City, home to a sizeable population of Jamaican emigrants,
maintained a relatively low profile in the reggae world until the
1980's. Then, the music's transition from roots to dancehall was
accompanied by explosive growth in New York's local reggae scene. In
the Jamaican tradition, this scene was centered around locally-run
sound systems, and of these, the sound now known as Downbeat the
Ruler (originally called Downbeat International) has proved to be
the most enduring. Founded in the seventies by selector Tony Screw,
Downbeat rapidly became not only a regional force, but one that
could compete with the strongest sounds from Jamaica.
In the "rub-a-dub" era of the 1980's, sound systems were as much a
showcase for live performances as they were for records, and
Downbeat ensured its success by regularly featuring the best of
Jamaica's microphone talent. Brigadier Jerry of Jah Love Muzik was a
frequent visitor, and other top artists like Josey Wales, Charlie
Chaplin, Lone Ranger, Nicodemus, Early B, Jim Brown, Johnny Osbourne,
Ninjaman, Papa San, Professor Nuts and more came to New York to
perform for the sound. In addition to hosting these Jamaican
performers, Downbeat provided exposure for New York's local artists,
some of whom went on to achieve worldwide recognition. The core of
the Downbeat crew included Shinehead, Louie Ranking, Sister Carol,
and Santa Ranking, and other locals like Mikey Jarrett, Alton Irie,
Reverend Badoo, Neville Valentine, and Brimstone would occasionally
appear as well.
In addition to this large and varied supply of top-ranking live
performers, Downbeat was also known to possess a deep box of "dubplates,"
exclusive recordings cut by artists for Downbeat alone to play.
Featuring custom-built lyrics proclaiming Downbeat’s dominance,
these dubplates served the sound well in sound clashes (face-offs in
which opposing sound systems exchange exclusive tunes and improvised
lyrics in attempts to win crowd support). Armed with its fearsome
wax and sizeable host of artists, Downbeat successfully clashed not
only American competitors like African Love and Papa Moke, but also
top sound systems from Jamaica like Silverhawk, Black Scorpio,
Volcano, and Stereo One, who would fly to New York to battle the
In addition to this large and varied supply of first-class live
performers, Downbeat also had a deep box of "dubplates," exclusive
recordings cut by artists for Downbeat alone to play. Featuring
custom-built lyrics proclaiming Downbeat's dominance, these
dubplates served the sound well in "sound clashes," face-offs in
which competing sound systems would exchange exclusive tunes and
improvised lyrics in order to win the favor of the crowd. Armed with
its fearsome record selection and sizable host of artists, Downbeat
successfully clashed not only American rivals like African Love and
Papa Moke, but also top sound systems from Jamaica like Silverhawk,
Black Scorpio, Volcano, and Stereo One, who would fly to New York to
battle the local champion.
The arrival of the 1990's brought major change to the sound system
world. In a development pioneered in Jamaica by the mighty Stone
Love, live performances were replaced by a steady stream of
dubplates introduced by the sound's "selector," and the deejays once
so central to the sound systems became primarily recording artists.
Downbeat, with its potent dub box, was handsomely prepared for this
new era, but did not entirely abandon its foundation in live
performances. Artists would still occasionally perform on the sound,
and in the mid-90's Downbeat held a series of dances featuring the
former Stur Gav crew and other foundation artists, including U Roy,
Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin, Josey Wales, Ranking Joe, Lone
Ranger, Sugar Minott, and Pad Anthony, proving that these veterans
were still in fine performing form.
Today, after more than three decades in the business, Downbeat
remains a force to be reckoned with. The sound is traditionalist in
its choice of artists and songs to voice, and does not constantly
chase the most-hyped "bashment" rhythm or artist-of-the-week.
Instead, Downbeat maintains what is quite possibly the deepest,
heaviest collection of exclusive foundation dubplates in the world,
a record box only rivaled by a small handful of other
long-established sounds. Unlike so many other sounds from the past
that have fallen by the wayside, Downbeat still regularly holds
dances, and occasionally flexes its sizeable muscles in clashes.
Nearly unmatched in longevity and might, there is no doubt that Tony
Screw and his sound have long since earned their title: Downbeat the
© Michael Villet 2004