This is where it all began. About 5 years ago, a growing interest in dancehall urged me to seek out this particular sound system at the Notting Hill Carnival, and sandwiched between a throng of head nodding appreciates and a huge fuck off speaker stack, I found some kind of sonic nirvana. For those in the know, Carnival begins and ends on the corner of Westbourne Park Rd and Leamington Rd Villas.
Channel One Sound System is marshalled by brothers Jah T and Mikey Dread. It was the latter’s moniker that inspired me to seek it out in the first place; I thought I was off to see the Jamaican producer and ‘dread at the controls‘ most widely known for his work with the Clash, ripping it up for Carnival. In fact this Mikey Dread is of no relation to the aforementioned artist, which is just as well since he passed away a couple of years back. I suppose there’s nothing too surprising about this name belonging to two people at the forefront of the reggae scene, what is perhaps a little more cynical is that Channel One’s website and store is called ‘Roots and Culture’, the same name as Mikey Dread’s most famous and most blistering tune. One suspects they may be playing on the name association, but after hearing the tunes these boys belt out on a regular basis, you won’t be inclined to query them.
What blew me away then (other than the Rasta with a large block of weed going round handing out clumps to all and sundry) and does so on my return each year is the way those tunes sound over those speakers and the energy that is propelled over those bass bins. See, I’ve always been a reggae fan, but until the Channel One Sound System I never really saw it as dance music, it was music to chill and spliff to. Standing in that crowd, arms aloft, rocking along to Johnny Clarke and Eek a Mouse, I was taken back to my raving days and it felt more like being at a warehouse party than Carnival. What many people don’t realise of course is that so much Jamaican music was written for the sound system and without it you’re missing half the record (like when people listen to dubstep on their laptops). Not many people hate reggae (and those that do normally have a crucial part of their brain missing) but a lot of people simply find it pleasant without being passionate about it and that’s largely to do with the way it’s often heard. Take Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Raving Tonight’, which I always though of as a particularly pleasant tune, but to me it was always a sweet, soft song, almost a ballad, until I heard it on a sound system and the whole thing transformed in front of my ears. Suddenly it’s a Sound System banger, with that deep transcendent bass pushing the whole thing right out into the middle of the dance floor. In that context Gregory Isaacs as the dancehall superstar as well as the lover’s rock crooner makes perfect sense and so many of those late 70’s/early 80’s classics like ‘My Only Lover’ and ‘Warriors’ were written for the dance.
Of course though it’s not Gregory Isaacs that sets Channel One apart from other sound systems. The quality of their sonic set-up is unsurpassed. Everybody love a bit of Aba Shanti, but you can, dare I say it, have too much bass. When you actually feel your own innards rattling, it might be time to move on. Channel One have the balance just right with the tweeters offsetting the bass perfectly. Mikey Dread the selector has an uncanny knack of sensing exactly the mood and excitement levels of the crowd, just slightly ratcheting it up with every record. This dance never peaks too early and like a man with his fingers deftly wrapped around the crowd’s emotional volume control, he brings the whole thing to an unbelievable crescendo just as the 7pm curfew kicks in.
Sitting here on a dreary new year’s day with shaky hands and a fuddled brain, Carnival seems a long way away, but if you can even get your head round the concept of an August bank holiday and walking around in short sleeves, then make a mental note to check these boys out next summer. They do gigs throughout the year, but the venues never quite capture the magic of their Carnival daytime session. One not to be missed. I leave you with the aforementioned Gregory classic, but please, make sure you got a decent set of speakers to play it on 😉