Tour de Force on New York’s burgeoning soundsystem renaissance

Emma Gritt

TDF Tour de Force on New Yorks burgeoning soundsystem renaissanceJay Spaker (Double Tiger) and Quoc Pham (Q-Mastah) are the men behind Tour de Force. They met five years ago on the DJ circuit, and bonded over a shared love of roots music. “We realised we had similar vision for expanding the reach of sound system culture beyond its usual niche of dub and reggae. Over time, we started collaborating on tracks and that’s how the project started” says Jay.

Quoc’s interest began while growing up on the outskirts of Paris. “I was a big fan of pioneering French dub labels such as Jarring Effects and Hammerbass,” he says.

Between them they have toured and performed with Burning Spear, Israel Vibrations, Culture, The Wailers as well as at festivals across the US. “A huge inspiration for me was touring with Brother Culture throughout Southeast Asia and India a few years back. It was truly a blessing to have the opportunity to take music into new frontiers,” adds Quoc.

The creation of their own soundsystem, a 15,000 watt monster, came about after Quoc saw Aba-Shanti-I’s in action at London’s University of Dub night. “I had been a fan of reggae and sound systems for years, but this session really stood out. I had never experienced such a rig. It was overpowering yet delicate, with each frequency range crafted with precision. Aba’s sound system viscerally transported my senses into another dimension. From that moment, I knew we had to build our own,” he says.

With the help of a carpenter to build the stack, they set to work. “Building a rig was a way for us to acknowledge the past. It provided our musical project and record label with a foundation rooted in history. The construction process was both a challenge and a humbling experience. The knowledge that we had to acquire as part of that process felt almost like a right of passage,” they add.

They hope their rig will help them to emulate the success and reputation of Channel One, Aba Shanti and Jah Shaka, and name check contemporary predecessors Mungo Hi-Fi and Iration Steppas who have taken the music and message to a newer generation.

The finished product, a five-way design powered by classic analog crown and crest amps plus a few secret digital processing units is now taken out around the city every month or so, including at several Red Bull Music Academy and Afropunk events. “It’s been quite in demand as a visual piece and has been used at a few gallery shows. We’ve even displayed it at the New York Hall of Science and the Brooklyn Museum!” says Quoc.

Tour de Force firmly believe the best place for their rig is out on the streets, and one outing with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee saw the entire neighbourhood turn up outside their HQ to skank and party together. It meant a lot to them because “it brought out a real sense of community in our neighborhood and allowed people from all walks of life to connect through music. Hopefully we get to do more of these.”

Jay explains that their rig is not just for dub, and they try to utilise it to celebrate all sounds. “Having such a tool makes you very aware of the quality of the records, the format and the importance of proper mixing and mastering. Even though our events are primarily oriented toward dub and bass music, we regularly work with more eclectic DJs as well as musicians from across the musical spectrum. Once, we even had an Afrobeat orchestra with more than 20 live instruments blasting through the system. Needless to say, it was pretty loud,” he laughs.

As well as manning the Tour de Force rig, Jay and Quoc are also in charge of Dub-Stuy records. “It started as an outlet to release our productions, but it has evolved into a multifaceted organization dedicated to elevating the profile of soundsystem culture Stateside,” they explain.

This week Tour de Force released their debut album, Battle Cry, just in time for this year’s summer of dub. “It’s the first major release on our label,” says Jay. “The concept behind the record was to showcase the connectivity between various sounds and styles, from the foundation of dub to the confines of contemporary bass music. We like to think of our sound as “sound system music” and we see Battle Cry as a manifesto for our label and our broader goal of connecting the dots between old and new.

“We hope that it will be relevant to a newer audience while still being familiar to the purist. We’re very proud of Battle Cry and we think it’s a definite statement of who we are as a crew and a sound system,” he adds.

Dub-Stuy refers to the area of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, famous for being one of the birthplaces of hip-hop in New York. Excitingly, they believe that the city is on the cusp of a “soundsystem rennaisance” as many rigs left on ice after restrictive nightlife laws imposed during the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras begin to thaw.

“Today, you can still see many Jamaican-style sound systems rolling down Eastern Parkway on flatbed trucks during the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. However, with the, the city’s once influential sound system culture has been on a steady decline. As a result, many of those rigs have been collecting dust in basements all over New York,” says Quoc.

“But over the last few years, there’s been a newfound interest and overall awareness of soundsystems and quality sound. With the opening of new music-oriented clubs such as Output, and the emergence of DIY systems like ours, it seems like we’re seeing the beginning of a sound system renaissance.”

Battle Cry is out now on Dub-Stuy Records.

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