On The Corner: Channel One Sound System Interviewed

Talking Notting Hill Carnival and "freedom music..."

Channel One is an institution. Preaching the gospel of righteous low end music for five decades now, the soundsystem drives forwards on a path of dub, roots, and conscious reggae, bringing celestial vibrations to venues across the land. Currently holding down a four-times annually residency at London’s Village Underground, Channel One are Notting Hill Carnival regulars – indeed, their stint on the corner of Westbourne Park Road is the beating heart of the carnival experience, an incredible feast of sound and humanity in all forms.

Chatting to Clash over the phone, co-founder Mikey Dread is already grinning at the thought of carnival getting into gear once more. After all, it’s in his blood. “The first time I went to carnival? Oh a long, long time ago!” he laughs. “I was a young man, a youngster. But I grew up around soundsystems. We had one in the house! So carnival meant taking the soundsystem out of the house, and on to the street.”

Notting Hill Carnival may have changed over the years, but its central ethos remains the same – a celebration of Black Caribbean identity, it opens out to embrace anyone who wants to meet it on an equal footing. “It brings everybody together,” he says. “People from all over the world come to carnival and enjoy a couple of days of music. We get people from Australia, Brazil, Japan… they all link up on our corner. They come, introduce themselves, and that’s where the journey starts.”

Witnessing Channel One in full flight is one of Notting Hill Carnival’s most special experiences. This writer grew up around dub and reggae nights in Scotland – some talented selectors, but in truth only an echo of the real thing. Stumbling into the crowd at that fabled corner was a chest-smashing, heart-lifting connection with roots music at its finest.

“It’s spiritual upliftment. We’ve been doing it a long time, and people have grown up with Channel One. It’s important to keep it going. We won’t be there forever, so we cherish it while we can.”

“It’s a meeting place,” he adds. “People come meet and greet!”

The sheer scale of carnival can be a little overwhelming at times, with hundreds of thousands of people descending on West London. In a way, though, that’s its charm. “It’s a sea of people,” he beams. “I think when we first played that corner we had, like, 10 or 15 people throughout the day. But we went back each day until it became what it is now.”

Veterans of more than 45 years, Channel One have seen Notting Hill Carnival change around them – in some ways for the good, in some ways for the bad. “Oh there’s more red tape to get through. They make it too difficult. Soundsystems just want to play. And what they don’t seem to understand is that you’ve got soundsystems, and you’ve got floats – and you don’t get one without the other. They make it too difficult for us, it’s ridiculous.”

“A lot of that red tape can be done away with,” he insists. “Everyone looks after their own corner, at the end of the day.”

Asked for a vintage year, Mikey Dread cites 1984 as something special. “We played Portobello Road, in a great big shed… it’s not there anymore. It’s houses now. We played there all day.”

“It’s the highlight of the year,” he says. “It’s a hub. You can get promoters, fans from all over the world seeing you for the first time. People get brought down by friends, they hear Channel One for the first time and it stays with them.”

Leading from the front, Channel One Sound System are perhaps the pre-eminent suppliers of spiritual low-end. ‘Down In The Dub Vaults’ finds the crew let loose on the Greensleeves catalogue, a formidable label whose work constitutes a solid, granite-like core of dub, roots, and conscious reggae.

“We’ve been playing these tunes over the years – from the 70s, 80s, 90s… to the present time. So when the label got in touch, I thought – why not? Some people recognise them from our sets, we’ve played them for a while.”

“It’s freedom music,” he says. “Of that I have no doubt. People can escape into that style of music. It uplifts people. The idea of putting this album together was basically for the next generation, who perhaps don’t know these tunes. The older generations probably got a lot of these tunes in their box anyway! But the younger ones might not.”

Hitting London’s Village Underground tonight (August 25th), Channel One Sound System then switch locations in the metropolis, heading West for two days in Notting Hill. Bringing their message to the people, Channel One Sound System’s star will never dim.

‘Greensleeves presents Channel One Soundsystem Down In The Dub Vaults’ is out now.

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