From its early days in the 1960s, London’s diasporic Jamaican soundsystem culture has been filled with a multitude of mysterious characters: Exhibit A, Jah Shaka. There have been innumerable anecdotes passed from one generation to the next about Shaka. What’s his real name? Did he really shut down a rival sound by just putting his finger on his mouth? But throughout these stories, another ghost-like character inevitably appears. His name is Percival Miller, but he’s better known as Metro.
Born in Jamaica in 1941, Metro is the genius sound engineer who built Shaka’s custom tube amplifiers – called “valves” in the UK – the power and quality of which was unrivaled for decades and triggered years and years of questions, pale imitations and general geeking out. Eventually, Metro’s unparalleled works played a key role in Shaka becoming the most acclaimed dub soundsystem in England from the 1970s on.
A man who managed to make himself as invisible as he is respected, Metro isn’t exactly a phone call away. But after several months, I finally got lucky enough to cross his path in Tottenham Hale, North London, for one of the very few interviews ever granted by this legend of a soundman.
When did you get into music?
When I was about seven years old, in Jamaica. Growing up in music, there were more sounds than Coxsone and Duke Reid. Before them was [Count] Nick [the Champ], and there was Tom the Great Sebastian. Tom actually was my cousin, and I was living 19 miles away from Kingston, but on the weekend, these people living in Kingston, Tom and my cousins, they’d come over for dinner and t’ings. Eventually I got to realize that Tom was the top sound on the island.
I went see him a couple times, and then I left school at about 14, right? So I started to work with a man called Clarke. I was seeing these guys knitting wires and t’ings like that, it was very fascinating. Clarke was running a small company importing Mercury radios from America. At the time, radios were inside a polished, teakwood cabinet. My job was to install these radios – they taught me to do that, I did this for about two years.
But I wasn’t yet deep into electronics. What sucked me in was the day one of the radios broke down. I opened the back of it, and the first thing I saw was this valve. I didn’t know it was a valve; it looked like a very small bottle. So eventually I got a magazine and there was a little circuit inside, an electronic magazine from America. I couldn’t understand the difference between resistors and capacitors, but still…
When I was 16, I migrated to England. This was 1957, so when I left Jamaica, soundsystem was in its heyday, they was on top, you know? With Duke Reid and Coxsone, even though Tom had come off the circuit already. But when I reached the UK, there was no soundsystem. The only thing I found the first night I went out was a Grundig gramophone. I had brought 27 records from Jamaica for my brother, who was already living there and had asked me to send him some music that I would get from Tom. He didn’t have no sound. He kept asking me to come to England, but I’d stay in Jamaica ’cause installing radios then was good for me, it was a good job. So anyway, instead of sending the records, I brought them with me, to surprise my brother. When I got to Nottingham, where I had relatives, I wrote him to tell him I was in the country.
All the equipment and transformers and resistors was laying on the sidewalk night and day, cheap like dirt.
So when I came down, [I went to London] and the first night they took me out, I saw that tiny gramophone, and coming from Jamaica in 1957 with all the soundsystem and music in the air, that felt cold, man. I couldn’t take it. I went back home to my parents and said, “I wanna go back home.” So my brother was like, “What do you wanna do? Be a tailor or something like that?” I was like, “No, man, I don’t wanna be no tailor. I’m gonna build a soundsystem.” During these years, along Tottenham Court Road in the West End, all the equipment and transformers and resistors was laying on the sidewalk night and day, cheap like dirt. ’Cause all the components they made for war and all the surplus, all these things were down there, selling.
How did you even hear from this war surplus place?
Well, when I started to get involved in soundsystem, I decided first that I was gonna buy an amplifier. What I saw around, there was a guy called Vinnie, Duke Vin. I knew him from Jamaica ’cause he was a DJ for my cousin’s sound, Tom. He disappeared from the scene, I didn’t know where he was – and he was in England! So Vinnie didn’t have a sound yet. What he had was records that he got from Tom, but he didn’t have an amplifier. The times he’d go out and play, he had an African guy in Ladbroke Grove that he’d borrow a table amplifier from, and played. The clarity was very good, but the rest was rubbish. You’d turn the bass, you couldn’t hear it in your ears. No bass. Nothing at all.
So all these things inspired me, I was like “Nah man, that’s not what I need, what I want.” So eventually a year after, a guy came from Jamaica with a soundsystem, he brought it here ’cause he heard about the situation in England. His name was Gale, Sir Gale – he had a sound down in Jamaica. He was no big fish like Reid or Coxsone, but he had a real good sound. So he ended up in Stoke Newington, on Brighton Road. He had one box and an amplifier and the records, that’s it.
