Dubbing is a Must: The modern sound of leftfield dub
The influence of dub reggae has been a constant in electronic music for decades now, propping up jungle, dubstep, ambient music and techno with its bass-heavy swagger. Across the globe, numerous boutique imprints are building on the dub template and pushing it into unusual places, from Jahtari’s mischievous 8-bit digi-dub to Bokeh Versions’ abstract experimentation. Oli Warwick meets some of the artists and labels that still find promise in dub’s methodology.
“Dub techniques are so infectious, whether it’s using a delay or pushing the bass to the forefront – that already pretty much is dub,” Daniel Davies, aka Ossia, says to Miles Opland. Between them, both are involved in exciting, unconventional permutations of dubwise music. Davies is a Young Echo member and co-founder of No Corner Records, while Opland runs Bokeh Versions. It’s a Monday night and we’re sat upstairs in The Surrey Vaults, a Bristol pub that has incubated just the kind of experimentation both labels deal in.
“I think of dub as having gone through most things that we dance to these days, or listen to at home,” Davies adds. “Dub is the act of taking stuff away and using the mixing desk as a tool, so it applies to a lot of music.”
“Dub is everywhere,” adds Opland wryly. “Dub will find you,” Davies retorts.
Davies and Opland are part of a loose-fit network of artists and labels spread across the globe that, to varying degrees, take the principles of dub and apply them to strange new shapes. Not all of these protagonists are in direct contact or collaboration, but they share admiration for each others’ work.
It’s hard to overstate the impact dub has had on contemporary music production. Beyond the pioneering work of King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, dub has infected pivotal music movements from post punk and industrial through to boogie, house, jungle and trip-hop. Whether it’s Martin Hannett’s splashy FX surges on ESG’s ‘Moody’, the global creep of Adrian Sherwood’s production on African Head Charge, Imagination’s tripped out Night Dubbing remix album or Grace Jones’ adventures into ’80s island boogie with Sly & Robbie, dub has crept into all kinds of iconic music over the years.
Dedicated roots-minded soundsystem music has also prevailed. In the UK the steppers scene rose out of the tireless work of Jah Shaka, Disciples, Jah Tubbys, Jah Warrior, Earthquake and many more. Based around the hard-work ethic of the soundsystem as a communal project, this manifestation of dub kept a firm grip on the spiritual, in some cases religious aspects of the sound. This, of course, developed in tandem with jungle, where techniques and samples from dub and reggae collided with the emergent hardcore sound and manifested in one of the most potent musical forms to emerge in UK dance music history.
In Germany, Rhythm & Sound and Pole were key in awakening a generation of techno heads to dubwise sounds (not least because of when the legendary NYC dub reggae label Wackies started getting stocked in Hard Wax), while more recently dubstep drew on garage as much as dub to formulate its own kind of soundsystem language before in turn embracing techno and the promise of the main stage.
However, certain operators in the electronic diaspora can be found exploring dub studio practices to create idiosyncratic music that feels inherently spawned from the heritage of soundsystem music without adhering to any particular rules. From innovative twists on roots traditions to far-flung fantasies fished from the dreamiest delay and reverb-soaked imaginations, there’s a healthy spread of individual nodes championing a 21st century dub flavor you’d be mad to ignore.
Facing out to the Pacific Ocean from Portland, Oregon, ZamZam Sounds is out on a limb. Ezra ‘E3’ Ereckson and Tracy Harrison have a long history of striving against their location to champion variations on the dub template, initially with B.S.I Records and the band Systemwide.
“There’s never been a scene in Portland for what we do,” says Ereckson speaking from the pair’s record-stuffed basement. “Even in the Bay Area the scene is pretty small, so that’s when we realized we needed to reach much further out.”
