As Vivek landed in my nation’s capital – a cesspit of legalized corruption, hypocrisy, and corporate collusion, the epitome of Babylon. I made the trek to down to hear the Grand Ancestor system in action. A relatively new sound system but one who’s ethos is committed to pushing reggae and dub in its proper context but also dedicated to fill the audio void for D.C’s growing underground music culture. I met with Grand Ancestor bossman Yola aka Jason Berto and had ourselves a little chat about the process of building the system, beat-boxing with Lee Scratch Perry and what the future holds for the Grand Ancestor system and label as Vivek rattled the foundation.
For our audience who isn’t familiar with Grand Ancestor and yourself, can you give us a little overview?
Easy TRUSIK massive, my name is Jason Berto. I’ve been DJing since 2011 under the moniker ‘Yola‘, and started my night “Computa Age” in Washington, D.C. in 2012, which focused on forward thinking reggae music and reggae influenced bass music. With the completion of our sound system in 2016 the parties have effectively been rebranded “Grand Ancestor Presents” but are still alive and well with the same focus, sound system culture. I’ve also been hosting a monthly radio show on Sub.FM for the past five years, every four Sundays. Grand Ancestor is a D.C. based record label and sound system that I started in 2013. The label’s sound can best be described as: “Built for sound systems, inspired by Jah” – I’m not concerned with BPMs. The label is a vinyl only imprint with no represses. GA001 featured New York based, Cuttle, with a ruthless Alpha Steppa remix on the flip. The release sold out in about six weeks and it was full steam ahead from there with GA010 looming on the horizon. Grand Ancestor Sound System is D.C.’s only operating Jamaican-style stack, inspired by my first trip to Outlook Festival in Croatia and fascination with sound system culture. After returning from Croatia in 2013 my partners (Patrick Otthofer and Scott Bentley) and I started doing some research, brainstorming general ideas, and began to outline what kind of boxes we wanted to build. After three grueling years of blood, sweat, and tears, the sound system made its debut in D.C. on July 23rd, 2016.
We touched upon the system and the label already, but did the idea for the system come first before the label?
My plan was always to do them together. The more we dedicated ourselves to it, the more realistic it became. I will say, it’s a good 10x more difficult to start your own sound system than your own record label, but in sound system culture, the two go hand-in-hand. It’s the recipe you see quite often: you have your sound system to showcase your label / sound, loaded with your dubplates and exclusives. We’re no different.
So how did you go about finding out all the specs to build your system?
Speakerplans is a great forum to start familiarizing yourself with box designs, trusted drivers, amps, and really all things audio. There’s more information than you can handle on there, Patrick lived on the forum for a while. Myself personally, by DJing in the sound system culture scene, even prior to starting the label, I made a lot of contacts overseas as well as here stateside. We never wanted to pretend like we knew what we were doing; we researched, trusted our gut, and used the resources we had available. Maximum respect to John Giesecke, Tony Le, Quoc from Dub-Stuy, Sean Hennessey, Jason Geban, Rigsmith, Paul Axis, Alex Sage, and everyone who helped us out along the way. That’s the beautiful thing about sound system culture; it really is a family thing. Everyone was nothing but amazing to us, if we took time to write them a question, they took the time to write us an answer. We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, we stuck to what’s been tried and tested but with a likkle GA twist.
So what does your system currently consist of?
Right now, our system is one “stack”. We have four scoops, which are hog scoops loaded with 18” drivers, on top of that we have two kick bins, of which both are a double 15 front loaded design, so there are two 15” drivers in each one of those boxes. For our two mid-tops, we went with the MT122 design, which consists of two 12” drivers stacked on top of each other with a compression driver mated to a horn at the very top. Our plan is to return to the woodshop next month to work on two tweeter boxes as well as our next two hogs. Numerous Crest Pro Series amps via custom power distribution power the system. For processing we’ve been using a Soundweb London Blu-100 but our custom Preamp from Alex Sage is set to arrive any day now and will take over the processing duties.
What attracts you to sound system culture and by extension reggae and dub music? Why and what makes them important for you?
For me, I grew up around a ton of vinyl. My dad was a big collector, so it was a part of my childhood. My dad was listening to a lot of blues, jazz, funk, soul, and a little bit of reggae, but for me I always loved bass. I remember riding in my dad’s old Nissan Z at an early age and he had little push out EQ nobs and he would kill the bass saying “watch this” and then he would bring it back into the mix at full force. I was about five-years-old and speechless. Before I could even drive my first car, I had a sound system put in it. My friends and I were into 90s hip-hop and underground hip-hop for a while. People like Big L, Outkast, Three 6 Mafia, Andre Nickatina, and Hieroglyphics – bass heavy hip-hop, and then I slowly started digging into the sounds of early reggae and dub.
The big turning point for me was when one of my best friends, Matt Almquist, whom I went to high school with, went abroad for college in 2007 to Edinburgh University in Scotland. During winter break of freshman year of college, Matt comes back with a USB loaded with Skream, Mala, Mungo’s Hi-Fi, Riddim Tuffa, Alpha Steppa, and all these artists we had never heard of before. We gave the tunes a test run in my car and that was it, I was hooked from that moment on. From the thirty or so tracks he gave me, I just started spidering and finding more artists and more labels, I was obsessed.
A lot of people think of reggae as a genre that came and went, not many people are hip to all the amazing stuff coming out of Europe, Japan, Mexico, and all over the world. I couldn’t stop collecting the records, no one else was playing them here, so I needed to show people this music that moved me to my core. I started my night “Computa Age” in 2012 and showcased this kind of “nouveau” reggae and dubstep, as well as paying respect to the roots. For me, with reggae and a lot of the electronic music it’s inspired, the key is bass and space, highs and lows, the positive vibe, the community-centric message. With dub in particular, it’s the lawlessness and innovation that has always fascinated me, anything goes.
When you throw dances, do you feel that it’s important for attendees to understand the history or have an idea of what sound system culture is or does that come after the fact?
All tribes welcome. We are trying to get as many people as we can to experience sound system culture properly. We believe if they just show up, regardless of how much they know about it, people will have a great time, want more, and build the culture here in the greater D.C. area, which is where Patrick, Scott, and I grew up. We definitely want to do the best we can for our hometown and hopefully inspire others to build their own sound systems here in D.C.
What do think of US sound system culture? How would you describe it here in the US as opposed to other places like Europe or Mexico?
In terms of the US, I would say it’s lacking but growing. It’s definitely on the up; we have a Facebook group called “Sounds United” that grows more and more every month. I saw another half stack pop up in Cleveland just last month. Inner Standing Sound has been holding it down in the Bay Area for years. Dub-Stuy is doing their thing in New York alongside Massada Rock and TeeGees, while we have Riddim Macka representing North Carolina, and of course all the incredible things Sean Hennessey is doing up north. I also have to big up my Sonic 71 family with a tuff sound out in Maryland. When you think about how big America is and you think about how many sounds there are in even some of the smaller countries throughout Europe, Asia, and Central / South America, we definitely have some catching up to do, but the interest is there and you’re seeing sounds pop up all over now. Things are definitely moving in the right direction and I believe the US has the most unrealized potential for the growth of sound system culture. I can’t wait to see where sound system culture is ten years from now in the US.
Speaking of Mexico and Europe, what was it like playing there? I know you also had the opportunity to play alongside Aba-Shanti as well as Lee Scratch Perry over the past year, how was that?
The opportunities I had to play over in Europe and Mexico were truly amazing experiences I will never forget! Going over seas and having people from all sorts of different countries tell you they have all your label’s releases and love the sounds you’re pushing is a special feeling. It’s also always interesting to see what the scene and vibe is like in different countries, there’s always something to be learned. The night with Lee at the State Theater was magical. During the hour we had in the green room at the end of the show, I was beatboxing, he was chanting, we were like children. With Aba Shanti, I tried to learn as much as I could from him, pick his brain whenever possible, watch him orchestrate a proper dance and fine-tune a sound. I brought my NJD dub siren down to Mexico and I left it up there for Aba’s sets Friday and Saturday night and some of the things he was doing on it, I was like “Man, I gotta figure out how to do that ”. Whenever I get to see someone I admire perform, whether it be in the states or abroad, I try to take in the moment, learn as much as possible, and watch how they run a dance (and of course have a skank).
Last question, what does the future hold for Grand Ancestor?
In terms of the label, we have the monumental GA-X coming out next; I’ll be sending that off for mastering shortly. We will be announcing the two artists very soon, but *hint hint* one of them just played on our sound. We are currently signed through GA013, ready to roll out a gang of new releases that I’m super excited for everyone to hear. The sound system never stops, always evolving. Our custom preamp from Alex Sage will be arriving in the coming weeks and we’ll begin to get acquainted with her. The long-term goal is to have our second stack completed by the end of 2018, so we’ll keep throwing parties, you keep coming, and we’ll have the second stack here inna Babylon quick, fast, and in a hurry. Soon forward.
Keep an eye on the Grand Ancestor socials for updates on GA-X and future events.