The following Sunday, he string up the amplifier, and it was distorted. At some point, he took the box outside, on the sidewalk, ’cause this is a t’ing that we do in Jamaica. In the space of about 20 minutes, all the people on Brighton road came out, some woman started to cry and police came down. They didn’t trouble the box – they took the man and let him out ’cause he explained himself. That event made me want to buy a real amplifier, but I wasn’t working enough money to compensate. I started to make inquiries, all of the tiny radios, all over, for big amplifiers, ’cause there were none in England. The larger amplifier you could get was 25 watts. And eventually I found more like an industrial amplifier that was used over microphone and for broadcast and t’ings like that. It could play, but the clarity wasn’t good. I was working a job in Dalston, my wages were six pound. So my brother loaned me some money, and I went to this place in Wimbledon.
I took about ten buses, it took me the whole day to reach this company called Voltection – they’d do one of the biggest amplifiers you could find over here, they’d do a 400 watts. At that time it was one pound per watt. That was for the amplifier alone. I needed a turntable, a Garrard, and a speaker box. That was so long ago that the speakers were 15 and 12" – there was no 18".
Some Garrard turntables, such as the 4HF, are an integral part of the mystique in the early UK soundsystem scene – why specifically Garrard?
We found out that the Garrards, if you look for a turntable, they have a t’ing called time constance, the timing to the record was perfect, and moreover you got some records where other brands stick – Garrard doesn’t do that, it was very efficient.
Anyways, after the amplifier, I had to go to one place in Shoreditch that had the turntable, ’cause only one place could have it. And then, where I worked, there was a wood veneering factory next door. I would see these massive mahogany lops come in. And I was always wondering if I wanted to use plywood to make these boxes, which had a 15 and a 12. What I did is that as it came in the cardboard box I turned the magnet upside down, with the magnet down towards the floor. When I had the amplifier, and playing it like that, the response was what I want. The type of sound I left in Jamaica!
So eventually I moved this wood from that place and this guy I knew called Cheapie, he’s a good cabinet maker from Jamaica, he made a beautiful box. But it was so big that we couldn’t get it through the house. He had to get this long saw and cut it in two so it goes through the door! The loudness of it was good, but the bass frequency still wasn’t there. I sent it back to the people four times, but it seems like every time it goes and comes back the bass disappears.
I didn’t know any technicians. I listened to the things that two African guys were telling me, a guy called Mr. Eddie, he lived in Ladbroke Grove… I ended up bending it enough that it sounded just okay. First time I played was under this basement. This was a Friday night. You know about the [infamous gangster] Kray brothers? It’s a long story. Anyway, they controlled this club. And from that day, I played there every week for five years. Continuous. From Friday night ’til Saturday night.
Over there, the response that I’m getting from the people is great, but the amplification, that’s not what I want. I want to sound better than Coxsone or Duke Reid. So after that first night I came home and I took out the top of that thing, took my cutter and I cut out the pre-amp complete, and I went down to Dalston and bought some resistors. I improvised, and the first time I brought that amplifier, I played this place called Stanford Terrace with a sound called D’Unes. He’s dead now, but he had brought his amp from Jamaica that he got from Duke Reid, a good amplifier. And when I compared my amplifier playing down there with him, I liked mine better now. ’Cause I tell you, what I had was clarity. But all he had was the bottom line, the bassline, the bass frequency.
So you just improvised?
I had books, but... Simply said, I always say that God gave me a gift for that. You know what I mean? ’Cause I haven’t been to anybody to teach me to do that. Just what the brain tells me, I do. And it works, and I find out it works better than the book, ’cause if I make something from the book, it doesn’t work the way I want it to work.
You see how everybody has a siren now? I’m the one who started that thing.
How long did it take to do this first amp?
It took about a day. The first one I built is the one they call TT 21, it’s a valve amplifier. The circuit was from America, using a valve they call 807 A. It was the type of valve that Duke Reid and Coxsone used in Jamaica. Four of them can give you 2,000 watts. But the problem with this valve is that it’s too dangerous. I know what I’m doing, but if I make that amplifier and put it down there, and you switch it on and you touch the anodes of that valve, it burns you just like ashes. Cause the anode take about 2,200 volts, right? The trains don’t even use that. That’s why I go with the low voltage and can compensate with the current.
The guy who designed those valves, I sat with him day by day down in Shepherd’s Bush. I used to go down there, and we sit down there and drink coffee. That amplifier that Jah Shaka used to use, we sit there and designed it there. That 1,000-watt valve amplifier, I rate it 1,000, but that amplifier should be over 3,500 watts, right? But I never overrate my things. I build it, and what the valve says, that’s what I go by. I always underrate, make someone else rate it. That’s what I go by. I built hundreds of them. I built in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, name it.
What made you choose Metro for a name?
I didn’t name it. One of my schoolmates, he was working with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer, right? He was a cameraman. I actually called the sound Tune Waver – it was the name of a record I had from America. So he said to me, “Call it Metro the Tune Waver,” and I said “Metro the Tune Waver Downbeat,” because I loved Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat back in Jamaica. It stayed like that for years and years. But when you see Metro, it’s me. Metromedia and all these guys, they got the name from me. Any Metro that you see, I’m the one.
When did you start building amps for other sounds?
I started about 1969. Yeah. If you notice my eye, it’s ’cause when I was running soundsystem, I went to the country, somebody threw a drinking glass and hit me in the eye, and I lost it. So I found out that the sound is a bit strenuous, know what I mean? Eventually I decided to pack the soundsystem around 1979, and stick to the amplifiers. You see how everybody has a siren now? I’m the one who started that thing. I’m the first one come out, I had it on my sound! And I took it and give it to Shaka.
Was Jah Shaka the first sound you built for?
No, no, I can’t remember who was the first, but Shaka was late. All I know is that I taught in Waltham about 15 pupils how to build amplifiers. The guy they call Jah Tubby’s, when I used to play soundsystem, these guys used to come around. The whole of them!
Did you teach Jah Tubby’s too?
Nah, Tubby’s don’t know how to make amplifiers. He would have his made by another guy who came from America. They called him Barracuda. Once I built a 600 watts valve amplifier, and carried it to King’s Cross, and he had one of these big bins and he was working in the front and he had a pre-amp, nice man, and he was showing interest in valves and things like that. He string up one of his pre-amps on it. And trust me, when it started to play, all the rats in the place started to run out! It’s a long journey.
You see this computer? It’s come to destroy the world.
When did you meet Jah Shaka?
That would have been in 1969. He didn’t have a soundsystem. I was playing a club in Woolwich ran by two Irish guys called Tony and Jerry, and that’s where I met Shaka. How I got to play that club was a funny story: Neville the Enchanter was already playing for them, and he believed in my sound, but these guys never heard my t’ing. But one of these guys had a MG sports car that he would bring to my friend Gus’s garage. When he told Gus that he had this club and that he had the best sound in London, Gus started to tell him that his sound can’t touch my soundsystem, and I didn’t know he said that. So Gus came to me and said these guys say he wants to listen my sound. That’s how it started. They loved it! Plus, over the years I had developed a relationship with records and people so it was no problem for me. I’ve got music. At this time I had 20,000 records which I saves, personal. I’m not talking about rhythm & blues, I got thousands of them. LPs I can’t count.
Did you design Shaka’s amps with him?
No no, I built it and gave him. He don’t know nothing about what’s inside – all he knows, I teach him. And show them how to string it up, and when a fail happens, telling them where to look. The road is a long road, you know, and you learn more and more as you go. Tricks of the trade. This African guy, Mr. Eddie, from Nigeria, I met him in 1968, around them times. Well, I am not dissing him or anything, but sometimes you discover things that other can’t see – I discovered that his amps were designed so valves blow up after a time, and so the amps need to be serviced. Things like that.
Is it getting really hard to be a valve power amplifier builder in this day and age?
I can do transistor amps – I built the ones that Shaka uses now, after all his equipment was stolen years ago. But when a valve is working perfect, you can hear a whole orchestration. I found out that transistors are less stable. But there’s only one place now where I can get valves, and they’re very expensive. One KT-88 is 60 pounds! Oh, and this guy wants 20 of those. I couldn’t calculate how much an amp would be now, so I took a bit of a backseat. But you know, it’s like televisions. The Japanese make them for everybody, it’s like I get a television built and put “Metro” on it, it will be a Metro television. That’s what I am to the soundsystem world. These guys go and play these amplifiers… Yeah, I’m doing that, but they don’t talk who do it! I still get calls every day, but at this moment, the market of amplifiers in England is down a bit, there’s no place to play, they can’t get in the venues.
Are these new noise nuisance laws in London a danger for your profession?
People is wanting to destroy oneself. People against the next people so much in this town, I don’t know why. There was a time, life was totally different. My gift that I get from God, I exposed it to everybody, I don’t hide it to no man. If you’re clever enough to do it, do it! If you can make it better, do it! I appreciate that. I’m just the man who started it. But it’s totally different now, that’s why I’m going back to [fixing] televisions. You see this computer? It’s come to destroy the world. That’s what I say to people.
This interview was originally conducted in November 2008, with portions previously published in French via Natty Dread magazine.