Channel One Sound System has been an institution in London for over 35 years, tirelessly championing the spirit of Reggae. Originally brought over as Admiral Bailey Sound by Mikey Dread’s father from Jamaica in the 1950s, the sound system was passed down to his older brother, with Mikey coming on board in 1979. Joined by MC Ras Kayleb in 1995, they’ve travelled the world as ambassadors of Roots culture and have held their legendary slot at Notting Hill Carnival since the early 1980s. Though they faced pressures from Westminster council in 2014 to move from the spot they’ve held at Westbourne Park Road/ Leamington Road Villas for over 20 years, an 8000 strong petition helped ensure their continuation as a defining feature of the event.
Having blessed some of the world’s largest stages, including Wembley Arena, they still hold residencies in their own backyard at small London pubs – nowhere is too big or small for a Channel One party. They also emerged as clear victors at the 2010 Red Bull Culture Clash and returned to defend the title in 2012 against industry big guns like Annie Mac and Major Lazer (who were accompanied by Usher and Rita Ora).
With their tour schedule as busy as ever, Mikey and Kayleb show no signs of letting up. Ahead of their appearance at Global Rhythms in August, we sat with them on a summer’s day in Lewisham Park to discuss the current state of Reggae in Jamaica, their global travels and what keeps them going after all these years.
Mikey, where did you grow up in London and how important were sound systems to the local community?
Mikey Dread: First I grew up in North London, then we moved to Leyton. As a youngster you see people moving the boxes, playing at weddings and parties – sound systems were very important to the area. There were so many around at the time – everyone was playing at the local community centre or church hall. That’s where it really grew, over in East London.
Are they as common as they were before? People access new music differently now.
MD: That’s what sound system dances were for – to hear new music, we didn’t have radio or internet. If you wanted new music, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday night you’d go to the sound system to hear the latest releases from Jamaica. Like all businesses they take a dip and then go back up. But it’s a cultural thing as well – it’s our heritage. It’ll never die.
Are there any younger sound systems you think will keep pushing what you’re doing when you’re gone?
MD: A new sound system comes up nearly every month and you don’t know whether they’ll stand the test of time. A lot of people have a system ‘cos it’s the in thing – they don’t realise the actual importance ‘cos they never had one back in the day. We’ve seen some come for two years or so, blow the place apart, then disappear. They can’t sustain. I can’t say if a particular sound system will be around in 20 years time, you’d hope they would, but who knows?
What advice would you give to those starting a sound system? It’s obviously a huge commitment.
Ras Kayleb: You have to look at a sound system nowadays as a business, you can’t think about wanting to get famous. In the past when you started a system, you used your own money. There weren’t any corporations behind you – you’d often dip into your family’s money. You’d lose relationships because of the commitment. A lot of people don’t see that side – they see fun, fame and money. But when they face the problems, they give up. With us, a lot of our family said ‘you’ll never make anything out of sound system’ – when some people hear that every day, they give up. If you don’t have that committed mentality I’d say just be a DJ ‘cos at least you can work and DJ at the same time!
MD: It’s teamwork – one man can’t handle a sound system. People have tried! There are people working together and a lot of the time others will try and talk you down. But if we ever listened to negative comments you wouldn’t be here today interviewing us!
At first you must’ve had to look after everything yourself, including repairs. Has that changed?
MD: For the first 20 years we’d build our own boxes – using drills, power saws… we’d cut our own holes for the speakers. When you look after your own tools and know what everything does, whether it’s amps, pre-amps… you know how everything should sound. Even when people are jumping up and down having a good time I can hear if the system sounds dull, so I’ll change something like a needle for instance. One little element can keep your system in top condition. Things have become easier though. In the past I’d devote a Saturday to repairs but now it’s non-stop shows so I give out my work, we get our boxes built. We have a guy down in the countryside who gets it done. Once you have a team of people who love what you’re doing, it all comes together.
You have pretty strenuous touring schedules with long sets, plus transporting the gear – what is it that keeps you going after all these years?
RK: Firstly you have to take who we are – we’re Rastas, so the first thing is the Almighty High God. Second is love. Love for the music and the people we play for. One thing people say they like about Channel One is when they’re enjoying themselves they can see us doing the same. There’s that energy of the night and the people, under the banner of Rastafari. That’s what keeps us going. People say we’re getting on. I’d say I’m probably fitter than a lot of these 18 or 20 year olds! The music keeps me fit. Whilst I’m still jumping a lot of them are dropping on the floor!
You’re often booked alongside newer acts, Jungle and Dubstep artists for instance. Do you see either as part of the lineage of Reggae?
