Dub Voyage A Jamaican Offshoot’s Journey From Studio Accident to World Power

Dub Voyage 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.”

Manipulation and Automation
There has always been a creative tension between man and machine; dub was born from a technological accident, and fostered by a studio, not in a live environment and its echo-drenched sounds are metallic but organic as well. Sound effects and vocal shots, ranging from birdsong to sirens to horror movie cues, became a much used and abused tactic to introduce surprise and humour into mixes, foreshadowing hip-hop’s sampledelic pastiches of the ’80s.

With the rise of electronic gear and computers within reggae, and the end of dub as a commercial force in Jamaica by the mid-‘80s, international enthusiasts carried on. Adrian Sherwood and Mad Professor applied dub to punk and electronic music and the emergence of MIDI in 1982 made it possible for sequencer-based dub; a band was no longer needed. Also, due to similarities in the means of production, elements from other styles could be mixed in. "The equipment that we’re all using is just more accessible to mix in different styles,” says Sassa’le of Toronto’s Version Xcursion, "and it’s more acceptable to a dance floor audience than back in the day.” New toys led to digidub, as it was sometimes known in England, which flourished between the mid-‘80s and mid-‘90s. Even the imagery became mechanical: outer space was a recurring theme, rhythm section Sly and Robbie’s sound was known as "bionic reggae,” and Mad Professor’s band were the Robotiks. Electro dub informed everything from the Madchester and Bristol scenes to the Orb, drum & bass, downtempo and eventually UK garage and its offshoots. The story is similar with continental European dub scenes, leading to technologically-informed dub made for multicultural audiences in France and Germany during the ‘90s; today these two countries are at least as big a market for dub as the UK.

Toronto’s Version Xcursion are one such hybrid; their self-described "nu dub” is uptempo and electronic, with selective use of delay and little improvised mixing, as likely to fit into a house or R&B set as reggae. Yet it appeals to a multiracial audience that appreciates a kaleidoscope of influences overtop heavy bass and drums. "The fact that we can call it dub is based on what it’s rooted in,” according to Aram Scaram. "It’s either the heavy dub bass line, it’s probably got a skank in it somewhere and the mixing.” Scaram credits his partner, veteran Toronto DJ Sassa’le — an ex-Bristol resident and schoolmate of Nellee Hooper, Tricky and Rob Smith (Smith and Mighty) — with introducing him to the nu-dub sound. Scaram describes his own background as fundamentally hip-hop oriented, while Sassa’le brings his love of garage and dubstep to their sound.

Dubstep is an utterly electronic, austere but powerful sound system experience, with dub links more in feel than sonics. Cyrus has been a figure in dubstep for several years, first with the Random Trio and then on his own. He describes dubstep as a nearly religious experience for many patrons drawn from different scenes seeking bass salvation. His recent disc From The Shadows is a dark, but varied journey of pulsating slowness. There are no played instruments whatsoever, only chunky but devastatingly effective programming. It’s got just enough vitality to inspire a determined shuffle, but don’t call it bleak. "The only people who describe it as bleak are the kind that haven’t heard it on a loud system. There’s such a variety of stuff coming out now with new producers, [dubstep] could never be described as bleak.”

Dubstep and nu-dub are not spontaneous expressions; indeed, most contemporary music in the post-reggae idiom is composed for its own sake, not created by the subtraction of elements from a main mix. But the process of dub, which balances technology with individual personality, can still be expressed in a variety of ways.

The presence of a human hand somewhere in the mix is essential for Twilight Circus’s Ryan Moore, who lives in the Netherlands but whose music is strongly informed by Jamaica’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s sounds. "Anybody who’s serious about doing dub has to have a console to mix with. You just can’t do it all in a box. It could take you weeks to set up a mix on a computer that you could set up in minutes on a console, and it would sound ten times more alive. Everybody is moving more and more to computer-based recording but in the final stage, if you’re trying to do a serious dub mix, it doesn’t work very well if you don’t do it at a desk.”

Deadbeat (born Scott Monteith) disagrees; Deadbeat’s sound owes much to his ability to contrast machine-generated polyrhythms with each other. His murderously bass-heavy dancehall and techno rhythms are enveloped in interlocking delays that seem to have an internal logic all their own. "Mucking about with allowing delays to sail off in their own direction and then snapping them back into synch with the base rhythm of the track is a tried and tested trick and a true staple of dub without a doubt,” Monteith says. "I don’t use any outboard gear and don’t see that changing any time soon. The music technology industry has been striving to cram an entire studio into a laptop for years now they have been entirely successful. I think the days of hardware versus software arguments are over.”

