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During the day, the wholesale warehouses around the oasis of gentrification that is Union Market bustle and brim with commerce and action. At night, it’s a different story: Heading northwest on Morse Street NE leads to an abandoned market and bare loading docks surrounded by panel vans and off-duty food trucks.
One night in July, I headed towards one of these warehouses for a party. I felt lost amid this industrial and commercial decay until I turned a corner and heard the bassline and patois of reggae gradually getting louder. This must be the place. Past industrial mixers and slop sinks is a dark room strung up with Christmas lights, a DJ table butted up against a speaker cabinet that measures 10 feet tall.
With no disrespect to the four DJs and one MC on the bill, I was there to see, hear, and feel that speaker cabinet, which launched that night under the name Grand Ancestor Sound System. Technically, the Grand Ancestor box is an eight-cabinet, four-way, high-fidelity sound system that runs at about 15,000 to 20,000 watts. For non-audiophiles, suffice it to say that the sound system is nearly as powerful as anything in a nightclub, judging by the physical reactions it causes: sound waves vibrate your sternum and collarbone, hairs on your arms stand straight up and the bass rumbles all the way to the end of your GI tract. It is a visceral experience—especially when its speakers pushed the air on a sticky night that was still 84 degrees long after the sun has set.
Someone on the mic promised that the party would go until sunrise, and it almost made it before shutting down at 4 AM. “It went off without a hitch,” says D.C. local and Grand Ancestor mastermind Jason “Yola” Berto. “The sound never cut out, no drama, no bad people, no idiots, it was real smooth, man. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
What Berto and his collaborators have tried to do is turn their love of bass, reggae, vinyl, and sound design into what they assert is the first-ever custom-built, Jamaican-style sound system in D.C. Sound system culture began in Jamaica in the 1950s, as DJs competed to see who had the louder rig and the better, more exclusive tunes. As Jamaicans migrated to the UK and the US in the 1960s and ‘70s, sound system culture moved with them and eventually contributed to the development of hip-hop, grime, and dubstep.
Under his Yola alias, Berto has been showcasing new and roots reggae at his Computa Age shows since 2012 at venues like Patty Boom Boom and Flash. But running parties in clubs has its limitations and frustrations. “We got tired of dealing with clubs and club owners,” he admits. “We wanted to be in control of our own variables, put parties where we wanted and not rely on anyone but ourselves.” Berto, along with partners Patrick Otthofer and Scott Bentley, concluded that the only way to proceed was with their own sound system, which they financed and built themselves in collaboration with craftsman John Giesecke and sound engineer Tony Le at The Freezer, an artist co-working space on Captiol Hill. It took them three years.
The Grand Ancestor team wants their sound system to be a “service” for all corners of D.C.’s underground scene, pumping out not only the reggae and dub music that they specialize in but also house, techno, dubstep and drum’n’bass the way it’s supposed to be heard. But Berto and his team are also trying to be “selective” with requests for the system as they try to preserve their musical integrity. “We’re not going to rent this out for Skrillex,” he jokes.
As for the Grand Ancestor parties, Berto thinks that reggae and a proper sound system can bring together fans of disparate types of music. “People are looking for cool parties to go to that are different,” he maintains, noting the diversity of the Grand Ancestor events that finds old rastas, underground clubbers and college kids dancing together. “Our motto is ‘all tribes welcome.’” Well, except for Skrillex.