The Jamaican audio engineer Scientist is one of the crucial links in a musically innovative chain that begins in the late 60s with King Tubby, progresses through Prince Jammy in the 70s, and falls to a close with Peter Chemist in the mid-80s.
A truly outstanding practitioner who thrived on innovation, Scientist helped dub reach some of its greatest heights of creativity. He became one of Jamaica’s most sought-after engineers at a very young age, his mixing artistry rising up in tandem with the Roots Radics in the late 70s and early 80s. Because of the incredible dub works he fashioned as an apprentice engineer at King Tubby’s studio, many dub fans consider Scientist to be the last of the classical Jamaican dub mixers, yet his overall contribution to the evolution of reggae is far more multifaceted than most realise.
In fact, Scientist was all over the place as the 70s gave way to the 80s, shaping significant vocal and dub works at Studio One, Channel One and Tuff Gong at a time in which reggae was undergoing dramatic changes. Yet the fact that he never really made the shift to becoming a self-sufficient record producer in his own right, unlike Jammy and Tubby, is part of what has kept him from gaining rightful recognition for his full contribution.
The lack of proper financial recompense, as well as artistic acknowledgement, ultimately yielded longstanding frustration, which, along with other personal factors, led to some overseas wilderness years following his exit from Jamaica in 1985. Although he was less prolific thereafter, Scientist’s great talent has seen him remain in demand as a dub mixer and live audio engineer, and in the new millennium he has even worked with Death In Vegas and Liam Gallagher, as well as with old stalwarts from Jamaica, such as Mikey Dread and Culture.
Born in 1960 with the unlikely name of Overton Brown, he was raised in Harbour View, a gritty fishing village located near the approach to Kingston’s international airport. His father had some knowledge of electronics, and young Overton displayed an early aptitude in that direction, so by the age of 16 he was already fixing televisions and building and testing amplifiers for local sound systems.
Scientist has said that during the late 70s he was testing one of these sound system amplifiers with a ‘flying cymbal’ dub B-side that King Tubby had mixed, and the startling dynamic of the recorded sound made him want to meet Tubby. As a friend was doing some welding work for the King, the introduction was made, and when Tubby realised the youth’s abilities, he soon had Brown repairing amplifiers and televisions in his workshop. The nickname Scientist came when Brown was discussing his vision of automated recording consoles with Tubby at a time when they were not in regular use; the tag references the Jamaican practice of Obeah or necromancy, known as ‘the High Science’ by its practitioners.
When Scientist first became a fixture at King Tubby’s studio, Tubby was more concerned with the daily running of his transformer business and general electronics work, leaving Prince Jammy to do the bulk of the audio engineering, supplemented at times by Pat Kelly. Spending many hours observing these seasoned professionals at work, the young Scientist dreamt of doing his own mixes, until finally, one fateful day in 1978, he was allowed to try his hand at the art himself.
Different accounts of his debut recording session have been suggested, with Yabby You, Bunny Lee and Roy Cousins all claiming to have been the first to give him the job, though Scientist himself says Don Mais of the Roots Tradition label was an early supporter who unsuccessfully suggested that Tubby give him a try. In the end, according to Scientist, the first to actually let him loose on the desk was Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, the former political ‘enforcer’ from west Kingston who had followed Linval Thompson into record production and who was just settling down to cut influential work with Barrington Levy, placing the young singer on rhythms largely cut with the Roots Radics at Channel One. Scientist’s resultant voicing of Barrington’s ‘Collie Weed’ at King Tubby’s was a massive hit in Jamaica which also impacted overseas, its success depositing Scientist firmly at the mixing console thereafter.
In addition to presiding over Junjo’s popular work with Barrington, Johnny Osbourne, Michael Prophet and the Wailing Souls, Scientist was also making an important contribution to rejuvenating Studio One. The studio’s late-70s renaissance began partly as a result of the vinyl feud with Channel One instigated by Sugar Minott; formidable new hits followed on revitalised vintage rhythms from singers such as Minott, Freddy McGregor, Johnny Osbourne, and Willie Williams, plus the deejay duo Michigan and Smiley. Scientist’s crisp, experimental mixing is part of what helped some of this work to hit, but proprietor Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd was displeased that Scientist was working for King Tubby at the same time, which caused a rupture, leading the mixer away from Dodd’s camp in less than a year.
