Aug 20, 2021
Reggae returns to Coney Island’s boardwalk, bringing roots and vibes with it
For 11 years, Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk has been keeping Jamaican sound system culture alive in the borough
On a deliciously cool Sunday following a week of thick mid-August humidity, dozens of revelers swarm a set of turntables overlooking the ocean. A huge cluster of speakers is blasting reggae, its heavy bass rattling the wooden planks of the boardwalk.
Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk is back after the pandemic postponed the party for a year. Singer Carl Malcom takes the mic for a couple songs before Clive Chin, the son of legendary Jamaican producer/label head Randy Chin, gives praise and thanks. In a tune-for-tune round of vinyl selection at sunset, DJ Miss Hap Selam dropps the needle on The Skatalites classic “Addis Ababa” and Grace of Spaces follows with the Willie Williams roots version.
The tunes are blasted from a massive, 10-foot tall sound system—a wall of speakers, the kind of which constitute an important aspect of Jamaican music history (more on that later)—operated by Chanter “The Timeless Sound.” The semi-regular community event is often filled with reggae legends—from vocalist Carlton Livingston to percussionist Larry McDonald—as well as popular up and coming emcees like Jonny Go Figure. Dozens of regular attendees fanned out around the speakers, dancing and sipping from coconuts.
“It’s the only special sound system outdoor event; you can’t do this anywhere else,” says singer Johnny Osbourne, who’s been attending Reggae on the Boardwalk events for a decade. “[It’s] right by the sea, just like in Jamaica, where we used to have reggae concerts on Sundays. You bring your family; you buy food and hang out. You’re in the water, out of the water. Even the people who did not come for that, when they’re passing and hearing this music, they become a part of it.”
Established in 2010 by Carter Van Pelt—a WCKR DJ and curator who works for Queens-based VP Records—Reggae on the Boardwalk was conceived of as an accessible expression of traditional sound system culture. Where sound systems were the primary mode of musical transportation for generations of Jamaicans, those who have left the country and moved to New York have fewer opportunities to hear their music on a big “sound.” Van Pelt first partnered with 742 Sound, who provided the system, and in 2011 teamed up with the Flatbush-based Chanter’s Timeless Sound; Chanter’s system has been booming in Coney Island for the past 10 years.
“[Reggae] music was recorded to be heard that way. And when you hear it on a sound, it has different proportions, different impact, different power,” Van Pelt tells Brooklyn Magazine. “Even songs that you think you’re familiar with, you might hear them on a sound system, and they sound completely different, transformed. I didn’t have any grandiose plan or vision. But as soon as it took off, I could see that it would be something that could really endure.”
Which isn’t to say there weren’t any sound system parties prior to Reggae on the Boardwalk. Empire Roller Skating Center, The Biltmore Ballroom in Flatbush and Queens’ Amazura ballroom were all popular places to hear reggae going back to the 1970s.
“The Biltmore years are kind of legendary in sound system culture, globally, because that’s where all the big sounds from Jamaica would play,” Van Pelt says. “They would clash against the sounds that were here in New York. Whether it was Downbeat or LP [International] or Earth Ruler clashing against Kilimanjaro, pretty much every sound from Jamaica passed through.”
Though prolific, Van Pelt describes the 1980s and ‘90s sound system scene as fairly insider, and often dangerous. Reggae on the Boardwalk offers a stark alternative: an opportunity to see DJs who have been playing since the ‘60s or ‘70s in “an accessible, welcoming and overall neutral public space, a space where anyone should feel comfortable”—for free. The event has been host to legendary DJs including Jah Life and Tippertone Hi-Fi, original Orange Street sound system Son’s Junior Sebastian, Sister Carol, Willow Wilson, Peter Ranks, Luciano (who joined Johnny Osbourne in combination on the mic with Downbeat The Ruler), and many more. While Van Pelt will invite specific selectors to events, legends often show up unannounced.
“It gives me joy to see people enjoying themselves, especially listening to reggae in the original, official form,” says Osbourne. “Sometimes I just come to hang out and enjoy myself. Sometimes Carter call me to come and sing a song, and I come and sing a song. I can’t let the people down.”
Singer Carlton Livingston came from Maryland to attend the first Reggae on the Boardwalk of 2021, and spent the day running into old friends while enjoying music from his childhood.
“I am a sound system advocate. I work with bands and stuff like that, but I still consider myself a sound system singer. Anything to promote sound system culture that’s positive, I’m down with it,” he says. “It’s good to know that this tradition keeps going and it’s alive, and improving on it by letting other people understand what’s going on and where it’s coming from.”
Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk has grown organically, hosting three to four events a year during the summer with sponsorship from the Brooklyn Arts Council. Without much production. The event—which doesn’t always take place in Coney Island, despite its name—manages to be a lightning rod for a wide and varied reggae community that has international cache. “What [Reggae on the Boardwalk] really does is uphold culture,” says Chanter, who began sneaking out of his mom’s house at age 11 in the ‘60s to attend his uncle’s sound system in Jamaica. “A lot of people who come out here are original people who grew up with this and used to go to dances and listen to vinyl. Younger people who come want to learn this thing.”
That passion was evident at the first Reggae on the Boardwalk event of 2021—held not in Coney Island, but in an industrial part of Greenpoint at the newly opened Under the “K” Bridge park. More than 800 people attended the first reggae sound system under the Kosciusko Bridge in early June, and attendance grew the following month. “[It’s] pretty powerful to know the ingredients are the sound system, the music, and a place where people can feel comfortable,” says Van Pelt. “And that it doesn’t have to be at Coney Island.”
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Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk will next bring vibrations to a new location: Rockaway Beach. On Labor Day, September 6, at 3 p.m., the sound will set up at Beach 94th Street in Queens featuring Johnny Osbourne, Jah Wise, Vaughn Allstar and Mighty Redeemer. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards will also be on hand. (Please note, this is a new date. The event was originally scheduled for August 28.)
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