King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry likely had no idea exactly what kind of legacy they were crafting as they piped their production stems through a dusty multi-channel mixer and a rack of effects.
Since those early reggae ‘dubs’ (so called because they were bounced straight to tape), the innovative effect-laden tracks have served as a source of influence for a plethora of malcontented musicians sick of the limitations of their scene. In a rock band and bored with the tiresome motoric chug of the guitars? Not to worry – throw some Space Echo on and you’re The Horrors. Peculiarly enough, it’s been with techno, however, that the dub sound found its closest acolyte.
It was back in the early 90s when the sound started to emerge from the catacombs around the Hard Wax record store (which was established by Mark Ernestus) and hallowed record cutting mecca Dubplates & Mastering (where Moritz von Oswald then worked). Taking a keen interest in the emerging stark minimal techno that was beginning to make its way across the Atlantic from Detroit, Ernestus and von Oswald fused the anonymous, pounding warehouse sounds with mixing desk immediacy and that all important delay.
After a slew of workmanlike 12”s on their own Basic Channel and Maurizio imprints, the two producers established the Chain Reaction label to usher in work from other likeminded producers, and while many of them were also connected to the Hard Wax cabal (Monolake, Various Artists, Vainqueur etc) it offered a run of fresh takes on a rapidly growing sound.
It was a sound that soon spread beyond techno – Stefan Betke (aka Pole) and his much-loved ~Scape imprint took the dub techniques and applied them to a more experimental framework, while leaving the Tubby and Perry bass lines seemingly intact. Similarly, Jan Jelinek took that influence and bolted it onto jazz and even Krautrock. Even Ernestus and von Oswald turned their back on techno eventually, crafting a series of excellent full-on reggae records as Rhythm & Sound and canning the Basic Channel moniker almost for good.
The sound somehow survived though, and even though many of its originators have now inevitably moved on, there are plenty of musicians still flying the flag for dub techno from Chicago’s long-running DeepChord crew to Sweden’s Andreas Tilliander. The following list rounds up some of the best records the genre has offered up over its two-decade lifespan, some certified classics and a few that have fallen into obscurity.
In 1992, Maurizio (a collaboration between Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald) put their distinct spin on the brand of techno being exported from Detroit at the time. ‘Ploy’ was the duo’s first release, and it was hardly a surprise to hear the pounding lead track reworked by Underground Resistance on the flip, but hidden beneath the more playable front and back ends was ‘Eleye’, a hazy, burned-out fusion of echoing percussion and entrancing pads that acted as a prescient signifier of what was to come.
(Basic Channel, 1993)
While the first release on the Basic Channel imprint (‘93’s ‘Enforcement’) appeared to continue the early Maurizio 12”s exploration of hypnotic, pounding minimal techno, ‘Lyot rmx’ (which reworked Vainquer’s comparatively upbeat ‘Lyot’) began to exhibit the tropes that would come to define the dub-techno sound. The belting drums that characterized the original track were pushed deep into the mix and draped in pinging synthesizers and cavernous echoes. Ernestus and von Oswald still wanted to classify the music as minimal techno, but there’s no denying dub’s influence here.
(Trope Recordings, 1995)
Finnish producer Kimmo Rapatti (aka Mono Junk) isn’t as widely known as his German peers, but when ‘Channel B’ dropped in ’95 it was no less influential at the time. Mostly turning his hand to aggressive minimal techno, ‘Channel B’ showed he could beat the Berlin set at their own game, and is still one of the genre’s most undeniable bangers.
‘Starlight (Moritz Mix)’
Juan Atkins and von Oswald were already deep in collaboration by the time this massive remix dropped in ‘95. Along with Thomas Fehlmann the three producers recorded on Tresor as 3MB, so von Oswald’s rework of ‘Starlight’ was just a solidification of links that had already been made. As with Basic Channel’s ‘Lyot Rmx’, the percussive elements are almost inaudible at times, allowing the familiar filtered pads and leads to act as the rhythm – something that would later become one of the genre’s most defining tropes.
A short-lived project from Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, Schizophrenia turned up on a 12” given away with Tresor comp Tresor 3 and as such is barely referenced any more. Fehlmann’s importance can’t be sniffed at though, and ‘Schizophrenia’ is a rare moment where he allows himself to go headfirst into shimmering, trance-inducing long-form dub techno. Gorgeous.
