The reggae pioneer and record producer Jah Shaka, who has died suddenly in his late 60s, was a giant of the British sound system scene. In a career that lasted more than 55 years, he transformed the sound system landscape with a distinctive and idiosyncratic style, eschewing the dominant trends to focus exclusively on contemporary reggae that was spiritually uplifting and politically relevant, presenting the music as a means of inspiration and empowerment for the disenfranchised and oppressed.
At the many dances he held in diverse underground spaces, playing on an ancient and archaic Garrard turntable in a trance-like state, Shaka would chant messages of encouragement as well as exhortations of transcendent devotion to Rastafari, adding custom-built effects and live percussive elements to increase the dramatic tension.
Through his masterful use of components such as a pre-amp, a syndrum and a homemade siren box, he made the sessions visceral and immersive, boosting the subsonic bass frequencies at regular intervals to create a transportive and transformative experience. He reinforced this shamanistic persona by not revealing his given name or other details of his personal life.
An integral part of the black community of his home base in Lewisham, south-east London, during the late 1970s, Shaka deployed a sonic wizardry that made a dramatic impact on the post-punk music of Public Image Limited and the Slits, whose members were then among the few white attendees of his dances. Broader audiences became aware of his importance when he appeared in Franco Rosso’s evocative 1980 urban drama film Babylon, playing himself at a south London sound system session as the action draws to a climax.
Jamaican reggae subsequently underwent dramatic changes during the mid-80s as the dancehall style came to the fore, its output largely preoccupied with lasciviousness, violence and frivolity. British sound systems inevitably embraced the new style, but Shaka opted to become a lone voice in the wilderness that kept the roots reggae flame burning, advancing an up-tempo homegrown variant that became known as UK Steppers.
Jah Shaka, left, with Norman Grant of the Twinkle Brothers at the Albany Empire, Deptford, London. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns
With a backing band he dubbed the Fasimbas after a local activist group established in response to the discriminatory treatment of black children in the British school system, from 1980 Shaka also produced original music with upcoming unknowns such as African Princess and Sister Audrey, as well as self-produced work.
He went on to produce reggae vocalists such as Bim Sherman, Johnny Clarke, the Twinkle Brothers, Max Romeo and Horace Andy, and released an impressive series of dub albums, including collaborative works with Aswad and Mad Professor. In the same period he ran a three-storey community hub in New Cross, known as the Culture Shop, which acted as a focal point for local black youth and housed a record store, a Caribbean food outlet and a Rastafari-oriented hair salon.
Although his record productions did not achieve much mainstream success, they were consistently popular with his core audience, and, more importantly, the uniqueness of his sound system would ultimately inspire acolytes such as Iration Steppas and Zion Train, as well as various sound system operators across the world.
Shaka spent his infant years in rural Clarendon, south Jamaica, before his parents moved the family to the UK in 1956 in search of betterment. They settled in south-east London, and it was while attending Samuel Pepys comprehensive school that he began an apprenticeship on the local soul sound system Freddie Cloudburst, beginning in 1968 as a “box boy”, helping to transport and set up the speaker boxes.
Later he ensured that the amplifiers and speakers were functioning properly, and finally became the resident selector to showcase work by Nina Simone, the Temptations, the Drifters, Diana Ross and other Motown acts. Then, after being inspired by activists such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, as well as his overarching Rastafari faith, he formed his own sound system in 1970, which he named Jah Shaka after the Zulu king.
Armed with exclusive dubplates and a powerfully commanding presence on the microphone, Shaka soon began building a name on the sound system underground, triumphing at many a sound clash. But along with the accolades came tensions with the police, who raided a dance he held in Brockley, south-east London, in 1975, beating attendees and damaging his equipment.
Undaunted, Shaka established a residency at Phebes nightclub in Stoke Newington, north London, in the late 70s, followed by another at Club Noreik in Tottenham, and was crowned the top sound system at the Black Echoes reggae awards in 1980 and 1981. His audience widened during the 90s, when he enjoyed a popular residency at the Rocket, adjoining the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University).
Shaka made his first pilgrimage to the African continent in 1984, and established the Jah Shaka Foundation in Ghana in 1992 to distribute medical supplies, library books and other materials to schools and medical clinics. He also undertook charitable works in Ethiopia, Jamaica and Kenya.
His extensive touring schedule took him throughout Europe and to Japan, Africa, Mexico and Peru. He became a regular festival headliner while mentoring his son, known as Young Warrior, who became a leading sound system practitioner and record producer in his own right.
Noted for his stamina and for presiding over all-night sessions without a break, Shaka continued to command large audiences at events in the UK and abroad.
He is survived by his extended family.
Jah Shaka, sound system owner and record producer, born circa 1954; died 12 April 2023