King Tubby is one of the most important figures of Jamaican popular music.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tubby was responsible for turning dub into an art form, the creative re-mixing he pioneered at a tiny front-room studio in the Waterhouse ghetto making a long-reaching impact. Like his friend and sometime rival, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Tubby was one of a handful of Jamaican visionaries whose innovations not only changed the shaped of reggae in unprecedented ways, but which also formed a template for so much contemporary music production, be it in rap and hip-hop, jungle, garage and grime, or various forms of electronic dance music — especially dubstep, the British bastard offspring of Jamaican dub.
Greatly misunderstood, and sometimes under-represented in music literature, King Tubby was not a standard record producer until very late in his life, and his regular occupation was providing transformers to stabilise the electrical current of island businesses and sound systems alike. Nevertheless, the remix culture we take for granted today is largely reliant on Tubby’s ingenuity, the techniques he introduced indelibly changing the way contemporary popular music is made and issued.
He was born Osbourne Ruddock in 1941 and was raised with three brothers and four sisters close to the Kingston Harbour on High Holborn Street, one of the more prominent roads on the eastern edge of downtown. Then, in the early 1950s, he moved with his mother to 18 Dromilly Avenue, in the Penwood section of Waterhouse, an expansive area of western Kingston, where a number of new housing developments had recently been built. Compared to the serious overcrowding of downtown, Penwood must have felt like a step up in the world. Yet, the neighbourhood would later become another flashpoint district, once politically-motivated violence became a serious issue.
Rather than referring to his waistline (which was definitely slim), the nickname ‘Tubby’ stems from his mother’s surname, Tubman. He developed an interest in electronics in his teen years, and studied the subject at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in uptown Kingston, supplementing his knowledge through correspondence courses from the USA. He began building radios from discarded parts salvaged from business rubbish tips, and soon opened an electrical repair shop at the rear of his mother’s home. In addition to the transformer work he later did at the premises, Tubby began building and servicing amplifiers for local sound systems there, and in 1958 he established one himself, an initially small set known as Hometown Hi-Fi, which played American rhythm and blues music, and only appeared at select local venues in the early days. Nevertheless, its popularity led to the crowning of King Tubby following a Waterhouse sound clash in the early 60s, and towards the end of that decade, once U Roy became the set’s star toaster, King Tubby’s Hi-Fi shifted gears and moved into the major league. His sound system was also the first to unleash reverb on the general public — a major sonic innovation at the time. Tragically, the sound was destroyed by police in 1975, their hostile actions a terrible affront.
From the mid-1950s, Tubby acted as a mentor to his younger neighbour, Lloyd ‘Jammy’ James (who lived a few chains down at number 92), and according to Jammy, he briefly operated a pirate radio station during the ska years (called TRS, for Tubby’s Radio Station), but dismantled it when soldiers were dispatched to find the source, since the station’s emissions clashed with those of the mainstream Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation’s radio frequency. Tubby and Jammy would remain extremely close in the decades that followed — even when Jammy eventually decided to become a rival producer himself.
Because so little was documented at the time, King Tubby’s early involvement in music has sometimes been misrepresented. Tubby’s nephew recently clarified that although he maintained equipment at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio during the late 60s, he was not an apprentice engineer or staff dub cutter there, as has often been stated. Additionally, legend has it that Tubby was present when soundman Rudolph ‘Ruddy’ Redwood had resident engineer Byron Smith mix off some exclusives for his sound system, on which the vocal was inadvertently removed, paving the way for the phenomenon of ‘version’ B-sides, in which previously recorded vocal songs would have their rhythm tracks removed for alternate instrumental versions or toasting deejay cuts — though Tubby once claimed he was the first to do this himself. In either case, Tubby acquired a two-track tape machine which he began using to mix ‘versions’ as exclusive acetates for sound systems. The singer Pat Kelly, who was an audio engineer for Tubby in the early days, says he was working at King Tubby’s from perhaps as early as 1969, though others have questioned Kelly’s memory.
Things definitely stepped up a notch after Bunny Lee helped Tubby acquire an obsolete MCI mixing desk from Dynamic Sounds in 1971, leading Tubby to turn the front room at 18 Dromilly Avenue into a remix studio, adding delay and reverb to the ‘version’ B-sides he was mixing, thus creating dub as we now know it. Soon the most important independent record producers with no studios of their own were beating a path to his door, with Niney the Observer, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Keith Hudson, Yabby You and Augustus Pablo being among the most noteworthy to benefit from the Tubby treatment. From 1972, the space was regularly used for the voicing of rhythm tracks as well, though it was not big enough for a full band to record there. According to Cornell Campbell, who claims his rendition of ‘Never Found A Girl’ was the first song voiced at the premises, Tubby was initially reluctant to record artists there, but after hearing the results, and with encouragement from Bunny Lee, he built a voicing booth in a converted bathroom for that very purpose. It then became standard practice for the independent producers to bring their unvoiced rhythm tracks to Tubby’s studio for voicing, as well as to have their dub versions mixed there.
