New York City, home to a sizeable population of Jamaican emigrants, maintained a relatively low profile in the reggae world until the 1980's. Then, the music's transition from roots to dancehall was accompanied by explosive growth in New York's local reggae scene. In the Jamaican tradition, this scene was centered around locally-run sound systems, and of these, the sound now known as Downbeat the Ruler (originally called Downbeat International) has proved to be the most enduring. Tony Screw founded the sound known as Downbeat after getting permission from the legendary Sir Coxsone 'Downbeat' Dodd to use the name. Downbeat rapidly became not only a regional force, but one that could compete with the strongest sounds from Jamaica.
In the "rub-a-dub" era of the 1980's, sound systems were as much a showcase for live performances as they were for records, and Downbeat ensured its success by regularly featuring the best of Jamaica's microphone talent. Brigadier Jerry of Jah Love Muzik was a frequent visitor, and other top artists like Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, Super Cat, Shabba Ranks, Lone Ranger, Nicodemus, Early B, Jim Brown, Johnny Osbourne, Ninjaman, Papa San, Lieutenant Stitchie, Professor Nuts, Wolfman, Peter Metro, Ricky Sterio, Colin Roach, Major Mackerel, Michigan and Smiley, and more came to New York to perform for the sound. In addition to hosting these Jamaican performers, Downbeat provided exposure for New York's local artists, some of whom went on to achieve worldwide recognition. The core of the Downbeat crew included Shinehead, Louie Ranking, Sister Carol, and Santa Ranking, and other locals like Mikey Jarrett, Burru Banton, Alton Irie, Reverend Badoo, Verdi Green, Neville Valentine, and Brimstone would occasionally appear as well.
In addition to this large and varied supply of top-ranking live performers, Downbeat was also known to possess a deep box of "dubplates," exclusive recordings cut by artists for Downbeat alone to play. Featuring custom-built lyrics proclaiming Downbeat's dominance, these dubplates served the sound well in sound clashes (face-offs in which opposing sound systems exchange exclusive tunes and improvised lyrics in attempts to win crowd support). Armed with its fearsome wax and sizeable host of artists, Downbeat successfully clashed not only American competitors like African Love and Papa Moke, but also top sound systems from Jamaica like Silverhawk, Black Scorpio, Volcano, and Stereo One, who would fly to New York to battle the local champion.
The arrival of the 1990's brought major change to the sound system world. In a development pioneered in Jamaica by the mighty Stone Love, live performances were replaced by a steady stream of dubplates introduced by the sound's "selector," and the deejays once so central to the sound systems became primarily recording artists. Downbeat, with its potent dub box, was handsomely prepared for this new era, but did not entirely abandon its foundation in live performances. Artists would still occasionally perform on the sound, and in the mid-90's Downbeat held a series of dances featuring the former Stur Gav crew and other foundation artists, including U Roy, Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin, Josey Wales, Ranking Joe, Papa Toyan, Lone Ranger, Sugar Minott, and Pad Anthony, proving that these veterans were still in fine performing form.
Today, after almost three decades in the business, Downbeat remains a force to be reckoned with. The sound is traditionalist in its choice of artists and songs to voice, and does not constantly chase the mosthyped "bashment" rhythm or artist-of-the-week. Instead, Downbeat maintains what is quite possibly the
deepest, heaviest collection of exclusive foundation dubplates in the world, a record box only rivaled by a small handful of other long-established sounds. Unlike so many other sounds from the past that have fallen by the wayside, Downbeat still regularly holds dances, and occasionally flexes its sizeable muscles in clashes.
The current team of Downbeat, led by Tony Screw, includes senior member Sci Gedeon, who has represented Downbeat locally and internationally since the late 90's. Gedeon also attends to various tasks behind the scene.