Music

Why Bristol is Culture Clash’s spiritual home

A history of the crews and sound systems that made the West Country city move to a reggae beat.
Written by Noel Gardner
6 min readPublished on
Sound system assembled at St Paul's Carnival

Sound system assembled at St Paul's Carnival

© Martin Langford

As a city whose music scene is built on the booming bass line, Bristol’s reputation precedes it. Some of the most striking, innovative club music has emerged from its clubs, studios and bedrooms – from Massive Attack to Roni Size to Pinch to Young Echo. Before that, during reggae’s first flowering, the local black community made it a hotbed of sound systems and parties.
The first major wave of Caribbean immigrants started making a tangible mark on Bristol culture in the 1950s. Largely settling in the city’s St Pauls region, they brought with them calypso and mento, which evolved into ska and, around the mid-1960s, reggae. In 1966 the Bamboo Club opened in St Pauls, catering to a West Indian community generally cut off from Bristol’s white nightlife. It was a resounding success, and swiftly becoming a regular stop-off for touring reggae acts.
Watch Dubkasm and Lionunit Sound System rock Bristol Carnival in 2013.

In the beginning…

Bristol’s earliest sound systems cut their teeth at the Bamboo Club, as well as at house parties known as ‘blues’ – another Caribbean import. Probably the first to really build a rep was Tarzan The High Priest, founded in the mid-60s and later renaming itself Studio 17. Other popular fixtures on the early scene included Count Neville, Count Ajax and Honey Bee – although these were a far cry from the vast rigs that come to mind when you envisage a “sound system”. Back in the day, a turntable, an amplifier and some choice 45s would often be enough to rock a house party.
Martin Langford has been a reggae fan since childhood. He's also the reggae specialist at local reissue label Bristol Archive Records, which has shone a light on local bands including Talisman and Black Roots. He attributes Bristol’s bass culture legacy to “the relatively high percentage of Jamaicans and other West Indians, and the fact they were in a small geographic area, St Pauls and Easton.”
Jah Lokko Sound System

Jah Lokko Sound System

© Martin Langford

Birth of the Bristol Sound

Kelvon White – better known as MC Kelz, a Bristol hip-hop lynchpin who emerged in the late 80s – breaks it down further: “St Pauls and Easton made Bristol unique for sound system culture, period.” Before hip-hop made its way into his, and Bristol’s, consciousness, Kelz was an aspiring toaster and regular attendee at underage reggae events. The Bamboo Club burned down in 1977, but venues such as the Trinity and the Malcolm X Centre – both still operational today – hosted many sounds, both touring and local, throughout the ‘80s. Top Bristol reggae sounds of the era included Jah Lokko, Enterprise, Sir Bastian and Excalibur.
Wild Bunch were using two decks, and doing a thing called scratching – something we only saw on TV
Kelz
There were also what Langford calls “party sounds” – less genre-specific crews given to general-purpose entertainment over sound clashes. “My exposure to early hip-hop mostly came from the sounds that would often support live reggae gigs.” This eclectic approach found a natural home in a city that spawned post-punk bands like The Pop Group, infamous clubs like The Dug Out, and an early hip-hop sound system known as The Wild Bunch. First assembled in the early 80s, The Wild Bunch was a fixture of Bristol parties by 1985. It would dissolve late in the decade – but the collective would lay the foundations for the careers of Massive Attack, Tricky and Nellee Hooper.
Watch a 1985 promo from The Wild Bunch below.
“Wild Bunch were a major influence, especially living in Easton and St Pauls,” says Kelz. “They were the first areas in Bristol that embraced hip-hop culture – it made St Pauls Carnival the place to be in the early 80s. They were using two decks, and doing a thing called scratching – something we only saw on TV.”
Kelz namechecks Easygroove, KC Rock, the Soul Twins, City Rockas and UD4 as other major, if less famous, Bristol hip-hop pioneers. A little later, Kelz formed 3PM with Krissy Kriss and Lynx, and rolled with mercurial, underrated duo Smith & Mighty (real names Rob Smith and Ray Mighty, two Wild Bunch associates who had been reggae scenesters earlier in the ‘80s). It’s easy to see a lineage stretching through Bristol music history. Smith is currently a member of multinational reggae band the AMJ Collective, while both he and Mighty have added several production credits to sides by Andy Scholes and Jack Lundie, aka Henry & Louis – a stalwart Bristol twosome and part of the newer generation of sound systems.
Listen to Henry & Louis' Rise Up (Pinch Remix) below.

The bassline travels

The fact that Scholes and Lundie are both white perhaps underlines this generation gap. Until the latter part of the 1980s, Bristol reggae was a predominantly, defiantly black thing. What integration later occurred was less about a softening of attitudes and more a changing of the guards, genre-wise.
As Martin Langford recalls: “By the late ‘80s, many sounds stopped playing and many venues had gone. By the time roots reggae recovered in the early ‘90s, it was often white guys such as Henry & Louis and Gaffa [from Armagideon Sound System] making and playing the music.
“Black kids coming of age in the ‘80s were more likely to have been born here. Ties to Jamaica and reggae were lessened, while a shift in technology led to hip-hop, house, techno and jungle. The abandonment of the roots space by Jamaican producers left the field open to a new generation of British producers to create their own roots and dub music.”
The Full Cycle guys played jungle in a way a reggae sound man would recognise
Martin Langford
Jungle and drum’n’bass were very much part of this continuum. DJs Krust, Flynn and Suv all previously made hip-hop as Fresh 4, while Dynamite MC first manned the mic on a reggae sound in nearby Gloucester before linking up with Roni Size and the Full Cycle collective. “The Full Cycle guys grew up in Bristol and it showed,” says Langford. “They played jungle in a way a reggae sound man would recognise.”
When dubstep started to dominate Bristol clubland circa the mid-2000s, its debt to the power of the sound system was clear – take Pinch’s Subloaded night, frequently co-promoted with the roots-centric Teachings In Dub. Recently, the loose group of producers known as Young Echo have been hosting evenings of deep selections, with an attitude that calls back to the sounds of yesteryear.
Moreover, anyone looking for more ‘classic’ styled sound systems is still catered for. Heavyweight roots/dub events had a strong revival around a decade ago. Jah Lokko are still in business, Enterprise now trades as Papa Roots, and newer faces include Nestafari Sounds and Lionpulse. This music has put down deep roots. As Martin Langford puts it: “Bristol really does move at its own pace – and the reggae BPM does kind of fit.”
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Check out the crews battling at Bristol Culture Clash: