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Since their inception in the late 200s, Dave Mata and his DJ crew, the six-member Impala Sound Champions, have held on to the dream of building a massive traveling sound system like the ones that provided a vehicle for reggae as it emerged in Jamaica. The dream becomes a reality tonight, when the group debuts its custom-built sound system at the MCA as part of the museum’s new after-hours series, Prime Time.
For Mata the new system means a new chapter for Impala Sound Champions. It means being able to expand beyond the local bar circuit and take the group’s act on the road in a big way. “We had to be creative about how to stick to our guns with the music that we want to provide people with and try and stay culturally relevant in a time where most things are leaning towards music festivals and large-scale shit—if you want to seriously contend in the music business,” Mata says.
When I met with Mata on Wednesday afternoon at the headquarters of Land and Sea Dept., which copresents tonight’s event with the museum, the sound system was still being assembled. In one room sat clusters of horn speakers and a few vintage Altec Lansing theater speakers (which, according to Mata, are similar to the ones reggae sound-system legend Duke Reid used decades before), all of them shining after receiving a fresh coat of gold paint. In another room were a mass of wood cabinets loosely assembled side by side, many sporting a cherry stain finish, while others waited to be sanded down. Mata nevertheless appeared unhurried as he surveyed all the pieces. The sound system was still a few days away from completion, but he was a whole lot closer to seeing his project become a reality than just a few years ago.
Mata says the first steps to bringing Impala’s custom sound system to life began a couple years ago. That’s when he took the idea to Tony Lazzara and Eric Chaleff—who build custom guitar cabinets in addition to playing in local metal outfit Bloodiest—to research building the sound system and flesh out its specifications. “Even though it’s modeled after a traditional Jamaican sound systems and a lot of stuff that’s going on currently in Europe, it’s all custom from point to finish,” Mata says. “The way it’s all designed was all on these guys. The research that went into making sure that we had the sonically best approach took longer than assembly.”
The team started building prototypes in March. “The original prototypes for this thing were much larger just to make the scale of the whole thing bigger, and it ended up not being worth it,” Mata says. “We had to trim down the size of the bass cabinets and stuff just because it was like, ‘How are we even gonna fit this thing on a truck?'” Mata says the team figured out the way to realistically and pragmatically bring their behemoth to life after a couple rounds of making prototypes. The final version includes 20 cabinets, with three horns placed on top of the massive assembly.
As Mata says, the sound system is custom, right down to Chaleff’s cherry stain finish and an extra bit of crimson provided by the Impala members—all six DJs handed over a vial of their blood to splatter onto the cabinets; a close look at the cabinets’ sides reveals spotty lines of it, and in a few spots the members used it to make a few letters or symbols. It’s a symbolic touch, as Mata explains: “When we go to battle another sound system we could just happily proclaim that we painted our speakers with the blood of our own, so what do you think we’re gonna do to you?”
Mata counts only a handful of sound systems in the U.S. that would be up to the competition. “I can say with confidence that none of them have the style, construction, or the quality of sound that this sound system has been built with,” he says. But competition is secondary to Mata’s idea of bringing Impala to more people. “My big thing is providing something that would consistently stand as a voice of the underground, in the manner that Duke Reid approached sound-systeming before there was even reggae music—he just wanted to blare freaky jazz in front of his record store because he couldn’t hear it on the radio,” Mata says.
“The mainstream perception of a DJ is somebody who presses play on a laptop and flings cakes into the crowd, and there’s a place for that, I think, because a lot of people are idiots and that makes money. But to provide people with a different type of experience that is more based on providing people things they can’t hear other places in a manner they won’t ever be able to see duplicated—that’s relevant and important. And it’s a good reminder to people that before all this silliness people went and stacked boxes, they went and put blood, sweat, and tears into things, and they really believed in it.”
The sound system is made to be experienced in an outdoor setting (Mata wants to take it to music festivals), and that means after tonight’s unveiling at the MCA it might not make another local appearance for months. “As important as it is for me to have this thing launch and be from Chicago I think it’ll probably get a lot more work in the Los Angeles, west-coast sort of arena,” Mata says. “You can have an outdoor party in December in LA; you can’t really do that here.” But that should change next year. “Come springtime,” he says, “We can maybe start throwing some parties on the yard.”