Sound system culture is not something that usually goes hand in hand with Sydney or even Australia for that matter. Popularised in Jamaica in the 1950’s then exported by Caribbean communities who immigrated to the UK shortly after, sound system culture, reggae music and parties are all inextricably linked. The sound system is not only the rig (amplifier and speakers) it is the engineers that string up the system, the selectors that choose & play the records, the DJs who control the mic and the punters that bring the vibes to the dance. The experience is completely unique and the quality of sound is crucial.
The influence of sound system culture on modern music is undeniably massive. From hip hop & jungle to DIY raves and just about any other sub genre of modern dance music, sound system culture has laid the foundations for generations of music lovers and party goers the world over.
Like most large cities Sydney has had dedicated reggae communities for decades, forged by strong ties to community radio stations pushing the music and endless DIY parties creating communities around the music. The 80’s was home to sound systems and dances like Soulmaker, Massive reggae & Powercuts, while the 90’s saw many punters enjoy the once legendary Firehouse dances. It was after the wind down of the infamous firehouse dances at the Bodhi in the late 90s’ early 00’s that Sydney went quiet in regards to grassroots reggae, dub & sound system culture events. While sound system culture in Melbourne continued to grow and bubble to the surface Sydney seemed to tuck into hibernation or focus more on the popularity and rise of dancehall.
That was until a few friends decided that there might actually be an audience if they decided to funnel their time, sweat, tears and beer money into building a sound system of their own. Enter the Inner West Disco Reggae Machine a glorious sound system built from the ground up by 4 mates (Stevie Dub, Riksonic, Gonz & Mooch) all with impeccable taste in both records and wood finishes. What now sits at 6 scoops (bass bins) with plenty more to come and took two years to complete is the rig you will see and hear at spots like the annual reggae carnival day at Fraser Park in Marrickville or the infamous Inner West Disco Reggae Machine Vs Foreign Dub dances at Goodgod Small Club. Just over a year old the rig has gained a huge following and reputation for some serious dances.
This article is all about shining some light on this sound system and what it brings to the city both musically and culturally. To gain some insight into the rig I sat down for a one on one with the Gonz, amongst the stacked shelves at Erskineville’s seminal record store Revolve Records in the Inner West of Sydney. Gonz is the larger than life character who mans the counter at Revolve, one Quarter of the Inner West Sound and label boss of vinyl imprint Digi Killaz which aims to push local and Australian reggae to larger audiences.
Sydney-based label Digi Killaz first release: Monkey Marc feat Jimmy Screech – Dancehall Fraud
Mike Who: So can you break down how the idea to build a sound system actually became a reality?
Gonzo: Basically the lack of parties in the city playing the tunes we wanted to hear and run ourselves, I used to work Sundays so I couldn’t make it to Sunday Dub Club. Seeing I didn’t have much off a choice we kicked of a night ourselves called Rhythm Showers at the Town and Country. It was ok but the space wasn’t really working. All of a sudden the penny dropped on doing something at The Hive, a small bar only a stones throw from Revolve Records in Erskineville.
Steve had mentioned to me and Rik that he had started building speakers recently (the same monitors we use on the sound system to this today) We thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring them to the Hive for a test run one Sunday. They blew the roof off the small space, everyone seemed pretty intrigued and the vibe was incredible in the bar. The space worked straightaway, we could play the tunes we wanted and punters were up for it, dancing on tables up for it. It felt like home straight away, a proper Sunday session. From there we started flirting with the idea of building a proper rig and so it began…
So when was the “I’m all-in committed” stage?
We were all buzzing after the response at the Hive and decided why bloody not. I dropped a grand on wood and there was no turning back from there. It was all pretty loose to begin with but I have to give massive props to Steve for leading the way. We learnt a lot through the process of building the first few scoops. A lot of trial and error from the start until we refined the process. Steve built the first box while we stood around making sandwiches and supervising. From there he knew the ins and outs and we all got involved and pulled our weight on the rest. If you look closely you can see the progression in workmanship as we have added to the stack.
