Over the past six decades, we’ve seen reggae go through many fluctuations and incarnations; ska, dub, lovers rock, rocksteady, roots, dancehall and bashment have all at one time or other been the dominant sound, and many have been instrumental in influencing everything from hip-hop to jungle, garage, grime and even pop.
As we build up to the ultimate sound system celebration, Notting Hill Carnival on August 25, we talk to three leading figures in reggae about the evolution of the genre.
In the first part, 82-year-old Vincent ‘Vin King’ Edwards – co-founder, along with his brother George, of Jamaica’s legendary King Edwards sound system - tells us what it was like being there from the very beginning.
VINCENT ‘VIN KING’ EDWARDS: ’50s and ’60s
In about 1959, the three big sounds were Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and King Edwards, which I ran with my brother. I entered the sound system in 1954/1955 and the first night was what we call a flop. When my sound came on, it was a little ‘fi-fi’, no good. So I had to go and rebuild.
The popular artists at that time were Fats Domino and these rock ’n’ roll artists from America. I’m a patriotic Jamaican, but the reality is that we listened to them the whole time – we emulated them. So I looked at it like, in those days, the man who has the best tune is the man who commands the crowd.
So I realised that the best thing to do was to bring something new that Coxsone and Duke Reid wouldn’t have. To do that, I had to go to America to get the music directly. My sister was living in Philadelphia so I used that as a base, my brother was here running the sound system, and I travelled by Greyhound bus, mostly in the southern states. I would go, see the musicians and get the records. Then I started to have better records than both Duke Reid and Coxsone.
Duke came to me one night and I flopped him. When you flop Duke, really, it’s trouble. He sent someone to call on me the next morning. So I went down to him and I found him a reasonable fella. He said ‘Where you get these tunes?’ So we went to America, me and Duke. We went from Montego Bay to New Orleans then Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Los Angeles and that’s where we found the tunes.
We went to Pico Boulevard and they had all the old records. Duke was bigger than me so I could jump over the boxes faster and pick up a tune. I found this song, Sweepstake, that Coxsone had had for over two years. Now I could come home because I had the tune!
After we came home, we arranged a dance. It was exciting. At that time there was a guy called Prince Buster, he talked too much! He would come to King Edwards and say ‘Country boy, can’t find this, can’t find that. Coxsone is the greatest’. I’m a politician so I know when to keep things cool. So when we went up to Jubilee [where the dance was being held], the place was blocked! I couldn’t believe it; thousands of people.
Duke and myself were there and Coxsone came to see. I played tune after tune. The place got mad. As big as Duke was, they lifted him up. Coxsone was humiliated because we mashed him up.
The sound system was split, there was Coxsone and there was Duke and there was Edwards. So me and Duke joined up and that went on until that system became exhausted.
I got a band in America to play Jamaican music but they couldn’t play it because we jam and they had to have the written music. They didn’t know how to play, so this tune didn’t really take to the market.
I said, “We have to play it local, but we have to change from the piano”. The piano is a big heavy thing, very few could play it. So ska came from replacing piano, which wasn’t mobile; you couldn’t drive up and play it. So we shifted it to ska, we started to make records with that ska riddim.
Ska didn’t just come; it came because of the American tune. The history is there. I bet anybody to debate me with that. It came because we couldn’t get the American tune we wanted to play. That’s how you had ska, and after that came Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the story changed again. But that’s the history from the beginning.