Champion sound! When Huddersfield ruled the British reggae scene

Stephen Burke
Stephen Burke, founder of the Huddersfield sound system Earth Rocker, with his system. Photograph: Stephen Burke/One Love Books

It came late to my attention but as they say, better late than never. The full history of reggae is fascinating and somewhat unknown to many.  David Simpson (2014) reminded us that in 1970s and 80s, “big cities such as London and Birmingham [were forgettable and that]…this West Yorkshire town was the unlikely capital of UK sound system culture.” He further shared the following gems of information:

Reggae fans didn’t need to go to Jamaica to hear the best music in the 1970s and 1980s. They didn’t even have to live in big cities such as London or Birmingham. In Huddersfield, West Yorkshire – the hometown of Harold Wilson – it was once possible to see international stars performing live at the West Indian Club on Venn Street, or skank the night away to one of 30 or so sound systems from the town.

“Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Sugar Minott, Desmond Dekker … everybody played at Venn Street,” remembers Claston Brooks, aka Danman, who ended up getting a job at the West Indian Club so he could see the gigs for free. “The artists might do one other show in Birmingham or London, but more often than not they would come from Jamaica direct to Huddersfield. They’d stay at the George Hotel, which is still there, play their show and boom, back to Jamaica. Sound systems would come over from Kingston to play Venn Street. That’s how big it was.”

The influence of sound systems on British music, from trip-hop to dubstep, is well documented. However, Huddersfield’s role in this culture has been largely overlooked. Now, a new book is paying overdue tribute to the town’s achievements. Part of a heritage project put together by historian Mandeep Samra, Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems, compiled by Al Fingers, is filled with beautiful archive photography and includes a detailed written history of the scene.

“Artists would come to Huddersfield because people were friendlier and more broad-minded than in many areas of Britain in the 1970s,” explains Paul Huxtable, builder and operator of the Axis sound system, who wrote the main text of the book. “People would say to [reggae superstar] Dennis Brown: ‘We’re having a christening tomorrow. Why don’t you come along?’ I heard of people putting stars up at their houses. You didn’t get that in the cities. Every town with a large black community had a sound system scene, but Huddersfield’s was vastly out of proportion to the size of the place.”

Reggae sound systems are mobile discos on which selectors (DJs) play popular records on huge speakers, with vocal accompaniment known as “toasting” provided by deejays (MCs). They originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and were brought to Huddersfield in the 1960s, when the first wave of Caribbean immigrants arrived to work in the town’s textile mills.

The first sound systems in Huddersfield were simple affairs, playing rocksteady records at all-night “blues parties” held in people’s houses. Then a younger generation began using a similar template to play heavier dub and reggae tunes.

 Heritage HiFi speaker boxes, custom-built by Paul Huxtable. Photograph: Elliot Baxter


As the first black boy to be born in the town’s Princess Royal hospital, Stephen “Papa Burky” Burke of the Earth Rocker sound system found himself at the vanguard of this changing culture. “I built my first boxes [speaker cabinets] out of cardboard when I was 16,” he says. “It sounded brilliant in my bedroom, but when I took it into a bigger hall the amplifier started smoking. I realised there was a bit more to it …”

The sound systems that evolved were complex feats of engineering. Because commercially available speakers were prohibitively expensive and could not provide the bass needed to fill a large venue, kids such as Burke learned joinery in order to build their own. Then came the electronics. Earth Rocker’s electrical work was carried out by local man Pete “Woody” Wood, who went on to work with Ultravox and a number of other 1980s bands.

However, other sound systems were less professional. Brooks is full of tales of system builders stealing wood from timber yards or loudspeakers from garage forecourts. He even claims to have forgone wearing underpants and socks to save the cash for electrical cables. “To get big you need to build,” he says. “Once you’re big enough, you don’t need to do dem things.”

The rush to keep ahead of rival sounds systems often meant driving in the dead of night to Nottingham, where the latest Jamaican reggae imports or pre-releases were exchanged at clandestine meetings held in car parks. Once they were safely back home, the sound system operators would scribble over the record labels with marker pens so their competitors would not be able to see what they were playing.

“It was all about having the freshest records and the biggest sound,” says Huxtable. “So they’d have echo chambers, syn-drums, wardrobe-sized cabinetswith 18in drivers. Everything was geared to getting the maximum power from the amplifiers. Reggae sound systems always run in the red, so things have to be highly engineered so you don’t burn things out.”

