Trojan Sound System: saluting the master blasters

As leader of the legendary Trojan Sound System, Earl Gateshead has been at the forefront of counterculture and rave culture, and instrumental in evolving the reggae sound he so dearly loves


Earl Gateshead is in a good mood.

“I feel the world is turning towards me. I’ve stuck to my guns, and what is really inspiring is that I keep meeting kids, 18, 19 and 20, who think the same things about the world as me. I don’t just mean musically, but spiritually, they are looking at the world and saying it’s fucked up, but they know they can live a good life, and not get involved with the psychopaths that run the place.

“We are moving towards a new era, it might take a long time – 30 or 40 years – but I can feel it in the youth, and I am very optimistic.”

Growing up in England as a teenager he heard a sound system from a local West Indian community, and set about getting one of his own, then began DJing around 1979, often at punk shows, drawn to its spirit of irreverence.

“We had an outsider attitude. The ’80s was a different world – Thatcher was running things. In the ’60s and ’70s people thought things would get better, and then you had Thatcher who said there was no such thing as society, and we stepped away from that ideology. I had a job, but I stopped going – I didn’t like the life they were offering, and I haven’t worked since.”

Gateshead dedicated himself to his first love: music. He shared ideas and resources with early rave culture, as part of the sound system collective Armoury 89, which included The Shamen’s Mr C.

“We were at the first raves in Europe, at the cutting edge, and worked with Robert Owens and Fingers Inc in 1987. I was a sound system person, but the raves moved towards us. It was a fantastic time, it opened me up, we were changing everything. Nightclubs were crap in those days, they had bad sound systems, aggressive bouncers, idiot door policies, and and we wanted to hear our music loud, but not be controlled, so that was the force behind a lot of reggae, and a lot of rave culture, too.”

The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill (designed to suppress the growing free party movement) changed everything.

“It was a disgusting thing to do: whatever the young people are doing, stop them. But on the other hand we have so many festivals now, and all the things we wanted to do, to play our sound system, are all possible. I don’t like saying it, but it’s better now. We used to have a nightmare. We would be travelling with our sound system in a van, and the police would monitor our communication, and our van would be stopped 100 miles from where we were going, they would harass us and say we couldn’t go – it was ridiculous.”

The culture of fear was demoralising. “I am a rebel and a revolutionary, really, but most people are a pain in the arse. They want to be free, but they decided that they can’t be, the comfort-of-your-chains-type vibe. You can’t just say it’s the police and powers – it’s the majority of the country that don’t want us setting up and having a nice rave two miles away. There is an innate conservatism that is within the nation, and Thatcher latched on to that, and the Criminal Justice Bill meant the end of a liberal society.

“There are nice people everywhere, but there is no sense of community. I am a postwar person, and it had been an awful war, so there was a feeling of optimism in the ’60s and a belief that we could do better, but Thatcher changed all that. It used to be that if it’s good for the community it’s good for everyone; now it’s what is good for the individual.”

The fact that rave and reggae culture had so much in common initially surprised Gateshead, but the more things progressed, the deeper the bonds became.

“House music became very fast, and started having breaks and became hardcore, and then there was a real link because they started putting reggae samples into the hardcore. You would hear all these great reggae tunes in the mix, which became jungle and drum and bass, but it started off with reggae samples. You would hear all these Black Uhuru tunes – totally different worlds colliding.”

But Gateshead has always been open. “There’s very little music that I won’t listen to, as long as it isn’t nasty and aggressive. I love jazz deeply – Pharaoh Sanders is my man. The Creator Has a Master Plan – I love that tune, it makes me cry, it’s so good it should be reggae. I like country songs too, about ordinary people and their lives; there are some fantastic singers and harmonies, beautifully crafted, and I love garage, it’s my dance music.”

Last year, he wrote an essay for The Huffington Post about the importance of the sound system, particularly in an age where everything is getting minimised and flatpacked.

“The sound system is the exact opposite of what is happening – it is maximised – and it sounds better too, it gives the music an extra resonance, it’s a deeper thing.”

Last year Trojan released the Africa LP, exploring the roots of reggae. “Most people didn’t understand it, I knew when I put it out that it wouldn’t resonate with most people. When they think of Africa, they think of famine, not the roots of civilisation, and it’s not an attractive subject matter for many white people.”

Gateshead once said that reggae provides a Third World perspective, and music for the marginalised, whether that’s in Galway, New York or Jamaica. “It’s so true. So many people think that the First World perspective is relevant, but the Third World perspective is, and people don’t want to feel it. As they say, a convenient lie has more power than an inconvenient truth.”

His enthusiasm for reggae and dub is infectious; he believes it has the power to heal as well as educate, and is unsurprised to hear that Bill Callahan has just released a dub version of last year’s Dream River, because of dub’s ability to harness something completely unique.

“Heavy dub has revolutionised music. With reggae, and particularly with dub, it’s not meant to be comprehended – you can’t work it out like an algebra puzzle. Like Bob Marley said: ‘He who feels it knows it.’”