Legendary sound systems such as Freddie Cloudburst, Jah Shaka and Saxon Studio International have all called Lewisham home. We chart their fascinating local links, from the blues parties of the 1950s and 60s to the present
Words by Emma Finamore; Photos by Lima Charlie and Paul Stafford
Think of the capital’s sound system history and Notting Hill Carnival in west London will probably spring to mind, along with Brixton’s rich reggae connections in the south.
But the borough of Lewisham is equally as vital in the story of UK sound system culture: it has been home to some of the nation’s most revered and influential sound systems, as well as a hotbed of innovative reggae music, artists and record labels.
In the lead-up to Carnival – and in the year when the Windrush generation are being celebrated – it is an important history to tell, and one that continues to echo through the streets of Lewisham to this day.
“Blues parties” were house parties held by the newly arrived West Indian community in the 1950s and 60s, and UK sound systems can be traced directly back to the equipment used to play music at these gatherings.
They were somewhere to listen to music from home that couldn’t be heard in mainstream clubs, as well as getting around the racist “colour bar” that meant non-white faces were not welcome in many music or social venues.
These parties had their origins in Jamaica, where they were big, public, open air events. In Britain however, it was often too cold and damp to dance outdoors, and families faced discrimination that meant hiring space was often impossible. Blues parties in Britain were therefore held in people’s homes.
Deptford Dub Club’s Soft Wax (AKA Steve McCarthy), who DJs dub reggae and roots, is an expert on the music that was brought to the borough by people moving to the UK from the Caribbean.
He recently held an installation exhibition on the subject at Poplar Union, which recreated the living room of a Jamaican family set up for a traditional 1950s blues party.
Soft Wax says that these parties took place all over Lewisham borough, but that exact streets or addresses have not been recorded – mainly because the people holding them were mindful to remain under the radar.
He says that shockingly, arson attacks on houses hosting blues parties in south-east London were not uncommon, and that people also feared repercussions from the authorities over the selling of food and drink at unlicensed premises (their homes).
“Obviously if you were having a party you wanted people to come,” he explains, “but on the other hand you didn’t want to publicise it too widely. There was this threat – how will people react?”
During the 1960s however, Caribbean music began to move from under the radar into mainstream UK consciousness and venues. Soft Wax says Lewisham borough was central to this shift, as reggae sound systems started playing in its clubs and pubs.
“The scene began to go more public as it was tied to other movements like the Mods,” he explains. “The El Partido [at 8-10 Lee High Road] had a Duke Reid residency [not to be confused with the Jamaican record producer of the same name] and Neville the Enchanter played at the Amersham Arms.”
Also in Lewisham, the Freddie Cloudburst sound system played rocksteady, R&B, ska and reggae. A budding soundman cut his teeth as an operator for them: a young Jah Shaka.
As sound systems shifted from domestic spaces like living rooms and basements into public venues, reggae was becoming a fixture in the British charts by the late 1960s, and many of the scene’s leading figures lived and worked in Lewisham.
Desmond Dekker – who had the UK’s first reggae number one with his track Israelites – lived in Lee, Brockley and later Forest Hill, and Soft Wax recalls a gig in Catford where Jamaican singer-songwriter Prince Buster appeared in the crowd.
He also used to spot trombonist Rico Rodriguez – who played in his own reggae bands like Rico and the Rudies, as well as with Jools Holland and in The Specials – in the area most weeks. “Major figures of the Jamaican music pantheon would just turn up at community events,” he says.
As reggae emerged into the mainstream and sound systems began playing commercial venues, the tech used became more sophisticated; sound systems got bigger and louder.
By the 1970s, the voice of the community they stemmed from was growing louder too. Soft Wax says the children of the people who moved from the Caribbean to Lewisham were less willing to put up with the racism and deprivation shouldered by their parents, and this meant the music scene became bolder.
“It’s not insignificant that a lot of the people concerned [in the 1970s and 80s] were now second generation,” he says. “[They were the] people who had been to school here, and were not as prone to compliance.”
Moving into this era – seen by many as the “golden age” of UK sound systems and reggae music – Lewisham remained at the centre of it all.
Graduating from his “apprenticeship” with Freddie Cloudburst, Jah Shaka, who arrived from Jamaica with his parents in the 1950s and attended Samuel Pepys School in Brockley, set up his own, now legendary, sound system in the early 1970s.
By the end of the decade, his system had gained a large, loyal following, drawn to his combination of spiritual content, high energy rhythms, massive vibrations and Shaka’s own dynamic personal style.
His fans included many pioneers of post-punk, such as Public Image Ltd and The Slits. In the early 1980s Shaka also set up a shop selling records and dread paraphernalia, next door to the Marquis of Granby in New Cross.
Another internationally acclaimed sound system founded in Lewisham in the 1970s was Saxon Studio International, which began operating in 1976, rising to fame by the early 1980s with their “fast chat” style, pioneered by DJ Peter King.
