The once and future music of revolution

Thursday, Oct 30 2003
Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Hopeton Brown, the guy they call Scientist, rocked dub music’s cradle when it was a baby, in King Tubby’s Jamaica studio 25 years ago. As an electrical engineer and then a producer/artist, he fed the baby through its wires, gave its amplifiers juice to make it big and strong, and provided some of its earliest schooling. Now he lives and works in Los Angeles.

Tallish, stooping and narrow-shouldered, Scientist strolls into a posh Valley recording studio for a session he’s engineering. Short-cropped hair (no gray); short-sleeved print shirt. The horn players have been hanging for a while already, figuring out their riffs at leisure. Various musicians, assistants and associates have gone through the pot of beans and rice in the minikitchen. They’re waiting. But Scientist has priorities. He pulls out an envelope containing a teaspoon of leafy-crumbly stuff, rolls it into a compact cig, lights it, takes a few quick hits. The ever-shortening remnant will stay inserted between his fingers for the duration.

While the horn players do a few run-throughs over the light-grooving reggae track, Scientist sets up a demonstration for whoever wants to watch: “This is dub.” Sitting at the mixing board, which has 64 or maybe 264 channels, he flashes fingers across the slides, pushing up the bass, pulling the guitar down. He twists a knob to put echoing emphasis on a cymbal, drops out the vocal altogether with a flick of a fader (rather than punching it out with a button), the roach still poking out of his left hand. He turns and raises his eyebrows — like, dig? Yeah: The tune I’ve been hearing for an hour is almost unidentifiable now.

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Dub Spirit

“Many people will say dub is a philosophy. I can only hope that as it grows in this city, it can remain respectful to its roots, to the nature and reasons behind its creation, to its history.”

—Dr. Rock, Great Stone Soundsystem

“Dub is the only music I’ve experienced with frequencies that parallel the natural frequencies of the human body.”

—Cypriano Rizla, Great Stone Soundsystem

“The power of roots reggae is the same power that makes all deeply spiritual music (African-American gospel, qawwalli, etc.) so compelling. You don’t have to speak the language or accept the faith to get the music on a gut level.”

—Scott Marc Becker, a.k.a. That Darn Kat, DJ

Scientist peers out through the glass at the horn guys, gets up, and goes to reposition their microphones so that the saxist, the trombonist and the trumpeter have a wall apiece at their backs.

“The sound got to bounce back into the microphone,” he explains on returning. After a minute, he’s still not satisfied. “Something sound funny.” He goes out and talks to the musicians again.

Okay, that’s enough, he’s finished. It’s taken about 20 minutes.

Scientist and Lyon, the singer whose session this is, guide me into a side room for the interview. “Lock the door,” says Scientist. Uh, okay. Lyon is a big Latino from Hawaii with 4-foot dreadlocks. He lights up and clouds the room with smoke. He doesn’t pass to Scientist, who’s still got his own. Jamaicans, I hear, tend to be cautious about germs.

Close your eyes, and Scientist sounds like an Irishman almost as much as a Jamaican — the two accents have similar lilts. Open your eyes, and you get contradictory impressions: wide smile, suspicious eyes. Asked why Jah music doesn’t command the same market share in America that it hogs most everywhere else, he points on one hand to the U.S. music industry’s corporate defense mechanisms. Before getting to a second explanation, he chuckles, tilts his head and narrows his peepers: “And some people might view it as too controversi-all.”

What he means is that roots reggae is known for demanding, in the words of Bob Marley, that you stand up for your rights. It is anti-authority music. It is revolutionary.


We slaves gotta stick together in the worldwide uprising that’s comin’ ’round the bend. Torches and guns have been done — so we’re trying to agree on the right way to dance out of our chains. And two out of three escapees agree: Reggae is dandy, but dub, the mixed-up sound re-conception ripped from the fabric of riddim & nothingness in Jamaica’s burnin’ ’70s, is the sharpest hacksaw. Dub-oriented clubs, labels and artists have proliferated all over the globe, with Los Angeles one of the last Babylons to feel the full brunt of the deep bass, the slow pace and the echoes in space.

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