“It’s interesting how the community contributes to the creative process of the label”Ezra ‘E3’ Ereckson
Through the ’90s B.S.I. Records forged strong connections with WordSound Records in New York and the likes of Muslimgauze, Alpha & Omega and Henry & Louis in the UK, but the collapse of their distributor at the turn of the millennium saw their stock wiped out and a successful run cut short. After taking some time off, Ereckson and Harrison re-emerged with a concise concept behind ZamZam Sounds: a strictly 7” series that called upon their oldest dub-minded allies and fellow Portland-based operators like Strategy and Gulls.
“We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to keep it a little bit tighter,” Ereckson says. “Not stray too much into dancehall or hip-hop like we did with B.S.I., but still touching on a lot of different aspects of dubwise. Part of the vision with the visual aesthetic and the strictly 7” format, that’s such a unified vibe in itself it gives us more latitude to reach more broadly in terms of the sounds.”
Now with a catalog some 60 releases deep, ZamZam stands proud as an essential outpost for contemporary dub that reaches into different tempos and energies while retaining a discernible roots element. Long serving steppers crews such as Disciples, Twilight Circus and Alpha & Omega sit alongside artists such as Beat Pharmacy, Jack Sparrow and Von D who cool their usual techno and dubstep tendencies to embrace the ZamZam vibe. As the label built upon Ereckson and Harrison’s existing connections with scenes in Bristol and elsewhere, the A&R direction of the label took on a community aspect they hadn’t anticipated (they cite Ossia as key in this regard).
“What’s lovely about friends, contacts and colleagues putting us in touch with other friends and contacts is other people’s interpretation of the ZamZam vibe,” says Ereckson. “Who they think would be good on the label is all about their perception of the label, not ours, and it’s really interesting how the community actually contributes to the ongoing creative process of the label.”
Harrison explains the sonic ebb and flow of the label as like “a really long mix”: “That’s how we imagine the 7” series going. It’s one long mix and we ask, ‘Well how does this release sound next to that one?’ It’s one gigantic project that, when it’s all finished, will stand just fine on its own.”
Continuity has coursed through Jahtari Records since its inception as a netlabel back in 2004. The original focus of the label is not hard to surmise from the name – Jan Gleichmar, aka Disrupt, founded Jahtari as an outlet for the 8-bit dub productions he and a handful of likeminded producers were making after discovering reggae and dub via Rhythm & Sound (he also cites a Channel One-loaded DJ set by Pole as a big turning point). From his base in Leipzig, East Germany, Gleichmar has operated as the central producer, mixer and engineer for Jahtari while drawing in a cast of producers and MCs including Tapes, Naram, Pupajim, Soom T and more besides. The foundational Jahtari sound has been well mined now for over a decade but the label has found a new creative lease of life in more recent times.
“A lot of times dub and reggae can be really backward-looking, like a formula that doesn’t change too much,” Gleichmar says. “It’s surprising if you see guys like Lee Perry who really experimented. I was getting bored of that formula, where I hear the first two bars and I know the rest of the song, so I wanted to go back to being surprised.”
In recent years, Disrupt turned to old samplers and synths to find new inspiration in limitations, ditching his trusty in-the-box methods that had shaped the early Jahtari sound. “The mixing desk is still used like a big instrument, but I don’t think about BPMs and now I never start with the drums,” he says. “I start with something else so it leads elsewhere.”
“I’m not living in Jamaica. I want to capture the feeling of now”Jan Gleichmar
The results of this newfound creative purpose can be most clearly heard on the recent albums by Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi, both released on Jahtari and produced for the most part by Gleichmar. Both vocalists are best known for their work in King Midas Sound alongside Kevin Martin, aka The Bug. The signature Jahtari bright lead lines and playful bleeps on Robinson’s Dog Heart City and Hitomi’s Karma No Kusari are comparatively sunnier than King Midas Sound, but there’s far more going on than the simple 8-bit riddims of old. The computerized dub and dancehall template has been embelished with errant textures and tones that open up a new avenue of songwriting and storytelling without rejecting the fundamental influence of Jamaican music.