Although every system sounded different, a common link could be found in shape of the Matamp. Hans Alfred “Mat” Mathias was a Holocaust refugee who started an electronics shop on King Street. Eventually, he found himself hand-building amplifiers for the local sounds, who preferred valve systems to transistors because of the warmer bass they produce. Pictured in the book, wearing a crisp white shirt and tie, Mathias looks more lab technician than reggae man, but his company became internationally renowned.

“Mat was a German Jewish man making amplifiers for West Indians in Yorkshire,” says Ian Smith, whose band the Inner Mind recorded in a tiny studio that Mathias operated near his shop. “You couldn’t make it up. He sold chocolate, cigarettes and amplifiers.”

A white man, whose reggae band were happily accepted in Caribbean clubs, Smith typifies the era’s cheery openness. Although racism did exist in Huddersfield, anyone – black, white or Asian – was welcome in clubs such as Venn Street and Arawak. The reggae clubs even accepted punk bands: Burke remembers curiously venturing in to see Adam and the Ants at Venn Street.

Earth Rocker
 Members of the Earth Rocker sound system, with their speakers. Photograph: Stephen Burke/One Love Books


As the scene expanded, shops including Steve’s Records and Music City sprung up. Local band Jab Jab provided backing for Dave & Ansell Collins on Top of the Pops in 1971, when the Jamaican duo reached No 1 with the classic Double Barrel. When another Huddersfield group, the Groovers, recorded a cover version of Bob Marley’s Bend Down Low during a trip to London, the man himself paid them a visit in the studio.

But, for many young black men, sound system culture provided something deeper than entertainment or the chance of financial success. It offered empowerment, education and a voice.

“With a sound system and a microphone, you can become a history teacher,” says Armagideon‘s Donovan Brown aka D.Bo General. “You can tell people things that aren’t on the television. It’s about identifying yourself and waking people up to what they can achieve.”

Today, there is little left of this vibrant scene. Venn Street was demolished in 1992 to make way for a car park, and more sound systems faded away with the closure of other key venues.

However, Huxtable has recently shipped a custom-built valve system from his Huddersfield workshop to Jamaica. Meanwhile, some of the scene’s originators are stringing up their speakers once again.

“When Gregory Isaacs played in Venn Street supported by a sound system, so many girls fainted that they had to call ambulances,” says Brooks, who now performs as an MC for the Leeds-based Iration Steppas. “When that club closed, it was like part of Huddersfield had died. If I had a piece of land, I’d build it up again.”

Read more here from the article by writer David Simpson on 31st July 2014 in the Guardian.


Ring the Alarm: A History of Sound System Culture

I’ve taken the title of this long overdue post from a radio documentary by none other than David Katz (with Saxon Baird). Katz is the acclaimed author of seminal works such as People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, as well as music journalist, photographer, A&R consultant, disc jockey and reggae historian. If you haven’t yet heard this radio documentary check it out now for a fullsome discussion which gives life through the many voices heard to written pieces such as ‘A History of the Sound Clash’ by Erin MacLeod and Joshua Chamberlain.

Take a listen. I had a thing or two to say.

Ring the Alarm: A History of Sound System Culture

Global Reggae Conference – Call



FEBRUARY 9 – 11, 2017


 Call for Papers

The Institute of Caribbean Studies and the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus announce the fifth bi-ennial Global Reggae Conference  under the theme “Dancehall, Music and the City”. This conference is being staged at a time when we celebrate Bob Marley’s birth and the very foundation, the space – dancehall – through which the world has consumed seven distinct musical genres in mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, nyabinghi, dub and dancehall. This conference also comes at a time when Kingston celebrates its designation as a creative city for music by UNESCO in December 2015. 

The conference intends to open discussions about contemporary considerations for Jamaican music spaces, genres, cross-fertilization, production and economy using Kingston as a backdrop for discussing the foundational space of the dancehall as a main theme.  

The conference will also honour the work of Professor Carolyn Cooper, CD, founder of the Global Reggae Conference, Bob Marley Lecture Series and the Reggae Studies Unit. Her contributions to the field of cultural studies have paved the way for researchers and practitioners, often bridging the gap in research and practice for Jamaican popular music genres, reggae, and especially dancehall. 

