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Sound system culture: Fighting for noise in a Sydney subdued

Originally published on Pulse.

“Well it can only get better, right? That’s what I’m clinging to.”

I’m speaking to Revolve Records’ Gonz who, along with fellow Sydney DJs Riksonic and Stevie Dub, form Inner West Reggae Disco Machine, one of the few sound systems in Sydney, where the environment for music culture is, at present, more than a little prickly.

Sound systems are a Jamaican cultural phenomenon taking root first in Kingston in the ‘50s and quickly spreading through Europe and especially the UK via its Caribbean communities. Starting out on the streets but generally infiltrating whatever venue, corner or disused space available - a ‘sound system’ is a loaded term in reggae culture. The bespoke rig of speakers, amplifiers and turntables, the team that builds it, travels it, erects it and selects the tunes, the mcs, the crowd that dances, and the resulting party - are all intrinsic parts of the sound system, the communal and DIY aspect a defining feature of this musical culture which has been at the root of reggae’s global spread from Jamaica - and influenced a host of related genres like hip hop, dubstep and jungle.

Almost fifteen thousand kilometres from Jamaica geographically and about ten times that distance culturally (or so it can seem), Gonz is deep in Sydney suburbia and fighting for the right - and the space - to make a bit of noise. Well, OK - a lot of noise. The Inner West Reggae Disco Machine at full force is a six bin rig (and they’re shooting for eight) which has been known to 'pull a Leftfield' and shake a layer or two of paint from Marrickville Bowling Club when running full throttle.

The rig itself is baltic birch wood, hand carved, unpainted and all in all a pretty classy affair; imperfect in all the right ways. “You can tell that the craftsmanship has got better and better if you line the bins up in chronological order. The first one's really crooked and chunky and then it gets better and better as we learned how to do woodwork from Steve. ‘Cause we were pretty crap at woodwork!” He says, laughing. Which is how Gonz says most things in fact. In case some of his colour is lost in written translation, imagine a broad Aussie accent, pepper all statements with chuckles (especially the negative ones) and add 'fuckin’ before almost everything (I’ve removed around twenty expletives to keep it PG-ish).

Gonzo’s reggae roots run deep, he and fellow sound member Rick bonding as young teenagers obsessed with reggae and record collection. Experiencing an unforgettable David Rodigan clash (the infamous sound system battles) in the Kilimanjaro hills of Jamaica fuelled the fire, but it wasn’t until a critical trip to Melbourne some time later that Gonz was inspired to get his own system together. “Before I came back to Sydney to work in Revolve Records, I was living in Melbourne. I was an ex crystal meth addict; you wouldn't have recognised me, I looked like a fuckin’ olive on a swizz stick, I was all cracked out! But I went down to Melbourne and I met Derek there (of Melbourne sound, Heartical HiFi). Derek had just finished building a sound system, I went to his dances and hung out with him and I got inspired. I wouldn't have even thought about making a sound system if I hadn't gone to Derek’s dances - that’s the truth hey.”

The core crew: Gonz, Rick and Steve. 

The full rig

It was less than five years ago that the sound system started to take shape, and it’s been tough going since the start finding the opportunity in Sydney to stretch its legs - the mountain of carpentry and electrics is rarely running an all six cylinders. “The finding of venues has been harder and harder. The gentrification and the lock out laws have pushed the very few cool nightclub owners out. We're actually stuck for places to play at the moment.” Though places like London are battling their own anti nightlife demons, sound system culture in the UK and many other parts of Europe is alive and kicking. So why in Sydney, is it such a “shit fight”, as Gonz describes it, to do their thing?

For starters, “people don’t get it”. With the Jamaican community almost non-existent in Sydney, music enthusiasts like Gonz are the only people to even be aware of the sound system scene. “Every Jamaican here sticks out like a sore thumb. With no Jamaican culture, people just don’t understand the concept.”

“Even the night clubs - they just don't get it. If you go in and say hey we're a crew, we've got a sound system they'll go (puts on derpy voice), ‘oh well we've got a sound system’ .They just do not get it. If it wasn't for Jimmy Sing from Good God [Small Club] that understood conceptually what sound system culture is it really would have been a hell of a lot harder than it already is. His was the only place giving us a platform to actually do anything.”

