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 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."

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

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.'"

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