“When you listen to those old Jamaican records you’re hearing something that was magic on that island and that period,” says Gleichmar. “But I’m not living in Jamaica. I’m living in a rainy industrial place and the world is changing. I have kids now so my concern is not in the past, in some mystical place where I haven’t even been. I want to capture the feeling of now, like the way Roger Robinson sings about how our cities change on Dog Heart City.”
Alongside Hitomi and Robinson, Gleichmar cites his labelmates Naram, Monkey Mark and especially Tapes as being key to the newly invigorated sound of Jahtari. Tapes is a shining exponent of unconventional approaches adopted in the name of dub, having first come to light on Jahtari before spreading his wings to align with DJ Sotofett on Thug Records and Sex Tags Amfibia, the latter being a hotbed of dubwise abstraction.
Back in Bristol, Miles Opland talks about Gleichmar’s work fondly. “The way Jahtari are set up is really important,” Opland says. “With the sound and a central producer-engineer-mixer kind of person, that’s the classic set up.” The same might be said for Jesse Munro Johnson and his Boomarm Nation label. While the Portland-based operation has a broad, global array of producers involved, much of the music runs through Johnson’s mixing desk before it reaches release. At times the dub quality in the music on the label can be a subtle suggestion and elsewhere it’s wildly explicit, but it’s undeniably a consistent influence that guides the label.
“The experimental nature of dub is present in a lot of the releases,” says Jesse Munro Johnson, aka Gulls. “Whenever we can, we’re building a lot of the releases here, mixing the music live to add that sort of heat and energy.”
“I don’t think that I or any of the artists on Boomarm are specifically trying to imprint on the reggae template, but it’s that notion of versioning and dubbing,” he adds. “The originators opened up a portal to a way of taking the music and cracking it open, cosmically almost. The potential of what that can do to a piece of music is what I find exciting.”
Boomarm Nation started in 2010 and quickly expanded from being a vessel for Johnson’s productions to embracing a particularly adventurous global sound. From Nigerian guitarist Mdou Moctar (who was discovered via the Music From Saharan Cellphones compilation on Sahel Sounds) to El Mahdy Jr., an artist born in Algeria but with roots in Turkey and elsewhere, the cultural forces thrown into the Boomarm blender are diverse and plentiful. Ezra and Tracy from ZamZam heap praise upon Johnson’s ability to seek out musicians from other parts of the world (“talk about a vibe!”) as well as his embrace of strange new shapes within modern dubwise music.
“There’s a lot of great music in Portland and I spent 15 years of my life playing shows here,” Johnson says. “But Boomarm’s been more about a collaborative aspect that can build globally. We can present new ideas but on a unified global scale, not just taking from a culture here or there. We all have the same tools now, you know?”
“The originators opened up a portal to a way of taking the music and cracking it open, cosmically almost”Jesse Munro Johnson
He’s referring specifically to the fruitful creative dialogue that has arisen from his work with Mdou Moctar, whose appearance on Boomarm encapsulates the musical possibilities in a globally connected world. It’s a positive Johnson and his peers wholeheartedly embrace, not least for those located in remote locations, but it does leave a gap in the notion of soundsystem music where once the physical experience was pivotal to the culture. It’s not something that has escaped Daniel Davies.
“The downside to what we’re doing with No Corner is that it’s so eclectic and international it’s quite hard for us to build something similar to the jungle scene in London in 1996 or whatever,” he says. “Maybe when dubstep was going on there was a bit of a scene around it but there are so many pockets now, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but…”
No Corner perhaps stretches this notion of contemporary dub the furthest. Taking a trip through the wonderfully grubby catalogue of the Bristol-based label reveals as many shades of noise and punk as dub, but the influence is there where it counts. Daniel Davies, aka Ossia, launched Peng Sound! as a more literal distillation of traditional soundsystem music with the likes of Dubkasm and Ishan Sound, but No Corner behaves like the mischievous underbelly to those focused sounds, with thrilling and unpredictable results.
