The Jamaican sound system is at the root of the island’s prolific recording industry. Battles for sound system sovereignty, called clashes, date back to the 1950s. The need for exclusive music to thwart a rival in a sound clash was a catalyst in the creation of Jamaica’s indigenous musical genres, including reggae. Sound system selectors’ efforts toward obtaining one-of-a-kind recordings resulted in commissioned versions of hit songs with Jamaican artists tailoring their lyrics to endorse a particular sound system or disparage an opponent. Those customized recordings, referred to as specials, were pressed on soft wax or dub plates. Specials, more commonly referred to as dubs or dub plates nowadays, are essential to any sound system’s valuation and are the most important weapon in their clashing arsenal.
As Jamaicans migrated to North America, the U.K. and beyond, they took their vibrant culture with them, adapting the sound system/clashing prototype. Initially these were not taken as seriously as their island-based counterparts, but over time, the success of so-called foreign (even if owned and operated by Jamaicans) sound systems proved that geographical location was not a determining factor in dominance.
One such Brooklyn-based sound system’s competitive spirit, innovative selectors and close relationships with top reggae artists established them as a clashing juggernaut whose dub plate collection excites audiences while provoking their opponents’ envy. Addies Hi-Fi was founded in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1983 by Jamaican immigrant Adolphus “Addie” Shawn, who hails from eastern Kingston, Jamaica. Addies began as a small set with a single turntable and speaker with Addie as the original selector alongside his friend Lenky. As the sound expanded and began playing out more, they recruited veteran selector Danny Dread (also from Kingston) and became known as Addies International. Respectfully called The Teacher because of his immense skill, Danny Dread’s career began in 1970; he has played with some of Jamaica’s most influential sound systems including Stereo Mars, producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James’ Jammy’s Hi Fi, and producer Junjo Lawes’ Volcano Sound.
In a phone interview with Billboard Dread recalls some of Addies earliest musical skirmishes before dub plates became a sound’s primary clashing tool. “Addies didn’t start out playing specials, but many of the artists who were around from when I played on Stereo Mars became part of Addies when they were in New York City. We would play a song, then the instrumental version and the DJ (Jamaican rapper) would freestyle their lyrics. Other sounds had their DJs and whichever artists did better, that would determine the winner.” The artists associated with Addies at that time included Super Cat, Junior Cat, Junior Demus and the late Nicodemus, Frankie Paul and Tenor Saw. “Addies competed with so many (New York City) based sounds including Downbeat The Ruler, Firgo Digital, Mini Mart Hi Power and we killed all of them,” Dread continued. “After a while, things changed, and when we started clashing Stone Love, Metro Media and (NYC’s) Afrique, we nah use artists again, we played only specials.”
Dread’s expertise helped mentor a Brooklyn record store worker into a formidable “sound boy killer” called Baby Face. Dread and Face, the latter also hyping up the crowd on the mic before the addition of Tony Matterhorn in 1993, would become an unstoppable force in the clashing arena during the late ’80s through the mid ’90s. That period in sound clash history is called the Biltmore era, referring to the Biltmore Ballroom, a venue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where clashes were held almost on a monthly basis. Addies’ numerous victories over sounds from the New York area and Jamaica earned them the royal designation King Addies.
“Addies was the baddest foreign sound ever but we had to put in extra work to get that recognition,” Father Ethan, the owner of Addies since 1985, told Billboard in the first interview he has ever given about the celebrated sound. “When sound systems from Jamaica would come to town, nobody wanted to hear the foreign sound, so we had to be the warm up sound. I never liked that idea, so I said I am going to defend America,” laughs Ethan, a cousin of Addies founder Adolphus Shawn. “But Danny Dread had been doing this for years, he knew how to defeat a sound, so we just worked on improving the formula he had.”
Addies selectors regularly flew to Jamaica where they “voiced” artists with the biggest hits, sometimes in unexpected combinations, incorporating lyrics written for an upcoming clash and often using rhythm tracks different than the artists’ original recordings. By the late ’80s/early ’90s Addies boasted dubs by some of the biggest hitmakers in hip-hop and R&B, a rare accomplishment for a reggae sound system at the time, which earned them the lofty designation “Billboard Sound.”
