A Tribute to Rae Town Old Hits, Jamaica’s Longest-Running Sound System Session

Words by Joshua Chamberlain
Photos by Roy Sweetland

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On August 4th, the Embassy of Spain in Kingston, Jamaica opened its doors to diplomats, entertainment personalities, academics, politicians and members of the South Kingston fishing community, called Rae Town, for a uniquely Jamaican experience – a Rae Town Old Hits Tribute. The evening was classic Rae Town Old Hits, great music and vibes and, of course, lots of dancing.

Launched in 1982, Rae Town Old Hits is the longest-running sound system session in Kingston, and probably the longest running in the world. Its original promoters, the husband and wife team of Sister Norma and Brother Bunny, as well as the resident sound system, Klassique Disco (including founder/selector Senor Daley), remain unchanged since the event started, with Daley at the controls inside Bunny and Norma’s Capricorn Inn on Rae Road.

Bordered by the ocean to the south and the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (aka General Penitentiary or simply “GP”) to the east, Rae Road is lined with residences and a few shops like the Capricorn.

In the 1980s, Rae Town Old Hits “was like a carnival, a festival,” remembers Father Romie of Exodus Nu-clear soundsystem. “The whole of downtown locked.”

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Rae Town Old Hits was helped by being based in a safe community. “Because the violence was less,” Romie says, “people used to fly down [from the USA] just to go to Rae Town.”

When Rae Town Old Hits started, there were two types of sound systems—rub-a-dub sound systems and discos. Rub-a-dub sounds played hardcore reggae, used dubplates recorded by singers and hired deejays to chat over riddims. Klassique Disco was different. They played Jamaican and international music, did not emphasize deejays and tended to stay away from dubplate recordings.

Still, Senor Daley heard what rub-a-dub sounds were doing. “I wanted to be not exactly like them,” he said, “but I wanted to play some of the songs they play.” As the story goes, Daley went to King Jammy’s studio to record a dub by a singer named Trilla but the singer was not around. John Wayne, a deejay for Jammys sound system, offered to do a dub instead. Daley first said no because deejays were not supposed to record dubs for sound systems—they were supposed to chat live in the dance. Senor Daley ignored the taboo and recorded two dubs that day with John Wayne.

“Everybody laugh and say that cannot work,” recalls Daley. “I will never forget that. When we play the dub in Rae Town the place pack up! Everyone think [John Wayne] in there.”

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Stone Love and Silverhawk sound systems, two sounds known for their deep and innovative dub boxes, point to Klassique for having started the trend. Stone Love’s Wee Pow once told Backayard Magazine, after seeing what Klassique was doing, “We jus go to all the ‘rub a dub’ sounds and tek dem main DJs and cut special so wi did have all a dem inna one place now.”

Klassique, however, didn’t follow the trend it had set. That’s because at Rae Town Old Hits there are rules that govern the kind of music that can be played. Klassique had always played international hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. On the other hand, hard core music, like dubs, are rarely, if ever, played at Rae Town and patrons will not hear reggae music recorded after the early-1990s.

In the 80s, Klassique’s music format was cutting edge. They had the busiest party and the most popular disco. So it can’t be said Rae Town Old Hits is strictly about oldies. It is best said that Rae Town Old Hits is about a style. A style of music and community that perhaps stopped in the 90s but continued in Rae Town by Sister Norma, Brother Bunny and Senor Daley.

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Senior Daley explains it this way, “You notice how we keep Rae Town… oldies. That’s Sister Norma’s philosophy. She not changing. That’s why it last so long.”

At the Embassy of Spain’s Rae Town Old Hits Tribute last week, Sister Norma reminded the mixed uptown and downtown crowd that the philosophy and policy of Rae Town Old Hits “has created numerous opportunities… peace instead of war, decency instead of vulgarity, jobs instead of unemployment, and soothing therapy instead of chronic despair.”

For those in Kingston, or on their way, and wish to attend a Rae Town Old Hits session, the event has not been held at Rae Road for several months since the police are not allowing it to stay open after 12am Sunday night. Today, the party continues nearby at Sabina Park on South Camp Road. Come after the gates open around 11pm … and don’t forget your dancing shoes.

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