At Tubby’s, Scientist was progressing by leaps and bounds. After cutting some dubs for Junjo which appeared on the Dub Showdown and Heavyweight Dub Champion sets, issued overseas by Greensleeves, news of his skills spread like wildfire, leading to further instalments in the series such as Scientist Meets the Space Invaders . Other producers were keen to capitalise on the phenomenon, so Scientist dub albums of varying quality were issued by other producers based in western Kingston, such as Linval Thompson, Jah Thomas, Yabby You, Roy Cousins, Al Campbell, and Blacka Morwell, as well as Jimmy Riley and Mikey Dread. Many of these are rightly regarded in retrospect as true classics, though Scientist himself was not always kept abreast of the producers’ plans for release at the time.
Scientist continued to work at Tubby’s studio until 1983, yet by 1981 he had also become one of the resident engineers at Channel One, mixing work by popular deejays such as Yellowman and Lee Van Cleef as well as vocal groups like the Viceroys. He also made a very brief foray into production with an obscure Neville Brown album, but audio engineering at Channel One was his daily bread. In this phase, his endless experimentation yielded some unusually dubby vocal work, as heard on the various Showdown albums cut at Channel One by artists such as Don Carlos and the Gladiators. As Channel One began to wane in the mid-1980s, Scientist shifted allegiance to Tuff Gong, where he engineered hits by Half Pint, Junior Reid, Tristan Palmer and Early B, bringing a downtown ghetto-based clientele into the uptown facility on a large-scale basis for the very first time.
Unfortunately, despite the sonically brilliant result, as Jamaica fell prey to the destructive nature of the international cocaine trade, unsavoury elements became somewhat problematic at Tuff Gong. Pressure was mounting, as daily life became more precarious in Kingston. Thus, like so many of his peers, Scientist decided to exit Jamaica and join his family members in the USA.
He began working with Shaggy in Brooklyn and later cut noteworthy work at Lion and Fox studio in Washington DC; then, in the mid-90s, he moved to California where he worked with the Soul Syndicate band and Michael Rose, among others. In the new millennium Scientist made some incredible live performances with Mad Professor, stretching the very limits of the dub format in a way that has not been seen or heard before or since. More recent album releases such as Dub 911 and Extermination Dub, the latter a collaboration with Japanese band the Heavymanners, show that he remains active, if not nearly as prolific as during his Jamaican heyday.
With so many great works to choose from, selecting a top 10 is too difficult, so here come a devil’s dozen of crucial Scientist tracks.
(Roots From the Yard/His Majesty, 1979)
After being heavily inspired by Michael Jackson, Levy formed the Mighty Multitudes with a cousin while still attending school, but the songs they recorded sank without a trace. Immersing himself in the realm of the sound systems that were all around him in western Kingston, Levy began making an impact with original songs of everyday life. Once local street gang leader and political ‘enforcer’ Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes began seeking a way into music production, Barrington was one of the first artists he worked with, the debut recording ‘Collie Weed’ reportedly being the first to make of use Scientist’s engineering skills, too. Over a rollicking re-cut of the ‘My Conversation’ rhythm, the crispness of the voice on this recording, placed prominently in the mix, shows how Scientist was already on top of his game at the start; the 12″ mix issued in New York on His Majesty has an extended dub portion and the version included on the Hunter Man LP by Burning Sounds in the UK has an uncredited deejay piece at the end.
‘Oh Mr DC’
(Studio One, 1978)
Sugar’s weed anthem is a plea from a ghetto-dwelling herb dealer imploring the District Constable to ease off the pressure and let him survive by his work. It rides a classic rhythm from the late 60s, the influential ‘Pressure And Slide,’ which has not been updated much on the original 7″ but still sounds fresh as ever (a later issue had overdubbed syndrums). As with ‘Collie Weed,’ this early voicing by Scientist emphasizes the crisp clearness of Sugar’s voice, which is given centre-stage treatment. The audio fidelity is sterling, and the spatial placement undoubtedly helped the song hit.
‘Sounds Of Redemption/Scientist In Dub’
As noted in an earlier primer, Augustus Pablo was a master musician who conjured wondrous sounds from the melodica, a plastic keyboard ordinarily used to teach schoolkids the rudiments of music. On ‘Sounds Of Redemption’ he blows a tune both spirited and mournful, using the melody to channel disparate emotions. The extended dub portion, ‘Scientist In Dub,’ is a masterful recasting of the same tune that is heavily mercurial, locking in on echoing strains of the melodica as the drums and cymbals are given greater emphasis, while the steady bass line rumbles on beneath. Scientist says that he mixed some of the landmark work that Hugh Mundell recorded for Augustus Pablo too, though did not clarify exactly which tracks. In any case, ‘Sound Of Redemption’ and the dub of its flipside, Pablo’s melodica reworking of the ‘Burial’ rhythm, show that a potent partnership was forged between these two innovators, albeit one that bore only sporadic fruits.
