From drone to dubstep, the values and techniques of dub are more present than ever in the music we consume every day. Yet, for many, dub appears an impenetrable genre – the sort of thing we know we should be into, but we don’t quite know where to start with. That’s why we asked David Katz – renowned reggae historian, photographer and more – to write us the Beginner’s Guide to Dub, with quotes from Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer, Glen Brown, Adrian Sherwood, Dennis Alcapone, Roy Cousins and more. We’ve also compiled an accompanying playlist on the last page of this article.
During the last 60 years, Jamaican popular music has rarely stood still, thriving on the innovations of a handful of committed practitioners that continually force the music into new directions. Although it would take time for foreigners to clock the music emanating from this Caribbean island, and even longer for them to comprehend it, there is ample proof that Jamaica has exercised a disproportionate influence on the musical practices of the outside world. And in recent times, dub has proven to be the most influential reggae sub-genre of all.
Without the dub invention pioneered by an elite coterie of Jamaican recording engineers and record producers, rap would never have become the world’s leading form of popular culture; ambient, jungle, house, garage, grime and numerous other types of technologically-driven dance music probably would not have taken off. And there would surely be no such thing as dubstep, currently the focus of youth culture in so many different lands. Yet, who, exactly, is responsible for dub? What purpose did dub serve, and has the form remained static? What, in other words, is dub music all about?
Chris Blackwell once memorably noted that “there are no facts in Jamaica”, since conflicting accounts of who was responsible for what in the island’s incredibly rich music scene continually come into play. Nevertheless, the man most readily identified as the ‘dub inventor’ is none other than King Tubby, the sound system proprietor and electronics technician otherwise known as Osbourne Ruddock, whose tiny front-room studio in the Waterhouse ghetto of western Kingston was a key site of dub creation.
The nickname Tubby did not refer to Ruddock’s waistline. Instead, it stemmed from his mother’s veneration of Liberian president William Tubman. Though Tubby’s chief occupation involved amplifier repair and the construction and winding of transformers to stabilise the electrical supply of local businesses, music was always a primary fascination, leading him to found the Home Town Hi-Fi sound system as a teenager in 1958. Producer Niney the Observer, who worked closely with Tubby during the 1970s, points out that, although he was crowned ‘King of the Dancehall’ at a neighbourhood event in the early 1960s, his set was initially a small concern affiliated with the tamer uptown music scene, despite its hallmark of technical innovation. “King Tubby used to have a little hi-fi that he played up Red Hills, and there is certain little people follow him—not the rebel people those days. Tubby used to tape songs off the radio, like certain time of night he plug in the radio station and play it back into his sound.”
Producer Glen Brown, another close associate, says Tubby always had an innovative approach to recorded sound. “King Tubby always build some little speaker, and he always have a little Quickly motorbike, so King Tubby build a little thing on the bike—sometimes you’re talking to him, and he’ll record you with it.”
Toaster Dennis Alcapone says this penchant for constant innovation is what made Tubby’s so sound distinctive. “King Tubby’s was definitely the greatest sound ever to come out of Jamaica. You wouldn’t listen to the other sounds, because they was just bringing out normal voices with normal bass. Duke Reid and Coxsone, their bass was heavy, but Tubby’s bass was just so solid, and then he brought in reverb, which wasn’t introduced to the public before—it was mind-blowing.”
Since the years following World War II, when Jamaicans who went abroad for seasonal farm work encountered black Americans making money at street dances and block parties, sound system culture has defined the Jamaican music scene. With powerful amplifiers and banks of speaker boxes, sound systems provided the rhythm and blues beloved by the black Jamaican masses, forming an affordable alternative to the costly live jazz scene, which catered to the light-skinned upper class and visiting tourists. Exclusivity became a key factor, with shrewd proprietors removing the labels of their most prized records to stop the competition from locating a copy. Then, once Jamaica kick-started its own music industry in the 1950s, exclusive acetates cut with local talent, known first as ‘soft wax’ and later as ‘dub plates,’ became necessary components of every sound system, along with a jive-talking toaster on the microphone, who would spice up the dead airtime between songs. During the late 1960s, these components coalesced in dub, when an incidental moment of studio innovation had drastic repercussions.
According to producer Bunny Lee, the genesis of dub took place in late 1968 at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio, where King Tubby was working as an apprentice to engineer Byron Smith, though Lee ultimately credits Ruddy Redwood, the financially solvent owner of the Spanish Town-based Supreme Ruler of Sound as dub’s initial catalyst. And Lee likes to say that Ruddy’s development was a “mistake”, but the way he describes it, the experimentation seems quite deliberate:
“Ruddy was another wealthy man who can help himself. Him inna racehorses and have him record shop and a big club ’cross Fort Henderson, so when him come ah Duke Reid and Coxsone, them give him any tape him want. One evening them ah cut dub plate, and when them cut, it’s difficult to put in the voice, and Smithy ah go stop it, and Ruddy say, “No, make it run.” When it done, him say it art, and me and Tubby stand up right there, me look ’pon Tubby and Tubby look ’pon me. Saturday night, him drop the singing cut first, and the deejay said, “I’m going to play part two!” and the whole dancehall start to sing the song ’pon the pure rhythm. Him have to play it about ten, fifteen times because it’s something new. I say, “Boy, Tubbs, you see the mistake whe’ Smithy make? A serious thing! The people ah Spanish Town love it! You have to start do something like that.” Tubby just bang onto U Roy, U Roy come in and say, “Part two, another version” on “Too Proud To Beg” with Slim Smith, ah so the name ‘version’ come in. When it start, you hear Slim Smith start to sing and then you hear the voice gone! Then you hear him come in again, and you hear U Roy talk, “Love the life you live and live the life you love, here come the brother Slim Smith again, tell them,” and a man say, “Boy, Tubby have amplifier that can take out the voice and play pure rhythm.” Little did them know that’s how the dub make out. There goes version now, and everybody wants it ’pon them record.”
Thus begins the incredible tale of dub, which has so much resonance in our present time. But when you go digging into the past of Jamaican music, you often find that things happened earlier than expected. Indeed, rhythm tracks had already been used for more than one purpose in Jamaica: in 1965, at Studio One, Roland Alphonso blew the saxophone melody of a song called ‘Rinky Dink’, using the rhythm of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s ‘Hold Down’ with the vocals removed. The following year, the rhythm of the Wailers’ popular ‘Put It On’ was also used for Perry’s ribald ‘Rub And Squeeze,’ and there was a wild harmonica take of the Wailers’ ‘Rudie’ called ‘Green Collie’ too. Studio One founder Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd said this was enabled by changes in recording technology, with the two-track Ampex he purchased in 1964 allowing for the technique.
Nevertheless, the standard practice of ‘version’ B-sides being constructed from the customised rhythm tracks of a previous recording clearly follows from the legendary 1968 Treasure Isle session described by Bunny Lee—particularly after Tubby opened a tiny voicing and mixing studio in his front room in 1969, after acquiring an obsolete mixing desk from Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds. And the rise of ‘version’ would ultimately pave the way for the experimental contours of dub, in which previously recorded vocal songs would be remixed to emphasise drum and bass, making greater space for deejays to appear on record, particularly after U Roy, the star toaster on King Tubby’s sound system, showed just what could be done with the form.
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