Saxon MCs included Tippa Irie, Smiley Culture and Papa Levi (among many others) who all went on to release records, some achieving Top 40 hits.
Reggae fusion singer Maxi Priest – born in Lewisham to Jamaican parents – also began his musical career with Saxon, before going on to work with artists like Shaggy, Jazzie B and Shabba Ranks. The majority of this new generation hadn’t ever been to Jamaica, so they wrote about what they knew: south-east London.
Lez Henry and Les Back are London university academics who met in New Cross in the early 1980s, via the sound system scene. They are now putting together a “reggae map” of the area, to document its significant places, people and events.
Lez – AKA Lezlee Lyrix, who is also a poet and MC – ran his own sound system called Ghettotone. “They used to have dances here every week,” says Lez, standing outside 51 Lewisham Way, dubbed “51 Storm” by locals after a famous storm that devastated Jamaica in 1951.
The first time Lez MCed was with Saxon in the basement of this building on New Year’s Eve in 1981, alongside Papa Levi and Maxi Priest. He says the sound system was groundbreaking in taking their cues from life in London rather than Jamaica.
“Saxon was the first time I heard a sound system that was British-influenced,” he explains, talking about the mash-up of cultures in Lewisham at the time that created a unique sound.
What the Saxon MCs and others in the area chatted about spoke directly to the audiences at their dances. Les – who attended dances as well as carrying boxes for Saxon and various other sound systems – says: “What the lyrics were saying – it was a version of the world you didn’t hear anywhere else.”
This could be anything from familiar bus journeys to more serious, topical subjects. “This was so significant in the development [of sound system culture],” says Les. “And it was happening right here in Lewisham.”
This local phenomenon reached an international audience and had an impact on sound systems back in Jamaica. “Saxon is widely regarded outside the UK,” says Lez. “When the Papa Levi style hit Jamaica, it revolutionised the way the Jamaicans chatted.”
When Lez visited Jamaica in 1985 he heard MCs chatting his own styles, and Sugar Minott – a Jamaican reggae singer from Kingston – released a track called Lover’s Rock.
It was a style of music popular in the UK and was also the name of a Lewisham-based record label, demonstrating further how music here was feeding back into sound system and reggae culture in Jamaica.
Lez says American acts were also heavily influenced by the style that came out of Lewisham, such as New York rappers like Shinehead and Busta Rhymes.
According to Lez and Les, the boom in Lewisham’s sound system and reggae scene in the 1970s and 80s was inextricably linked to the proximity of all the vital ingredients – youth clubs galvanising and inspiring young artists, record stores, record labels, recording studios and venues.
Up the road from 51 Lewisham Way was the Lewisham Youth Club, which Lez attended as a teenager. “We had big sound system dances out the back and they used to do everything from black history to martial arts, but reggae was central,” he says. “Places like this – they were safe spaces.”
Les adds: “It’s important how close things were – it was a whole world. And it was a black world, hosted by black people. And that was really powerful and important.”
Other youth clubs and community centres in the borough were just as dynamic and vital, including the Moonshot Centre in New Cross, which was a regular venue for reggae dances.
Lez says young people were taught black and African history and martial arts by a Rastafari drummer known locally as Cosmo, who featured in the seminal film Babylon. The opening sequence was filmed on Clifton Rise just down from the New Cross Inn – another important site in Lewisham’s past.
Arklow Road Community Centre was a venue where reggae sound systems played upstairs and it was also a place for live performances, with some of the biggest names in reggae, including Nitty Gritty, appearing there.
Meanwhile Childers Street Youth Club in Deptford was another popular sound system venue, where Lez’s sound system clashed with Saxon and he received his MC name.
These community hubs – where young people were exposed to exciting music, often learning to MC, as well as being taught to have pride in and awareness of their heritage – rubbed shoulders with local record stores and recording studios, run by key players on the reggae and sound system scene.
Jamaican artist and producer Joe Gibbs had a record shop at 29 Lewisham Way, and Lez remembers buying his first reggae records – Count Prince Miller’s Mule Train and Dave and Ansell Collins’ Double Barrel – in Lee’s Sound City Records in Catford, which later moved to Deptford.
The later site at 494 New Cross Road also housed a recording studio, and released records for artists like Jamaican reggae singer Winston Groovy and reggae disco outfit the Blood Sisters.
Dub remixer and producer Mad Professor set up his 1980s Ariwa Sounds studio – now renowned for producing deep roots reggae – on nearby Gautrey Road in Nunhead.
It was a hub for reggae recordings by artists such as Ranking Ann (famous for her Mad Professor-produced A Slice of English Toast and for protesting against police stop-and-search powers), Peter Culture and Jah Shaka.
Eve Studios on Upper Brockley Road, minutes from the youth club Lez attended, was a pivotal place in UK reggae history. The famous Lover’s Rock label has its origins here, with Dennis Bovell living above.
