18 July 2011

Folk music for the dot com generation.


As the issue of commercial versus public interest is played out on the streets, in the clubs and in the galleries, the ideas of environmental sustainability, community and social justice have informed an emergent sector of the cultural spectrum. Naomi Klein in her book No Logo calls this the ‘new resistance’. An important element of this resistance is ‘DiY culture’, which encompasses a mix of sixties’ hippy idealism, nineties technology and ‘noughties’ media savvy. It also includes a smattering of new age spirituality which, though possibly ‘end of millenium’ in nature, is nevertheless an important constituent.

DiY culture stems, ironically, from the eighties’ Thatcherite ideal of the privatisation of politics, yet it has tempered these ideologies with a renewed appreciation of ‘community’. In England, DiY culture was born of a coalition of rave, squat and traveller movements. The indiscriminate use of the Criminal Justice Bill legislation by the Tory Government to defeat the emerging direct action environmental movement created an unholy alliance of the above three factions. There thus evolved distinct communities of youth who espoused radical direct action solutions and were passionate on single issues such as the environment and social justice.

The internet has been significant as a communication and community building tool, joining remote and seemingly powerless individuals and groups into more powerful organisations.

The formation of the Indymedia network in 1999, for example, played a vital part in the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in Seattle and has gone on to become a valuable media asset in building networks in 52 centres around the world. What has thus emerged from DiY culture, positioned as it is at the junction of politics, art and technology, is a fascinating potpourri of politics and pleasure, party and protest.


DiY art is centred around techno music which has become a universal currency in global youth culture. Techno music is delivered through sound systems, consisting of a loose network of artists and musicians who base themselves around the mobile PA. The PA forms the heart of the collective. The sound system is essential to the development of DiY culture. It provides the economic, social and cultural unit so vital to the political and cultural activities it inspires. Current sound systems share a heritage of lo-budget home-built innovative technologies, hybrid musical tastes and grassroots political community activism with their precedent operators in Britain and Jamaica.

The sound system has its roots in mid ‘50s Jamaica where entrepreneurial entertainers cobbled together large hi-fis on which to play their music at local dancehalls. Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Tom the Great Sebastian are the recognised grandfathers of the sound system, playing on the traditional single turntable with enormous wardrobe-sized home-made speakers. These Jamaicans were unique in adapting new technologies to their own requirements, cannibalising radios to make monster sound systems and shaping a type of electric folk music for a new generation.

Karl Irving, originally from Montego Bay in Jamaica, recalls how the early Kingston sound system operator, Trojan, disassembled radios to make speaker boxes and then installed these contraptions in an open air dancehall for all-night parties in the late fifties.

He took a speaker out of a radio—it was a Morphy radio—
and put it into a box and then he hung it in what we called a
booth—it was a dancehall made out of bamboo. We used to
listen to a station called WINZ which had Latin-American and
Cuban records playin’ all mixed up without the DJ talkin’ or
interrup’. We used to get some wicked music comin’ in playing
non-stop. And the people just buy a drink and dancin’ away.
Karl Henry, interview with author, Sound System documentary, Virus Media 1994
Like many of his countrymen, Irving emigrated to England and started his own sound system, Quaker City, in Birmingham in 1964. Quaker City played ska-beat (a mix of calypso and R&B) and later reggae at community halls and house parties in London, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds. In a nod to the greats in their home country, the emigrant West Indians named the sound systems they started in England after the best systems in Jamaica. Thus Coxsone in Battersea and King Tubby in Brixton were both London sounds sharing a name with their Jamaican progenitors. The sound system parties provided a means for the community to get together and linked emigrants in different British cities to each other and to their home. Entertainment styles within the new emigrant community existed outside of the mainstream and, as a result, often fell foul of the law. As Lynval Golding of the Coventry ska band, The Specials, explained:

You always got hassle in those days ‘cause British society,
they’d all go to the pub and when the pubs close at 12 o’clock
they’d go home to bed—That was their night out—and they
couldn’t understand why we would want to stay up all night
at the ‘blues’. So at that time the police would always come
around and try and close the whole thing down.

Lynval Golding, interview with author, Sound System documentary,
Virus Media 1994

A sound system would set up in a private house and, for a nominal admission, would play into the late hours. Many ‘blues’ parties were also called ‘rent parties’, planned for the end of the month in order to collect the rent money for the landlord. The same tradition of community fundraising existed in black areas in New York where this style of event was known as a ‘block party’.

