Though Jamaican culture had little presence outside basement parties when he arrived in New York City in 1970, Anthony “Tony Screw” Rookwood knew he wanted to make it as a sound system man in the Big Apple.
The following year he launched Downbeat Internationally which evolved into Downbeat The Ruler – a colossus in New York City reggae.
Downbeat The Ruler is celebrating its 50th anniversary. On August 8, organisers of the Miami Reggae Festival held at Opa-Locka Marketplace in Florida acknowledged that milestone by presenting 70-year-old Rookwood with an award.
“I get awards in New York over di years, including one from di Barclays Center, but dis one special 'cause it outside of New York. It shows di people down here have respect for mi,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
Downbeat The Ruler made its reputation playing songs from the vast catalogue of legendary producer Clement “Coxson” Dodd's Studio One label. Because of his love of jazz, Downbeat was another of Dodd's nicknames.
Rookwood said Dodd gave the fledgling 'sound' his blessing in 1972, one year after it debuted at a basement party in The Bronx.
He is quick to point out that Downbeat The Ruler's playlist has never been limited to Studio One music.
“I play across di board, but wi play Studio One di most. But I play [producers] Joe Gibbs, Channel One, Bunny Lee, Harry J. From di chune sound good, I buy it,” said Rookwood.
Buying the hottest 'chunes' from Jamaica was not easy for sound systems in New York in the early 1970s, but things got easier as the decade wore on. Their main sources were popular record stores like Brad's, Andy's, and Keith's (operated by Donovan Germain).
In the 1980s, as dancehall music replaced roots-reggae as the sound of choice in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, Downbeat The Ruler became even more formidable. Many of the genre's hottest acts, including Early B, Little John, Toyan, Pad Anthony, Tiger, Ninjaman, and Shabba Ranks, graced its dances in New York.
But, as dancehall took off, Rookwood and his colleagues experienced its ugly side.
“People behaviour [violence at dances] start get outa hand. Di vibes change,” he said.
Before the novel coronavirus put a stop to regular dances, Rookwood said his 'set' played out at least twice a month. Downbeat The Ruler has also been around the world, appearing at major events in Europe and Japan.
Its chatty founder is currently writing an autobiography that reflects on his youth in Papine, St Andrew, to becoming a musical force through his evergreen sound system.
“My history is very, very long yuh nuh. An' is only me alone can tell it,” he said.