RK: It’s diverged from the true essence. A lot of Jungle didn’t come from Roots but people love saying that it did. It comes from an accident with a Reggae tune getting sped up in a studio and it sounded good. Do you know why I say that? I was there that day. When Dubstep first came out it had an essence of Roots but as soon as it moved to a commercial field everything started sounding the same. When you start throwing all the digital sounds in, you’ve lost what you were really trying to carry forward. There are only one or two Jungle tunes you can truly say ‘yes, this is Roots’. Same with Dancehall in Jamaica – it sounds like Hip-Hop, it’s all got the same beat – like someone’s going to die of a heart attack. But us, we deal with the heartbeat. People in Roots music don’t have to take drugs, maybe a spliff or two. Why do you need to take drugs? You’re supposed to get high off the music. A lot of people like to say their music’s a form of Reggae – it’s not the truth.
Mikey, you were going back and forth to Jamaica a lot in the 80s when it was a really strong time for Roots music, honing your craft at places like the famed Channel One studio in Kingston. Is it the same now?
MD: It’ll never be what it was in the 70s and 80s, but it is there. A lot of younger people now are saying ‘we don’t want this Bashment ting anymore, we want to take it back to what our grandparents used to do.’ You’ll always have Dancehall but as we go around the world we see a lot of these new Jamaican Reggae artists being booked at festivals. They see sound systems on the internet like Channel One playing to diverse crowds and they want to go out there and push Roots music.
Do you think if you were starting out from young now you’d be able to thrive the way you did?
RK: I don’t think so, ‘cos I’d be thinking like my children. Even though they’re brought up within it, it’s still not part of them because society around them is so different. When we were young our friends were all into the same thing as us, our parents too. With those coming up now, they’re trying but they have that modern mentality – ‘I want it now’. They haven’t done the stuff artists need to do – playing a pub, a little community centre, where people might throw shit at you. ‘Cos they have a system they feel they should be on our level. They say: ‘our sound is as powerful as yours, we’ve got the same music as you’. A lot of artists don’t have longevity ‘cos they don’t go through problems. Their mentality is too rushed – it’s like the hare and the tortoise.
How was your trip to New York last year? Why hasn’t Roots sound system culture taken off the same way it has here?
MD: I think it’s a heritage thing. The USA just doesn’t get it, I don’t know if they ever will. A few sound systems have told us they play at clubs there to only 40 people. But when we went we played to about 450 people in Brooklyn. The promoter didn’t want to bring us over until he had built a stack of boxes like ours. So when the Americans came in and saw it, their eyes lit up – they were expecting a PA system – they loved the night. If we can do it why can’t anyone else? From that evening on Reggae should’ve taken off, but it stayed stagnant. When we go there again we’ll give it another push but that’s the States for you, you have to take it with a pinch of salt.
How about South America and Central America? It seemed they were more receptive.
RK: In South America there’s people that travel, have come to the UK and gone to University Of Dub and other nights and loved it. Then they’ve gone back and tried to recreate that night in their own community, even starting with just 50 people or so. It also comes down to people’s mindset – Americans have a fast lifestyle, they want everything today. In South and Central America I feel people are more spiritual, not saying they go to church, but their mind is on a spiritual level. We know the different troubles they have in their countries, they’re looking for something to uplift them. Roots music does something to your body, when they’ve had that once they want it again. The word gets around – we were playing in Mexico and people came from Guatemala, one brudda came from Costa Rica just to listen to Channel One. The governments of these countries don’t care where you’re from, they treat everyone like shit so people have more of an affinity to one another and understand each other’s culture. Not like in England where we’re still fighting to understand each other even though we’ve been here for years. When you bring Roots music to them, like the teachings of Bob Marley for instance, they can see themselves within the words and music. The spirituality of life in the UK and USA seems have to gone and it’s not about going to church and listening to a pastor.
You’re certainly well travelled.
MD: People think when we play abroad we get five star treatment. It’s a poor man bringing us over, not corporate people. If they pick us up from the airport, there’ll often just be space in the car for me, Kayleb and the dog! We don’t stay in plush hotels, sometimes we have to stay in their houses because they can’t afford a hotel. We just dig it out, that’s the way it goes. Lots of people in the music industry won’t accept that but you just go with the flow. Some of these kids that bring us over, they work hard and use their last penny to put on a show. That’s what people need to realise – it’s not about money, it’s to spread the message.
What is the true essence of Channel One? What does it all boil down to?
MD: No matter where we end up, it’s about going to as many countries as we can and breaking down barriers. We can stay in London and blow the place apart but the best shows are going to a new country and having people come to you saying ‘that was a good night’ – that’s a challenge. When you go somewhere like Israel, where people say it’s not possible to play Reggae and the crowd are going crazy at 5am – you’re changing their mind-set. When you go and do well in these places, you’re not doing well because of that one session, it’s because you’re changing people’s minds of how to approach their life. You can come in to a dance with crap in your mind and come out with a clean mind, thinking ‘whatever problems I had yesterday, I’m going to deal with tomorrow’. That is what it’s all about.
Channel One Sound System will play Global Rhythms at Oval Space, August 1. Buy tickets here.
Images: Nick Caro
Words: Hugo Laing