Is a human approach retro? Is an automated approach soulless? It’s not so cut and dried. With computer-based recording so widespread and fully developed, technological limitations are nearly irrelevant. But the genesis of a mix still rests with a musical individual and how their ingenuity can transcend the platform they’re working with. As Monteith says, "We’ve all been exposed to these dub clichés for so long that it’s very easy to hear whether someone is actually pushing their sound or just falling back on the same old genre signifiers.”

Vocals vs. Instrumentals
The opposite of dub has to be the vocal mix, right? Not necessarily. Both dub and Jamaican deejaying were born around the same time, of the same impulse — multi-tracking. Often the two were combined, with the dub done right after the vocal mix. Often, cutting a lyric in half further added to the tension, as in King Tubby’s drastic and influential mix of Jacob Miller and Augustus Pablo’s "Baby I Love You So” (1975) where Miller’s vocals are chopped and channelled into brief exclamations.

By 1975, New York engineer Tom Moulton had already taken notice of these new innovations coming from Jamaica. He was in the process of developing the art of remixing and would often dwell on extended drum and bass sections, such as his epochal twelve-inch single revisiting MFSB’s "Love Is The Message” in 1977, featuring a strong dose of reverb on the rhythm. Compatriot Walter Gibbons’ version of Loleatta Holloway’s "Hit and Run” (1976) was chock full of dub effects, including the very same vocal shots beloved by Jamaican mixers, and later in the decade, Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan became well known for turning out insane dub mixes. As disco morphed into house and Detroit techno, multi-effects units were essential to creating sounds on the cheap, and heightening the spaciousness in these minimal forms of music. Around the world, from the Caribbean to Europe to Japan to Africa, twelve-inch remixes would typically feature a dub version or dub effects in the main mix used in much the same fashion as these pioneering American DJs.

In Jamaica, the key to transforming reggae into dancehall was the twelve-inch mix, which combined vocal, dub and instrumental soloing over its extended mix. Now the full vocal mix of the tune featured heavily echoed segments. The early work of Barrington Levy is marked by this process, and these techniques are still prevalent in dancehall today.

It’s that same dubbed-out vocal excitement that permeates Version Xcursion's music, although their rhythms stray far afield from dancehall. "Nu-dub to us is when a vocal [take] doesn’t work,” Sassa explains. "We just strip things down to minimal lyrics. ‘Sound We Have Fe Sound’ [from their debut album] happened that way, we had two takes [of the vocals], we took the best parts and dubbed it out.” This is still a major bone of contention for dub enthusiasts. "Now you can have a full vocal and it will still be a dub track,” says Scaram, "but a lot of people don’t feel the same way. The way you treat that vocal and or how it’s mixed or where you have the breaks is what makes it a dub feel now.”

Cross Pollination
The power of drum and bass-dominated mixes has challenged the notion of a "lead” presence in a mix and emphasised atmosphere above all — and this atmosphere could consist of a startling variety of ingredients from cultural artefacts to technological novelty. Vocals, instrumental solos, samples, ambient textures and sheer noise might augment the basic rhythms, but are never the raison d’etre of a mix. When reggae and dub started influencing musicians in London, the fractured yowling of punk vocals proved to be a good fit over heavy bass. Both the Clash and Public Image Limited clearly had dub on their minds, and produced vocal tunes that nonetheless used vocals as sound sources as much as for their specific words.

At the same time, dub poetry was on the rise, which focused on words but in combination with experimental rhythms. Linton Kwesi Johnson, Oku Onuora, and Canadians Lillian Allen and Clifton Joseph produced wide-ranging discs that used dub as an aesthetic to mix and match poetry with musical content drawn from the African diaspora from jazz to traditional drumming. The phrasing and choice of words in dub poetry is highly deliberate but is also spontaneous and humorous: dub poetry remains the most aesthetically refined offshoot of reggae — intellectual yet vividly body conscious, globally minded but Jamaican-centred. The Spaceape’s brilliant William Gibson-esque take on dub poetry made last year’s collaboration with Kode 9, Memories of the Future, a simultaneous high point for this genre and dubstep.