“In the past you’d get people doing stuff with dub where it sounded so fucking free,” says Miles Opland. “Like the ’80s post punk thing where they’ll have a dub on the flip, or even shoegaze, but not make a big deal about it. Bristol has always been a great place for that, and I’ve always seen No Corner side by side for that, where the music can be dubby as hell but it’s not a big deal.”
“The dub side of things naturally creeps in and out of No Corner stuff,” Davies says. “I don’t think it’s always a dominant feature or anything, but it’s an infectious thread that will reach out to so many different avenues of music that we’re involved in.”
“The music can be dubby as hell but it’s not a big deal”Miles Opland
The Ossia and Andy Mac 12” Soup Riddim is a fine demonstration of how dubby No Corner can get, all head-nodding groove and tripped out delay pulses, but it’s still resolutely strange. At the other end of the scale is asda, the project from Vessel and Chester Giles that matches gnarly machine noise with distorted spoken word poetry. It’s a stretch, but you can still feel a slow, subby swagger that would sound mighty on a proper soundsystem. As Davies mentioned though, in this strange new landscape of dubwise music there’s often a disconnect between so-called soundsystem music and the actual physical experience of hearing the music on a soundsystem.
“Smashing this dichotomy between ambient versus beat-based music is very much at the fore of our minds when working on tracks,” says Spencer from Seekers International. “We wish for our work to be at home both inna dance and intimate personal spaces, very much like how roots dub can straddle both worlds.”
Of all the crews orbiting this vague notion of contemporary experimental dub, Seekers are the crew unanimously hailed as visionaries in their own unique field. Hailing from somewhere in Canada but willfully shrouded in mystery, Spencer describes the crew as an undisclosed number of Filipino immigrants and first generation Filipino-Canadians. Rather than simply adopting some of the production tropes of dub, Seekers take a flamboyant approach to sampling all manner of Jamaican music, brazenly referencing the roots while reframing the sounds in woozy collages pulsing with heavy rhythm even if there’s not a drum beat to be heard.
“Leaving the root influences is an essential act of respect and paying homage”Spencer, Seekers International
“Our experience of Jamaican music culture is fragmentary and second-hand at best,” says Spencer. “We’ve had to fill in all the blanks with our own experiences and creativity. From the get-go we never saw the point in just mimicking what we heard, especially if the masters had already done it a million times better. We want to see where else we can take it, not just straight biting and claiming it as our own.”
The loud and proud sampling is a conscious creative decision that makes Seekers so compelling to listen to. “Leaving the root influences and signifiers intact and plain to see is an absolutely essential act of respect and paying homage,” Spencer stresses. “We do it so that whatever part of our discography listeners enter through, the reverence is always upfront and unmistakable.”
“I was speaking to my cousin yesterday who’s a die-hard rootsman, trying to explain that Seekers is an ode to the style and culture, but it’s also its own individual thing,” Daniel Davies says to Miles Opland. “It’s not trying to copy that, it’s like an abstracted accreditation of all these layers and soundbites.”
Seekers’ considerable discography has landed on many a sympathetic imprint from Rootprinciple on No Corner to HER.IMPERIAL.MAJESTY on Boomarm Nation. Jesse Munro Johnson has put out numerous Seekers releases on his label, citing their melodic instinct as a key part of their unique appeal.
“It’s easy to just abstract things into a bunch of shapes or pieces,” he says. “But to keep that really melodious flow in there, I think that’s really the Seekers magic.”
One of the other key labels carrying Seekers’ music is Miles Opland’s Bokeh Versions, which started in London and is now based in Bristol. Opland explains that he established the imprint in 2015 specifically because he wanted to release Seekers’ music. It’s since grown to become a veritable hotbed of forward-thinking approaches to dub. Take artist Jay Glass Dubs, who describes his musical mission as, “a counter-factual historical approach of dub music, stripped down to its basic drum/bass/vox/effects form.”