A Barbados-born reggae guitarist, bass player and producer, Bovell is known for his collaborations with dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and for writing the film score to Babylon. He also worked as an engineer at Dip Records, the precursor to the Lover’s Rock label, and was a key figure in the early days of the lover’s rock genre.
“They’d have auditions here,” says Les, standing outside the building, where the imprint of the old studios can still be seen in the basement. “Kids from the youth club would walk around and go down into the studio.”
They cut I’m in Love with a Dreadlocks by Brown Sugar [a female lover’s rock trio] down there, with a 15-year-old Caron Wheeler. There was lots of music being recorded in this area, as well as the dances.” Caron would go on to become lead singer in Soul II Soul, with Jazzie B.
“It was just the concentration of African-Caribbean people, that’s what it was,” reflects Lez, on why Lewisham had such a dynamic, exciting music scene. He recalls walking back from dances and always knowing people from sounds, who were also related to people he knew.
This, coupled with spaces that were easy to use for dances (the then Greater London Council was fairly supportive of the community) created the perfect environment for music to blossom.
“The dances weren’t just about aggression, they were about love. Everything you could express as a human being would be represented. If you just wanted to hear roots, you might go and find Shaka in Lewisham. If you wanted to hear lover’s, you might go and find Caesar and Prophecy sounds,” says Lez.
“You had everything. And it was different times of the evening – if you wanted to go to a roots thing on a Saturday it would finish at 11, then you might go home, change, and then go to a blues dance until two or three o’clock in the morning.”
Lez and Les say this richness and variety was stopped in its tracks when the Thatcher government began shutting down youth clubs – the life blood of Lewisham’s music scene – and introduced restrictions on volumes at live venues.
The police had also begun raiding dances and there was a violent raid of a Jah Shaka dance on Malpas Road in Brockley in 1975. “They mobilised against all forms of working class expression, and we got caught up in that,” says Lez of the authorities.
It wasn’t just central government that wanted to stamp out black spaces: violent racism was rife during this golden age of sound system culture. Some of the darkest examples of this took place in Lewisham borough, but so did some of the most strident acts of resistance against it.
In 1977, the “Battle of Lewisham” – an attempt by the National Front to march from New Cross to Lewisham – was halted by groups working in solidarity against fascism and racism.
The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee was established to support 21 young black men who’d been arrested in the run-up to the march, as were other counter-racism groups such as the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism.
In 1981 the horrific New Cross fire killed 13 young people aged between 14 and 22 (one survivor committed suicide two years later) and was subsequently found to have been started from inside the house, either by accident or deliberately. No one has ever been charged.
A historic demonstration took place following the incident: the Black People’s Day of Action, assembling on Clifton Rise, protested against the indifference of the police and wider society to the victims of the fire.
In a poignant political and cultural moment, thousands of people gathered to protest against racist violence and police inaction, marching from the borough of Lewisham to Hyde Park.
This coming together is something that the sound system community in the borough continues today. Young Warrior – the son of Jah Shaka and operator of his own successful sound system – grew up here and now puts on dances aimed at sparking local young people’s interest in reggae.
When asked about his first memories of music, they demonstrate the central part that community hubs played in Lewisham’s sound system scene.
“It would be my first dance I attended, which was a Jah Shaka dance at Moonshot in New Cross,” he recalls. “It was amazing to see so many people from the area and to see the community come out to celebrate Haile Selassie’s birthday.
“After playing so much abroad [he takes his sound system as far afield as South America] I felt at a point to put some hours in at home in the borough, as many people were asking for it.
“I then created a monthly family event series called the Reggae Garden Party, which was a child-friendly reggae sound system event that was loved and grew massively.” Young Warrior still holds these events at The Albany in Deptford, a stone’s throw from his first reggae dance memories.
Soft Wax also continues the area’s long tradition via the Deptford Dub Club. “To some extent the Dub Club is founded around the musical heritage of the area and around its sound system culture,” he says.
Many of the sound systems, DJs and MCs who perform are local residents and part of the London scene, such as Gladdy Wax, who recorded with Dennis Bovell in the 1970s and whose sound system is one of the longest running at Notting Hill Carnival.
There’s also Danny Dread (part of Jah Shaka’s crew and now Young Warrior’s), as well as figures from the punk/reggae crossover of the 1970s, like Tessa Pollitt of The Slits. The club also features visiting artists from Jamaica too – keeping up the strong musical link between Lewisham and the island.
Lez and Les say the youthful spirit of 1970s-80s sound systems also lives on in the borough through grime artists and spoken word art. “They are very rooted in reggae and in sound systems,” says Lez.
Youth clubs have been replaced by virtual worlds where the young claim space and create their own subcultures. “What’s being used [spaces, technology] changes through time, but the process is the same.”
For Les, it’s vital that we remember the sound system culture of his area. “It was about experiencing a different sense of what London is, and what Lewisham is. A different sense of the world,” he says. “What happened when the lights went down, and the sound system boxes were strung up…”