"Found vocals” have been an exciting approach to cultural fusion, essentially creating new music from subtraction of vocal sources from their original contexts and reanimating them in new combinations in the studio. Found vocals were first explored in a mass cultural way on Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 album My Life In The Bush of Ghosts and gained great traction in reggae at the time. Adrian Sherwood’s avant-Rasta drumming project African Head Charge’s My Life In A Hole In The Ground (1982) was a direct response, and they furthered this work by layering sampled chants from around the world over reggae beats for Songs of Praise (1988). Found vocals often have political implications as they are mixed and matched with rhythms they are not typically associated with. The compelling work of the North American First Nation protest jams of Still Dancing On John Wayne’s Head (1998) and the Arabic-themed dub of the last decade are two such offshoots. Bill Laswell’s frequent juxtaposition of players from disparate global backgrounds is the essence of his method, whether doing reggae-inspired grooves or not.

A milestone of the global reach of the dub process was achieved with two compilations entitled Macro Dub Infection (1995/1996). These volumes, which came out at the same time that reggae reissue label Blood and Fire began to reissue classic ‘70s dub to a new audience, catalogued dozens of offshoots from the original reggae roots of dub. Wagon Christ’s deviant drum & bass coexisted with the industrial blast of Techno Animal, Tortoise’s post-rock and the stoned hip-hop of New Kingdom. Since then, dub and dub-inspired compilations continue to assemble worldwide variants in the images of the labels that release them: Quango releases dubby downtempo music, Tanty releases Jamaican style dub from across Europe and beyond, and much of Six Degrees’ roster from India to Algeria to Brazil features dub-inspired electronica. Dub had come a long way from home.

Dub’s legacy as a genre, as a process, and as an attitude continues to reach new fans around the world — but does this make a difference in the country of its origin? According to Moore, "The only person I really rate in Jamaica [as a dub mixer] is Steven Stanley, he’s the only one doing exciting or adventurous b-sides for singles. I’ve talked with him about it, he’s a big Tubby fan; he’s old enough to remember those days. But you talk to the younger engineers and there’s just not much awareness — it’s like their grandparents music.” Contemporary dancehall is not completely divorced from its dubby origins — one listen to Sizzla and the music of other "cultural” dancehall artists confirms that the dub vocabulary continues to be used in the music. Moreover, dub techniques continue to resound in left-of-centre dancehall producers the world over. The dub process of "transformation, subtraction, and experimentation,” as Deadbeat calls it, is still at the heart of the version industry of Kingston’s studios, albeit in a less psychedelic, more focused way.

While the initial impulses of dub may be consigned to history, contradicted by myriad recent developments, the creative spirit and sonic predilections of ‘70s Jamaica still hover over current day practitioners and fans. All those who approach the studio — or the computer — as an instrument in itself owe this special time in Jamaica’s music history a debt. In the 21st century, dub is still about creating version music; music that revels in its left turn from popular, finite forms into subjective, multi-layered flights of fancy.

Version Xcursion: Aram Scaram and Sassa'le
Based in Toronto, these purveyors of "nu-dub” host their eponymous radio show and a long-running residency called "Dub and Beyond.” Large doses of house, hip-hop and R&B create vocal tunes with dub vibes in the tradition of Bristol producers and Americans such as Thievery Corporation. What's new: Kicking Rocks EP feat. Ammoye (VX)

DJ Cyrus
Hailing from Croydon, South London, this member of the Random Trio comes from the area that produced dubstep luminary Skream. His is a minimal sound, featuring multi-textured, all-consuming bass best heard over a tower of speakers. What's new: From The Shadows (Tectonic)

Ex-Montrealer currently living in Germany. Four albums into his career, his use of massed, contrasting delays recalls a more precise Lee "Scratch” Perry within the entirely digital realms pioneered by the tech dub of Rhythm and Sound and Pole. His latest album is something of a fusion of dancehall rhythms and dubscapes. What's new: Journeyman's Annual (Scape)

Twilight Circus Dub Sound System
One-man dub machine and owner of the M Records label (over three dozen releases in ten years), Ryan Moore hails from Vancouver but lives in Holland. Since Exclaim! put him on our cover in 1999, he has perfected his neo-‘70s dub vocabulary and worked with legendary vocalists Michael Rose, Cornell Campbell, Luciano and more to create nu-roots classics. What's new: The Dub Project 2, Michael Rose Warrior Dub, Twilight Circus Presents Cultural Roots Showcase (all M Records).

Click here to read the full King Jammy interview transcript.

Click here to read the full interview transcript with Deadbeat.