Carrying the Torch: Channel One Sound System

Ahead of his visit to Edinburgh's Wee Dub Festival, we speak to Channel One Sound System's Mikey Dread. He shares his thoughts on the resilience of roots reggae, the sound system scene and fighting for his corner at last year's Notting Hill Carnival

Feature by Ronan Martin | 02 Mar 2015

Whenever a genuinely innovative form of music emanates from a particular subculture or national scene, there will always be some degree of appropriation by the wider culture. A filtering of specific musical elements occurs and these then branch off in seemingly infinite directions, sometimes leaving barely any trace of the central foundations from which they emerged. This is certainly true of the impact of Jamaican reggae music in post-war Britain, from the decades following the peak in immigration from the Caribbean island in the 1950s.

At first these new communities were fairly insulated, their shared culture and musical roots serving to hold them together amid new surroundings. But, as they became more integrated into British society, their positive influence on the UK music scene became abundantly clear - acts like The Clash and The Police as well as the likes of Madness and Culture Club began to release music heavily indebted to reggae, in one way or another.

Further on down the road, much of the contemporary electronic music produced in the UK is dominated by a bass-driven sound that owes a great deal to reggae sound system culture – styles like rave, jungle, drum n bass, UK garage and dubstep have all reflected these roots to varying degrees over the years. There is, of course, good reason to welcome the proliferation of elements of reggae into other forms – music will always be somewhat derivative after all. Yet, thankfully, there are also those who remain unfazed by what they see as passing trends and who instead tirelessly champion the roots music which emerged from Jamaica, alongside the Rastafarian traditions that serve as reggae’s unifying creed.

Founded by selector Mikey Dread and his brother Trevor, Channel One Sound System have operated with clear devotion to their roots for over 35 years – a true testament to the enduring power of Jamaican music. “I think there’s a lasting vibe”, Mikey agrees, when asked about the resilience of roots reggae and its influence across the globe. “No matter how you try – with all these other forms of music coming along – you still can’t push reggae music down.”

This buoyancy was evident in 2010 when Channel One was invited to contest the Red Bull Sound Clash in London. Pitted against contemporary bass music figures such as Skream, Benga and Goldie’s Metalheadz, Mikey and long-serving MC partner Ras Kayleb’s dedication to classic dub reggae sounds shone through and their victory confirmed for them the potency of their rich musical heritage in the face of a challenge from newer forms.

“They invented dubstep to try and take over reggae music”, Dread states with firm conviction. “That’s how I see it. They tried to take over reggae music and basically kill reggae music with this dubstep thing and they couldn’t do it.

“The more they tried to push dubstep, the more reggae music fought back and killed them, until it is no more. So, which is the true form of music? It’s reggae music and you can’t beat that. Dubstep never had a foundation – never did and never will. Reggae music, our type of music, will always have a foundation; a base line to grow from. That is why reggae music will be here for the longest time, even after I’ve gone.”

Whenever that time comes - when Mikey and Channel One depart from the landscape - the British reggae scene will certainly have lost a passionate and seasoned proponent. Dread has devoted his life to spreading the sound system culture which he and so many grew up with in London. “It was the family trade, really”, he explains. “Just like anything else, it gets passed down. Dad had it and my big brother had it, so it got passed down to me. You just carry on what your old man started many, many moons ago. This music has always been around – since I started walking.”

From those early days, characterised by familial customs and sound system parties in the neighbourhood, Mikey has stayed true not only to the musical spirit of his forebears but also to the traditions which define sound system culture – including a strict DIY approach to setup. Nowadays, he says, people are happy to go and pick things up from shelves in a shop, whereas Channel One continues to modify and maintain their own system. “The whole idea is to build things with your hands; it’s like a trade. Like anything else, every week you’re learning something new.

“I’ve been doing it now for 40 odd years but it’s not like I know everything. There’s always something new to learn. It’s like building a house. You never stop; you’re always doing bits and pieces to the equipment but the main thing is getting it over to the people and keeping in contact with the people. You can’t get too big-headed about things. You could have the biggest sound system in the world but if the people don’t come to your dance, then it’s no good.”

Channel One’s ability to bring people to their dance – and keep them dancing – is a trait which has been honed over decades and is thanks, in no small part, to Mikey’s experiences travelling to Jamaica in the 80s. He used to go there to cut dubplates at the famous Channel One studio on Maxfield Avenue, later naming his own venture in its honour. “There were a lot of sound systems from that time going backwards and forwards to Jamaica and we were no different. That’s how you do your homework. Different cultures and different countries came and started playing sound systems from that time and it progressed into what it is now.”

Alongside Mikey, Ras Kayleb has been a part of the sound for 20 years as of 2015, and his commanding vocal presence is as intrinsic a factor as anything else. “A sound system will always need a mic man”, says Mikey. “That is a key element of sound system culture. You always need a mic man to either introduce the music, or MC to the music or tell the people what the music is.”

The chemistry between Mikey and Kayleb works with a similar dynamic to that which defined the early days of hip hop, when DJs and MCs worked in tandem to move the crowd, before rappers came to dominate and the DJ was pushed into the background. The notion of sharing musical knowledge and exposing artists to a wider audience is also a refreshing stance in an age when DJ culture is so often characterised by the use of ‘secret weapons’ or snobbishness around keeping things ‘underground’.That desire to spread the music is a key element of reggae culture, says Dread. “A lot of people will go to a reggae dance and they don’t know what is being played. But if you have an MC there, he will tell you this is from a certain artist – Dennis Brown or Gregory Issacs or whoever. That lets you know the voice. So, if it’s an artist that you don’t really know, then people will recognise it again somewhere along the line.”

Another parallel with early hip hop music is the desire to maintain a message which is ultimately positive in tone. As was the case with the emergence of gangster rap and its offshoots in the US, many of the modern forms which borrow heavily from reggae have not always echoed the lyrical themes of peace and unity present in earlier work. Whether through aggressive homophobia, crass misogyny or a generally violent attitude, some of these new scenes depart radically from reggae and its central messages. “We’re keeping the music fresh and keeping it clean”, says Mikey. “We’re not into the dancehall or things like that, which is about your woman, or your this or your that.

“We’re a Rasta sound system and we keep our lyrics clean as much as we can. That’s the whole idea and that just spreads to other cultures. When they see what you’re doing – and that you don’t have to be swearing on the microphone or whatever – then more people want to get into our genre of music.”

This commitment to promoting positive vibes and bringing people together has perhaps been most evident in Channel One’s involvement with London’s Notting Hill Carnival for the past three decades – a tradition which was threatened last year when Westminster Council tried to have them moved away from the corner they have worked hard to make their own. Luckily, with the help of an online petition which garnered thousands of signatures, the council reversed their decision – much to Mikey’s relief. “The Channel One Sound System, as everybody says, is one of the cornerstones of Notting Hill because we’ve been there 32 years. Why stop something when nothing has gone wrong? We’ve been there, year in and year out, playing the same music. We were bringing people from all over the world into Notting Hill and bringing a good spirit to the corner.”

For Mikey, who has taken the sound system all around the world – “from Brazil to Australia, to India, New Zealand and Asia” – their corner at carnival provides a meeting place for likeminded international visitors to meet up and see how Channel One operate on their own patch. 

That special carnival atmosphere will likely be in full effect when Mikey and Ras Kayleb take to Edinburgh’s Wee Dub Festival this month. “For us, Channel One represent the very best of UK reggae”, says organiser Chris Knight. “They are royalty in the scene and have links to the original sounds that arrived in London in the post-war period. They have never deviated from their sole mission to bring their positive message and heavy music to the people.”

For the event, Channel One will take part in a friendly clash against another stalwart of the scene, Earl Gateshead and his Trojan Sound System. “It’s nice to come up to Scotland to do the Wee Dub Festival”, says Mikey. “We go back a long way with Trojan and Earl – we’re brethren. It’s not something where we are coming up there to beat down Trojan Soundsystem or Earl Gateshead. We don’t need to do that. He plays his style of music and we play ours. That’s the whole idea.”

“With Channel One Soundsystem, we’re not into any clash type business. It’s gone past all of that. We don’t need to do clashes. People want to come down to Channel One Sound System and hear good music. That’s what it’s all about.” 

Asked if he sees a long-term future in performing and touring the system around the world, Dread explains that he prefers to take things one year at a time. “Who knows? One day I might turn round and say ‘I’ve had enough; I think I’ve done my bit and I can hang up my boots.’ But not at the moment.

“I’ve still got my strength, my energy and I’ve still got my health. As long as the reggae music is there, we’ll keep going.”

Channel One Sound System appear as part of the Wee Dub Festival at The Caves, Edinburgh, Sun 8 March, £10 adv, £13 on the door