By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Jamaican dub is more subversive than Burroughs or Derrida because it’s more populist: The huge bass — designed for irresistible dance action via monster sound systems — goes straight for the body. No Ph.D. required. By rights, it should be on the radio everywhere. If you want to get suspicious, you can speculate about why hip-hop — which hypes materialism and self-destruction — receives 360-degree U.S. exposure, while dub and roots reggae get stuck behind the tofu bin.
A neighbor was visiting the other day, and I had the classic ’70s Augustus Pablo disc King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown booming. She latched on instantly, wanted more — never heard dub before. Though the weightier stuff can cut with a dark edge that deflates congenitally sunny dispositions, there’s a soothing quality to dub’s easy pace, its repetitions. People usually find this music friendly.
And they should, intuitively. In dub, the bass (the base, the foundation) is you, the only permanence that matters. Drums, guitars, horns and keyboards may rise and fall or drop out of the mix suddenly and completely in a starburst of against-the-beat echo, but the bass almost always keeps playing its riff, just as you try to do in a world of uncertainty.
Jamaica, independent only since 1962, was a more uncertain place than most during the ’70s. Its two main political parties — one basically capitalist and one essentially socialist, both corrupt — had been fighting a deadly war for years. The streets were chaotic and violent. Marley was wounded by gunfire in a 1976 raid that may have been politically motivated. Everybody was packing heat.
In 1967, DJ Ruddy Redwood was in a studio making acetate copies (“dubs”) from tapes of unreleased songs, for use in clubs. The engineer left a vocal track off by mistake, and Redwood liked the way it sounded, so he asked for more like that and slipped them into his shows. The idea took off like a flying saucer. Soon there was an instrumental “version” on the flip side of most every single released, and artists started conceiving more songs as instrumentals (“rockers”). Inspired by crazed U.S. radio jocks, dancehall DJs such as U-Roy and Big Youth would rant and babble over instrumental tracks — they called it “toasting.” (When Afrika Bambaataa rose up with his Brooklyn version in the early ’80s, we called it “rap.”)
All through the late ’60s and early ’70s, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry was getting weirder and weirder with the sounds of his artists — most notably the new-hatched Wailers — squashing them into saturated blots of occult creativity on the era’s simple Teac 4-track recorders. His re-conceptions of pop’s very essence turned heads all over the island, defying anyone who tried to duplicate the magic.
King Tubby: The Dubfather.
(Photo by Kate Simon)
Nevertheless, the Abraham of dub was King Tubby, a.k.a. Tubbys. (Not a fatso: Osbourne Ruddock’s mother’s maiden name was Tubman. He was murdered in 1989.) Though he and Perry both conjured surreal instrumental-based recordings in 1972 that we can now recognize as prototypical dub — the radical remixing, the echo, the sound effects, the dropouts — it was Tubby’s clean, balanced science, more than Scratch’s organic insanity, that struck the template for the legions of dubbists to follow.
Just good fun, you might say. No political implications. But keep in mind that the hottest studio house band of the time — featuring the unstoppable rumble of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, heard on hundreds of dub slabs — was called the Revolutionaries. And Lee Perry, well before he burned down his studio, smeared shit on people’s walls or claimed satanic identity, was masterminding a loose agglomeration of instrumentalists significantly named the Upsetters, and served as Robespierre for England’s punk iconoclasts, producing the Clash’s “Complete Control” in 1976.
So dub has all this going on. The cross-cultural potential. The dance thing. The upsetter rhythms. The revolutionary history. The religious connection, reinforced by tranceful repetitions à la Buddhist or Gregorian chants — this music can lift you off the earth.
And of course, there’s the ganja.
Leonard Howell, founder of the Rastafari faith, was something of a medicine man. In New York, like many others, he used to make various healing potions and sell them in informal marketplaces or “yards.” Hélène Lee speculates that cannabis, also called “yard,” was an ingredient he frequently relied on, and it got him deported in 1932, a decade before the arrival of bop genius Charlie Parker, who may not have been called “Yardbird” just because he liked chicken. When Howell established his Rastafari colony in Jamaica, he emphasized the value of work. In the colony’s case, this largely meant cultivating marijuana. In 1954, when the shacks were burned and the Rastas were dispersed in a final raid, some thought it was a matter of politics or religious persecution. Others just considered it a dope bust. But it’s all the same, you see.
Back in the smoke-filled side room of the recording studio, I ask Scientist what he was just saying to the horn players out there. “Somebody need to be in tune,” he says. Scientist has never undertaken musical training, but he can tell, huh? “After hearing musicians that play in tune all the while, I hear one that play out of tune, I know the difference.”
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