Jah Shaka & Sound System Culture

If there’s one thing that can be said about Reggae, it’s that the genre marches forward continually. It also helps when the vocal element is so easily recognizable, that any music featuring it, effectively becomes “Reggae”. Some purveyors of the sound however, are not so compromising. London-based [DJ/Producer/Vocalist] Jah Shaka aka “Zulu Warrior” was one such player. He knew the power of his genre at its peak, and that’s where he stayed. He started his mobile sound system in the 1970’s and played to massive crowds until his passing in 2023. Jah Shaka helped to fully establish the “UK Steppers” vibe.

Jah Shaka’s sound system was not the first. These are essentially mobile DJs with their own equipment. What makes them superstars is that they are armed with unique songs known as “dubplates”. Reggae stars of the era would morph one of their hits into a dubplate, lauding their sound system of choice. It wasn’t all a bed of roses in the beginning. Early parties were held in residence halls and basements. Here was a disenfranchised, cheap labor force, many arriving from Jamaica aboard the USS Windrush. There would be noise complaints, clashes with neighbors and the police. Eventually “clashes” between the sound systems would sell out giant music halls full of enthusiastic fans the world over. The idea of “the clash” would have a direct influence on other forms of music, namely punk.

“Dub” is a genre of Reggae pioneered by Lee Scretch Perry. Its characteristic delay and effects have permeated all aspects of popular music to date. The UK “Steppers” genre sprang from Jamaican Reggae songs featuring a 4/4 kick drum (4 beats per measure). House music is also known for this, but would not emerge for another decade. Jah Shaka became one of the preeminent sounds, keeping Dub & Steppers top of mind in UK culture. These styles are largely spiritual and seek to elevate one’s consciousness. He released many original compositions, some which could only be heard when he played out live. His efforts helped keep the roots and foundation intact, allowing for further evolution within the aesthetic.

Meanwhile the influence spread and evolved. The inevitable collusion of the Dub and Steppers genres would eventually meld into their own offshoot (DubStep) with the next UK generation. Dancehall became Jamaica’s next act. Then in New York, sound system culture gave rise to Hip-Hop. Luminaries of all these genres, and more, would point to Jah Shaka as having had a major impact on them.

:::EDIT::: My friend Sue Kwong brought this Red Bull interview to my attention