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Five years deep: The unique story of System

Whatever your particular penchant of bass music might be, everything comes from the same source: Soundsystem culture.

Having a sound like no other crew. Records like no other selector. A vibe like no other party…

From jungle’s original dubplate culture to the never-ending quest among the most respected technicians to develop sounds and aesthetics you’ve never heard before; Jamaican soundsystem values are the true foundation of all forms of bass music.

It’s informed the strong sense of community, too. Both in the sense of the sonic comrades behind the sounds and the music loving gatherings systems attract. Like-minded souls brought together sharing ideas, connections and a sense of what they’re involved with is special, from the heart, and belonging to them. It’s a spirit that has driven underground music since day one, that remains evident in all the most vibrant and open minded clubs and parties, and has played a crucial role in the development of dubstep. From FWD>> to DMZ, some of the most innovative, progressive movements to happen in contemporary bass music can be traced back to real night moves founded on original system community ethics.

One of the most exciting mantel-holders of authentic foundation sounds and values in operation right now is System. Established five years ago at North London’s now myth-like den of low-end iniquity The Dome, and held irregularly so it never becomes typical or predictable, System has become an essential staple for any bass music aficionado in the vicinity of the UK capital. Here’s why…

Having celebrated their fifth birthday in February, System are back with their biggest party to date at Electric Brixton. But  the story actually goes back a little further…

Rewind to 2008: A young Vivek Sharda was offered a set of rare scoops (bass bins) and took the plunge into the dark art of soundsystem ownership. Already active as a DJ since the early 2000s, and beginning to release deep dubstep sounds as V.I.V.E.K on Mala’s pioneering label Deep Medi, this snap investment started a whole new journey for Vivek. Amid a chaotic schedule of family responsibilities, a full time job, DJ bookings and productions, Vivek and his friend Googs spent years developing  their system before the night even launched.

Five years, three venues and one buy-on-sight vinyl-only label later, System’s reputation is irrefutable. Everything about the project is unique and dedicated to the original vibe: the line-ups cross the whole spectrum from original foundation dub and roots to jungle and all the exciting areas in between, the system (which Vivek famously spends the whole night tweaking and perfecting) is designed purely for bass music and has a crystalline weight and sound that you physically feel in every bone, nerve and tissue and everyone in attendance is there because they know they’re part of a unique moment in time.

As Vivek unleashes another limited edition System Music release and prepares the final touches for Friday’s event – a night that sees him taking the controls of another legendary bespoke soundsystem (Sheffield’s Sinai Sound) with a line-up that comprises some of the best across the bass field including Iration Steppas, dBridge and Alix Perez – we catch a unique moment in time with the man himself.

Five years…

Time flies! What’s been interesting for me is seeing how things have changed within the scene itself. When we started System the scene was on a downer. A lot of people were disenfranchised with the music and were leaving. But we started and it was great to get such amazing feedback straight away. We were fortunate enough to have a really supportive venue.

That was The Dome, right?

Yeah. I miss that place. Those first parties were wild! The vibe was on a different level. People were just proper up for it. I knew it was something special straight away. Everyone welcomed all forms of music we were playing. This is the thing: I’ve always wanted to push the sound and encourage people to stay within the music and keep producing and keep developing ideas. It’s the only way a genre continues to thrive and develop; by constant new talent and new ideas and everyone encouraging each other. I have people come up to me now and say ‘I remember this System from 2013, it changed my life, I got inspired and now I’m releasing on this label…’ That for me is crazy. It means a lot. I could quit now and know I’ve contributed.

That must be a great feeling!

An incredible feeling. Another difference back then was that multi-line-ups weren’t happening much. There was no crosspollination anywhere. It was either dubstep nights or drum & bass events. System has always had everything from the get-go. We always start with dub, we always go into step and, more often than not, it will go into drum & bass as well.

Yeah there was a time when events were very blinkered and tighter in their remit. Someone once told me when people start collaborating beyond their scenes and really cross-pollinating, it’s usually as there’s no money left so there’s nothing to lose. It’s also when the most exciting things happen…

There’s a strong element of truth in that! Especially from an event point of view. To run an event in London it’s more challenging every time and everyone does seem more open to creative collaborations and seeing what works.

Fabric might have won a battle but war for clubs goes on, right?  

For real. Things have become harder every year. Venues have closed left, right and centre. Those that exist are asking for more money on top of a bar spend. It kills the culture for up and coming people. To find a small 200 cap venue to run a small night is near impossible, which is very sad. At the same time, it means you have to be creative to find different spaces and people to work with. The guys at The Dome were amazing but unfortunately the council shut us down. Now I’m working with Dingwalls who are brilliant. They’ve got history going back through the early jungle and even back to punk and understand what we’re trying to do.

Let’s talk about the soundsystem itself…. You spent four years making it before you System even began, right?

Correct. Before I’d really started producing. Me and my best friend are music heads and wanted to build a sound but didn’t know where to start. We were in the pub one day, someone rang and said they had certain equipment which we knew was hard to get. It was a reasonable price so we decided to dive in and build our system.

What type of equipment?

Particular types of scoops that are hard to get. Very very rare. So we borrowed some money and got them and built it from there. Just for clarity, when I say build, I don’t mean cutting the wood and building the circuit boards.

