Sound system culture has been part of reggae music for as long as rude boys and girls have been in the dance. Although this culture is part of mainstream life in the Carribean, it’s a pretty rare specimen of musical custom here in North America. It exists; people know about it, but it’s not really common practice to partake. Of course there are pods of militant dub warriors scattered throughout the underbelly of North American musical pop culture, but the crews turning bolts to piece together their own ragtag sound systems and carting them off to bashment parties are not nearly as plentiful. There’s an understanding of high quality sound and a culture based on that, it just lacks the grassroots feeling that seems to pair so perfectly with sound system culture. After all, sound system culture isn’t just about the sound system, but rather an all-encompassing term that lumps together multiple aspects of the music.
In the UK (and the rest of Europe), things are much different. They’ve embraced dancehall culture the same way their top 40 radio stations have embraced drum and bass bangers. It’s not that we’re fair-weather fans across the pond – the people that champion these reggae rhythms exhibit a ravenous passion for these dubs that would make Jeffrey Dahmer look like a guy nursing a harmless crush. Our truancy of sound system culture seems to be due to a combination of outlying reasons rather than a lack of love from those obsessed with the sounds. Regardless of the reason, at Outlook Festival 2014 I was enchanted by Europe’s adaptation of sound system culture.
At the peak of this movement are Glasgow based Mungo’s Hi Fi. As a group, they’ve built a massive dub ship they’re captaining across the world. Between their hand-made sound system, their handcrafted music and their hands on DJs reppin’ Mungo’s, they’ve pretty much got this reggae thing perfected to a high fidelity good vibes formula. At Outlook Festival it became evident: these guys are revered and respected throughout the sound system brotherhood. At least if you’d consider having your own arena and multiple time slots across several stages and boat parties at a world class festival respect and reverence.
The group aspect is likely one of the most crucial aspects to the success of Mungo’s in this community, as outlined by Doug, one of the main men on the team. For many years, sound system culture has been dependent on the ethos that it’s all about the collective. “There are seven of us that work on Mungo’s fulltime,” says Doug. Like many sound systems across the globe, there are different divisions of labour, which Doug goes on to explain. “We all do different things for the sound system, but we’re all involved in it somehow. There are four of us that travel and play shows as Mungo’s, often by ourselves. Tom and Craig produce the tunes. Thomas Stalawa runs our online shop. Jerome is the main sound system mastermind, but we all know how to use it. James and I, and Tom and Craig, we all DJ.” On top of this, Mungo’s has their label, Scotch Bonnet Records, which is always pumping out music, and their weekly Walk n Skank night in Glasgow, where they’re constantly showcasing talent.
The UK seems ripe to accept groups like Mungo’s, as there seems to be an already active knowledge of sound system culture. “Sound system culture is really vibrant – but then every country has its own distinct scene,” says Doug. “The UK is one case, obviously the West Indian culture came there predominantly.” Doug names Shaka as one of the most influential artists in terms of spreading sound system culture in London, but also notes that sound system culture as a whole has acclimatized to fit the musical landscape in the UK. “I feel this has grown out of the Subdub nights (put on by Simon Scott who organizes Outlook Festival) where they paired more traditional sound system culture with electronic music, or be it with Iration Steppas who have kind of a more modern take on it as well,” says Doug. At any rate, whether it’s Birmingham, Manchester, or Leeds, often times you get other types of DJs playing on a reggae sound system, which eventually leads to a broader knowledge of sound system culture as a whole.
No matter how well accepted and known sound system culture is, you can’t get past the hard work aspect of it. Longevity is always a factor in the arts community when you’re building a name, to learn, increase your body of work, as well as network across many different groups. And when it comes to sound system culture, obviously having a nice, pounding system is a huge part. “Some of the cabinets that are here, we built ourselves,” says Doug. “Others we bought. We’ve been doing this for fifteen years or so, so you’ll learn something in that time.” Doug does think that overall anyone can do what Mungo’s does, but it all goes back to the collective and the effort you want to put in. “I think everybody that’s into this kind of music would secretly like a sound system,” Doug laughs. “And then you just have to go about and do it. You’ve gotta spend the money. You’ve gotta learn how to do it. But then you can’t do it as one person you know, that’s the thing.”
Mungo’s have built a pretty good platform for networking with tons of artists in the reggae sphere, as their weekly Walk n Skank night in Glasgow has hosted many of the forward thinking reggae greats – allowing them to kick around ideas about collaborations and musical possibilities. “We’re always working on productions,” says Doug. “We’re working on everything all the time, and it’s because we’re involved with every aspect of it.” In terms of Walk n Skank, it allows Mungo’s a networking platform that’s about fun and not a lot of expectations. “We’re bringing artists all the time to Glasgow, and again it’s a great opportunity to get to know people and work together without too much pressure,” says Doug. Walk n Skank is all about the good times. Mungo’s tries to keep it informal, so that mingling and vibes are at maximum proportions. Additonally, their label Scotch Bonnet Records creates another way to spread the word of what’s what and who’s who in the world of reggae music. “With the label, now we suddenly realized we’re in a position to offer people a good position and put them in public light,” says Doug.
When it comes to Mungo’s, it’s safe to say collectively they’ve covered the bases of sound system culture. In fact, they’ve got 70 fingers and toes immersed directly in the melting pot of today’s stew of sound system ingredients. The formula of the Mungo’s method has been perfected down to every last variable. Big group plus hard work plus networking divided by longevity equals respect and revere in the world of sound system culture.
Editor’s Note: Mungo’s Hi Fi have a ton of releases and tour dates on the go. There are a bunch of collaborations and international tour dates on the horizon. To keep up with everything they’re up to, follow them through their site and various online groups.