle DJ Storm, who founded Metalheadz along with Kemistry and Goldie, and formed a formidable DJing partnership with Kemistry, who died in 1999. “That was how it all started for me,” admits Storm.
It was so small and cramped and then you had the loud speakers and the bass, sometimes you felt like you were gonna pass out in there.
With its powerful sonic punch and ability to incorporate influences from a range of genres, jungle was one of the more distinctive sounds to emerge out of UK soundsystem culture. Metalheadz’s legendary Sunday night sessions at Hoxton’s Blue Note bar began in 1995 after Goldie’s debut album Timeless entered the top ten. “The first night we were there at 6 PM just crapping it,” remembers Storm, “but by 7:30 PM the club was full, and we couldn’t believe it.” The Blue Note had approached Metalheadz offering them a Sunday slot. Goldie had thought no one would turn up, but because people at the time tended to go out on Thursday and Friday, and take Saturday off, they were ready to go out on a Sunday.
The Blue Note used an Eskimo soundsystem. Storm remembers that the soundmen were always around there to be shouted at. “You can spot Troy and Bevan the sound engineers in all the Metalheadz videos,” she says. DJ Flight remembers the nights. “It was so small and cramped and then you had the loud speakers and the bass, sometimes you felt like you were gonna pass out in there,” she says. Storm simply remembers the soundsystem as “ridiculous.” Producers would test out new tracks each week, and for DJs who “were about dramatic sensations” there’s no question that having such a powerful system informed the remarkable music made by junglists Photek, Dillinja, Doc Scott, Adam F, Ed Rush and Optical. “Anyone that’s been in there, they got it,” says Storm. In 1999, the Blue Note was forced to close after complaints from a neighbouring cinema. Metalheadz moved on but clearly the Blue Note was, to Storm at least, their perfect venue.
Several artists keeping soundsystem culture alive today were Metalheadz regulars, including Digital Mystikz and Loefah, who formed DMZ, as well as Dillinja and Lemonde (aka Lemon D), who run a 10K jungle soundsystem and a label called Valve. “The reason why we have the name Valve,” Lemonde explains, “is because the sound we were trying to create back in the day with our label was like the warm sound of the old systems.”
Lemonde and Dillinja sold their flats in order to make one of the biggest soundsystems in the world.
Towards the end of the 1960s amplifier manufacturers began to switch from valve to transistorised amps, but soundmen preferred the old technology. Valve amps had a warmer, more spacious sound that was equally loud but could vibrate your trouser leg and chest without hurting your ears.
A love of hardcore united Lemonde and Dillinja, who had grown up surrounded by soundsystems in Brixton, and they both learned to produce, mostly by trial and error. Having started the Valve label, the logical next step at a time when they kept finding themselves playing on “crappy systems” was to sell their flats in order to make one of the biggest soundsystems in the world. “You’ve gotta remember we’re not like other people. We’ve got a passion about music,” Lemonde says bluntly. “We’ll put our money where our mouths are.”
Anyone who’s ever been in love with soundsystems will remember a heyday. “Imagine someone creating something brand new and you’re right in the middle of it – you don’t even know where it’s going,” says Lemonde. “Now it’s not the same.” For Smiley, who still goes out to squat parties, relationships provide a fairer analogy. “You can’t beat something that’s new, but just because something progresses for years it doesn’t mean it’s got worse.”
This article originally appeared in the 2010 edition of The Daily Note as part of the Red Bull Music Academy in London.