Yeah totally. You mean a modular rig comprising components and machines specifically to create your sound.

Exactly. So from there we started to figure out what we wanted for the kicks. We had to dive into the physics of it all. I had a basic understanding of crossovers and frequencies from university but these things became much more important. We kinda winged it a bit and looking back the sound at the start wasn’t brilliant. But the vibe and the whole energy carried us. My thing about System was about focussing on getting the perfect sound for the music we were making and playing. The idea fundamentally is to get it as good as it can possibly be. It’s always work in progress, we’re always looking at how to improve it, what technology is coming out that will complement it.

How did you test it before you debuted it at an event? I’m assuming you need an empty club-sized space to test it out on?

Yeah we’d hire out a community hall. It took a while to explain what we wanted to do. You rock up to places with these big scoops and they say ‘woah mate, no way, you’ll get us closed down!’ But we had a guy who understood what we wanted to do. He gave us time barriers and we’d sit there tweaking and tweaking and tweaking. We only had one stack for the first few before we could afford another one.

Was one stack enough?

More than enough! We actually booked the smaller room in The Dome and thought one stack in a small room would be fine. But the guy said he’d doubled booked us so we had to go upstairs. It was a blessing, the room was a rectangle space with a low ceiling – very positive conditions for soundsystems. One stack in the corner, it’s going to rumble. Considering it was our first event, and I was shitting it, it worked. We got away with it. I won’t say things have never gone wrong because loads of things have gone wrong over the years.

What’s been the biggest System nightmare you’ve had?

The biggest negative was at a venue called Shapes which we went to after the council shut us down in The Dome. We got screwed over by the club and had issues with our sound. We didn’t have a contingency. Towards the end of the night we got so annoyed we brought the sound up anyway. Losing the original club was a really bad one, too. We brought extra scoops in, which we shouldn’t have done. It was too much bass. We lost that venue and it was our fault. We were like ‘let’s get loads of bass in there man!!’ And we screwed it. Such a cock up. But what can you do? I’ve become pretty cool with failure now but I wasn’t at the time. After we lost The Dome I was very disheartened. It took me ages to pick myself up. I love this, it’s my hobby, it’s not my bread and butter, it’s my passion. So to lose that and lose it because of my own stupidity… It was a hard pill to swallow.

Sounds like you were close to shutting down System for good?

I was very reluctant to do another event I’ll say that much. But I’ve got good friends around me and positive people and they all said  crack on and do another one. This shit happens, it’s done, learn from it.’ Since that’s happened I’ve become a stronger person.

Speaking of good people – there seems to be a proper community around System

I would say I now know at least half the regular crowd. We see each other out and about and there’s a great connection between a lot of people because of System. We keep it special. It’s not monthly or even bi-monthly. Because there aren’t that many – people remember each one and have great stories about each one. I’ve made proper friends at System and I’ve also watched a lot of people grow up. People who came as 18 year olds who are now in the mid 20s and they still come down to each one. There isn’t much of a community in the scene but there’s definitely a community at our events.

We need some System highlights….

The first one that springs to mind is when Amit came to play in 2013. He’s become a good friend and I have so much respect for him. I do what I do because of him. Back when I started in the late 90s / early 2000s there were no Asians making proper underground music and then all of a sudden he comes around and turns everything on its head! It sounds silly now but he was Indian and I was like ‘fucking hell! If this guy can do it, I can do it!’ So to have him at a System was amazing. And he was one of the earliest DJs to take us on a journey from the dub sounds to the jungle tempos. That changed me.

But then I can say the same about all System nights and DJs who’ve played. Commodo, Om Unit, dBridge… The list goes on. Everyone who has ever played System has played a special role in this. In fact I could happily stop now and say ‘I’m cool man, I wanted to run a soundsystem and a label, I’ve done it without compromising in any way. My work is done’ But I still got fire inside me and while I have that fire, I’ll continue.

That’s the sound of a man who still does this for a passion and not as a full-time job….

Yeah, definitely, but I did take a sabbatical from work for a while and see what it was like to do it full time. I travelled around and saw even more of the world and all these incredible parties. But I couldn’t do this full time. I have too many other commitments. My biggest priority are my children and music is not child friendly! So it’s important for me to have a balance. I also still work full time and try to keep this balance. Sometimes I struggle, but it keeps me grounded and focused to what I need to do.

Amen. Any time in that balance to take System on the road?

Absolutely! We’re in Bristol in September then Paris in October. It’s time to start travelling with it. I want to take the sound, take my favourite DJs and create a journey. Wherever you catch us just remember to be open minded. Like the line-up on Friday… We got the best in their respective games. Alix Perez, dBridge and Iration Steppers who are bonafide legends.

You must have learnt a trick or two from them?

What I’ve learnt over the years is you get out what you put in. Nobody can do more for you than yourself. Believe in yourself. It’s not ego to think you are good at something or have more to offer; It’s your own self-worth. Its good for things to go wrong. Failure is part of the learning process. Keep at it. Don’t stop. Grind. Be different.

Celebrate five years of System at Electric Brixton this Friday, May 5, with V.I.V.E.K & System Roots, Alix Perez, dBridge and Iration Steppas. Tickets and info.

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