THE KINGS OF CARNIVAL
As they prepare to play their 34th consecutive Notting Hill Carnival, we sat down with Mikey Dread & Ras Kayleb of the inimitable Channel One Sound System to talk Carnival memories, breaking down barriers and the importance of preserving the culture.
Date: August 2017.
Location: Goodhood Studio, London.
Mikey, your father owned and operated the legendary Admiral Bailey Sound. What are your first musical memories growing up?
Mikey: I was very young, like 5 or 6. There were boxes all over the house; turntables, amplifiers, records, so it’s been with us since day one. We’ve grown up with it being in the house. In those days he would be playing pubs, weddings, Shebeens, so he did his bit!
How did you guys meet, were you friends when you were younger?
Mikey: Yeah, very young from school. We go way back.
When and why did you choose to set up Channel One Sound System?
Mikey: Well before we officially started Channel One, the sound system was called King Edward, back in the 70s. In them days things were evolving and things were changing, and we amalgamated the sound that we already had from King Edward. The old school King Edward wasn’t around anymore because he left the country, so we decided to change the name to Channel One, because we started getting a lot of records from the Channel One label in Jamaica.
Was the music changing at that time as well, or evolving into something new?
Mikey: Yeah kind of, it still had the roots element to it until the mid 80s, until the more computerized stuff started coming out on labels like Jammy’s.
You're coming into your 34th consecutive year at Notting Hill carnival, what are your earliest memories of it?
Mikey: The early memories of Carnival are good! Where we started was not where we’re at now, we started over on the Portobello Market side. There was a club round there called the Acklam Hall where we used to play and it was just a jam, it was packed full. There were seven sound systems just on that corner. We didn’t realise for a long time but just behind us was a big car park, so we got the go ahead from the owner and moved over there. The place was that big that we could literally drive a 7.5 tonne truck straight in there. The place was huge. In those days we were using double and quadruple box speakers; each box would have four 24” speakers inside. We used to call it the house of Joy! We used to put everything through a valve amplifier, and it used to rumble!
How has Notting Hill Carnival changed in that time?
Ras: The main thing that has changed now is that it has moved away from a Caribbean carnival to a much more integrated, more cosmopolitan carnival now. At the same time, the music has changed and the sounds have changed. Channel One are still there, but a lot of the systems that used to play SOCA, reggae and more Carribean based music aren’t there any more. What you’ve got now is more electronic stuff, drum ‘n’ bass and EDM. Sometime you can say that that isn’t Carnival, but at the same time things are always changing so you have to move with that whilst keeping the traditional elements like the floats and the Caribbean sound. It reflects London and the melting pot of different cultures and different musical influences and sounds. It’s a London carnival now, rather than just a Caribbean one. Back in the day, come certain times certain people had to disappear or you’re going home with no clothes [laughs].
Mikey: Yeah, well I’ve been down there a long time, in those days we used to finish at carnival and go and play somewhere else in Portobello or Notting Hill and come back on Monday and do it all again, where as you can’t do that anymore. But yeah, the way things are moving we’re seeing a lot more international sound system guys coming to our corner. They use Channel One sound system as a meeting place. It’s good to see all these young guys coming in from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Australia, everywhere. They all come to be on Channel One’s corner. For them, that might be the only time that they meet these other people who are running sound systems from around the world!
Did you feel more free in the earlier days?
Ras: It’s more controlled now, much more of an event and a lot more corporate, which it needs to be because of the size of it now, you know. But still, there’s too much red tape, green tape, blue tape, everything! Before, it was more free for sure. If you lived in the area you could set a shop up, you could put your little sign up on the road. Put it this way, if you didn’t have a job, there was two or three days of the year where you could make some money, you know!
What would you say is your best carnival memory?
Ras: As I was saying really, going back to the early 80s, the memories that I love are the ones of togetherness. To me that is what is missing when you bring too much of the corporate side in. My best memories are of just being free. You go down there, meet your friends and you don’t even have to go home because there’s a party going on there, a dance going on here, or you meet a girl, you know.
Mikey: Going back to what I was saying earlier, we used to set up in the car park. Everybody else would have to lock off by 8 and we were always the last ones going. People would start hearing this big bassline coming from this car park cum barnyard. The place was jammed anyway but all of a sudden you would have another load of people turning up. The double boxes and quadruple boxes back then, the valve amplifier singing; there's nothing better than that man!
You follow a vinyl only rule; what are the reasons behind this?
Ras: Keeping it real for a start!