‘Blues’ parties were almost exclusively black affairs and the dub music which typified them became progressively more bass-driven and moody. Dub reggae was politicised through its appropriation by second generation black British youth. Princess from Motivate sound system in Wolverhampton explained:

The sound system thing—it was a black thing. It gave them a
chance to express in their own form and in their own style,
what they felt about being alienated—reminded that they’re
not from this country—they look different, they dress different
and so what comes out on record and through the sound system
was different. The experience of the youth in the ‘70s was
different to the original sound guys from Jamaica.

DJ Princess, interview with author, Sound System documentary, Virus Media 1994.

The sound system scene flourished in traditional black areas such as St Paul’s in Bristol, Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton and Notting Hill in London, and in areas of Leeds and Manchester, but essentially remained out of the mainstream of British pop. The creation of British dub music provided a political and cultural outlet for black acts and occasionally threw up crossover acts such as West London’s Aswad and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse. The movement of sound systems for sound clashes and carnivals between these cities maintained lines of communication between communities.

Black Britain opened its doors to its white neighbours at the annual carnival events in Notting Hill in London and Handsworth in Birmingham. With its roots in Mardi Gras, carnival consisted of long processions of dancers behind, at first calypso bands, and later mobile sound systems mounted on the back of trucks. (This tradition of using a musical ‘happening’ as a focus for cultural and political statement sowed the seeds for future Reclaim the Streets parties, and DiY culture picked up on this use of the sound system party as a rallying point for its constituency of interest). The annual carnival events became vehicles for black expression but were managed in a heavyhanded manner by the English police.

The extraordinary police presence contributed to an outbreak of violence at Notting Hill in West London in 1976. Subsequent carnivals were characterised by the presence of huge numbers of police and the black sound systems remained in the underground.

In the early eighties, Broader musico-political groups, such as Rock against Racism, formed the background to the popular rise of groups such as Coventry’s Specials and North London’s Madness, who featured black and white musicians playing infectious ska music. These acts coated social comment with a sugary danceable musical style and achieved widespread success in the British charts. Britain’s inner city streets were rocked by widespread civil disturbance centred in the black areas of all the major cities. Attempting to make sense of this carnage was the anarchist band Crass who advocated a type of socialist anarchism.

In the underground scene, Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound System were difficult to define in the traditional pop sense, but were instantly recognisable as a sound system in the sense of being a dynamic roster of artists making music in a collective way. Sherwood’s use of anarchist networks to distribute his politicised dub music resulted in links that were to have a far-reaching impact on the audience.

The sound systems moved out of the black areas and into the mainstream British subculture with the advent of the ‘summer of love’ in 1988. Since 1986, sound systems like Soul to Soul had been running warehouse parties in London’s East End, squatting or hiring warehouses. These sound systems originally played soul, but then increasingly house and acidhouse to all-night ravers. As the acid house boom took off in

London, party organisers increasingly turned to the black sound system operators (who were accustomed to squaring up to police) to provide the sounds for their illegal parties. As Lynval Golding observed, ‘Having parties in warehouses and houses— that’s what we’d been doing for ages, except we called them blues’. In Coventry, for example, Chiba City Sound, a young white techno sound system had an intimate relationship with the West Indian Maccabee Sound System, availing of its equipment and expertise in staging parties in the Midlands.

With the ensuing media hysteria surrounding the use of LSD and ecstasy at warehouse parties, it became increasingly difficult for the parties to happen due to intense police activity. Mutoid Waste, for example were forced out of their King’s Cross London Bus Garage base. Parties moved out onto the London orbital and admission prices skyrocketed to as much as £120 per ticket as commercial players became involved in the organising of events.

Partygoers from the urban squat scene, for whom the warehouse parties had been a cheap and welcome alternative to the overpriced city nightclubs, began to look elsewhere for entertainment, while links developed between squatters and the politically inspired new age travellers who had been roaming Britain in converted buses and trucks since the late seventies. The new age travellers presented a readymade network of countryside festivals (and cheap, strong and reliable dance drugs) which were quickly taken up by squatters and ravers. The Tory Government in Britain were nervous about this novel alliance. Tonka in Brighton, DIY in Nottingham,

Bedlam, Circus Warp, LSDiesel and London’s Spiral Tribe were the most creative of the new style of sound system, incorporating the cooperative tradition of the black sytems but playing increasingly harder and faster styles of techno. Importantly, the parties were run for free, with a bucket being passed around to pay for diesel for the generators.

In May 1992, near a sleepy village on common land in the Malvern Hills about half way between London and Birmingham, with less than 24 hours notice and with almost zero publicity apart from word of mouth, more than 35,000 people came together to dance for 5 days in what is now regarded as something of a Woodstock for the Chemical Generation. The Castlemorton Free Festival prompted the Tory Government into action and the Spiral Tribe Sound System were taken to court and (unsuccessfully) charged with organising the festival.