King Tubby was also instrumental in making the dub album a viable format for release, leading to the growing overseas popularity of the form during the mid-70s. Yet, the limited nature of Tubby’s recording equipment has stimulated much debate over the years. An important element of the mixing desk was its high-pass filter, which Tubby used to dynamic effect on many of his greatest dubs. And it was always a team of engineers that were working there, rather than just Tubby himself. In the early days of his studio, singer Pat Kelly was one of the resident engineers on an on-off basis, but he was replaced by Philip Smart in late 1973; when Smart subsequently migrated to the USA, it led to a temporary return for Kelly, until Prince Jammy came back to Jamaica in early 76 to become Tubby’s right-hand man. Towards the end of the 70s, the young Scientist became another important apprentice, and Peter Chemist and Professor engineered some fine records at Tubby’s in the early 80s too.
Meanwhile, Jammy was in the process of breaking away from Tubby, setting up his own studio at his home in nearby St Lucia Road. The massive success Jammy had with the Casio-driven ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ in 1985 convinced Tubby to upgrade his studio and the make the shift to computer-driven ‘digital’ beats. However, once the studio was up and running, Tubby took even more of a backseat role with the actual productions, leaving associates such as Peego, Phantom and Fatman Thompson to conduct the majority of his sessions. The end result was that he was often in Jammy’s shadow in the early digital phase, though he scored some noteworthy hits of his own too.
King Tubby’s life was cut tragically short on 6 February 1989, the victim of another senseless murder. The unidentified gunman took cash, jewellery, and most notably, Tubby’s licensed firearm, which was probably the reason he was targeted in the first place. Though Tubby’s murder struck a terrible blow for reggae, the music he made is truly immortal. What follows are ten supreme examples of wonderful work to surface from King Tubby’s studio, conceived and mixed by the King himself, along with some of his closest peers.
(Shalimar/Green Door 7”, 1972)
Singer-turned-producer Glen Brown got his start with the Sonny Bradshaw 7 in the mid-60s, when they were Jamaica’s leading jazz group. His deep love of jazz underpinned his eclectic approach to music production, and gave him a lot of common ground with Tubby. In fact, the two grew up in the same downtown Kingston neighbourhood, and enjoyed a longstanding friendship. ‘Merry Up’ was largely the result of sabotage: Brown built the rhythm at Dynamics for a song he voiced with Ken Boothe and BB Seaton, ‘Welcome To My Land,’ but found a rival producer had wiped the vocals when he returned to the studio with cash to retrieve the tape. He then got Joe White to blow a little melodica on it, and did the spoken lines himself. But the whole thing was given its final mix-down by King Tubby at Tubby’s studio, and the way Tubby introduces the song with a dose of watery delay meant he was stamping his identity all over the record.
Lloyd & Kerry
‘Tubbys In Full Swing’
(High School/Attack 7”, 1972)
Dub music opened up all kinds of possibilities for audio experimentation, including audible jokes. This trickster of a record, credited to toaster Carey ‘Wildman’ Johnson and singer Lloyd Young, was produced by ‘Prince’ Tony Robinson, and is probably the first to reference King Tubby by name. When the song starts up, Johnson gives a wild shouted introduction, the kind of thing you might hear at a sound system event; a few bars of the Staples Singers’ ‘I’ll Take You There’ starts up, before Johnson puts an end to it, and a reverberating drum roll shifts to a reggae organ and trombone instrumental. This kind of audio trickery was not commonplace outside of Jamaica, and King Tubby was a pioneer of the process.
‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’
(Yard Music/Island 7”, 1975)
Although his early productions were created at Randy’s and Dynamics, Augustus Pablo had a great affinity with King Tubby and most of his greatest dubs were mixed at Tubby’s studio. This early pairing is a sparse, echoing cut of Jacob Miller’s ‘Baby I Love You So,’ voiced on Pablo’s ‘Cassava Piece’ rhythm; Tubby obliterates all but a few fragments of Miller’s vocal, to concentrate instead on the pounding drum rolls of Lloyd ‘Tin Legs’ Adams, a throbbing bass, and disjointed melodica and keyboard parts. The result was so astoundingly excellent that Island relegated the dub to the A-side of their single release.
Fatman Rhythm Section
‘King Tubby’s Version’
(Arab/Ty Disco Rockers 7”, 1975)
After failing to muster a credible version of his own ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’, Greenwich Farm-based singer Earl Zero began recording sparse material for independent producers. His ‘Please Officer’ (the title is a misnomer, since he speaks of ‘Peace Officers’ on the tune) was first recorded for Ian and Roger Lewis of Inner Circle, and became such an influential underground hit that Jimmy Cliff eventually cut a version of his own. The original single came with a sparse yet highly effective dub, bearing King Tubby’s name it its title.
