the hidden women of sound system culture
Uncovering the role women have played in the history of British sound systems.
Read anything about the UK's rich sound system tradition and you'll find a story of marginalised Caribbean communities, of visionaries and rebels, DJs, MCs and sound engineers, of roots, ska, rocksteady, dub and reggae, from the streets of west London all the way to Huddersfield, from the 50s to present day. But in among it all, you probably won't see any female names.
Ironically, it took a woman - Mandeep Samra - to put together Sound System Culture, the UK's first heritage project on the subject, documenting the scene's history; first in her town of Huddersfield (home to a thriving sound system scene), then Bristol, Birmingham and now London, where Notting Hill's Tabernacle is hosting an in-depth exhibition dedicated to the city's sound system heritage.
Samra grew up surrounded by the music of the West indian diaspora, and it's a subject she cares deeply about. "Most of the projects I put together feel like work," she says. "But this came from the heart." You can see it in the care and detail of show she's put together; beautiful archive photographs are hung next to colourful vintage flyers and posters spanning the last 50 years; visitors can watch a feature-length documentary about the birth of ska and see a heritage sound system in action. It's thorough, but Samra would be the first to admit that the project has unearthed few female-led stories, and it's not through lack of trying: they are just very hard to find. In fact, at a sound system event at Goldsmiths University of London next week, just four of the 16 speakers are women.
Dubplate Pearl, a roots reggae and dub DJ from south east London who plays with reggae journalist and DJ, David Katz, and has guested with various sound systems, followed the London sounds closely back in the late 70s and 80s. She remembers a scene that was pretty open to female fans - "We'd follow sounds all around south, west and north London, and to Carnival; it was just incredible, good times." - but recalls a slightly different picture if you wanted to cross the gender divide and get involved with the music. She thinks that women weren't given the access that would have allowed them to develop into prominent sound system figures.
"I would go to the record store on a Saturday afternoon, which was a bit of a no-no for women. The guys would play the vinyl, and if you wanted to buy it you had to put up your hand," she remembers. "But they'd point at me and say 'She's not part of a sound system, don't sell anything to her'."
There are other practical issues that stood in the way of women creating their own sound systems: the boxes themselves were cumbersome and heavy, and depending on venues sometimes had to be carried up 14 flights of stairs. They were also often home-made, and UK women in the 70s and 80s weren't typically taught the woodwork or electrical skills with which to construct one. Expense was a barrier too - for all genders, there are stories of sound men going without underwear, spending the cash on electric cables instead - but for women, who often didn't have their own cash, or had to spend it on family, the funds for setting up a sound system and buying rare records simply wasn't available.
But Dubplate Pearl did manage to build an impressive vinyl collection eventually - "Sometimes when I'm playing rare records I can see the guys looking at me thinking, 'What's she doing with that? A girl's not meant to have tunes like that!'" - and even though she's never been part of a specific sound system, has developed technical know-how and selector skills too. She talks about colour-coding her records into genres so she can pick them out quicker (something she was told was "girly" at first but now sees male DJs copying) and speaks with enthusiasm about the sound system installation at the current exhibition. "What Paul [Dr. Huxtable of Axis Sound] is doing with the original valve sound system is just how it was in the early days," she says, smiling. "He's just gone full circle."
Other women fought their way across the gender divide too. She rattles off list after list of female DJs playing all the genres associated with sound systems, as well as all-female DJ relays and sound clashes all over London. Dubplate tells me about Mellotone Sound System - an all-female UK sound system who play reggae, ragga, revival, swing and soul - and talks about Valerie Robinson of Nottingham's V-Rocket sound, and Naoko the Rock, part of London's Ska Lavin selector crew, spinning ska, rocksteady and reggae. "These girls, when you talk about music, they've got such knowledge and such collections," she says.
Lady Lyrical is one of these women: a female selector and MC who runs an all-female UK sound system. She's been on the scene for 11 years voicing dubplates and using them to compete in sound clashes. Her dad was in a band, so she grew up around speaker systems, venues and rehearsals, then in 2004 a friend opened a radio station, she volunteered to DJ and never looked back. "This business is much harder for women to operate in and to be taken seriously. Initially, I spent years having to prove myself time and time again. I was often judged on my gender rather than my abilities as a selector or an MC."
"The way we play is different," Dubplate explains. "Guys might try and be more obscure, they don't want to play 'common' records, but we play tunes because we like them." For her, a woman is free to operate outside the posturing atmosphere sometimes created by male sound systems and DJs.
Lyrical thinks that by being present at often-egotistical sound clashes, she is helping to break down barriers for other women. "A few years ago a male selector told me being female is negative, and I've received some harsh comments over the years," she says, "and while Reggae music and sound clashes often have a negative image, having a woman representing it more makes it more approachable and acceptable for other females. I like to think that when my sound rolls out, so do the ladies and the vibes!"
Amanda Huxtable grew up in 70s Brixton, the daughter of a Jamaican sound man - Neville Grizzle, of Phantom Sound - she went on to marry British sound man, Paul Huxtable of Axis Sound, who built the heritage sound system used in Samra's exhibition. For her, the story of women in sound system culture is one of support and understanding: without that, sound systems would never have existed or developed. "My mum was supportive of the sound by going to the dances and not complaining too much with how much my dad spent on it," she remembers. "My dad worked very hard during the week as an engineer and on Friday nights passed by the record shop, but always made sure we were well provided for: Jamaican hard dough bread, Anchor butter and Greensleeves records."
Families grew up around the sound system, which required the mother's effort as much as the father's. "As a little girl I remember the 'boom, boom, boom' as we went to sleep at night, falling asleep to a baseline. I remember the sponge the turntable sat on and the pretty lights of the amps, and the glowing warmth of the valve amps," Huxtable says. "My dad's sound system was kept in our family home at the time so the house had to be adapted. Mum and dad invested in having the basement dug out, had a special staircase built and a hatch under the sofa to get the big base bins below the house - we were not allowed anywhere near the hatch!" Children had to be taught what they could and could not touch, and would sometimes be roped in to help with small tasks, maybe selling patties or drinks.
That's not to say Huxtable believes women can only play a supporting role to men; she sees it as a male-dominated tradition that is slowly becoming less so. "We were so glad for Miss Dynamite in her day," she says. "And looking forward, there are women coming up who have studied and are more than ready, like Dubplate Pearl and Lucky Cat Zoë."
Lyrical is hopeful that women will be more prominent in coming years too: "When I first started in sound system culture, I really had to push myself and grit my teeth against certain male attitudes. I can safely say that now, as more women are entering the business as promoters, DJs, MCs. venue owners, it's definitely becoming more balanced." And surely balance is the right fit for sound system culture; it's all about 'one love' after all.
Text Emma Finamore
Photography Christopher Adams