‘Partying runs through everything’: the roots of Manchester’s reggae scene

In the late 70s, soundsystems began blasting out dub in dancehalls around Moss Side, Old Trafford and Hulme, providing a cultural cornerstone for the city’s black community. Now a reggae scene which rivalled London’s is inspiring a new generation

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 automatically tried to replicate that as youngsters,” he says as another driver waves through the windscreen, grey smoke billowing from the Heineken factory behind.

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 …”

Freedom soundsystem.
The imposing Freedom soundsystem. Photograph: PR Company Handout

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 in his garden from television cases he salvaged from skips. “Once, I was testing my system gently in the yard; the next, mans are dancing on the shed,” says Clive. “My mum wasn’t pleased when she came home.”

A flyer for a Russell Club night with Gregory Isaacs.
A flyer for a Russell Club night with Gregory Isaacs. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Freedom became one of the UK’s premier soundsystems. They’ve shared many a dance with London greats Channel One and Aba Shanti-I, and inside Huddersfield’s Hudawi Centre in 1998, the operator of the legendary “heaviest roots and dub soundsystem in the world”, Jah Shaka, found Freedom’s setup worthy of his records. “It felt like Mike Tyson was in your gym asking to spar,” says Earl.

From the late-80s, as selectors travelled from the outskirts to more central venues such as Band On The Wall, labels began to sprout. In 1993, Blood and Fire were releasing reggae LPs to an audience at the tail end of Manchester’s acid-house obsession. “You’ve got to big up Mick Hucknall and [reggae historian] Steve Barrow for that,” says the label’s manager, Dominic Sotgiu. “We were putting out records from Burning Spear, Horace Andy and King Tubby right here in Manchester. That was basically all down to Hucknall’s cash from the Simply Red album Stars, and Barrow’s connections in Jamaica.”

Fast forward 20 odd years to a Northern Quarter basement and Mr Vegas’s Heads High is putting a packed crowd through its paces. It is 10 days to Christmas when the club night and label Swing Ting are toasting their ninth birthday. Outside, Manchester is a cacophony of amateur Mariah Carey renditions, but here, it’s strictly riddims.

“There’s a super strong thread of UK dance music that owes itself to soundsystem culture,” says Swing Ting’s Ruben Platt, who formed it alongside Balraj Samrai. Now joined by Joey B, MC Fox and Murlo, Swing Ting pull from the musical diasporas of west Africa, the Caribbean and the UK, keeping the north bouncing.

“Growing up in the UK, all the music you listen to has a connection,” says Samrai. “And that makes sense in this city. People love raving here, people love to party and that runs through everything, no matter what it is.”

“The traditional London-centric nature of music has led to Manchester becoming self-sufficient,” adds MC Fox. “We’re embracing that in the same way the West Indian community has – they’ve sustained themselves on nothing but love and need.” It’s true. After all, while speaker stacks may no longer regularly touch the ceilings of Manchester’s community cornerstones, below the dancefloor, reggae’s roots still run deep.


Jack Needham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Champion sound! When Huddersfield ruled the British reggae scene

Dave Simpson: Forget big cities such as London and Birmingham. In the 1970s and 80s, this West Yorkshire town was the unlikely capital of UK sound system culture

Dave Simpson

31, Jul, 2014 @4:34 PM

Article image
Chronixx: Chronology review – joyous reggae: forget your troubles and skank

Dave Simpson

27, Jul, 2017 @8:30 PM

Article image
Ziggy Marley: Ziggy Marley review – reggae-pop with a gift for stating the obvious

Jon Dennis

19, May, 2016 @6:15 PM

Article image
Reggae DJ David Rodigan: ‘My name was adopted by a Kingston gangster. He’s dead now’
He may look like ‘a bank manager’, but after 40 years immersed in the genre, the DJ is respected from Jamaican dance halls to London superclubs. As he releases his memoirs, he recalls his criminal namesake and reggae’s rebel roots

Alexis Petridis

23, Feb, 2017 @2:29 PM

Article image
'Spice, sunshine and bassline': Notting Hill carnival's history – told through its greatest anthems
Europe’s largest street festival takes place this weekend: a cross-cultural celebration that has defied racial tensions and dodgy generators for decades. Luminaries from across carnival history pick the tracks they couldn’t imagine it without

Dave Simpson

24, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Ziggy Marley: Fly Rasta review – watery pop-reggae
Bob Marley's son's attempts to prove himself a worthy successor are more in Julian Lennon league, writes Jon Dennis

Jon Dennis

17, Apr, 2014 @9:40 PM

Article image
Wayne Smith's Under Mi Sleng Teng – the song that revolutionised reggae
David Katz: The late Wayne Smith's digital dancehall smash Under Mi Sleng Teng changed the face of Jamaican music, conquered the world and is a rough and rugged epitaph to its singer

David Katz

20, Feb, 2014 @3:55 PM

Article image
Tiken Jah Fakoly: Racines review – inventive, guest-packed African reggae set
Mali-based Tiken Jah Fakoly ropes in some of reggae’s biggest names for this inventive new album

Robin Denselow

08, Oct, 2015 @5:45 PM

Article image
The city’s beating heart: Manchester’s inclusive music scene
Elbow’s Guy Garvey and DJs Dave Haslam and Mary-Anne Hobbs explain how, from the Hacienda to its grime community, Manchester champions the values its attackers hate

Tim Jonze

23, May, 2017 @5:24 PM

Article image
Koffee: the new toast of Jamaican reggae
Usain Bolt fired the starting pistol, and now at 19 Koffee is spearheading a new wave of artists delving back to the conscious sounds of roots reggae

Candice Carty-Williams

15, Mar, 2019 @10:00 AM