Herstory 3: Sister Nancy Conquers Jamaican Sound Systems
Sister Nancy, A Living Legend
Ophlin Russel, better known as Sister Nancy, made history as the first womxn Dancehall DJ and now she's an international sensation. Her 1982 track “Bam Bam” has been sampled over 80 times, making it the most sampled reggae track of all time. Even if you've never heard of the name Sister Nancy, you'll recognize her voice. She's been sampled by Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Jay-Z an many others. She makes a cameo in Jay-Z's “Bam” music video too.
Sound System Culture
To really understand why Sister Nancy is considered a living legend, you need to understand Jamaican sound system culture first. Before she was making records, Sister Nancy got her start as a DJ on the sound systems. But remember that a DJ in sound system culture means you're on the mic — you're an MC. What we would call a DJ, is actually called a selector in this case.
Jamaican sound system culture has had a huge influence on modern music – most of what we listen to (hip hop, dubstep, etc.) can find its roots in the sound system culture of 1950's Jamaica.
In the early days of sound system culture, portable sound systems were created by loading speakers and turntables onto a truck. In the 50's, selectors were blasting American R&B records in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. Over time, the speaker setups became so extravagant that they moved out of cars and evolved into stacks of speakers towering over party-goers. Neighboring sound systems would compete in sound clashes, with the winner being determined by three factors: the speaker setup, the music selection, and the volume (AKA the louder the better).
The First Womxn on The Mic
Sound system culture eventually led to the creation of genres like ska, reggae, and dancehall. During this time, Sister Nancy entered the scene at 15 years old. Her older brother, Brigadier Jerry, was a sought-after Dancehall DJ and he was Sister Nancy's biggest inspiration and supporter. Even though she was simply following her brother's footsteps, DJing was uncharted territory for a womxn at the time.
Because of her connection to Brigadier Jerry, her male counterparts were more accepting of a womxn on the mic. She still had to prove her worth, but that wasn't the difficult part. After all, she had spent years watching her older brother and he shared his lyrics with her too. Not only did Sister Nancy become the first womxn on the mic, she eventually conquered the radio too. in 1982, she released her debut album One Two with producer Winston Riley. Two singles gained popularity in Jamaica, but not Bam Bam, the track that ended up making music history.
Sister Nancy's Influence on Hip Hop
Jamaica's music scene has had a massive impact on the culture of hip hop. Jamaican immigrants brought sound system culture with them in the 1950's and 1960's. What started in Kingston, Jamaica made its way to the UK, US, and beyond. Because of this migration, there's always been a connection between sound systems and Hip Hop. Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc incorporated elements of sound system culture into his turntable techniques and was essentially the start of New York City's underground Hip Hop scene.
“Bam Bam” didn't become a hit on Jamaican radios but it was successful overseas. It was first played in an NYC club by DJ Afrika Bambaastaa but Sister Nancy had no idea. She didn't realize the popularity of Bam Bam until she migrated to New Jersey in 1996. That's when she started seeing Bam Bam make appearances in movies and songs.
Many artists struggle with fair compensation in 2018, so it's no surprise that Sister Nancy did not enjoy the profits of her iconic 1982 track. If she had, she wouldn't have been so shocked by the song's American success. She ended up working as a bank accountant for most of her life because, as much as she loved music, it wasn't a sustainable income without the royalties.
The original record didn't credit Sister Nancy, so her producer Winston Riley was the one benefiting from its popularity. She reached out to the producer to get the money she deserved but wasn't successful. Sister Nancy only started benefiting from Bam Bam royalties in 2014 - she saw that Reebok had used the track for their ad with Miranda Kerr and she decided to sue. Now, she owns 50% of the One Two album. Since then, Kanye (Famous ft. Rihanna) and Jay-Z (Bam ft. Damien Marley) have both sampled Bam Bam.
Sister Nancy's Lasting Legacy
The original Bam Bam was released in 1966 by Toots and Maytals – there have been so many tracks with that "Stalag 17" riddim, but Sister Nancy's is by far the most popular. Sister Nancy was recording her debut album and needed one more track to complete the project. She ended up freestyling over the 'Stalag 17' riddim and this last addition went on to become one of the most influential reggae tracks.
Her song Bam Bam stands the test of time - even 40 years after it's release, artists are finding new ways to incorporate it into their music. Sister Nancy is still touring and performing. Now, many people in the crowd are younger than the actual Bam Bam song - they'll still sing along to every word, though.
Don't take our word for it though, see for yourself in this Boiler Room clip from February 2017:
Sister Nancy was the pioneering woman on the mic and paved the way for the next generation of womxn DJs after her. Without proper financial compensaton, her musical career was mainly a labour of love. Around 40 years after the release of Bam Bam, Sister Nancy is getting the recognition she deserves for such a timeless piece of music.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for unlearning music misogyny.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!