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.

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.

The Rastafarian DJs of Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi, not 
to be confused with Osama bin Laden and/or the 
Taliban.
Aviva
The Rastafarian DJs of Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi, not to be confused with Osama bin Laden and/or the Taliban.

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.

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