Any worthy stories you want to share about the rig, trouble shooting? Mishaps? I was there for the infamous exploding till episode at one of the first Goodgod dances. What was that all about? I remember yelling at you across the desk. You all looked pretty stressed!
Yep that one, someone got a bit excited and rinsed a fairly bottom heavy tune, the power cut out and we heard a massive pop behind the bar. Basically the cash register had blown up! Thankfully Steve was all over it, he knew exactly what had happened and fixed the situation within a few minutes, the room was saved and nobody left. Big ups Steve for saving the day on that one, he was all over it and reacted super fast while the rest of us stood there with blank faces. I think the bar staff were a bit off it post blow out, they were on calculators counting change for the rest of the night.
Listen – the cheeky bootleg that broke the till:
Other worthy mishaps would be taking a layer of paint off the Marrickville bowling club ceiling due to the vibrations from the rig. There must have been an air pocket in the paint or something and it certainly didn’t last. I was sweeping up paint scraps after the pack down for ages. Last but not least was knocking off whole layer of top shelf liquor at Eliza’s juke joint. That was our first legit gig and the sound was a tad large for that space.
On the personnel front, how does a crew like this form?
Me and Rik go way back, we’ve known each other since we were probably 15 years old. We grew up together and have a long history geeking out on records together. Rik is a great selector, has an amazing knowledge of tunes, and we both bring our shared love of oldies to the table. Steve and I met ten or so years later on. We lived around the corner from each other. He is a good ten or fifteen years younger than Rik and me. Steve used to be around the area, had good taste in tunes, liked cool shit so we would chat and hang out. I started feeding him little bits of reggae here and there when we would see each other. I would like to think in someway I gave him a little nudge towards the path he is on today. We didn’t see each other for years and then all of a sudden we bumped into each other. Long story short he had spent time back in the UK and had clearly been influenced by the whole UK sound system culture. He mentioned he had been building speakers and all of a sudden he was schooling me on a whole bunch of stuff I wasn’t familiar with. I was deep on the buying records/ collector tip but Steve introduced me to proper sound system culture and sparked that one for me.
Toby came into the fold a little later on. He’s originally from New Zealand and tight with the Lion Rockers Crew. We had some mutual friends and after he moved over to Sydney we linked up, played a few gigs together and he seemed like a perfect fit for the crew. He new his shit, showed interest in what we were doing and brought a different vibe and taste in tunes to the crew. Plus we were always thinking how we were going to store the rig between three places. It’s massive and takes up a big part of part of our homes. We always wanted an 8 scoop system (8 bass bins) so naturally we needed a fourth member. It all made total sense as far as housing and transport of the rig and getting a fourth member on board.
You also mentioned Toby does the artwork right I’ve always loved the flyers?
Yep he’s all over it! Definitely a huge part of our nights.
You fellas tend to cover a lot of ground musically at the dances. Do you have a sound you aim to push as a sound system?
To put it simply the aim is danceable reggae music. We cover everything from ska to calypso, rocksteady to roots, dub, digi dancehall, heavy steppas cuts and everything in between. Also can’t forget a solid helping of whacky specials thrown in. Our goal is unity amongst everyone attending the dance. None of us are into clashing and we don’t plan on bringing those vibes to a dance.
Do you guys roll with anyone in particular to chat or host at dances? Do you have regulars? I have seen IboJah jump up a few times.
Nobody official but we usually run with Kamaur I, Ibojah and Phat Matt. They all usually jump up if they are around and all bring something different to each dance.
I know your crates run deep and you love getting dusty so I want to touch on your trip to Jamaica in the early 2000’s. How did that trip influence where you’re at today, what you play? Did you have hook ups over there? Was it hard to find records/ vendors?
I basically went over to get out of Sydney. I was lucky enough to head over with an old mate Lucius, Selector and part of Firehouse Crew. This was back in 2001, and I’m pretty sure it was his third trip over there, so he had a good idea of what was going on. He had crew in Kingston and a place to stay. We were based in Duhaney Park in Kingston at a friend of Striker Lee’s place. We were right in the thick of Kingston, no fancy hotels or tourist biz. Duhaney Park is a middle class area but it still felt pretty rough to me, no hot water, poverty was rife and crime was real. Regardless everyone I met over there were some of the nicest and most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting anywhere in the world.
As far as buying records we would go direct to record presses to buy stuff and also door knocking. I was just interested in finding oldies but everywhere I went people said that Japanese crews had come over in the 80’s and bought a whole heap of stuff, so there wasn’t much left. I persisted with door knocking even though people thought I was an idiot. By about the third or fourth day of asking for records, having no luck, people started coming out with piles of 45’s. Dirty as shit records but some diamonds in the rough. From there it snowballed and people were coming to me with stacks. In total I think we brought back around 800 pieces, all 7’s. Any albums we found we would box up after a few hundred the ship them back in a crate to Australia.
It was an amazing trip and I would totally recommend it to anyone thinking about it. I saw Lucius cutting some of his first dubplates over there with some serious heavyweights of the scene. Looking back I didn’t even know half the people I was meeting. We hung out with Tristan Palmer & Michigan and Smiley, looking back it’s all pretty surreal. Obviously having a link over there made my trip and the whole experience a big part of what it was. I would say try to find links before heading over, but if you can’t, just dive in. I’d love to head back soon, gotta make it happen.
Any other influential figures or notable selectors within the scene you want to shout out or throw praise towards?
Yeah for sure, big shouts to Derrick from Melbourne’s Heartical Hi Fi and Jesse I from Chant Down. I went to Melbourne from 2006 – 2008 to deal with some shit of my own, personal problems and addiction issues. Those two were both good friends during that time and have done a huge amount for the culture in both Melbourne and Australia.
Heartical Hi-Fi Outernational – a short doco on Jamaican sound to Melbourne via the UK (thanks to Louis Basslines for the vid)
Sydney wise, all my close crew you know who you are. Of course Lucius for letting me tag along on the trip to Jamaica in 2001. I still have massively fond memories of the firehouse dances at the Bodhi in Hay Market behind the capitol theatre in the late 90’s. Those parties were incredible; it was Lucius, Marco, Adrian, Nardo, Ibojah and Ras Ronnie, huge memories. I’ve been to a lot of gigs and they still stand the test of time, 300 + people in an amazing space and buzz in the room was massive.
Internationally, I love what Sir David Rodigan does. I always try to catch him when I’m in the same city. I actually saw him clash Killamanjaro in the hills on that trip to Jamaica in 2001 which was unbelievable. Although I would never participate in a clash I still enjoy the experience of seeing it go down, it took me a while to get my head around the concept at first, it’s not for me but a must experience for anyone interested in sound system and reggae culture.
Label-wise I definitely look up to Jake from Tuff Scout, his story of coming good from a troubled past and producing some of the best records coming out of the UK and doing it consistently with class is pretty inspirational. Big respect Jake.
Speaking of labels talk about Digi Killaz the label that you recently started. I copped the first 7 produced by Monkey Marc feat Jimmy Screech – are there plans for more releases?
We have about three tunes ready to go. I would love to put some more Australian stuff out on Wax. Monkey Marc is crazy talented and doing great things for Aussie Reggae. I like the idea of getting some more soulful vocals on the heavy digi riddims and would love to bring some more indigenous vocalists on board as there is huge pools of talent waiting to be heard.
This is great for anyone in Australia making reggae, the more home-grown labels who want to press up 7’s the better, you guys also have the respect and connections to push the music to a much wider audience than Australia. How can people get their music to you?
For anyone interested or with music they want us to hear send through enquiries to me here
You can also listen to me on Dub Is In The Air every Saturday on 2ser 107.3 – the rest of the crew Rik, Steve and Toby on Dubbers Rock on Bondi Beach Radio fortnightly on Saturdays from 12-2pm – and you can follow the Inner West Disco Reggae Machine on facebook.
There are always a few big tunes that make a night can you share with us a few staples that get run at every dance.
For sure… (selection by Gonz, Riksonic, Mooch and Stevie Dub)
The author, Mike Who, is a Dj and radio host and is one of our favourite local selectors. You can catch him around town and on FBi’s radio show Stolen Records.
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