Mikey:Keeping it physical, yeah. Anything other than vinyl loses value. It’s got to a point where people carry a tiny USB to a session and play, and for me, you don’t qualify! Come on man, you don’t qualify! Kids want to know what vinyl is, what a record is. When they see guys like me putting a record on that single deck, it’s teaching them where we’re coming from. If I start playing CDs or laptop, if Shaka [Sound System] or Aba Shanti starts playing from a laptop, where are we going? It’s gone full circle though, as now big companies are starting to cut vinyl again. They know there is an art to it. That’s the value of Channel One; to keep it real and let kids know where we’re coming from. Sometimes kids look amazed, they’ve never seen a record before. We’ve gone through airports with a box of dub and security had no idea what they were, they thought it was a big CD!
How many records have you got in your collection?
Mikey: Pfff I duno man! We’re cutting dubs every month. As Channel One, what people like about us is that we can play a tune from probably six, seven, eight years ago and people have never heard it or haven’t heard it for a long time, you know. When I cut a dub I might not play it that week, or that month even. We sit on it until it’s ready. Just because you’ve made a tune in your flippin’ kitchen this morning, doesn’t mean you have to play it that night!
Do you still buy records in London as well as cutting your own?
Ras: Yeah man, but we get given a lot as well. Buying records isn’t really a weekly thing because we don’t really need to do it anymore. The post box is always full and they come from all over the world. If they’re bad, you still have to tell them.
Mikey: A guy phoned me this afternoon saying ‘Mikey did you get my production, this is Channel One’ but I said to be honest with you, it’s not ready yet man!
Do you feel a certain responsibility to nurture artists and nurture the sound?
Mikey: That’s what reggae music is all about. You get a tune and as we call it, we champion a tune. When you champion a tune, only you will be playing that tune. So you can only go to a Channel One session to hear that tune and that’s how it used to be back in the 70s and 80s. Certain sound systems will play certain tunes. When people send me a CD the first thing I ask is, who else have you sent the CD to! If you’ve sent it to three or four other people, then I don’t want it. The artist needs to know what they want, because Channel One as a soundsystem is about pushing artists and certain music. It’s a full circle, and you’re helping the whole industry.
Do you have a favourite record to play at carnival?
Ras: You read the atmosphere and whatever spirit takes you, that's what goes down on the turntable.
Mikey: It’s got to be the vibe at the time and it could be anything. At carnival you can dig through boxes and archives whereas when you’re abroad you are limited on space. You find a lot of the older generation come down and it’s the first time they’ve heard a lot of their records on a soundsystem. They’ve got all of the records at home, and they’ve been waiting for years to hear it on a system, and low and behold Channel One plays it. That is their highlight for the day. For the younger generation they might be hearing the tune for the very first time and saying yeah that was a dangerous tune, but the older generation haven’t ever heard it played on a system and they remember it. They say to their son or their daughter ‘I’ve got this tune at home’ and that’s the whole idea of soundsystem.
You won Culture Clash in 2010, how was that and did that open up the sound to a whole new audience?
Ras: It was streamed live around the world and it opened up soundsystem culture and roots reggae as a whole to the world. From that time for Channel One personally, things have grown and grown worldwide. At the time, we had people thanking us for representing what we do in the right way, you know. A lot of the young people who were there are still following us. They come up to us and say the first time we heard you was when you buried such and such at the Roundhouse, but we weren’t there to bury anybody, we were there spreading the music.
Mikey: That’s it; playing records, representing the music, representing what we do and representing Rasta, because you know them arenas don’t have it. We let everyone else beat each other up and we just came through the middle and tore the place down. That night was for sound system culture and for everyone who has been a part of it since the 60s. We won’t be around forever, so what we do now will become history.
What does the future hold for Channel One? Do you see yourselves passing it onto a younger generation?
Ras: Spreading the music, breaking down barriers, spreading good roots and culture, music, giving inspiration and lifting everyone, spreading good love and good times.
Mikey: You see a lot of sound systems coming up now, and you’ve always got the younger one who wants to take the top dog. With the legacy, you can see it both ways. If you try and pass it to someone else it won’t be the same and sometimes your legacy has got to stop there, with all the history and the memories. Once you pass it on it will never be the same. You can have huge sound systems now, but they have no character, no identity, nothing that engages the audience. They take things as a joke, and everything is super loud but they’re missing the point. That is why we keep Channel One to the level that we’ve got. We can all go and buy big speakers and powerful amps, but we keep it to the perfect levels because when you hear that one stack, you’re hearing everything. Horns, bassline, everything, and it doesn’t have to kill your eardrums. People come to Channel One because of the music. Not just the sound system but the melody. My old man always taught me, have the melody in the tune and you can’t go wrong...Rastafari.
Carnival warm-up playlist from Channel One Sound System
Channel One Sound System Speaker Stack. Image Credit: Channel One Sound System
we also recommend: