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How did Jamaican sound systems influence the birth of hip-hop?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

It is known to some that Jamaican sound system culture has inspired many styles and genres of music that exist today. Contemporary dance music adopted many techniques that were pioneered by Caribbean musicians and performers. However, not as widely discussed, is the influence this culture played on the hip-hop scene that grew out of New York in the 1970s.

Dj Kool Herc is a prominent figure within the hip-hop community, being cited by many as the founder of hip-hop. Herc was born in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, during a time of heavy political division and violence. It was during these years that Jamaican sound systems and dance halls proliferated across Kingston.

These sound system events were hugely popular and often took place on street corners in Kingston’s working-class areas. The class division was rampant at the time and people from places like Trench-town were typically denied entrance to more up-town establishments. Meaning, they would frequent local dance halls instead.

Herc, who was too young to attend dance halls at the time, would often sneak into the back of the parties to experience these exciting events. Massive arrays of speakers with a crew of ‘sound boys’ would dictate the crowd in terms of energy and cheer. Copious amounts of alcohol and ‘ganja’ were consumed, fuelling the corporeal and aural nature of these events. Typically, these ‘sound boys’ would appear as a collective or an ensemble of different ‘toasters’ and sound technicians who would often compete for the microphone. 

The vocalists, officially called ‘deejays’, would command the punters, deciding when the song is played, rewound, and or restarted. Whilst also filling the air with a flurry of stylistic vocals. The ‘selector’ would choose which records to play but under the tight command of the ‘deejays’. Herc learned a lot from merely observing these events. Noticeably, he was inspired by their use of pre-recorded music and live ‘toasting’. 

In 1967 Herc moved to New York with his family, as did many others from the neighbouring islands. Mass emigration from the Caribbean began in the 1940s, with ‘The Windrush generation’ to Britain and later continuing to America. Herc and his family moved to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where he became obsessed with soul and funk music. Herc’s father owned a small sound system of his own, which he would lend to a local band. Herc would also use this system to throw house parties which eventually became bigger block parties.

Herc made some adjustments to his father’s PA system. In essence, he boosted the audio capabilities of it, rewiring the system to hook up microphones. These changes rendered Herc’s set-up more akin to the sound systems of Kingston he grew up with. The microphones were fed through an echo effect, which created a layer of surrealism, stuttering and shattering the vocals. The alterations to his system enabled Herc to bring something unique from the Jamaican scene. One of his own sound-men, Coke La Rock, was in charge of hyping the crowd which he did through the mic, commanding and dictating…just like the original ‘sound boys’ of Kingston.

Despite his Jamaican roots, Herc was focused on playing more American music but this did not stop him from dipping into his collection of reggae and dub. He would intermittently introduce a dub or reggae track but he noticed greater energy from the crowd when he looped the break section in more upbeat soul and funk music. This focus on the break section is what made hip-hop…well, hip-hop. 

Herc did this by using two turntables that were both playing different copies of the same record. He would switch between the two to continue the break section, creating a hypnotic extended version of what you would usually hear on the record. This was perfect for ‘B-boys’ and ‘B-girls’ to dance to.

This method of focusing on isolated elements of music was, to many, a completely new idea. However, Jamaican producers and sound systems had already been using this technique. This was an early form of sampling, which hip-hop is fundamentally built upon. By mid-1970 Herc had adopted this break-beat technique into his performances at parties and clubs across New York. 

Unbeknownst to Herc, he had just inadvertently created a new genre of music, one of which would take the world by storm and disseminate into a rhizomatic series of musical styles and sub-genres. The culture, style, and aesthetic, of the Jamaican sound systems gave rise, though not exclusively, to the creation of Herc’s hip-hop scene in New York. As Herc said, “Them said nothing good ever come outta Trench-town … well hip hop came out of Trench-town!”

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