By Adam ‘Hylu’ Ainley and Vincent Møystad
Unit 137 is a sound system, a collective of artists who have organised ourselves according to Jamaican & UK sound system culture. We were inspired by going to dances and experiencing what the sound system was capable of doing — my first memory of sound system was at Brixton Recreation Centre (a University of Dub session). However, it was when we went to Outlook Festival in Croatia in 2011 that we first performed on a proper sound and experienced Mungo’s Hi Fi. From this point we decided to create Unit 137 sound system with the intention of our music being heard properly and aligning this with the output of our record label. We work to make our events open, free, and supportive of our communities.
We are interested in the political aspects of sound system culture, and all the different ways it has generated capacities for people to stand up for themselves. This text is about opening a space: allowing people to express themselves freely is both the ends and means of sound system. It therefore makes no sense to try and conclusively define the political dimension of sound system culture, or to make statements about what it should do. Instead, we reflect on what the culture means to us and how it textures our lives and resistance. Every sound system is an experiment in sound and togetherness, and we are sharing thoughts about ours in the hope of hearing about others.
Sound system culture began in Jamaica in the 1950’s, when the culture of black working-class Jamaicans was almost completely invisible in the Jamaican media. Engineers and mechanics crafted sound systems, and collectives formed around them, organising a steady supply of music, inventing new performance styles, and fine-tuning the sound. Sound systems became a major influence on global music, pioneering the remix, live mixing, low frequencies, and deejaying. Sound systems travelled with the Jamaican diaspora, forming centres for independent cultural growth, often in hostile environments, giving people a place to gather and enjoy each other’s company.
Sound systems in this tradition are not just about the amplification of sound. They developed in response to the human need for togetherness and solidarity, and the centre of the sound system is not the speakers, but the people involved. Every sound system is a collective, a group of people who have organised to carry boxes and leads, select music, etc. Then there’s family and friends, who make this commitment to the sound possible. The sound system audience is another collective: people who come out to hear music and dance are active participants in building the sound. Sound systems need music, and so the session will be in dialogue with global networks of musicians, producers, engineers, and impresarios who are present at the dance through their tunes. Sound systems work through all these technical, physical, and cultural circuits, which means that sound system culture is as diverse as the multitude of connections they reflect.
Being involved in sound system culture means constantly testing what the sound system is capable of. When sound systems were introduced to the Notting Hill Carnival, the event transformed from a rich but modest cultural event to a flashpoint for uprisings against police brutality. Sound systems also played Lovers’ Rock, cultivating care and romantic love in the midst of oppression and resistance. With Jamaican independence, Ska was the first music to unite the country around its own language and dance. In parts of the world today, sound systems using regional languages have helped organise cultural revivals by adapting the Jamaican strategy. A heavy roots sound will create a sanctified atmosphere as profound as a forest or a roadside shrine. A dancehall sound can build a warm interplay of joy, raunchiness, and aggression. Sound systems turned phonography into a performance in its own right, and have built up an archive of thoughts, feelings, and experiences pressed on wax.
For us, being in a sound is about committing to this process of social and sonic experimentation: being attentive to all the influences, skills, and ideas present in our collective, as well as the social/sonic needs and passions in our communities, and seeing what we can do with them. We are committed to musical experimentation, playing a mix of Reggae, Dub, Hip-Hop, Dancehall, Jungle and much more. We also work with jazz musicians and experiment with live performances – our latest being Electric Brixton, alongside Joe Armon-Jones. Sound system culture is about the mix, weaving tunes and people together to build the vibe, mixing the new and familiar, or experiencing the familiar in a new way. Living in Lewisham, we are surrounded by so many musical histories, and it’s important for us that the sound reflects this. This means we also take every opportunity to build a reflective conversation about musical history and evolution in our community, both teaching and learning about sound system culture in the process. We’ve worked with scholars in the Sound System Outernational network and with young performers in the Alchemy project, and are present at community events like Lewisham People’s Day and Woolwich Carnival.
We love a free all-dayer in a park, with families, food, a wide line-up of singers, deejays, musicians, selectors, and bands from the area and beyond. There are few spaces where people can be drawn together in this way, by the sound system, jerk chicken and maize on the barrel grill. We want dances where teenagers can perform, people can dance freely, and grandparents can bring their grandchildren. For that to work we can’t organise events where people will be put off by a £15 cover charge, invasive security or police presence, or racism, sexism, or homophobia in the crowd.
It takes a lot of work to run a sound, and we want the sound to financially support the community that runs it. This means thinking carefully about our independence and what kind of moves we can make without compromising our commitments to community and artistic experimentation. We try out different approaches to sponsorship, partnerships, and grant applications to make our work possible, but it’s a complicated process. This is a major concern for all sound systems, especially as the kind of infrastructure (youth clubs, independent music venues, decent housing benefit, and community centres) that sound systems need disappear from our neighbourhoods at an alarming rate.
For us then, sound system culture is about creating a proliferation of ways to bring people together through sound. Sound systems have brought people together to look after each other, to learn about their histories, cultures, and languages, to fall in love, and to fight back. In London today, sound systems continue to hold an important space, by insisting on our inalienable collective right to joy, even as the city becomes ever more hostile to our communities. Sound system culture cannot fight back against this on its own, but the beauty of a sound system session can create real experiences of togetherness and remind us of what we are struggling for. As the culture continues growing and developing, even in difficult circumstances, we look forward to seeing and hearing all the manifold and unique ways sound systems will continue to do this.
Adam ‘Hylu’ Ainley is part of Unit 137 Sound System and Vincent Møystad is part of Sound System Outernational.
Photography: Tom Medwell
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