Arts Desk

Soundclash Turns 10: A Decade of DJing Classic Reggae

For a decade, the Soundclash Jamaican music night at Marx Cafe has been one of D.C.'s musical treasures. Named after the island soundsystem competitions, this last-Friday-of-the-month dance night features a crew of local and guest DJs trying to top each other with selections of reggae, ska, rocksteady, dub, and a bit of dancehall. The Soundclash crew also puts a mix of Jamaican oldies on their website each month, along with cleverly written liner notes from DJ Mark “The Kaiser” Williams. At their 10th anniversary celebration this Friday, they'll be selling special mix CDs, plus Jamaican rum punch and beer specials. (Update! They'll also be selling T-shirts and hoodies.) Over email, part of the Soundclash crew answered my questions about the event and their involvement with Jamaican music.

Has DC Soundclash always been Toby Gohn (Rice & Peas), Mark Williams (aka Kaiser) and Sam Votsis (aka Sammy Gong)?

Williams: There were four of us at the beginning, and it's Paul Arndt (I think he was DJ El Paso at the time) that's missing from the above.  At some point around 2004 or so we added Bobby Babylon to our crew and after he semiretired, it's been just us three amigos, plus guest DJs just about every month.

Any specific incidents from any nights over the last 10 years that you can relate?

Gohn :We pulled off nearly an entire night of heavyweight dubwise sounds and had the dancefloor humming the whole time.  That and Kaiser punching/kicking a hole in the wall.

Williams : Oh yeah, the hole in the wall. I think that was on a night when Marx got hit by an Alcohol Beverage Control board "detective," and we ended up having to pretend we weren't DJing. The licensing scenario had some shades of gray at the time, and I got annoyed at the bureaucratic display of muscle, you could say.

Gong : My favorite time (other than ramming a dance) is when the place empties out a little early, and we can rock dubs and roots and rub-a-dub till close. There's nothing like hearing the bass rolling along as the mix swirls across the speakers.  Having said that, one of the most satisfying parts (as selector or dancer) of Soundclash is being on a packed dancefloor as rocksteady blasts. Anything seems possible: world peace, cold fusion, working jetpacks, etc. It validates everything we talked about before we started the gig.

Williams: You're familiar with U-Roy, of course, and in the early years my friend Kelly Young (formerly of Velocity Girl as well as City Paper) was a fairly regular attendee (big fan of bass playing, obviously). I'm not sure when it became obvious that a silly idea needed to come to fruition, but chances are Kelly swayed me and the others with his late-night beerified "patois," and so we debuted him as "K-Roy" on a few occasions, letting him rock the mic over some Studio One instrumentals and the likes.  We've yet to take him to the studio and get him signed up, but Mike from Slumberland is but a phone call away.

Do you have any favorite special nights with mixes geared toward certain artists, producers, labels?

Williams: We've done a few nights where we'll play Studio One material for two hours straight, for example. And unfortunately, with the constant deaths in the Jamaican musical fraternity, we end up doing a lot of tributes to artists, which just means a liberal peppering of their tunes all night long.  The one dub night mentioned above was also an idea that surprisingly worked.

I have never seen your event listed on WPFW DJ Tony Carr's email list. Do you try to reach out via flyers, public radio, online?

Williams : Oh, sure. Over 10 years, we've tried a number of promotional tactics. Early on, our flyers were peppered all over the place. WPFW's offices were in receipt of them, as well as the Jamaican Embassy. We still flyer and do our monthly website updates, where we provide a mix of songs with write-ups by us. I think as a DJ night, that's actually a fairly unique feature, and I'd say we're proud of that.

Has your audience changed over the 10 years?

Gohn: I think so.  The early years really had more of an interactive aspect to them, with folks requesting tunes (ones that made sense, not asking for Sublime or reggaeton). We still play all the oldies, but the past few years the dancefloor has definitely moved toward more of a '60s vibe, with roots, dub, and rub-a-dub taking more of a backseat as far as what inspires reaction from the dancing feet.

Williams: I'd also add that Mount Pleasant doesn't seem quite as off-the-beaten path as it did when we first started.  Marx wasn't really on the map at all, and it just felt like people were entering a terra incognita at the time.

Are any of you currently involved in doing liner notes or other aspects of the reggae reissue biz?

Gohn : My podcast Soulshake is an online show of mixes from my vinyl collection, which as of writing has over 30 hours of mid '60s to early '80s reggae.

Willams: Well, I did write liner notes on one Trojan compilation a few years back, but there's currently no such projects I'm working on. The writing I do for our website is the bulk of my thrusts into transferring my knowledge into the public domain.

Are you all still looking for old 45s and such, or reissues on CD or mp3 mixes of old faves?

Gohn:  All of it, but yes, still a major focus on the old 45s.

Williams : Oh, hell yeah.

Who are some artists who've gotten the most play?

Williams : We laugh about the fact that Marley gets relatively little play by us, at least in comparison to any other reggae night you're likely to attend. Toots & the Maytals always feature heavily, because his songs and singing have the kind of energy that immediately translates to the dancefloor.  When we go ska, we'll hit the Skatalites and Prince Buster pretty hard, and then there's my love affair with the late, great Roy Shirley. Sam seems to hit the Glen Brown/King Tubby bottle fairly hard. Other than that, we all tirelessly admire Gwen Stefani's work.

DC Soundclash Friday June 29 at 10 pm at the Marx Café, 3203 Mount Pleasant St. NW, Washington, DC.  FREE

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