This article by Seb Carayol was originally published in Natty Dread magazine in 2006. 

With hundreds of kilos of speakers to move, for a real sound system playing away is far from easy. Take the example of Channel One, who recently went to Sheffield, 300km from their home in East London, for their first dance in the north of England in 20 years. Seb Carayol was backstage with the crew for 24 hours of bent backs and struggles. The eight hours of music? A nice bonus. 

“You’re from London? Supatone area?” Coming from a chef behind the counter of a youth club in Sheffield, 4 hours from the capital, this question feels like a surprise: Supatone is one of the most exclusive reggae stores in Brixton. Clearly the chef knows his stuff. With a vague air of Cutty Ranks, he keeps busy at his stoves, putting the finishing touches on a mutton dish for Mikey Dread and Kayleb, the selector and MC of the Channel One sound system. It’s 9PM in this quiet and fringe street of the city, and these sound veterans are an hour away from kicking things off. A rare free moment before the start of the Dub Central party at the Everyone Centre, a monthly night held together by the disadvantaged youth of the area. In this cube of white and orange bricks they’ve brought Iration Steppas, Mad Professor, Operation Sound System, and Jah Tubbys. Every time they decorate the room with large painted tarps and when a great sound makes the effort to come to them it’s always an event, the enthusiasm of the audience is palpable. For Mikey and his team, this isn’t just another night either: they haven’t played in the north of England, which belongs to Iration Steppas, for 20 years. Stakes are high.

For Channel One, soon joined by half a dozen box boys, sound men, and friends who came in a separate van and car, the adventure began nine hours ago in their East London HQ. 

For sound systems with a real sound, that is a custom system of their own, a night away like this lasts 24 hours, with the eight spent playing tunes almost like an afterthought. You need a strong mental to keep playing the game. While he won’t reveal his age, Mikey continues to push through despite three hernias accumulated from moving a few tons of speakers since 1974. It’s telling to compare the faith of the Channel One crew with those who claim sound system culture but only move with their boxes of dubplates paid for handsomely from passing singers. Mikey is the heart of the sound system, and he hasn’t had a spare weekend in decades. He might stop one day, “maybe in two or three years,” but on this particular Saturday lunchtime he’s in his loft charging his tools surrounded by stacks of cardboard, leftovers from his store on Leytonstone Road, and, in a corner, the studio of his friend Ras Muffett, which is waiting to be rebuilt. 

Channel One HQ in East London

We’re off to the lorry, an old Mercedes beast of burden that needs 15 minutes of warming before it can take off. It’s parked in a discreet corner of East London and always loaded with the four speaker stacks and amplifiers needed for the Channel One sound. Kayleb is already there and he hands over a blanket, as there’s no heating inside. Heading north under a typical British spit, the trip passes by with conversations that mix Arsene Wenger, “best coach of all time,” the sight of a guy cleaning his car under the rain, and memories of legendary clashes during which Channel One taunted their adversaries with jokes about their noses. A few surprises still await our arrival at the Everyone Center, which in Sheffield most people don’t seem to know about. Aside, surely, from this Jamaican-looking man we come across. Mikey opens his window, “Hey brethren, do you know where Broadfield Road is?” The response, negative and given in a somewhat precious Queen’s English, saddens the crew: “We find the only brother, and he’s middle class” the selector seems to moan.  

The Everyone Center finally comes into sight. Dinner break, catch up with Trevor (Mikey’s brother and owner of the sound), Ras Benji, Calvin, Terry, and the others. Then the unloading begins, soon broken by a scare after an electric burst: while trying to unlock the back plate with a screw in his hand on the side of the truck, Kayleb took a nasty electric discharge. He’ll spend the rest of the night with his knee swollen and an improvised walking stick. Aside from this technical itch, the installation continues as it always does: the owner of the youth center would rather the speakers were here and not there. Mikey, with his three decades of experience, manages, as always, to have the last word: two stacks here and not there. He’d already evaluated the room and its possible resonances in a moment. As the saying goes, you don’t teach an old soundman how to place his stacks. 

Dinner break before the session
Setting up the sound system

It’s 10PM and the first track bursts out of the speakers. A digital King Kong, followed by Michael Prophet. The doors aren’t open yet, the youth of the center are finishing to put up camo tarps and signs. As the first notes ring out it becomes clear that it was worth the trip. Half an hour later, the room has become a superheated dancehall. 600, 700 people. In the crowd, the hardcore supporters get busy, like this couple from the south west of England who rarely miss a Channel One night, as evidenced by her elastic steppers moves. The vibe is a touch heavy on the student side, but all classes and colors are represented. Among the most energetic are Mark Iration, an icon in the area, who greets the crowd with great arm movements when he arrives, and this guy with a moustache, maybe in his 40s, close to 2m tall, dressed all in camo, who windmills with his boots.  

Channel One in Session

Behind his turntable, Mikey rolls out the classic dubs: Trying to Conquer by Mike Brooks, Ethiopian Rock by Danny Red, a few surprises. Kayleb doesn’t let his temporary handicap show and holds it down until 6AM. The last dancer exists and the lights come on. Despite all the energy spent, it’s time to pack up. Ras Benji and Calvin are soaking wet, having jumped around to the tunes for eight hours, flags in hand. The reality of running a real sound returns: it’s time to move hundreds of kilos of speakers. “I can’t wait till we sell these mids,” grumbles Trevor, all the while knowing that they won’t be sold. Channel One is among the few who are guarantors of a slice of musical history. The packing continues as the sun begins to emerge and soon we’re on the road again. In the back of the van with no windows it’s a battle of the sponges, pieces of soft material that make the metal floor a little less hard to lie on. Seven people and some gear, everyone’s trying to fit themselves around each other in order to get some sleep. It’s cold, the sweat becomes icy and joints replace breakfast. By twelve on Sunday morning it’s time for bed. Knowing it’ll start all over again next week. Warrior style!