The Block

Interviews — 1 year ago

Running Channel One Sound System With Mikey Dread

2020 marks a first for Notting Hill Carnival; the only year since the festival’s inception in 1966 that there won’t be a physical celebration on the streets of West London. Instead, like so many of the year’s events that have been affected by the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis, 2020’s carnival will come to life online

 

To celebrate this very unusual carnival, and help create a space for it too, we’ve spoken to some of the people who’ve been pivotal in making the event special over its nearly 60 year history. From Mikey Dread, of legendary soundsystem Channel One, to the acclaimed costume designer Clary Salandy, to prolific photographer Ian Watts, to the food writer and activist Riaz Phillips, between them they represent the carnival, and wider British Caribbean experience, in its entirety. 

 

Here Channel One’s Mikey Dread shares his thoughts on what it takes to run a sound system, the silver linings of 2020’s online celebration and what Notting Hill Carnival means to him.

 

Shop Channel One x Luke Insect’s limited edition carnival T-shirt here

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Courtesy of Thursday Campbell

Without doubt one of the UK’s foremost and best-loved sound systems, Channel One has been a carnival fixture for generations now. Having started life when brothers Mikey Dread and Jah T took over their father’s sound system at the end of the ‘70s, and now manned by Mikey Dread and Ras Kayleb, the Channel One story has always been defined by the tenacious, frenetic spirit that’s so special to carnival.

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Courtesy of Channel One Soundsystem

“We first set up around ‘81 or ‘82. In those days sound systems were coming in from all over the place, people would just put their sound system anywhere – a garden, wherever,” says Mikey. “A friend we knew had a garage and he said, “There’s a place round the corner where you can play.” There was no electricity initially so a caretaker ended up opening one of the electricity boxes to give us power, and that’s how we first got into carnival.”

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Courtesy of Channel One Soundsystem

As Mikey makes clear, having a sound system isn’t about any one day, it’s a lifestyle. “It’s not about carnival. A sound system is a 24/7 thing, so you have to live and breathe it. We always say, the race is not for speed, it’s who can endure the longest.”

A sound system is a 24/7 thing

2020 will be the first carnival Mikey hasn’t played in 37 years, bar one exception: “The only other time I haven’t played on a Sunday was when my daughter, who’s nearly 35 now, was around five or six and I took her around carnival, and I said, “That’s the first and only time I will ever walk around with the kids!” I wouldn’t do it again, too much walking for me. Once I get in my corner on Sunday morning, that’s where I am until Monday night.”

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Courtesy of Thursday Campbell

Still, he brings his particular ability to overcome obstacles, and see the potential in a difficult situation, to the fact this year’s carnival won’t be a physical celebration. “There’s always a first time for everything. That’s how life is – expect the unexpected, and this is really one of them,” he says. “It’s an interesting challenge at the end of the day, because this just goes to show how much people will tune in to carnival by not leaving their house. This year you don’t need to leave your house to tune into whatever sound systems you want to listen to.” 

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Courtesy of Channel One Soundsystem

“You might get people listening to a load of different types of music, they might say,  “Oh, let’s listen to Channel One, I’ve always heard about them, but never seen them.” So that’s an advantage,” he continues. “And it’s not just carnival, don’t forget Channel One is a whole year round sound system. So when things do start to open up again, you might get a whole new audience who’d never heard of Channel One before.”

For the sound system, carnival is above all about people coming together. Once a year the festival weekend provides a physical space for sound systems from all over to congregate. “To Channel One carnival means bringing a lot of people worldwide together, we’re a meeting point for younger sound systems,” as Mikey puts it. “Now that all these younger sound systems converse with one another over the internet they use Channel One corner as a meeting point.”

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Courtesy of Thursday Campbell

It’s an interesting challenge

This is one of the most striking things about the Channel One ethos; the extent to which Mikey thinks of them as part of a much wider global community, with a responsibility to help the next generation coming up that comes hand in hand with this. “Channel One have helped three sound systems be built in the last three years. I’ve helped a sound system in Bogota, Columbia, now they’re up and running and kicking very well,” he says. “I always say we won’t be here forever, so it’s important to keep the market going and get as many sound systems as we can up and running.”

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Courtesy of Channel One Soundsystem

As Mikey sees it, what he does is about legacy, lineage, and the understanding that you’re part of something bigger, as much as it’s about any one sound system. “Don’t forget, we used to go to sound systems older than us at the time, you’d get a little bit of teaching but at the end of the day it’s down to you to build your sound system,” he says. “And that’s what me and my brother did. We got help from the elders at the time and then we have to pass on that knowledge, of what makes a good sound system.”

Read More: Sustaining Communities Through Food With Riaz Phillips.