The Cultural Logic of Reggae

The Cultural Logic of Reggae

Earl Gateshead has been a fulltime reggae DJ for over 40 years. Based in Elephant and Castle, London, he has toured most reggae-appreciating countries.

In the latest project, 'The Huge Reggae Show', the aim is to produce a show that allows the listener to feel that they are there in the same room as the selector. You can subscribe to the 'Earl Gateshead' Mixcloud stream here.

Learning the art of selection

Putting on a DJ show is a multidimensional process. Its aim: develop a pleasurable relationship with an audience. It is a conversation, whereby the audience communicates their involvement through body language.

The next sections will map out aspects of selection as it relates to reggae culture.

Understand the three modes of experience

There are three major types of experience that a reggae DJ provides. If a show provides all three of these - great, but any two will do.

  • Party: this is all about dancing, you aim to create rushes of desire to dance
  • Deep: inspiring the soul and eliciting the listeners true self. Lyrics are important, as is subliminal ambience
  • Art: propagating a niche sound to a core audience

Cultivate the art of outsiderism

Reggae music comes from the margins. It emerged from Jamaica, a country that was brutally suffering from it's colonial relationship with the USA. The lyrical content of roots reggae explores this history.  

Reggae changes when the world changes. It responds to the convergences of influences, situations, and technologies. Making sense of an ever-shifting present

As a genre, reggae music offers a complete expression of a whole point of view. Similar to jazz and blues, it is integral to the culture that it came from.

Today, sound-system culture is global and diverse, with different countries offering their own version of the sound. It speaks to outsiders of all colours and backgrounds. It offers a model of reality for people to empathise with and express themselves through.

Know the story of Studio 1

Perhaps the story of reggae starts in 1962, the year of Jamaican independence. Songs of freedom were released that reflected the mood: uplifting, cheerful and optimistic; these were often funny songs with an up-tempo or ska beat.

Coxson Dodd is a place to start. He was the person who gave Bob Marley and Lee Perry their first shot. Dodd was an instigator and organiser who managed to get big personalities to work together. Dodd knew that the best session musicians could be found in tourist hotels, as this was where the money was. He also spent time selecting performers from all the different talent shows that were going on (the original X-Factor’s). Dodd would host auditions whilst chilling on the beach. At the start of the week anyone could come and sing to him.

Dodd was the first to have a record cutter, thereby owning his own means of production. He would set up a sound-system outside his mother’s shop, selling beer and records. This would become known as, fittingly enough, Studio 1. People would come to hear the sound – without their own hi-fi stereos, or a national grid providing electricity, people had to go to these places to hear new music.

Simmer down against injustice

Dodd brought Bob Marley into the world by producing the first Wailers song: ‘Simmer Down’. This is a song directed at the gangsters and criminals committing acts of violence, asking them to cool down.

This would become a genre unto itself: songs whose message was to remain calm in the face of antagonising situations. The ubiquity of the word 'cool' within culture today is part of this story.

Discover the other characters

Another big character, and rival of Coxson Dodd, was Duke Reid. He was renowned for carrying guns and holding them up whilst performing. He was also known for carrying a grenade. It was rumoured that he would pay people to break up Coxson Dodd’s dances.

Then there was Prince Buster, who started his career as a doorman guarding the dance. Rivalry between dances was intense, and muscle was hired to disrupt and breakup dances; making the doorperson an important person. Buster was a professional boxer and friends with Mohammed Ali before becoming a producer. He produced 'Oh Carolina' and introduced Niyabinghi drummers into the studio, introducing African roots culture as an alternative to American influence.

There are many big stories from that little island that can be researched and brought alive by listening to the music.  

Embrace the whole sound system

What we can see from these stories is how reggae culture is rooted in studios and producers. Within reggae, studios go beyond being mere tools for the recording of live bands - the studio itself is an instrument to be played.  

Studio owners and producers are at the centre of reggae culture.  Their original process was to start with a some type of store, then start DJing records, then build your own soundsystem, and finally run a label.

This short history prompts us to think about the technical builders, the crew that carry equipment around, the MC/performers, the selector choosing the music, the operator making sure everything works, the manager dealing with the money, the people securing the door and the space, and all the people selling records, food, cannabis, and merchandise.  

Provide authentic experiences and expressions

When crafting an 'Earl Gateshead' show, the music played will (ideally) be first-press vinyl, not digital.

This is important: when a track is recorded in a studio, the forces of magnetism and electricity are used to store information. This resonates with humans as electricity is what powers our brains and muscles. If the music is stored digitally, it exists as binary numbers, and something is lost - it is technically and spiritually impoverished. The human warmth dissipates.

Ultimately, science doesn't know what electricity is: humans have only noticed how to harness it. At its core remains a central mystery. This mystery is also at work in a show: no-one can put their finger on why they get up and dance at a particular moment, they just do. And first press vinyl is, therefore, a crucial ingredient.

This awareness of materiality is important on another level: the authentic way to listen to reggae is through a sound-system. And, by doing your own woodwork, carpentry and electronics, your 'sound' becomes a personal expression.

Trust in your subconscious

If you rely on your intellect, memory and experience when making selections for a show, you will create something good. But, if you let your subconscious take control, you may create something fantastic.

This is a process that requires bravery. It might be a disaster. You are setting yourself free, taking a risk, and going with a feeling.

Some of the best shows often involve a happy mistake. You put on the wrong track, panic, but it goes down perfectly. This is the force of serendipity at work.

The Tarot of Djing

We can understand the art of selection by comparing it to tarot cards.

With tarot, you shuffle the pack. This is you putting your energy into them. Only you could have shuffled them in that specific way. Then, you lay them out in a specific order and combination.

A tarot reader will read each card, provide an interpretation, and then move to the next card. Each card reading amplifies the one that came before it; there is emotional progression.  

Music is the same, you can pick from millions of records - each full of culture, attitude, and emotional energy - but the order you play them in reflects you.

A joint enterprise of passion

This is not a financially profitable enterprise. Everybody loses money, and sound-system storage and transportation is expensive. It’s pursued for pleasure.

At these dances, a cultural ecosystem of trade emerges. They are like mini-festivals: there are different types of shops, and Ital (healthy and organic) food is served.


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