In celebration of their 35th anniversary, 35 of Addies’ best dub plates — taken from their remarkable clashing war chest — are featured on their new mixtape 35 Gun Salute, which debuts here:
The mixtape begins with Anita Baker exquisitely conveying her affection for Addies sound, sung to the melody of her 1986 top 10 entry “Sweet Love”; McFadden and Whitehead adapt their motivational disco era hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” into an Addies rallying cry and Nas alters his powerful “Hate Me Now” into “don’t hate our sound.” Lauryn Hill’s stunning a cappella serenade “Addies kills sound boys with this dub” is a riff on the Fugees’ hit “Killing Me Softly.”
Selector Baby Face — whose name is called by artists throughout the mixtape because he recorded many of the featured tracks — recalls traveling to New Jersey to record the Fugees’ dubs just prior to the release of their 6x platinum selling album The Score. “My friend Junior Rider told me he had a link to Wyclef so we drove to Booga Basement (Wyclef’s uncle’s house where the Fugees recorded) and we met Lauryn Hill, Wyclef, Pras and producer Jerry Wonda. I gave them $5,000 and they let me voice maybe 4 or 5 dubs.”
Now called Lion Face, the selector also remembers a 1997 clash at Brooklyn’s Aristocrat Manor against (Brooklyn’s) LP International where Wyclef unexpectedly showed up with a winning dub. “I asked Wyclef for a ‘Fu Gee La’ dub, he brought it to the dance, and when I played it, gunshots were fired into the air (a sign of approval, hence the name 35 Gun Salute) and it was over for LP after just two rounds,” Face reminisced. Wyclef was so influenced by the Billboard Sound, he started his own sound system, Refugee Assassins, purchased dubplates by Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson (the costs of which are unknown but said to be among the most expensive in clashing history) and defeated several clash opponents in Jamaica in 2000, including King Addies.
Other standout tracks on 35 Gun Salute include a history of Brooklyn’s foremost sound delivered on Aidonia’s “80’s Badman” and Buju Banton’s “Here Comes Addies.” There are impressive artist combinations including Mavado and Alkaline (“Farewell”), Stephen Marley and Chronixx (“Sun Is Shining”), and the late Sugar Minott with Beres Hammond (“Run Tings/Full Attention”). Super Cat, who encouraged Addies to pursue the sound system as a business rather than a hobby, is in great form with “Murder That” while Bounty Killer, the artist most closely associated with Addies’ extensive dub plate box, is featured on three tracks. “For the mixtape we went back to our biggest tunes but with only 35 we had to leave many out,” comments Father Ethan. “Bounty Killer and Super Cat were the artists who put us on the map, who made sure we didn’t get defeated so they are included. We might be the only sound with Anita Baker and McFadden and Whitehead dubs and Wyclef told me no one but Addies has Fugee dubs, he doesn’t even have any.”
Thirty-five years on, Addies remains a force on the sound killing circuit, having achieved seven clash victories in the past two years. Managed by Dinero, Shinez and Notch, their current selector lineup includes KingPin, Killa Boo, SwugeeDon, Maphead, Viper, Wynterfresh, and newest members Neco Glock and Ob Ras. On Saturday, Oct. 13, Addies will stage their quarterly event, Welcome to New Lots, held in the area of East New York, Brooklyn where they’ve been based for several decades. The event’s special guest is Tony Matterhorn, a clashing titan in his own right since leaving Addies in 1998. “Addies has had so many icons: Baby Face (who departed Addies in 2011), Tony Matterhorn, Danny Dreadlocks (still associated with Addies but currently living in Jamaica), Neil Diamond (now an A&R at VP Records), and today we have new youths who play reggae, soca, hip-hop, Afrobeats, so we don’t limit it to one thing,” ace selector KingPin told Billboard following his set at Spain’s Rototom Sunsplash. Addies’ six-date summer European tour was their second trip to the continent in 18 months. “The great artists that were around the sound for so many years is why we have such an extensive catalog that remains so effective up until today.”