‘Twelve Miles High’
Ernestus and von Oswald’s influence was spreading rapidly by the mid-90s, and while Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt’s phenomenal [Las Vegas] full-length wasn’t completely immersed in tape hiss and Space Echo feedback, ‘Twelve Miles High’ is an excellent example of the duo experimenting with the nascent sound.
(Chain Reaction, 1996)
While the Maurizio, Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound imprints mainly focused on their own work, Ernestus and von Oswald’s Chain Reaction imprint was established to concentrate on a growing stable of like-minded producers. Ambient music pioneer Thomas Koner and engineer Andy Mellwig created some of the label’s most important material, and the fusion of Koner’s expertly manipulated textures and Mellwig’s sub-aquatic beats was a resounding success. Focusing (like Drexciya) on nautical themes, their entire debut album Biokinetics felt like being submerged deep beneath the ocean, and ‘Nautical Dub’ is probably the finest example.
‘Killed By A Feedback’
Torsten Pröfrock is still a key figure in the Berlin scene, and has held the fort over at Hard Wax for many years, experimenting under a plethora of different names, from Dynamo and Various Artists to T++. ‘Killed By A Feedback’ was an early – and still incredibly unique – shot at pushing forward the sound that was becoming ubiquitous in his side of the city. It’s Profrock’s unmistakable breaks influence (that he would continue to explore on later cuts like ‘Space Break’ and ‘Worn Down’) that really set him apart from his peers.
‘Elevation (Version 1)’
(Chain Reaction, 1996)
A lurching, 15-minute treacle bath, ‘Elevation (Version 1)’ is another prime example of the Chain Reaction stable’s total dominance. Don’t be expecting a beat either – while René Löwe’s earlier work was aimed squarely at the dancefloor, ‘Elevation’ is strictly for weed hangovers and mouthfuls of spurious prescription drugs.
Crafted back when Monolake was comprised of Ableton founder Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke, ‘Occam’ is a stunning early example of why the duo was so influential not only within the genre but in the wider world of electronic music. Their attention to detail is mesmerizing, and while their peers may have accentuated the dubwise lo-fi qualities of the sound, Henke and Behles instead focused on unparalleled rhythmic precision and masterfully-engineered soundscapes that are still making waves today.
(Matrix Records, 1997)
While there’s no doubt that the dub techno sound was mostly focused around Berlin, there were plenty outsiders that managed to successfully gain traction – most notably Texan producer Convextion, who issued a hugely acclaimed run of 12”s in the mid 90s. Taking just as many pointers from Detroit as he did Berlin, Gerard Hanson managed to sum up the era perfectly on ‘Ebulience’, which fused the warm fuzz of Chain Reaction with the uptempo pad-led stomp of the Belleville Three.
Another American weighing in on the sound, Dale Lawrence took the sound even deeper into minimalism, as evidenced on pounding slow-burner ‘Cinder’. The track feels like an extension of Richie Hawtin’s mid-90s dub-influenced experiments (under the Concept 1 moniker), but adds an almost euphoric ambience to soften the stark, cavernous beats.
Rhythm & Sound
(Rhythm & Sound, 1999)
Truthfully, the majority of Rhythm & Sound’s legendary run of 10”s and 12”s weren’t actually techno at all – they were Ernestus and von Oswald’s excellent attempts at proper reggae. Cuts like ‘Carrier’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Roll Off’) however, found them returning to their well worn thumping sound, and did so with an extra helping of grubby tape saturation that wasn’t unwelcome at all.
(Max Ernst, 1999)
Coming from Thomas Brinkmann’s Max Ernst imprint, Finnish producer Sasu Ripatti’s second 12” under the Vladislav Delay moniker was quick to establish him as a key player in the scene. While he would perfect his art with a slew of genre-bending long-form records (Anima is a particular highlight), ‘Lehka’ and the subsequent Chain Reaction 12”s were an innovative, experimental take on the then ubiquitous sound.
Stefan Betke’s experiments with dub were arguably just as crucial as Ernestus and von Oswald’s, but it was Kit Clayton – who took the inaugural spot on Betke’s ~Scape imprint – who successfully mashed the two worlds together. Fusing Betke’s electrified dubwise soundscapes and the rhythmic intensity of Ernestus and von Oswald, Clayton’s EP Nek Purpalet and subsequent album Nek Salanet still stand as two of ~Scape’s most successful drops. ‘Nele’ is the album’s standout track, and sounds like little else.
(Vertical Form, 2000)
Pub’s distinctly British take on the dub techno sound was exemplified in the outstanding ‘Summer’ – a track so revered in some circles that it ended up being bootlegged not long ago, after many years of unavailability. Blending an almost Balearic trance influence with the subtle percussive drive of the Chain Reaction stable, ‘Summer’ is as close as the genre got to a veritable sunshine anthem.
(Chain Reaction, 2000)
Although Greek producer Kostas Soublis’s Vibrant Forms might be the obvious pick, its follow-up (which appeared as Chain Reaction appeared to be grinding to a halt) is a lesser-known masterpiece. ‘Bipolar Defect’ doesn’t scream at you, it coaxes you into submission with billowing pads and the kind of loose, throbbing low end that you can’t help but shuffle to.
‘Untitled’ (DC11 A)
There are more than just a few similarities between American outfit DeepChord and Ernestus and von Oswald’s Basic Channel. Originally comprised of two members – Rod Modell and Mike Schommer – DeepChord released a run of five flawless 12”s, all untitled and all on their own DeepChord imprint. The tracks were epic in length (DC11’s stunning A side clocks in at nearly 20 minutes) and exhibited a purity and minimalism that had almost been brushed aside in an era of glitchy experimentalism and main-stage posturing.
‘The Climax (Basic Reshape)’
(Planet E, 2001)
Basic Channel reworking Carl Craig’s 1991 highlight (as Paperclip People) ‘The Climax’? It really doesn’t get much better than this, and the fact that the track actually surpasses expectations is quite mind-blowing. After such a long period of inactivity from Basic Channel, and after they had been touted as such a crucial benchmark for so long, when the track dropped in 2001 it felt like a welcome squeal of “now this is how you do it.”
‘Building Memories Without You’
(Car Park, 2002)
Possibly the most unashamedly emotional dub techno album of all time, Low Light Dreams from New Zealander Bevan Smith glues the by-then-familiar pulse to a backdrop of eerie, weepy pads and strings that wouldn’t sound out of place on a David Lynch score. ‘Building Memories Without You’ is like sinking into quicksand while tied up with cotton wool.
‘Merry Go Round’
Rare as hen’s teeth, ‘Merry Go Round’ appeared on a limited edition 7” back in 2006 and has been almost impossible to get hold of ever since. Moeller re-tooled the track with a vocal performance from Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka, reissuing it as ‘Wata (Deep Dub)’ under his Beat Pharmacy moniker, but it wasn’t quite the same. Seek out the skeletal original and revel in its pure dub destruction.
(Modern Love, 2007)
At some point in the early ‘00s, dub techno dropped drastically in popularity. That’s not to say people stopped churning the stuff out, but the ideas had begun to stagnate, and many artists had simply moved onto greener pastures. DeepChord’s Rod Modell stuck to his guns however, and together with Steve Hitchell pieced together one of the genre’s most acclaimed full-lengths, The Coldest Season. There wasn’t much new on offer, but the duo honed the now well-worn sound and made it sound better (and somehow fresher) than it had done in years.
(Sending Orbs, 2009)
Rigning is the Icelandic word for rain, so it’s hardly surprising that Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson supplemented his melancholy dub techno with a thick brace of rain samples on his third album. Cinematic and almost as ambient as it is propulsive ‘Rigning Tvö’ is the lovechild of Gas and Fluxion, and all the better for it.
In Aeternam Vale
(Minimal Wave, 2013)
Allegedly recorded by French underground pioneers In Aeternam Vale in 1990, if we’re to believe the Minimal Wave press machine, ‘Ultrabase’ might be the first ever dub techno track produced. It certainly fits the bill – pounding kicks, echoing synth chords and suitably bleak chords – and whether you believe its provenance or not, it still belongs on the list.
(Kontra Musik, 2013)
Andreas Tilliander’s been exploring the outer reaches of dub for over a decade, but it’s with TM404 that he’s really managed to make his mark, combining the dub techniques with an obsession for old Roland gear you might associate with another genre – acid. Here he transforms the humble 303 and 606 into weapons of mass suspension as he pulls rhythms and bleeps through his enviable collection of Space Echoes. There’s life in the old beast yet.