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System of a Sound 

What does it take to be the city's best reggae DJ crew? Specials, riddims, and well-connected sounds. Let us explain.

Wednesday, Dec 22 2004
It's a little past noon, and the peculiar, somewhat mysterious workings of the reggae business are already in full swing at Wisdom Records in the Outer Mission, the only record store specializing in reggae dancehall in Northern California. Local DJ Jahyzer (pronounced "jah wiser") is helping himself to a dictionary-thick stack of this week's new 45s from Jamaica, many of which sport only a no-tell white label. Robert Rankin, a balding, fatherly looking white guy who helped establish the Bay Area reggae scene in the early '80s with the trailblazing Massive Sound International, is eagerly previewing his own fresh shipment with a pair of headphones. The shop's proprietor, I-vier ("Javier" with the Rastafarian "I" sound replacing the "Ja"), keeps the most recent releases behind the counter, Jamaican style, available only to those in the know enough to ask for them by name or distinguishing feature.

"Do you have that one that goes, 'When you smoke the wee-ed/ Do not smoke the see-ed'?" a kid with gelled hair sings to I-vier, looking like he might be grossly misappropriating his allowance on this breezy Wednesday. Right away the store owner picks up the chorus, turns around to dig into the special reserve shelf behind him, and quickly proffers the 7-inch in question. He also stops to talk records in Spanish to a young Latino customer wearing a red, yellow, and green knit cap.

But something other than the usual riddim-hunting humdrum is buzzing through Wisdom today. The phone keeps ringing, and I-vier and Jahyzer, members of the mighty dancehall soundsystem Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi, are busy coordinating a particularly opportune rendezvous they hope will happen later in the evening: Dancehall vocalist Tony Rebel is in town to perform with dub reggae legends (and No Doubt producers) Sly & Robbie at the Independent. If they can pull the meeting off -- and nailing down reggae artists can be like herding stoned cats -- the two DJs can secure for Jah Warrior the one substance more coveted in the reggae scene than organically grown ganja: custom-recorded acetate, popularly known as "dub plates" in the States or "specials" in the islands.

Here's how it works. A soundsystem -- i.e., a DJ crew that competes against other crews at sound clashes over which can best ignite the crowd with its record selections and mike-rocking prowess -- needs dub plates in order to clash. (In Jamaica, the crews bring their own speakers and amplifiers and battle over who has the loudest, most chest-caving system; in the States the crews use the club's system.) At the biggest clashes -- which, in the Bay Area for the last two years, would be the "Unity Clash" put on by King of Kings at Berkeley's Shattuck Downlow -- soundsystems (or, in reggae parlance, just plain "sounds") are only allowed to play dub plates, i.e., songs specially recorded by recognizable dancehall MCs on which the name of the particular sound is plugged over one of reggae's many standard instrumentals, or "riddims." And here you thought the only rule in reggae was to pass the dutchie on the left-hand side.

Like tracking down the most powerful strains of herb, procuring a proper dub plate takes not only money (usually around $500) but also a reputable connection. Jah Warrior, which has won every dub plate-only clash in the Bay Area since 1998 and which has been undefeated overall until a controversial 45 clash in September, has both. So when a vocalist drops into town, the crew pulls him into the studio or brings a portable recording setup to his hotel room. Jah Warrior will then press the special onto a 10-inch piece of acetate and will have a song "big-upping" its sound that no one else on the planet will have access to. And since acetate wears out after 50 to 100 spins, the DJs will save these jewels specifically for clashes or, if the crowd's lucky, a few of the last numbers at the crew's Tuesday party at Milk, "Bless Up."

Today, the hunt is successful, and Jah Warrior bags a fresh kill: a new Tony Rebel dub plate. "We already had two of his," explains the sleepy-voiced Jahyzer, "but we try to keep current with our favorite artists. You can never have too many dub plates."

It's past 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, and dancehall boys and girls are swaying, bent-knees and dropped-hips style, to the elephantine bass lines rumbling out of the woofer-crammed bins downstairs at SOMA's Club Six. The tropical tempos of the riddims and the thick miasma of ganja smoke wafting out from behind the turntables suggest a mellow vibe, but when the two tag-teaming selectors Irie Dole and Jahyzer are in fighting form like they are tonight, reggae DJing becomes an almost athletic feat. The split second that Dole pushes the cross-fader over and peels off the 45 he was playing, Jahyzer lunges over his left shoulder with a new record, while the former hastens back to his crate to dig out yet another. At festivals like Sierra Nevada World Music or Humboldt County's Reggae on the River, Jah Warrior will employ a helper who strictly pulls out and serves up singles so the DJs don't have to lose an instant between their lightning-quick track switches. That's a central paradox within Jah Warrior: These dudes puff enormous amounts of weed and favor the more languidly paced grooves of the older, so-called "foundation" dancehall riddims, but they attack the decks with the aggressive, almost frenetic physicality of hip hop turntablists.

It turns out, though, that these peaceful, nature-loving Rastafarians are a bit ambivalent about the often-testosterone-fueled sound clash culture, which really is the fire and anvil with which the best dancehall selectors are forged. "The more I get into it, the less I like it," admits Jahyzer about the seeming contradiction of competitiveness in reggae. "It's fun, especially when it's among friends and people who understand that the clash isn't a serious thing. ... But a lot of times, the crowd wants to take it the wrong way, especially in the Bay Area. Either they want to be biased or they want to make things personal. Competition is the first thing in a clash, but really it's about celebrating good music. It starts getting hectic when people call me up before a clash and say, 'Yo, don't lose.'"

Losing, however, is not something this crew is familiar with. Locally, at least, Jah Warrior fully embodies what is meant by the hallowed dancehall term "champion sound." Jahyzer is hands down one of San Francisco's most dynamic, party-pleasing DJs working in any genre, and is credited with introducing former world-title-holding hip hop scratch masters like Shortkut and Vinroc to dancehall records on the one side and bringing precision cutting and beat-juggling techniques from hip hop into the local reggae scene on the other. Rocker-T is far and away the best American-born dancehall vocalist, although as a blond Norwegian-American living in Oakland, his recording career has been criminally underappreciated. When he's chatting over the bubbling stew of time-tested riddims expertly blended by his cohorts, Jah Warrior is a nearly unassailable sound.

As Smokey, the organizer of the Sept. 19 "Unity Clash," puts it succinctly, "In terms of mike presence, selection, and turntable skills, they're unparalleled."

But like almost all sound clashes, the outcome of September's "Unity Clash" was rife with controversy. TNT, an East Bay sound composed of DJs from Trinidad that is Jah Warrior's only consistent challenger, refused to concede the match, insisting, "TNT won dat! TNT won dat!," while Smokey told Jah Warrior to take a victory lap and play one last special. In a clash, the host determines which sound receives the loudest crowd response, and at that one Smokey decided to silence the audience members who used whistles and air horns, many of whom were TNT fans. Various participants disputed the evening's earlier 45 clash -- in which soundsystems can play commercially released singles and not just specials -- because of these artificial noise-boosting tactics and the fact that the clash's host was Trinidadian, and perhaps unfairly loyal to TNT. Sound clashes often feature more ballot-stuffing tricks than a Florida election.

And it goes both ways. Jah Warrior may be weary from years of battle but it's just as quick to uphold the sacred rites of the clash. Earlier in the competition, I-vier cried foul during the foundation round, in which each sound was only allowed to play riddims from the '70s and early '80s. He accused TNT of playing a record from the '90s, a point Jah Warrior later reinforced when it played a dub plate featuring the lyrical barb, "You're disqualified!"

Ultimately, a sound's gravitas is measured not by technical acumen but by the depth and quality of its dub plate arsenal. This is the single factor holding Jah Warrior back from the national and international sound clash stage. In five years, the crew says it plans to be competing at the U.S. Rumble and the World Clash in London, "but that will take lots of money," I-vier says from behind the counter of his shop. "Right now we have about 200 dub plates. At World Clash, I want at least a thousand."

So Jah Warrior's acetate lust rages on, with record collecting taking on the gravity of a full-contact sport. And despite its spiritual misgivings about the competitive element of the sound clash culture, the Bay Area's champion sound is thriving on the constant tests of its mettle.

"DJing is very competitive -- everyone's a DJ nowadays," I-vier observes. "You kind of have to be aggressive about it. And especially for us, it's competitive to the point where a lot of guys want to see us fall. That's why we can never get tired. There's a saying by [dancehall legend] Sugar Minott: 'It's not who gets the lead, it's who can maintain it.'"

About The Author

Darren Keast


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