‘Partying runs through everything’
In the late 70s, soundsystems began blasting out dub in Manchester dancehalls, providing a cultural cornerstone for the black community – and a reggae scene to rival London’s. Now it’s inspiring a new generation. By
In the late 1940s, the roots of reggae and dub arrived in Britain along with Jamaican immigrants, eventually turning the island into a lovers’ rock. As West Indian communities settled in Brixton, Notting Hill and Bristol’s St Pauls district, Manchester was more George Formby than Jah, but for those newcomers who did make Moss Side, Hulme and Old Trafford their home, the sound of their home island never changed. Jamaican culture came to the cobbles, and King Tubby bass lines would play in the front rooms of terraced houses.
“We had a strong musical culture that we carried with us from Jamaica,” says Kuntri Ranks, vocalist of Dub Smugglers and former member of veteran soundsystem Jah Guide. Ranks has been a voice of Manchester since the early 80s – a procession of people in cars stop to pay their respects to him in the street. “It’s in our blood: we grew up seeing our elders play music and we tried to replicate that as youngsters,” he says as another driver waves through the windscreen.
From the late-70s, reggae soundsystems – specially built and customised speaker setups – such as Lord Rocket, Cosmic, Kilowatt and Baron Turbo Charge made Moss Side’s Reno, the Nile Club, the Moss Side Youth Club and others weekend refuges. In Old Trafford, meanwhile, the new vibration was the Megatone soundsystem. “When we began, we had the National Front on the rise and a lot of people from our communities faced racial abuse in the streets,” says Megatone founding member Mega Dread. “The music allowed us to express ourselves against what was happening in the world. We wanted people to hear our voice and our feelings. There was a lot of love in it, and it created a harmony people rallied around.”
Manchester is unrecognisable from when Megatone developed their sound, a time of lovers’ rock playing in cramped living rooms and microphone showmen hectoring dancehalls. But Moss Side’s past troubles still cloud perceptions of the area. In 1981, the Brixton riots, sparked by stop and search policies, were followed by similar unrest in Moss Side. It was a catalyst for further police crackdowns, and became a vehicle for the National Front’s racist narrative.
“My role in the Moss Side riots was getting my friends away from there,” says Trevor Roots. He was a regular on Moss Side’s Frontline FM, Manchester’s first 24/7 reggae station, and now fronts Trevor Roots & the Collaborators. “Princess
Road was a war zone. Police cars, petrol bombs, it was horrible. It wasn’t Moss Side locals there causing the trouble, though, but the backlash came down on them.”
Few relics of that period still exist. What stood at the corner of Royce Road and Clayburn Street differs depending on whom you ask: the Russell Club, Caribbean Club, the birthplace of Factory Records. To reggae fans, however, it’s the PSV, a social club for off-duty bus drivers, and an iconic dancehall that lives on in grainy Youtube footage of clashes between soundsystems from across the UK.
“It was a special place,” says Ranks, glaring at the orange-bricked flats that replaced it.
We are now just up the road sitting outside the Proctors Youth Centre in Hulme. It remains today, even if the dance’s last orders have long been called. “These places are cornerstones for the youth,” says Ranks. “Higher powers are very quick to close down a venue where our music’s being played. We don’t have a chance, it’s not fair, it’s unbalanced against us, and when you see those things it makes you wonder …”
He breaks off as he notices someone approach the car window. “It’s not us you want, king,” he says after the man asks: “Are you selling any ...” It’s followed by a swift “Oh, OK,” and the stranger cycles off. “That’s another thing, the stereotyping,” Ranks says. “You can’t get away from it. We’re just living the best way we can.”
Before the curtains fell on these precious Caribbean dancehalls, the clash was where you’d prove yourself, armed with one-of-a-kind dubplates (an exclusive acetate of a track), and towering speaker stacks that made the foundations tremble. “You’d have two sounds who would go at it all night,” says
Tappa Benz of Hussla Sound, sat in the front room of his friend’s flat, Jamaican flag hung on the wall, Countdown on the TV. “Every original sound had a DJ, a singer and a selector. It wasn’t solely about playing your Dennis Brown records or your dubplates, you had to entertain the crowd. If you did that, you smashed it. That was the dance.”
What did Manchester do differently? “London’s the capital, but Manchester has swing,” Benz says. “We’re some of the most critical people, and you come here to prove yourself. If we boo you, it’s game over, and when we’re in a clash, we pinpoint certain things that will cut you deep when we speak on the mic. We don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why we’re the best at it.”
“We have some of the best dancers here in Manchester,” says Earl Freedom of the “original dub advertisers” Freedom Masses, who also included Clive and Yasin Freedom, both nodding in agreement beside him. Owing their musical education to late mentor President Sound, Freedom Masses came together at Old Trafford’s Great Stone Road school in the early 80s. Clive spent his youth building speaker boxes