Even once they find a place that’s prepared to play host to their behemoth of a rig, it’s no assurance the rig will be welcomed back. Since their first ever party IWRDM has been chased with noise complaints and shut down by police wherever it goes, “because it’s Sydney and you’ve got to be in bed by midnight!”

“We did a sixties reggae night,” Gonz recalls. “Just this little tangent thing we do. And there was just a bunch of old men, right? We’re talking fifty year old men, drinking beer; there wasn't a chick in sight, just old men going ‘argharghargh sixties reggae areargargh’ [throaty gargling sound which I think signifies animated conversation between men of a certain age]. They spent so much money over the bar, but they were no trouble, and there wasn't even proper bass going on... and yet there's still some butt-munch a couple of doors down that had to complain about the noise so we weren't allowed to bring it back. That's just the kind of shit that you've gotta deal with, it's just bizarre.”

The streets aren’t exactly fair game to IWRDM either - the anonymous ‘butt-munch’ rears its proverbial head there too. “We did Marrickville Reggae Carnival - and this is from midday to 7 o clock, right? Like we're not taking the piss here... but again some butt-munch a kilometre away is complaining that they can hear some sort of bass and things are rattling a little bit. And this is what people complain about!”

Gonz in the mix. Yes, that's that's a headphone.

Crowd at an IWDRM sound 

 Though Gonz has the sense and temperament to continually find the humour in the situation, he, like so many Sydney-siders fighting to keep their creative industries alive, is actually pretty pissed off. The constant struggle IWRDM has in finding places to set up camp and blast out for a few hours is indicative of what the music industry at large is dealing with in Sydney; running out of space, running out of options and generally odd ones out in a city which values well-caféd, quiet suburbs over the loud crash of culture.

“It’s not like we’re asking for any favours. We're lugging that thing in, setting it up, and running a dance then taking it all out at the end of the night. It's a big operation and it's not very profitable - reggae owes us money!” But IWRDM’s self sufficiency still isn’t enough to preserve it from conflict - there will always be someone in the area who wants them silenced and, at the moment, the complainers seem to hold all the cards. “In Australia - particularly in New South Wales - they’ve just bowed down to sooky culture,” Gonz says, warming into a satisfying rant. “Ohhhh you're sooking! We must adjust everything around you cause you're having a sook! [For those playing outside of Australia, a sook is a wuss and whinger] And that's just the way it is here - just off the hook fuckin’ ridiculous sometimes, hey.”

So between lockout laws, noise complaints and property developers running amok, it’s pretty hard to throw a party in Sydney. Thank goodness then, for people like Gonz, Rick and Steve still fighting the good fight, and events like Red Bull Music Academy Weekender, where IWRDM and sounds from all over Australia will set up camp for a sound system carnival at Carriageworks this Sunday, one of a dozen music events over four days. “I'm stoked Red Bull's doing this, this is so cool. And it's the cultural injection that the city needs.”

Strength in numbers is clearly the only way forward at the moment, and to that end IWRDM uses almost all its gigs as an opportunity to bring Sydney’s reggae community together. “We’re trying to get as many reggae heads there at once,” he explains. “Because the reggae community is split: there’s the cheesy r’n’b dancehall style, the militant roots and culture and Rastaman music styles and the sixties boots and braces style. Even in Sydney’s small scene it’s split - there’s like two guys standing over there, three over there…” Gonz jokes. “The thing about our sound system is we're across the board. The sixties guys don't really like the digital stuff, but they still come because it's a part of Jamaican culture. There's a definite sense of an amalgamation in the reggae community with what we're doing.”

That amalgamation can go beyond reggae genres too. One of Gonzo’s favourite payoffs is seeing a young hip hop loving kid jump on the mic at a IWRDM sound and rhyme over reggae for the first time. “It takes them a little bit and then they’re just flowing over reggae - they kill it. The next thing you know they're like ‘give me some more rhythms - who’s that - what’s this track’ and suddenly they’re into reggae. And that gives me a buzz - that’s the connection”

You’ll find Gonz and The Inner West Reggae Disco Machine, along with Derek’s Heartical HiFi, sound systems from Adeleide and Perth and guest performer Gappy Ranks at The Great Antipodean Reggae Sound System Carnival this Sunday for the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender.