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In Conversation: Channel One Sound System

In Conversation: Channel One Sound System

| Features & Interviews

Ahead of an appearance at Horizon Festival in the coming months, we took the opportunity to speak to Channel One Sound System about their ethos, longevity and duty to reggae music.

As the events and uncertainties of 2016 continue to turn the world at an accelerated rate, acetates stay true, rotating in their cathartic fashion, regardless of what unfolds in the public sphere. Only now the emotive constants of music are more apparent and integral than ever – a solace from the clouded horizon loitering up ahead. Such refuge can be found in Channel One Sound System, whose arms are always open wide, ready to welcome anyone willing to embrace and share the power of reggae music.

Driven by education, enlightenment and community, Channel One appear fanciful in a society that has beckoned de-evolving attitudes back for another spell in the bright camera lights of the west. Nonetheless, current affairs are not where their passions guide them, despite a firm fixation on the combination of empowerment and music. “I don't really like getting into the political business. Reggae music is my thing. Once you start making the music political it can change, so I like to leave that to the other people”, Mikey Dread lays down to me over the phone earnestly, two days on from Trump’s victory in the US election.

“There isn't a lack of unity in the world of music.”

From as far back as 1979, Mikey, and his brother Jah T, have set about casting out preconceptions and bringing the warm sounds of the West Indies to spaces capable of handling their hand built rig – with lasting impressions left across the UK, Europe and beyond. Aboard the vessel of Channel One, the pair have realised their aims with resounding success, wavering in an era where sound system culture now finds itself comfortably at home in Britain.

Channel one Sound System Jah T and Mikey Dread
(Operatots of Channel One, Jah T (Left) & Mikey - Photo Courtesy of Channel One Sound System)

The mission of Channel One Sound System has been simple; breaking down barriers through reggae. While Mikey may choose to keep his political views to himself, subconsciously or not, Channel One speaks on his behalf. Whether any talk of building walls turns concrete in the years to come, Channel One’s low frequency reverberations will continue to shake the foundations of exclusivity, in turn showcasing a unity amongst people that is all too often looked past on by the headlines.

“There isn't a lack of unity in the world of music”, Mikey tells me, after being asked to weigh in on the social climate following the election result in the USA. “Where Channel One is concerned, we try and bring people together in our dances. We don't know what problems people may have outside, so when people come along to our sessions, they come with an open heart and an open mind. Political agendas are left outside, everyone just comes together to enjoy reggae music.”

“There is a strong sense of duty with Channel One, mainly as we try and be as educational as we can be through music."

Leaving politics aside is one key to Channel One’s ability to sustaining such longevity in their trade. Rather than burning out on a strenuous campaign trail, the pairing has provided their sound system as a platform, allowing their record choices to do the talking. Speaking to Mikey for only a short time, it’s quickly understood that, for Channel One, it’s all about the music, and the power it holds. “There is real sense of feeling in everything that we do, and the feeling is there in itself through the music. You can go to a reggae session with the weight of the world on your shoulders, stay there for a couple of hours and then leave with the music in your mind, ready to face the world come the morning.”

Channel one Sound System Rig
(Channel One's handbuilt rig  - Photo courtesy of Nick Caro Photograpy)

We move on to the subject of education – another integral pillar in the ethos of Channel One Sound System. Simply scratching the most outer layer of music often uncovers a message of sorts hidden within the harmony. In the case of reggae, teachings run deep, resonating in the body through vibrations of rhythm section and bass that carry the music with a heartbeat level of synchronicity. “Sound system culture was a family thing. My old man used to run a sound system of his own, so it has been in my bones since I was a baby”, Mikey explains, recalling his formative experiences of the sound system way of life.

"Hearing tracks through a rig rather than your home hi-fi gives you more respect for the artist that made the tune.”

Learning from the expertise of his father, owner and operator of the renowned Admiral Bailey Sound, Mikey was able to drink the essence of the culture, gaining a first-hand understanding of its purpose as more than just a way of listening to reggae, but as transparent unifying force in the heart of a community. When it comes to education, there were few institutions better to have obtained a first class degree in the science of music, thus driving Mikey and Channel One to pass on the wealth of knowledge to the next generation of dancers and selectors. “There is a strong sense of duty with Channel One, mainly as we try and be as educational as we can be through music. You have to look past the money that comes along with the position we are in and always concentrate on the education. Sometimes you see DJs bringing a laptop or just some CDs to a show. We bring a whole sound system, do our thing and give a good show, whether there are 1500 or 15 people there.”

Alongside the education provided by his father, Mikey became well read in the empowering music that has typified much of how the world has come to see Jamaica –  the example set by Bob Marley alone delivering a resounding sense of clarity and inspiration. Sifting through artists that played a part in his musical understanding, we land on Burning Spear and the seismic album Marcus Garvey. Combing a roaring belief in freedom, soaring instrumentation and vocals that gasp for liberation, the collection of songs possess a density and relevance that so many lightweight records in the 21st century struggle to weigh up against. While Channel One are in possession of reggae records alike that continually power their sessions, the pedestal for a similarly powerful record crafted by a slowly maturing generation beckons.

Burning Spear - Channel One interview(Burning Spear - Photo courtesy of Burning Spear Music)

“There is space for a record like Marcus Garvey in this day and age”, Mikey assures; “You need people who are going to speak up and sing about reality. Music that is derogatory or blasphemous, you don't need that, and kids don't need to be hearing it. Kids need to be taught about reality and the struggle and fighting that has taken place to enable us to get where we are. More importantly, that despite the struggles, we are still here.”

With a status quo that goes against the grain of the youth, and accessible education supplied by Channel One, it is not so far-fetched that such times of bated breath and anticipation may yet pave the way for the inspiring figure music and conscience is capable of producing.

"You can go to a reggae session with the weight of the world on your shoulders, stay there for a couple of hours and then leave with the music in your mind, ready to face the world come the morning.”

As the internet has gradually commanded a greater significance in day to day life, the realm in which people can be educated through music has become immeasurable, impersonal to an extent, leaving the true role of a DJ up for question– an answer even harder to find. The current level of interconnectivity has brought about a new process of discovering music.

Musical intrigue can now be directed toward the web, where the web can pass judgements, open doors, draw in like-minded attitudes and in turn, house a harmonious dancefloor in cyberspace. For sound system culture, and the DJs of yesteryear - both once seen as integeral cogs in the cycle of discovering music - the internet serves as threat to relevance. However, remote listening excludes a crucial part in the experience intrinsically linked to music, something which Mikey believes will always keep sound system culture alive. “You can find music on online, but at the end of the day, you need to be in the session to hear it. When you hear a track on a sound system, it gives you a different feel. As we play tracks from yesteryear right through to present day, we give people the chance to hear records they know and love delivered through a sound system. That's what keeps sound system culture going. If that wasn't the case, we would all be happy to download some music and just put our headphones on. Hearing tracks through a rig rather than your home hi-fi gives you more respect for the artist that made the tune.”

Channel One at Notting Hill Carnival
(Channel One has featured at Notting Hill Carnival for over 30 years  - Photo courtesy of Channel One)

A quick glance at the hard work and exploits of Channel One, Iration Steppas and Mungo’s HiF, it is easy to grasp the idea that sound system culture opens the door to a deeper lying experience – a feeling that resonates deeply with those taking refuge on the dancefloors of a flourishing and well represented UK scene.

"We bring a whole sound system, do our thing and give a good show, whether there are 1500 or 15 people there.”

While ethos ensures much stays the same in the world of Channel One, not to mention a 30 year presence at the Notting Hill Carnival, the backdrop to their stages continue to be coloured by more exotic surroundings further afield. Taking to snow-capped mountains of Andorra in March for Horizon Festival to deliver a lesson at altitude, the ski and music festival serves as stark contrast to origins of reggae music – not that it provides a barrier the mighty Channel One cannot break down. 

Words by Elliot Ryder
Main photo courtesy of Channel One Sound System

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