20 Jul

Dub Music: A History of Jamaica’s Musical Artform

by Patricia Meschino | Billboard


On a balmy late May evening under the stars at Chris Blackwell’s stunning cliffside hotel The Caves in Negril, Jamaica, legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry strolls up to the DJ booth and takes the microphone.

For the next 45 minutes Scratch, now 81, his hair and beard dyed cherry-red, freestyles lyrics as DJ (or selector, in Jamaican parlance). Kingston Dub Club owner Gabre Selassie tweaks his mixing console’s controls, manipulating the riddim track, transforming the bass line into a recurring thunderous boom.

The event, part of the inaugural Tmrw.Tday Festival, was called The Dub Cave, nodding to the musical art form Perry helped define. Dub refers to rearranging elements within an existing recording through the isolation of individual instrumental tracks with the addition of various effects to create a new work.

Scratch’s experimentation at the mixing board, particularly at his fabled Black Ark studio in the ’70s, established him as one of the most creative forces in dub. Alongside other visionaries who conducted experiments in their respective studios and on the sound systems that played the music, they created dub, which rose to prominence in Jamaica and internationally during the 1970s.

“Dubbing is a traditional Jamaican sound system vibe; if you go to a dancehall sound system [session] they take out the bass and drop it in as an artist is performing, but they are not dubbing as we would do it. We turn on the bass, turn up the knobs, keeping the craft a little more intricate,” comments Gabre Selassie, whose thoughtfully curated playlist of traditional Rastafarian Nyabinghi chants, classic Jamaican tracks, contemporary roots reggae and powerful dub mixes is heard each Sunday evening at the Kingston Dub Club, located in the hills overlooking the capital city.

“There are different approaches to dubbing,” continues Gabre, who operates the Rockers Sound Station [sound system] started by his mentor, the late producer/musician Augustus Pablo, another pivotal figure in dub’s development. “For example King Jammy [born Lloyd James] tours the world doing live mixes of his own productions; because he produced the song, he has each instrument recorded separately so he can get more detailed in his mixes; I take the actual recorded material as played on a CD, 7-inch or album track and do what mixes I can, so I do dub mixes as if on a sound system, he does mixes as if in the studio.”

When digital reggae came to the fore in the mid-1980s, dub’s popularity diminished in Jamaica; currently, dub is enjoying a renaissance on the island and beyond its shores, whether it’s live dubbing performances in clubs and at music festivals or the rediscovery of classic dub albums by the genre’s forefathers including Scratch, Pablo, Hopeton “Scientist” Brown, Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser, and the man widely credited as dub’s originator, the late Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock.

“Dub is a part of Jamaican music’s foundation but needs to be pushed further by the music industry here; next year we plan to involve more of dub’s global players,” comments Kevin Bourke, a co-founder of the Tmrw.Tday Festival, held May 17-23 in Negril. “Dub in its truest form breaks down music then redelivers it in a raw, impactful way, which Gabre did at the Dub Cave and [producer] Teflon Zinc Fence [responsible for reggae star Chronixx’s early hits “Behind Curtain” and “Warrior”] did as our resident dub selector,” says Bourke. “It was amazing to have Scratch, one of dub’s godfathers, perform at the Dub Cave, passing the proverbial torch to the current generation who are carrying on the mission.”

The original practitioners established dub not just as a distinctive reggae offshoot but as a prototype for modern electronic music and its associated practices, including the song remix and the elevation of the producer and/or engineer as the artist.

“Dub’s development revolutionized the entire music business, as we see today, and the creativity and spontaneity in my dad’s recordings are pillars of Jamaican music; some go back almost 50 years, which put him at the forefront of dub,” comments Addis Pablo, son of Augustus Pablo, who introduced the melodica to reggae in the early ’70s and produced numerous groundbreaking instrumental/dub albums including East of the River Nile and King Tubby’s Meets Rockers Uptown, ranked among the finest dub albums ever made.

Dub evolved from the instrumental versions that Kingston producers started issuing circa 1969 as B-sides to vocal releases. The city’s competitive sound system landscape had evolved: no longer did playing exclusive singles yield a sound’s superiority — dominance was now achieved through the multiple versions of a hit song within a sound system operator’s musical arsenal. Therefore a sound man would typically order several copies of the same record from the label/studio, each with a different mix.The “versions” (instrumentals) provided room for producers and engineers to add further instrumentation and deejays to toast their lyrics (Jamaican deejays are precursors of rappers; deejays initially chatted their lyrics over instrumental breaks on rhythms played by sound system selectors). In 1971, what is widely regarded as the very first dub single appeared: The Hippy Boys’ “Voo Doo” — the “version” to singer Little Roy’s “Hard Fighter,” mixed by Lynford Anderson.

However, it was the brilliant electronics technician turned visionary music engineer King Tubby (born Osborne Ruddick, January 28, 1941) who originally elevated dubbing into a renowned art form. Tubby fixed TVs, radios and various appliances at his home, but he also built and maintained speakers and amplifiers for many sound systems. Producers brought Tubby their master tapes and his fearless audio testing — stripping off instruments from a recording, phasing others to the background, adding echo and reverb — not only expanded dub’s possibilities but was the genesis of the remix, ever present in contemporary production. Dancehall, dubstep, drum and bass and hip-hop all owe a debt to Tubby’s experimentation.

King Tubby’s sonic innovations in his studio and on his sound system King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi fashioned one of the most influential legacies in popular Jamaican music, yet his contributions risk being obscured with each passing year. In 1989, Tubby, 48, was robbed of his licensed firearm and gold chain, then fatally shot in front of his Kingston home; the killer has never been found.

Following his death, Tubby’s family turned away from the music industry. “Tubby’s family got scared after he died and from my personal reasoning with his daughter, none of them wanted to continue on in music, including his brother in Miami who is also a technician,” says Scientist, who apprenticed with King Tubby as a teenager. Like his royal mentor, he graduated from gifted electronics technician to renowned dub mixer.

“King Tubby was the first to use to use the mixing console as an instrument; in dub, the engineer becomes the composer, the arranger, the performer and the artist. If a producer has engineering skills, he can create a dub track, but if he does not understand the set up of the console, then he can only take it to a certain level,” Scientist shared with Billboard in a phone interview from London.

A dub icon in his own right, Scientist has released numerous albums with such futuristic titles as Scientist Meets The Space Invaders and Scientist Rids The World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, the latter performed in full by Scientist with the Roots Radics Band at the Dub Champions Festival in New York City, 2012.

Scientist brought his superb live mixing skills to the UK’s Glastonbury Festival in June, and he’s doing the same at various dates across Europe and the U.S. this summer, as authentic Jamaican dub seeks to claim its deserved prominent position within the crowded electronic music landscape that it helped spawn.

“Dub has a triangular structure and if you know how to access that structure, you can create mysticism within the listener’s mind,” notes Scientist, offering technical acumen indicative of his name. “It lives longer than the straight [original] cut because the listener never hears dub the same way twice.”

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