A Jamaican Offshoot’s Journey From Studio Accident to World Power
To paraphrase a Jamaican proverb, are there branches without roots? In the 21st century, dub — Jamaica’s gift to studio-spiked rhythm music — finds itself dispersed throughout the world and remade in countless local styles. Is today’s dub still connected to its father’s house?Fans all agree that dub was originally a distillation of reggae. Bass and the drums are the pillars of the music, but the rest of the sonics are a constantly modulating blur of instruments and sound sources altered by studio wizardry. What started out as an alternative mix to a vocal tune, reduced and augmented by spontaneous genius at the mixing desk, can now consist of a complex vocal mix executed entirely in an automated, virtual recording environment — the exact opposite of its origin. Is this still the same music? Among dub disciples there is a tension between looking forward to ever more innovative production techniques and respecting the roots of the form.Weird and wonderful hybrids of dub have occurred when combined with other impulses like ambient music and punk. Even as the quasars of dub travel further from Jamaica, its visibility in its homeland has largely vanished. But the story is not so simple; even in Jamaica, the sound contemporary dancehall is filled with dub techniques, and the dub diaspora of the world continues to draw inspiration from the sounds and strategies of the original masters. And that’s the key to dub: it is both a reggae-related genre and a process of music-making inspired by reggae’s spacious low-end sonics. Because of this dual nature, almost every "fundamental” characteristic of dub can by negated by other examples within its expansive contemporary usage.
Dub came about by mistake, one whose impact rippled outward very quickly. In 1968, Kingston, Jamaica sound system operator Ruddy Redwood went to Treasure Isle studio to cut a one-off dub plate. Engineer Byron Smith left the vocal track out by accident, but Redwood kept the result and played it at his next dance with his deejay Wassy toasting over the rhythm. Singles started to appear with a vocal mix on one side and the word "version” on the other. Naturally, other sound systems followed this lead, and producers were only too happy to get more mileage out of popular rhythms. One such sound system operator was part-time electronics engineer King Tubby. He had achieved great acclaim with his clean and powerful PA, featuring custom-built reverb and echo to produce special effects at key moments. He had a small studio set up in the bedroom of his mother’s house and began to create dub mixes from productions supplied by maverick producers such as Bunny Lee. Tubby’s mixes feature a timeless and internationally emulated balance between bass and drums, shards of vocals fractured from the narrative of the lyrics, and the warm, metallic sound of syncopated tape echo.
By 1972, other engineer-producer tandems around Kingston developed their own approaches. Sonic innovation was becoming a priority in this emerging subgenre of reggae, and further artistic novelty was encouraged by fans’ appetite for the universally drum-and-bass heavy sounds. The contrast of a sparse, heavy mix with the sudden surprise of effects was exciting and a new generation of multi-track studios allowed for isolation of specific instruments in the mix, enabling these sonic preferences to develop.
Dub in its early years was very much "jazz at the mixing board,” wherein an engineer improvised moves with faders, knobs and switches to slice and dice a song to bits. Given the time pressures of producing a finished product, this one-take transformation of the mix would be the cut that was pressed, perfect or not. Thus dub gave engineers personality in the mix where they’d never had it before — soon enough, Tubby’s name was incorporated into song titles and deejay chatter and artistic evolution occurred at a rapid pace.Original dub master King Jammy (see sidebar) maintains that although dub was popular for a time in Jamaica, it was never a dominant commercial form — he credits Britain with sustaining dub. "I’m sure it has to do a lot with the influence of New York and London as centres of music and culture and media,” says Twilight Circus’s Ryan Moore. "In both those cities you had a large Jamaican population and they were playing it in their communities and there was a lot of cross pollination going on. If dub had just stayed in Jamaica, it would have remained a highly obscure form, I think.”
Be the first to comment