“This guy doesn’t know dancehall.”
That’s what the singer’s friend said about me during sound check. We had just started and they were already giving up on me.
That was ten years ago, and honestly, he was right. And if I’d had the balls to ask, that would have been a perfect time to get to know reggae and dancehall. Sure, it would have been hella awkward, but I would have learned something and developed a relationship instead of standing there blushing.
How To Mix Into The Unknown
- Prioritize Balance – How much time do you have? If you are walking into a sound check, simply focus on reenforcing the sources that need it, balancing the mix, and asking the band manager or someone familiar with the music to guide you.
- Call A Friend – If you have a little more time, phone a colleague who can walk you through the most important elements that the artist is likely to care about. I had to do this with merengue once and my colleague spent some time explaining the central roll of the guira to me.
- Study Up – The excellent bass guitar player Michael Manring said: “Don’t just listen to the music you like. Also listen to the music you dislike and try to hear the value in it that its fans hear.” How do you do that? Start by contrasting it with your favorite music and notice the differences. What’s the most prominent instrument? For vocal driven music, is it mixed high above the rest like Celine Dion or burried in the mix like My Bloody Valentine? Are there important effects that you need to have ready like a tap delay or giant reverb? Start with what you know and work back from there.
- Smile – Being friendly and accommodating has helped me make it through the night on many occasions. I learned to do this by working with other people who had no idea how to help me technically, but who were very polite and professional. Because they were nice and willing to work with me, we got on and made it happen.
So, back to dancehall…
What is a Dancehall Sound System?
Fast forward ten years and I’m researching dancehall sound systems. Why? Because it’s a search term for which I’m likely to rank well, and a little bit because I’m hoping to make up for that awkward moment ten years ago.
The first thing I did was post the question to Quora and Soundforums.net. Then I shared it on Twitter and Facebook to make sure that it would get some replies. Then I read this:
In the context of Jamaican popular culture, a sound system is a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music.
Forehead slap. Retrace my steps attempting to delete any evidence that I am as white and out of it as I am. Let’s just keep this secret between you and me, shall we? Thanks.
So, when people say dancehall sound system they must mean groups of DJs and artists playing dancehall. Thanks, Wikipedia, it’s all making sense. All this time I’ve thought that groups like Buraka Som Sistema were extolling the benefits of playing through a kick-ass sound system. And every time an artist yelled, “Sound system!” I thought they were giving me a verbal high-five. 10 years later and I’m still embarrassing myself.
Terminology in music is messy. I never really understood music genres except as an organizational tool for music stores. When I tell people that I’m a sound designer they think I work in film. When I ask for the dykes people look at me funny. Life needs subtitles.
So I still don’t know dancehall, but I’m 99% sure they want more bass. However much I have now, they want more of it. And the next time someone is talking about a dancehall sound system I won’t ask them about their favorite speakers.
Here’s one of my favorite reggae jams. Enjoy.