The incident did, however, give the Tories cause to introduce the Criminal Justice Bill, which was remarkable in its banning of ‘music which is characterised by the emission of repetitive beats’—techno music. As a result of this legal clampdown, many of the traveller artists moved away from Britain to Europe, the US, Goa in India, Koh Phangan in Thailand and Australia’s East Coast.

The impending passing into law of the Criminal Justice Bill (1994) created partnerships between civil liberties, sound system, environmental and social justice organisations. Techno sound systems, such as Desert Storm from Glasgow and DIY, had inspired the creation of ‘festivals of resistance’ against the Criminal Justice Bill. Protest marches in London ceased to be simply silent marches with speeches at the end but took on a life of their own through a mixture of carnival, music and dance. One of my enduring memories is stopping the traffic under the shadow of Nelson’s Pillar in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1992 to wave through the Desert Storm sound system as they blasted out techno to a huge vibrating snake of dancing crusties who proceeded to jump into the ornamental fountains and dance naked in the heat of the afternoon sun. Antibomb protests of the fifties and eighties used ‘Protest and Survive’ as a slogan, but DiY culture is more likely to advocate ‘Protest and Party’.

Though outlawed in England, the techno sound system carnival idea spread through Europe like a virus and many of those artists who had left found a ready audience for their music abroad. Spiral Tribe, Bedlam and many other of the English sound systems took their cooperative techno ideas to Europe, particularly Eastern Europe where it was cheaper to live, and audiences took to the new musical ideas with gusto. The European ‘Teknival’ free parties, including the annual Hostimichi festival near Prague in the Czech Republic, spawned several French, German and Dutch sound systems which found enthusiastic audiences, particularly in the squat centres of Amsterdam and Berlin. In contrast to Britain, where the format had been banned, mainstream Europe adopted the free sound system carnival format, now established in events such as The Love Parade in Berlin. Indeed, so popular is the event in Berlin, where now over one million young people take to the streets behind mobile sound systems, that it has drawn corporate sponsorship and has resulted in the creation of an alternative ‘Hate Parade’, which espouses a non-corporate back-to-the-squat ethos.


In the early days of rave parties, communication ploys developed which enabled party organisers to outwit the police. Locations were kept secret until the last minute to avoid detection by police and get a critical mass of party-goers inside a venue before the police became aware of it. The size of the gig would make it difficult for the police to evict and the party would continue.

In May 1995 in North London, eco-activists used this ploy to stage the first Reclaim the Streets  (RTS) in Camden High St. By the time the police were alerted to the event, there were already so many people in attendance that it was impossible to move the crowd on. Sound systems, such as the cycle powered Rinky-Dink, became a vital part of the early RTS parties providing the levity which lended the proceedings a carnival type atmosphere as opposed to the confrontational mood of previous political marches (the terms ‘Fluffy’ versus
 ‘Spikey’ were used to distinguish the two atmospheres).

These ‘temporary autonomous zones’, where party-goers dance to mobile guerilla sound systems, are Situationist events. Everyone a participant—everyone an artist. In his book DiY Culture, George McKay describes these protest parties as both ‘a utopian gesture and a practical display of resistance’. By 1998, the use of the internet enabled activists to coordinate RTS parties across the globe.

Exponents of DiY culture are passionate about the value of art as a means of expression and not simply a commodity. Pete Strong, of Ohms not Bombs, sees today’s society gripped by the chains of economic rationalism, totally unable to grasp new concepts of social and cultural capital relating to art production. He feels that the artistic practice orbiting around the sound system, through its co-creation and ability to unite disparate groups, adds a new dimension to the lives of people who are touched by it—something the music industry and art gallery system is unable to provide.

While sound system culture may be an underground and non-mainstream activity, it certainly constitutes a principle meme, mutating and becoming an integral part of contemporary youth culture.

Paul Gilroy, author of There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, writes about the ‘diasporic intimacy’ between those of similar nationalities who are spread around the world. Internet technologies have enabled those involved in DiY culture to experience this diasporic intimacy as they set up global events like J18 and M1 (closing down stock exchanges around the globe on May 1st, 2001). The sound system culture which is at the core of the party and protest scene has come full circle in its recreation of carnival—reclaiming technology for the benefit of community.

Folk music for the dot com generation.

Edited from:

FreeNRG: Notes From the Edge of the Dance Floor - Edited by Graham St John (Common Ground, Melbourne 2001)


Download a free pdf copy of the book here; http://www.edgecentral.net/freenrg.htm