Roots of the rave – UK sound system culture

Articles // Thu 9 Sep 2021 - 23:11pm

Continuing our dive into the backstories behind the rave, we now turn to a culture responsible for the rise of dub, jungle, D&B and the pursuit of ultimate sound quality in the rave.

Sound-system culture

Originating in Kingston in the 1940s, sound-system culture has become synonymous with street parties, reggae and the rave. Blossoming in the tough economic conditions in Jamaica at the time, sound systems provided a cultural gathering point and setting. To let loose and forget the stresses of the time.

Though the legacy of the culture is in reggae, early systems started with US rhythm and blues as well as some ska. Over time the tastes of the crews moved towards sounds more local to the systems, and the sounds we know today.

Pioneering new sounds

Dance halls often hosted systems, working together to provide spaces for the community and pioneering the dancehall genre that went on to inspire many more modern genres, like garage and hip hop. 

The sound systems themselves also had effects on pioneering new genres. Innovators like King Tubby experimented with early EQs, reverbs and echo units while playing reggae creating the earliest dub tracks. These sounds went on to inspire the UK dubstep sound including artists like Burial.

King Tubby also pioneered secret weapons of selectors across the world,

releasing the first examples of ‘dub plates’. These pre-release test pressings of records gave producers the opportunity to test their newest tracks on a crowd, and the system exciting new material to attract new listeners. These dub plates paved the way for ‘specials’; new records produced by artists exclusively for a sound system.


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Arriving on new shores

From the 1950s to the 1970s the Windrush generation saw a migration of Jamaican communities to the UK following promises of brighter futures.

Alongside the new communities arriving on British shores came the desire to hear their music and preserve their culture. With no familiar sounds on British radio at the time and friction from the public for the new arrivals, it was a sound system that once again provided a gathering space for the community.

The introduction of sound-system culture to the UK was the seed that started the island’s free party and rave scene.

Early UK systems like Channel One and Jah Shaka focused solely on the reggae music that characterised the culture. Newer 2nd and 3rd generation systems like Young Warrior and Sinai embrace the analogue technology and apply it to a wider range of genres, exhibiting tastes of dubstep, D&B and grime amongst other genres at events.

Culmination of the culture

The most infamous event within sound system culture is the sound clash. A head-to-head battle between two or more rival systems, fighting to win over the crowd and be crowned the best system. Selectors will pull out all the best ‘specials’ and ‘dub plate’ records to one up on the other systems and hype the crowd.

Some dubplates were specially saved to seal the deal at the end of the set as a ‘burial tune’.

To gain an extra edge in the clash some systems would get specials specifically shouting out their system or trash-talking the other systems in the clash. Though the clashes are massively competitive, systems compete with a communal love and respect for the culture.

Respect your elders

With so much of the dance music and rave culture we know owing to sound-system culture, learning more about its history can deepen our love and understanding of the music scene we all exist within. Our team at Tribal have collated a playlist of music you would expect to hear being spun by some of the UK’s best sound systems to whet your appetite.