‘A Rougher Version’
(Jackpot 7”, 1976)
Since Bunny Lee was the man that helped King Tubby to establish his studio and gave him the initial impetus to consider recording people there, it makes sense that Lee would get the lion’s share of Tubby’s creative output. Lee helped Johnny Clarke to become a major star by having him record Earl Zero’s ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement,’ which was voiced and mixed at Tubby’s by the King himself; Clarke’s ‘Don’t Trouble Trouble’ is one of his greatest efforts for Lee, and although the song was cut as a musical barb aimed at Jacob Miller’s head (rather than the lure of thug life, as on his equally excellent ‘Don’t Want To Be A Rude Boy’), Tubby’s excessive B-side is pure dub magic, with machine-gun fire, submarine noises and other frightening sounds blasting atop a fantastic Aggrovators rhythm, with its marvellous horn fanfare.
(Prophets 7”, 1976)
Yabby You, aka Vivian Jackson, was another musical figure that felt a strong affinity with King Tubby. Nearly all of his dubs were mixed at Tubby’s studio, most of his work was also voiced there, and indeed Tubby is the man who gave Jackson his unusual and enduring nickname when he first began recording circa 1972. As with Glen Brown, the physically disfigured Yabby was high on ideas, but low on ready finance, often scrounging a living by giving betting tips at the racetrack. Some of Yabby’s early productions drew on rhythms procured from Bunny Lee; keen listeners will note that Tommy McCook’s eerie flute opus, ‘Death Trap,’ uses the same rhythm as Linval Thompson’s ‘Big Big Girl’; both feature the ‘flying cymbal’ style that was ruling Jamaica in 1974-5, based on an open-and-closed high-hat pattern, adapted from the Soul Train theme song. To get a better sense of Tubby’s artistry, check the version B-side, ‘Living Style,’ which actually credits him by name.
(Top Ranking/Cavlip 12”, 1978)
Errol Kong, nephew of legendary Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong, began recording as Ricky Storme and later took the name I Kong, in reference to his part-African ancestry and his adherence to the Rastafari faith. ‘Zion’s Pathway’ is one of the most outstanding songs of the roots reggae era, co-produced by Geoffrey Chung with a multitude of talented musicians, including members of Third World and some of Jamaica’s best horn players, but it was not widely distributed, and remains a somewhat overlooked classic (though a recent reissue by Iroko may remedy its obscurity). Its extended 12″ makes maximum use of Pat Kelly’s outlandish dub portion, one of the greatest dubs he ever cut at King Tubby’s studio.
Mike Dread & the Instigators
(40 Leg 7”, 1978)
Michael Campbell changed the shape of Jamaican radio with his Dread at the Controls programme on JBC, which blasted nothing but real Jamaican reggae, all through the night on certain days of the week, during the late 70s. The show drew a cult following around the world, with the Clash becoming big fans of it, and when the re-born Mikey Dread began entering into music production himself, King Tubby was a big part of the experience. ‘Robbers Roost’ is an enthralling dub of Edi Fitzroy’s ‘Country Man,’ itself an excellent track, but here given the full Tubby treatment with outlandish sound effects that leap out of your speakers in all directions.
‘Cus Cus Dubwise’ aka ‘Dread Dub’
(Tads/Vista Sounds LP, 1981)
Lloyd Robinson first recorded the censorious ‘Cuss Cuss’ for producer Harry J in 1968. The song was so ahead of its time that it still sounded current at the end of the 70s, when a number of other artists re-cut the tune, including Horace Andy for Wackies. It’s not entirely clear when King Tubby mixed ‘Cus Cus Dubwise,’ otherwise known as ‘Dread Dub’ (or indeed, if Tubby actually mixed it, or another engineer at his studio); New York-based producer Tad Dawkins in the one who placed it on a couple of album releases. But in any case, the dub itself is mighty striking, being nothing but bass for a long portion of the track, before the rest of the instruments leap back into the mix to thrilling effect.
Anthony Red Rose
(Firehouse 7”, 1985)
Tubby’s protégé Prince Jammy became the man of the moment after he released ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ in 1985. Production values changed overnight, and Tubby upgraded his studio to get with the programme. Though he remained in Jammy’s shadow for much of the following years, he did begin producing significant hits, of which the most noteworthy is surely ‘Tempo’, Red Rose’s description of sound system battle. The title itself is apparently a misnomer, since the singer speaks of the ‘temper’ of the sound men, rather than the ‘tempo’ of a song.