(From Dub Landing, Starlight, 1980)
Since Linval Thompson helped Junjo Lawes to make his way in the music industry, and Junjo was the first to make regular use of Scientist, it makes sense that Thompson would benefit from Scientist’s mixing skills too. Although he was best known as a singer, Thompson learned early on that producers were the only ones making a steady income from music, so he made the shift to production even before his vocal career had solidified, becoming one of the most consistent record producers on the island by the late 70s.
The Dub Landing album comprised superb Scientist dubs of work Thompson cut with Rod Taylor, Barry Brown, Al Campbell and Freddy McKay, whose romance number ‘Hey Stranger’ is dubbed into sub-sonic oblivion for ‘Beaming,’ with just a smattering of McKay’s voice frozen in time as Flabba Holt’s bass is given gargantuan proportion; Sowell Radics’ wah-wah guitar also leaps in and out of the mix. The whole album is magnificent, and Dub Landing 2 is also worth seeking out for its fine dubs of Viceroys material; the Wailing Souls album Wailing, which has vocal tracks followed by Scientist dub versions, is also a must-have Thompson-produced set.
(From Introducing Scientist, JB Music, 1980)
Introducing Scientist – The Best Dub Album In The World surfaced in England on the Brixton-based JB Music label, its front cover showing that an incredibly youthful kid was responsible for its amazing sound contours. Produced by Al Campbell, whose multifaceted career has comprised popular songs in both roots reggae and lover’s rock mode, the album had some great Sly and Robbie rhythms, as well as Roots Radics material, and even though a lot of the songs are dubs of lover’s rock tracks (such as Pat Kelly’s ‘I Loved And I Lost’), Scientist makes them all sound hard and spacey.
The opening track, ‘Steppers,’ is easily the most impressive, being a radically reconfigured dub cut of Cambell’s ‘Jamming,’ the rhythm also later used to marvellous effect for Freddy McGregor’s ‘Leave Yah’ (recently resurrected by Jammy’s son John John for a series of new voicings, which proves how immortal it is). On ‘Steppers,’ Scientist isolates the bass, gives emphasis to the tune’s thunderous drum rolls, plays around with the test tone, and drops down to keyboards and guitar at select spots. In short, a magnificent dub workout that draws out the best of the form.
‘Israel (12 Tribe) Stylee (Extended Play)’
(From World War III, Dread At The Controls, 1980)
Like Scientist, Mikey Dread showed early aptitude with electronics, and as a student began hanging out at King Tubby’s studio. Tubby became a mentor to Mikey that encouraged him to begin recording as a deejay, and later, to become a record producer himself. Mikey also revolutionised Jamaican radio through his late-night Dread At The Controls programme on JBC, and his music productions were always very unique.
‘Israel (12 Tribe Stylee)’ appeared on Mikey’s World War III album, which, except for one song, was mixed entirely by Scientist at Tubby’s. The song has Mikey singing a load of impenetrable gibberish about the various ‘stylees’ of the day, be it rude boy, jailhouse, earth man, or Simeon, but the real treat starts up at around the one-and-a-half minute mark, when Scientist begins his fearsome dub treatment, stripping the tune back to the drum and bass core and letting some conga drums breathe through. Dread warbles back for a bit, then the dub takes over fully, and we get keyboard chops from Steelie, bass grooves from Flabba, and Style Scott at the helm of the engine with driving drums. Nearly nine minutes of dub bliss.
‘Drum Song Dub’
(From Scientific Dub, Clocktower, 1981)
Brad Osbourne’s Clocktower label was home to some of New York’s finest reggae during the late 70s and early 80s. Brad had strong links to various producers in Jamaica, including Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee, Linval Thompson and Augustus Pablo, so some of their greatest works were handled by Clocktower for the US market; additionally, Brad and his team issued locally-produced work. Scientific Dub collected great rhythms, mostly from Bunny Lee’s stable, to be refashioned by Scientist in dub, with additional editing and embellishments done by Brad in the Bronx. The opening track, ‘Drum Song Dub,’ is a pared-back cut of Jackie Mittoo’s late-70s ‘Drum Song’ recut, recorded for his Showcase album, and as usual, Scientist hones in on the bare essentials, focussing on drums and bass in a stop-start fashion, and allowing some of Mittoo’s eerie organ chords to shine through.
