Pin It
Dennis Morris Admiral Ken Sound System
Admiral Ken Sound SystemPhotography Dennis Morris

Capturing the men behind Hackney’s 60s sound systems

‘The music played was coming from Jamaica, and the music was like a social comment in the same way rap music is a social comment on black lives in America’

Shooting on his faithful Leica, Dennis Morris captured the vibrant lives of Hackney’s black community: the sound systems, the handkerchiefed pockets on specially cut suits, the working men and women of the 60s.

From a West Indian background, Morris was a part of the first generation to be referred to by the growing popularised term ‘black’, rather than their elders, who were ‘coloured’ – and it's these racial issues of the time that permeate his work. First peering through the lens in his teens, Morris went on to photograph iconic musician Bob Marley and the godfathers of British punk, the Sex Pistols, cementing himself as a prominent rock photographer, something unheard of for young black men of the time.

In a rare image that's now displayed in the Shoreditch creative hub Sonos Studio London, Morris illustrates one of the many facets of life for his community: sound systems, and the deeply ingrained musical culture. The photo was captured on the same street, the historic Club Row, where Sonos Studio London sits today, as a collaborative space for music, art and technology. The man in front is Admiral Ken, known throughout Hackney for his part in the scene, behind him, his box men, or roadies. Sound systems were the lifeblood of the community, a hub for socialising and music with roots in Jamaican and Caribbean circles.

“Admiral Ken was one of the big sound system owners at the time, and was very highly respected. In the foreground is Dennis Andreas. I used to go to the local youth club and he was always punching a punchbag. We never took much notice, but years later he actually fought Hitman Hearns. He got knocked down about eight times but Hitman’s manager said he had never seen such spirit.

This would have been on a Sunday morning, and I was just out and around with my camera when I came across them loading the equipment back into the van after a Saturday night party, so it was just a random shot really.

“Opportunities for immigrants were few and far between, so after hard weeks these nights were something everyone looked forward to” – Dennis Morris

Those guys that you see, they were the box men, the guys that I suppose in rock and roll you call the roadies. In sound system you call them box men. Admiral Ken would've been the selector and you knew he played the tunes and soul at what they call the booze parties. They were a way for people to unwind and for people to meet and to exchange stories about their week, how they were progressing in England and what was also happening back in Jamaica. The music played was coming from Jamaica, and the music was like a social comment in the same way rap music is a social comment on black lives in America. That was the importance of the sound system, of the music and the records in those days.

Put it this way, people didn’t go to Hackney. Black taxis didn’t stop for you, or would drive off if you wanted to go to Hackney. It was a very depressed area in terms of living conditions, but there was a very vibrant community there, and a lot of love and optimism within the area. Opportunities for immigrants were few and far between, so after hard weeks these nights were something everyone looked forward to. Each night had their own sound, like Shaka in the south, and Chicken the Thunderstorm, where the bad boys went.

I would have been about 16 or 17 here. I was not employed as a photographer by anyone actually, I was kind of just hanging around. I did my stints shooting Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols and that there was no one that I could identify. I was expected to work in a factory. I was a total outcast for doing what I loved. I loved photography, movies and shows like Coronation Street that helped me understand the British identity as someone from Jamaica.

Young people today don't understand how hard it was for us back then, doing what we wanted, even getting a council flat. When I took this photograph, I was trying to find my place in society."

Sonos Studio London is a social, creative space and sound studio for musical events and exhibitions at 21 Club Row, Shoreditch, E2 7EY. Check out their upcoming events, combining music, art and technology here