Burn City Sound Systems: How Sound System Music is Shaking Melbourne’s Underground Music Scene

28 September 2019

Melbourne’s underground music scene is a living organism I had always been aware of but was never cool or curious enough to dive into and experience. Then, two years ago, I was dragged unwittingly to a dub music event—known in the scene as a “dance”—expecting dubstep and to have a terrible time. Instead I was welcomed into a community dedicated to growing their scene, to making important strides in pursuit of social justice, and to throwing an awesome party.

Dub, for those of you playing at home, is bass-heavy Jamaican sound system music. Jack Walters and Harrison Kewley of Goody’s HiFi—two of the youngest operators of a successful sound system in Australia—described it to me like this:

“Imagine you buy a song and you listen to it at home but you only hear a third of the song. Sound systems allow you to hear the entire song.” Sound systems themselves are the instrument.

There’s something very pure about sound system music that I’ve never experienced with other forms of electronic music. The low frequencies delivered at their full potential from speakers as tall as I am, literally shaking the earth, stimulating a transcendent physiological reaction. It’s a very primal feeling.

Dub’s purity also comes from its welcoming community—ready to accept anyone, expecting respect for everyone. As Harrison puts it: “my favourite thing about Melbourne sound system especially is that you go to a dance, and you’ll have an 18 year old girl dancing next to a Japanese guy, dancing next to a sixty-year-old grandmother, with a Sri Lankan rapper and an old Rastafarian guy, all together, having fun.”

Melbourne is fast becoming the reggae capital of Australia, but this is a recently earned title. When Adrian Hough of Adrian’s Wall moved to Melbourne from the U.K. at the end of 2011 with his sound system in tow, he remembers only one other sound system existing in the city: “I was moving from a country with a very rich history of sound system to a country where, in comparison, the scene was basically non-existent”.

Adrian’s arrival in Australia was a catalyst for change—he strung up his rig alongside Heartical Hi Powa in 2012, which would go down in history as the first time two sound systems played together in Australia. “I feel like that night opened a lot of people’s minds to the idea that sound system was something that anyone could do,” he remembers.

Since then, Melbourne’s sound system scene has exploded. While the Internet has played a large hand in this, Jack and Harrison ascribe part of this transformation to the fact that we are presently experiencing the first generation of Australian born sound systems. What used to be a militantly reggae scene wherein people tried to recreate Jamaican culture in Australia has become something entirely different: “We have no ownership over Jamaican culture, and Goody’s wants no part of that sort of thing—it’s about appreciation, not recreation”.

Goody’s HiFi is one of a handful of Melbourne-based sound systems that include a female selector in their crew, with Sydney-based Kat Zhelezkina making up the trio, but gender diversity is celebrated throughout the scene. Harrison says, “Part of it is consciously having a gender-balanced line up, but the truth is they [Melbourne’s female selectors] are just really good, and there’s no reason not to book them if they’re the best. And the cool thing is, there’s definitely more [talented women] out there that just haven’t been given a platform yet. It’s exciting.”

Sound systems in Jamaica were originally an instrument of rebels, played in public areas as part of protests or gatherings of communities that were not allowed to congregate elsewhere. This theme remains true in Melbourne, where the sound system scene embraces its own social conscience and our responsibilities to each other as people. According to Tim Kanjere of Higher Region Sound System, this is not only a nod to traditions present in Jamaican music and its message, but also due to the importance of giving “a voice to the voiceless”.

In January, a widely condemned anti-immigration rally in St. Kilda became a tense clash with anti-racism protesters, and Solidarity Sound System was there, piled onto the back of a truck, helping to drown them out. A few weeks ago, that same rig rolled down Flinders Street in support of Julian Assange.

However, this ever-growing community is now struggling against a shortage of venues willing to give Melbourne’s sound system scene a home. Venues like Grumpy’s—a cornerstone of the scene—closing their doors, and new venue operators are generally reluctant to give sound systems a space to flex. This is mainly due to venue managers’ lack of familiarity with sound system music, failing to understand the intentions of the crews or the purpose of the speakers, and dismissing it as a noise complaint waiting to happen.

The Goody’s crew are now putting on regular events all over the city in search of a new place to lay their heads. Venues such as Woody’s Bar in Collingwood, Whitehart Bar and Boney in the CBD, The Night Heron in Footscray and Bar 303 in Northcote are taking a chance on it. The support of patrons has an important role to play in keeping the scene alive and growing.

Adrian says, “My dream is that sound system culture can continue to grow, not just in Melbourne but all across Australia. It will take a long time, and I may not still be active to take part myself when we finally reach that point, but I am confident that with the level of hard work and dedication I see going into sound system every day in Melbourne, Australia can reach the same level as, and even one day surpass, the rest of the world when it comes to sound system culture.”

Come and be a part of what is only the beginning—everyone is invited.

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