“It felt good to try and make a home for leftfield weird dub stuff,” says Opland. “It felt like a lot of stuff was very spread out and diffuse. It’s a lot easier this year to name 20 dub releases that I thought were really fucking far out and bizarre.”
“I like stuff that you can’t necessarily place in time”Miles Opland
In the same way that hardcore and post-punk embraced experimentalism without attaching lofty concepts to the music, Opland sees the innate surrealism in dub as an unpretentious pursuit. The output on his label is certainly not billed as trying to define a new epoch for dub music, but the spread of styles and ideas presented in artists like Voodoo Tapes, Aquadab and more neatly encapsulates the current pulse of dub studio approaches in the modern age. That said, Bokeh has dabbled in the world of reissues as well. In 2017 the label pressed up a long-sought-after LP by 1970s Brit-dub eccentrics Tradition, whose Captain Ganja And The Space Patrol feels spiritually aligned with these contemporary roots-minded rule-breakers.
“I like the idea of blending reissues and modern stuff,” says Opland. “I like stuff that you can’t necessarily place in time. I like Seekers because there’s loads of different geographical connects that really screw up the sound, and people are very confused about it. I want to do more reissues for that reason, in an effort to try and make stuff seem more timeless.”
Among the threads Opland is considering exploring as Bokeh Versions spreads its wings with more vinyl pressings is the overlooked avenue of UK steppers from the ’90s. Recorded at a time when hardcore and jungle were incubating a new strain of UK-rooted dance music culture, the music of artists such as Blakamix has a synergy with this crossover spirit where the traditional, instrument led sonics of roots reggae collided with the wild studio subversions of dub, setting the tone for (and continuing to influence) the development of electronic music as the technology raced to catch up with the mixing desk innovators.
“When you listen to the ’90s steppers stuff it feels like a time when it really did mix up a bit in the UK,” says Daniel Davies. “You had someone like Disciples, this proper London geezer who talks about going to acid house raves, working with Jah Shaka, a strong Jamaican figure who’s seen as the god of UK soundsystem culture.”
“Blakamix had sublabels releasing bleep records and hardcore,” explains Opland. “A lot of those producers were crossing over and making hip house and stuff that felt part of a wider soundsystem culture.”
Both Opland and Davies nod to the fact that contemporary soundsystem culture, particularly in the UK, is somewhat stifled. Creators now seek to maintain the classic roots approach, where the ’90s saw a more open-minded attitude that gave rise to cross-pollination between scenes that were, at the time, tribal. In an increasingly fractured and diverse landscape, the niche appeal of No Corner, Bokeh Versions, ZamZam or any of the labels highlighted here is less likely to draw in a sizable crowd for a dance.
But the appetite for dubwise abstraction is still abundant amongst established artists and newcomers. Take the pairing of California leftfield mavericks Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, who not only recorded the stunning Icon Give Thank LP with The Congos for RVNG Intl. but also launched the excellent Duppy Gunn label in a head-spinning twist of dancehall conventions. Meanwhile the Sex Tags Amfibia label bears witness to regular next-level dub trickery from Kambo Super Soundsystem, Tapes and plenty of DJ Sotofett-related projects. 45Seven is a label based in Leipzig that deals in stunning fusions of roots sampling amidst jungle and drum & bass structures.
It’s a completely different proposition to the ragga jungle of the early ’90s, but 25 years on there are still fresh avenues to be explored in the cross-breeding between Jamaican tradition and electronic expression. TNT Roots, who released seismic UK dub as Earthquake Studio in the early ’90s, will be airing fresh material on Bokeh Versions in 2018. In the eternal feedback loop that started with versioning back in the ’60s, the vibrations remain remarkably inspired.
“There are and will forever and always be unexplored plains in soundsystem music,” says Spencer. “The law of life itself is infinity, therefore exploration and discovery can only be infinite as well.”
Oli Warwick is a freelance writer. Find him on Twitter