Like the legacy of hip-hop and jazz music, sound system culture has a vibrant and influential history that has left an indelible mark on music and communities of all descriptions worldwide. Originating in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1940s, sound systems revolutionized music recording, transportation, and consumption, creating immersive experiences for audiences.

One notable era pioneer was Rudolph "Ruddy" Redwood (aka Mr Midnight), a Jamaican DJ crucial in shaping the sound system culture. Now, flash forward some six decades, and sound system culture has reached every corner of the globe. Between 19 and 23 July, Black Rhino Radio curates the return of the Electric Castle Roots Stage. A testament to the enduring legacy of sound system culture, and the complimentary vibes associated with it over the years, the Electric Castle Roots stage will feature a slew of local and international purveyors of sound system culture. Across its multiple days, the likes of Burner Greene, Digital Selekta, Dubase, Dubik, Genmaica, Injektah, Irishdub, IWS, Jah Order, Jaheyo, Kaya Foundation, Kaze, Low Freq, Mighty Boogie, noidzsh, Plus, Puiu, Riddim Bandits Crew, Serious Dub, Shiv, Ursu Dub, WRK, ZO  take to the stage hosted by MC Yardie Flo.

And if you want to get in the mood for the Roots Stage at Electric Castle come and join Experiments in Dub #3 alongside Weeding Dub (live set), Serious Dub and Ursu Dub, on July 14th at Platforma Wolff. 

Experiments in Dub #3 w/ Weeding Dub (live), Serious Dub, Ursu Dub

At the core of a sound system are microphones, signal processors, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, all controlled by a mixing console. This powerful setup amplifies live or pre-recorded sounds, making them louder and enabling them to reach larger and more distant audiences. Sound systems are not simply mobile discos; they encompass an aesthetic value that transcends description.

Sound Systems also held a variety of positions, making their presentation a collective effort. At the forefront are the selectors, followed by the performers (deejays and/or singers). At the same time, there were a variety of figures operating behind the system, so to speak. The operators, who would control the frequency levels. There are box boys, who would carry out most of the leg work, including carrying the large speaker boxes. Finally, there is the technician. Responsible for fixing any issues like blown fuses, loose wires, etc.

The birth of sound systems in Kingston can be traced back to the 1940s when custom-built setups started playing American rhythm and blues music and other popular genres in the streets and yards. Radio access was limited during that time, particularly for financially disadvantaged Jamaican communities. Sound systems emerged as a means for these communities to experience the collaborative escapism of music. While wealthier Jamaicans enjoyed live orchestras, sound systems became the cultural hub for economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, where people could transcend harsh realities and find solace and celebration within their communities. These street parties quickly gained popularity and attracted steadily increasing audiences.

Sound systems played a vital role in empowering these historically marginalized communities, providing them with a platform for self-expression and leadership. In a society where power was concentrated in media, government, and religious establishments, sound system culture offered communication, social interaction, education, moral leadership, political action, and economic activity to black people from impoverished backgrounds. Norman C. Stolzoff's book Wake the Town and Tell the People (Duke University Press, 2000) extensively documents this aspect of sound system culture.

The evolution of sound systems brought about customization and innovation. By the mid-1950s, valve amplifiers capable of playing up to 30,000 watts became commonplace. The visual centerpiece of a sound system became stacks of speaker boxes, with bass boxes the size of wardrobes forming the foundation, followed by midrange speakers and tweeters on top. This setup created a distinctive bass and drum-heavy experience that defined the sound system culture.

Sound systems are also known as "Sets" or "The Set," referring to the process of setting up and stringing up the speakers before playing. In Jamaica, a distinction is made between a Component Set (Rack System), typically used for home stereo setups, and "The Set," which specifically refers to the sound system heard in reggae dancehalls. Legendary sound system DJs like Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, founder of Studio One label, and Duke Reid, known as "The Trojan" with his Treasure Isle label, emerged during the 1950s, leaving a lasting impact on the sound system culture through their influential music.

Performativity is a central aspect of sound system culture. DJs, also known as Deejays or Jamaican-style toasters/rappers/MCs, engage in lyrical chats. At the same time, selectors curate the tunes, and operators control the sound volume and mix down the performances. The audience and performers share a close connection, often blurring the line between them. This unique feature creates an intimate and inclusive atmosphere, breaking social barriers and fostering unity. By the 1970s, the emphasis switched to the deejays, with the earliest star sound system deejays being Count Machuki, closely followed by Sir Lord Comic and King Stitt.

One of the defining characteristics of sound system culture is the phenomenon of sound clashes. During the 1950s, when records were scarce, sound clashes naturally emerged as competitions between neighboring sound systems. Duke Reid and Clement "Coxsone" Dodd were again prominent figures, setting up stacks of speakers and playing US R&B records. The battle for musical supremacy became a thrilling spectacle, with multiple sound systems vying for the title of the best selections and performances determined by the captivated crowd. The next major development in sound system culture came as the phenomenon of sound tapes came into existence during the 1970s. With the rapid spread of these tapes, sound system culture could be exported faster and easier than ever before.

The influence of sound system culture extended beyond Jamaica's borders. In the UK, sound systems gained prominence during the Windrush Era (1948-1971), when nearly half a million Caribbean people migrated to the country. In the UK, Black and Jamaican music faced racial violence and exclusion outside their communities, as mainstream radio stations refused to play these records. Sound systems provided a sanctuary where black people could unite and express their unique identities. They became the cornerstone of social life for black communities in Britain, offering a space to freely enjoy their music and culture. However, these gatherings often faced scrutiny from the police, leading to frequent shutdowns and unjust arrests.

Sound systems continue to thrive in their traditional form and modern music landscape throughout Europe, North America, and as far as Japan. The rise of dubplate specials across the internet played a pivotal role. Notting Hill Carnival was also vital in elevating sound system culture in the modern-day UK. As Europe's largest street event and the second-largest carnival in the world, Notting Hill Carnival provided a massive platform for static sound systems. The carnival atmosphere pulsated with infectious rhythms and intense sound clashes that originated from the culture of sound systems.

Over time, sound clashes have evolved, giving rise to the format known as "World Clash." Countries from around the globe come together to compete in these clashes, showcasing their unique musical styles and talents. The first World Clash in London in 1993 featured renowned sound systems like Bodyguard from Jamaica, Saxon and Coxsone from the UK, and Afrique from the USA. Though World Clash ceased operations in 2006, sound clashes have gained popularity, with events like the Red Bull Culture Clash captivating audiences with their energetic battles.

The impact of sound system culture can be felt across genres and generations. From early pioneers like Rudolph "Ruddy" Redwood, Duke Reid, and Clement "Coxsone" Dodd to contemporary artists who incorporate elements of sound system culture in their music, the influence is undeniable. Artists like Bob Marley, King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and countless others have left an indelible mark on the music world through their involvement with sound systems. Today, sound systems remain an integral part of music culture, catering to diverse musical tastes and providing a dynamic and immersive experience. They continue to evolve, embracing new technologies and genres while staying true to their roots. Sound system culture is a testament to the resilience and creativity of communities that have used music to overcome adversity, celebrate their heritage, and foster a sense of unity.