‘Blood On His Lips’
(From Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires, Greensleeves, 1981)
The series of dub albums Scientist mixed at Tubby’s for Greensleeves are really the albums that made his name. Pretty much the entire output is never less than excellent, as Scientist transforms the rhythms through mixing wizardry, highlighting the tightness of the Roots Radics and making playful use of effects and sound treatments where necessary. Scientist Rids The World Of The Curse Of The Evil Vampires, supposedly mixed at midnight on Friday the 13th, plays with the horror movie concept by being as spooky as possible. The album has plenty of highlights, and ‘Blood On His Lips’ is especially noteworthy for transforming Wayne Jarrett’s innocuous ‘Love In A Mi Heart’ into a tension-filled number, made more ominous by sticking the percussion in the foreground, with swathes of heavily treated guitar making a fearsome grating sound throughout.
‘Forgive Them Oh Jah’
(From High Priest of Dub, Kingdom, 1982)
Roy Cousins’ career dates back to the ska years when he was in a street corner singing group. He later formed the Royals, initially known as the Tempests, but the group endured many false starts in the mid-60s and early 70s. Cousins soon made the shift to producing the group, and like Linval Thompson, became one of the most reliable producers of the late 70s and early 80s. ‘Forgive Them Oh Jah’ appeared on High Priest Of Dub, one of a series of Scientist dub albums Cousins licensed to Kingdom Records in Britain, and although the series is not quite as compelling as the albums issued by Greensleeves, they are all of reasonable quality and do have choice moments that are worth seeking out. The track in question is a disjointed dub cut of the Royals’ ‘Vanity Crazy,’ with most of the vocals removed, allowing for the listener’s unobtrusive observation of the pure rhythm.
‘Weep And Wail’
(From Radicfication, Cha Cha, 1982)
As noted above, the Roots Radics became the hottest backing band of the late 70s and early 80s, once Junjo Lawes harnessed them for his work with Barrington Levy. The group evolved from the wreckage of the Morwells, which producer/vocalist Maurice ‘Blacka Morwell’ Wellington and guitarist/vocalist Eric ‘Bingi Bunny’ Lamont had formed in the mid-70s, and although the band was essentially freelance, the Radics naturally retained strong links with Morwell, who used them for a series of underground releases at the time, most often with Scientist in the engineer’s chair. ‘Weep And Wail,’ the outstanding opening track from the Radification album, is a dense and moody dub cut of Derrick Spence’s ‘I See A Black Man Cry,’ an unjustly overlooked slice of hard-hitting roots reggae, issued in sparse number on a Cha Cha blank.
‘Can’t Stop Righteousness’
(From Show-Down – Vol. 3, Empire, 1984)
When Scientist became a mainstay at Channel One, around 1983, he worked closely with the Hoo-Kim brothers and also Niney the Observer, who regularly ran sessions there. One noteworthy innovation that came about in this phase was the use of multiple tape machines to create an echoing effect on the material. You can hear it most strongly on the Don Carlos and the Gladiators Show-Down – Volume 3 album, one of a series of discs that had one artist on the A-side and a different artist on the B-side. Both sides are spectacular on this particular pairing, and of the Gladiators’ tracks, ‘Can’t Stop Righteousness’ is the one that shows most strongly how the new technique impacted the musical result.
‘Gate Man Get Fraid’
(From Triston Palma Meets Early B The Doctor, Fantastique, 1984)
When Channel One began to unravel, Scientist decamped to Tuff Gong, the state-of-the-art studio that Bob Marley opened a mere few years before his passing. It had the reputation as a site for major-label projects, but once Scientist was there, upcoming artists from deep in the ghetto began to frequent the space, particularly the new vanguards of the dancehall movement. The album Triston Palma Meets Early B The Doctor is a patent example of the kind of thing Scientist created at Tuff Gong, both sides featuring some extended dub portions along with ordinary vocal takes; the humorous tale of ‘Gate Man Get Fraid’ also benefits from strange vocal manipulation effects.
Mad Professor Meets Scientist
‘Boo Boo Dub’
(From Mad Professor Meets Scientist At The Dub Table, Ariwa, 2002)
As noted in an earlier primer, London-based music producer Mad Professor has been responsible for some of the most noteworthy reggae and dub produced in Britain, and he’s worked in Jamaica and elsewhere too. Apparently, Prof courted Scientist for a number of years before the younger mixer would agree to work with him, and the live events they did together in the early part of the new millennium were nothing short of astounding.
Somehow, the album Mad Professor Meets Scientist At The Dub Table was not in the same league as the live shows, partly because there are chintzy-sounding keyboards on much of the work, but there are several outstanding collaborations that make the set worth seeking out, with ‘Boo Boo Dub’ being a fine Ariwa re-working of the ‘Colt The Game’ rhythm, here given a dub dissection by the pair. Snippets of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry ramblings keep the feeling firmly anchored in oddball territory too.
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