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Sound of the streets: How sound systems shaped Notting Hill Carnival

As Notting Hill Carnival, a true London institution, prepares to return, Rolling Stone UK meets the people who shaped its inimitable sound.

By Jess Cole

Three men enjoy the Sound System of Notting Hill Carnival in 1983 (Photo by Peter Anderson/PYMCA/Avalon/Getty Images)

Try to imagine a world without sound systems. How quiet and still it would be. Developed in Kingston, Jamaica during the late 1940s, these custom made, oversized, yet surprisingly mobile speaker sets filled in the absence of dancehalls and concert spaces in working class areas. Playing records loudly, openly and en masse, sound systems created a common ground for community engagement and social empowerment, whilst marking out a new territory for how music could be mediated; forever changing how the world listens and dances. 

Fifty years ago, the introduction of static sound systems radically altered the shape of Notting Hill Carnival. In 1973, Leslie Palmer wanted to make it bigger. Palmer felt like carnival was dying out, and after answering a Timeout ad for those interested in carnival to attend a meeting, he arrived to find he was only one of five to turn up. In 2019 he recalled, “Carnival couldn’t be one band’. There were no stalls, no costumes. I thought, “this cyah work”. Going out to blues nights, Palmer came into contact with the flourishing Jamaican sound system scene. “I said let’s bring in the Jamaicans and they were very keen”. It was through this that Palmer bridged the gap between the festival’s Caribbean heritage and the first generation of British born caribbeans, disinterested by carnival, but who flocked around sound systems. By actively engaging the youth, Palmer seeded carnival within the politics of the here and now of black Britishness; ensuring a space for the musical innovations that have swelled carnivals numbers from a few thousand, to the millions of people who now attend Europe’s largest street party every year.

“Sound systems are the poor people’s governor,” says Marilyn Dennis. “It’s roots are in reggae, so there is always a message behind the music, it speaks to you and says lets address some of the social problems that are going on.” 

Dennis, whose stage name is Lady Banton, co-founded Mellotone sound system which was the first ever all female sound system to play at Notting Hill Carnival in 1994. Dennis’s mantra has always been to “promote women in dancehall” and in 2016 she set up Seduction City Sound which last year hosted the youngest ever female DJ to play at carnival. As a DJ and selector, Dennis’s ongoing ambition is to bring authentic, “clean” Dancehall to her audiences. 

Birthed amongst the political violence of 1980s Jamaica, Dancehall was a raw expression of extreme social strife but has at times been mired with intense homophobia. Yet, its combination of syncopated and bass driven beats laced with punchy lyrics have become a mainstream phenomena. For Dennis, offensive lyrics distract away from sonically exploring the tough realities of life  and ultimately exclude people from the joy and love imbued within the soundsystem experience. “The core of sound systems is to keep people entertained, and keep them company,” Dennis says. “There’s a spiritual element, it becomes your space to create whatever you want”. 

Prior to the internet, Sound systems were the public music square. Sound clashes for example, involved direct audience engagement, whereby opposing sound systems would battle it out for the audience’s favour. Whilst custom recorded singles known as dubplates provided exclusive sounds and the conception of remixing revolutionised the potentials of musical production. It is this combination of direct audience participation and the relentless desire to showcase the newest music that has made sound systems the fertile ground for musical innovation that continues to shape and influence music today. There would be no hip-hop, techno, house, garage, drill, dubstep, jungle and electronic music without its genealogy.

“Sound Systems are a fine art in their setup,”says Lil C, the D.J and radio host of NTS’s Dancehall infused show Pum-Pum Power Hour. “ Music isn’t a tangible thing, but the loud and beating bass of sound speakers, vibrating and rattling through the chest, connects with people in such a physical way. A sound system in any community has always been something that people are going to gravitate to”. It’s this tactility that has enabled sound systems to thrive and adapt, despite the huge financial commitments, nightlife clamp downs and rapid changes in audio technology. They are a way of claiming space, of staging a public occupation in an increasingly privatised scape. The speaker stacks – cubed deities of sound – inhibit the body with its long, deep vibrations. The air shimmers with the overwhelming bass volume, amplifying a sublime experience in the most instant and visceral sense. It’s both so innately primal in the gathering of bodies and yet so utterly futuristic with its infinite potentials of sound. A sonic locus that reverberates out the past, present and future. 

Lisa Maffia, the garage icon of So Solid Crew, likens it to an organic experience. “There is nothing manufactured about sound systems,”Lisa says. “The sound is always a little crackly, it’s a very in the moment sense of discovery.” It’s this aliveness that Maffia credits for rounding out her MCing skills during the late 90s. “You had to really fight to get on the stage and spit your bars as an MC, and as I was the only girl amongst all these guys, it really pushed me to put myself out there.”

Like most aspects of the music industry, women are disproportionately underrepresented. There are a myriad of reasons as to why this is from simply a lack of opportunities for women to more practical issues: lifting the speaker boxes is heavy work, the expense of running a system, which although a barrier to both genders, falls more heavily on women in the gender pay gap and then the additional time pressures for women who are usually primary caregivers. “Sound Systems are an exciting place to be”, says Linett Kamala, “ it’s always been about growth and innovation, but it’s failing to ask the big questions, how are we presenting music, how are we future facing?” In 1985, Kamala became the first female to DJ at Notting Hill Carnival for Disya Jeneration Sound System and in 2016 she set up Lin Kam Art Sound System Futures Programme as a way of actively answering these questions. Kamala’s programme aims to develop the next generation of soundsystem people through in-school visits and mentorships.

As one of the current mentees on the programme, D.J Chlxxe made her soundsystem debut at carnival last year. “ I was so nervous”, Chlxxe remarks, “ thousands of people were there and then I looked up and just saw the whole crowd moving to my music, and to this day, I rewatch the videos and I’m like wow I did that”. Chlxxe praises the programme for giving her the confidence to ultimately show up in spaces that have lacked representation. “Last year we shared the stage with (queer music collective) Pxssy Palace”, Chlxxe remarks, “And it was brilliant, but it highlighted how there isn’t a queer sound system at carnival, and it’s like why not, everyone can and should have a placement during the festivities”. 

This year is also the 75th anniversary of the windrush generation who founded the Caribbean carnival in the late 1950s. Lest we forget amongst the throbbing speakers, that carnival began as a community response to the race riots in Notting hill after the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959. 

“Carnival is a jewel in British heritage”, says Angela Essien who founded the only pentecostal soundsystem on the carnival line up. Arts-A-Light Sound vibrantly blends gospel with Afrobeats and Soca music, alongside live bands and competitions. She describes it as a seven hour concert, but also the struggles in funding such spectacles which are all free to attend. 

As the cost of living crisis rages and London’s art fund has been cut by £50 million, Essien is concerned about carnival’s future. “There needs to be more education about carnival, as they once did, many years ago”, Essien reasons, “carnival contributes millions of pounds to the UK economy, yet it doesn’t get the same investment back, they are going to end up killing the goose that lays the golden egg”.