Slated for Reggae Month 2017, the conference will provide a platform for timely updates on discussions, research and development in reggae and dancehall locally, regionally and internationally. GRC2017 offers academics, researchers, artistes, musicians, scholars, cultural practitioners, entrepreneurs and music lovers from around the world a warm and welcoming environment to share their research, experiences, perspectives and passion for Jamaican music. 


Conference themes include but are not limited to the following:

·         Researching the Dancehall: Lessons from Carolyn Cooper

·         Kingston: Creative Music City

·         Dancehall as Space and Place

·         Dancehall: From Then Till Now

·         Sound Systems, Sonic Innovations and Performance

·         Popular Jamaican Music and Economic Development

·         Creativity and Economy: Appropriation or Cross-Fertilization?

·         Dancehall, Social Media and Jamaica’s Influence

·         Dancehall, Sound Regulation and Entertainment Zoning

·         Dancehall Culture, Violence and Governance

·         Dancehall Music, Rites, Rituals and Celebratory Practices

·         Movement and Dance in Dancehall

·         Dancehall: The People’s Church?

·         Dancehall, Sexuality and the City

 Abstract Submission and Presentation Guidelines

Abstracts should not exceed 250 words for individual presentations. For pre-organised panels, include one abstract for each presenter. Each abstract should include the following information: name of author/authors; email address/es; name of associated institution; and keywords of presentation.


We welcome innovative uses of technology and creative session formats as well as traditional paper presentations.




All participants will have to register by January 1, 2017 in order to have their papers included in the final programme.

Contact the Global Reggae Conference 2017 Secretariat with queries at:

Institute of Caribbean Studies 


Tel: 1 (876) 977 – 1951 |  970 – 6228

Just How Well Is Streaming Really Doing?

As we settle into the Digital Information Age where music consumption and revenue streams have been significantly transformed, I continue to pay attention to the phenomenon of streaming. Here’s an interesting update on just how well streaming is doing. The question is – who is making the money and, where are markets such as the Caribbean in that mix.

Music Industry Blog

All of the three major record labels announced strong streaming music revenue growth in the 2nd quarter of 2016. On the surface it is a clear cut success story, but as is so often the case with music industry statistics, all is not quite how it seems.

The Global Streaming Market

First of all, let’s look at the global picture. According to the IFPI’s Recording Industry in Numbers (RIN) 2016 edition record label streaming revenue grew by 45% in 2015 reaching $2.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2014. But even that number requires a little due diligence. The IFPI restates its historical numbers every year to reflect the current year’s exchange rates, which can, and does, overstate things. Indeed, a quick look at the 2015 edition of RIN shows that streaming revenue was reported as $2.2 billion for 2014. So on a non-adjusted basis (i.e. without restating the…

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Is YouTube Building A New Music Industry?

I have long been saying that the internet is the world and Google is its Prime Minister. It seems there is little else one needs than a Google account for social media, knowledge production, word processing, music consumption and distribution, video streaming and the art of ‘copywronging’. A major part of the equation is YouTube which has certainly had a major chunk of the streaming market. Youth all over the world now consume and distribute music via this medium creating very dynamic ways of interacting both with music and its producers. More generally, YouTube has been “portrayed as pretty much everything that is wrong with the digital music market. While there is no doubt that YouTube’s revenue-to-audience ratio is below that of audio streaming peers, it is also clear that YouTube is the music app of choice for more consumers than any other service (and it’s growing faster too). YouTube is both a crucially important part of the digital music market and a disruptive partner.”

And there’s more….

Music Industry Blog

Complexity and opacity continue to act as brakes on the digital music market. For all the progress of companies like PledgeMusic and Kobalt, this emerging ‘alternative’ music industry is still very much at a formative stage. Some years from now this generation of companies could underpin the emergence of a counter-industry, an interconnected mesh of disruptive rights and tech companies that give artists and songwriters different routes to market and greater transparency and accountability. Heck, it might even have Blockchain underpinning it. But before this counter-industry movement gets to scale, it could have the wind stolen out of its sails by none other than YouTube.

The YouTube Paradox

Although YouTube has never had the closest of relationships with the music industry, it has clearly found the last few months particularly challenging, portrayed as pretty much everything that is wrong with the digital music market. While there is no doubt that…

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