By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|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.
“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.
In any revolution, music is a bang-up weapon. The American colonists of the 1780s sucked the mocking “Yankee Doodle” out of British throats and beat the Redcoats over the head with it. A decade later, French king-killers seized upon “La Marseillaise” (“To arms, citizens!”) with equal zeal and marched into Paris yowling it. Pursuing his Reformation of the 1500s, Martin Luther penned dozens of hymns, the most famous being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (“God hath willed his truth to triumph through us”).
But it took a little Caribbean island to distill the essence of revolutionary sound. Like the American South, colonial Jamaica, infected by Columbus in 1494, was founded on slavery, its work force first drawn from the native Arawaks (who were quickly killed off by the Spanish) and then from hardier African abductees. These African slaves have given Jamaica its color — the population remains 90 percent black. They’ve also left their fingerprints on a culture that, though bearing the marks of British taskmasters (1655 successors to the Spanish) and of Indian and Chinese immigrants, is flavored with the attitudes, arts and languages of indomitable tribesmen from a continent 4,000 miles away.
Reggae, the mother of dub, is the blood of Jamaican culture. And it pumps through a beat made for trouble. Two hundred years ago and more, in the footsteps of an African tradition, recalcitrant Caribbean musicians adopted a practice called Burru, stomping out to the sugar-cane fields to roast Massah Backbustah with derogatory songs. The rhythms, heavy on the first beat (the “one drop”) of a syncopated 4/4 framework, had a slow, tugging, sustaining feel that could help a laborer endure the floggings and keep his pride; the authorities considered Burru players borderline criminals. Burru drums became the foundation of Nyahbingi music, a kind of gospel protest form that birthed ’60s roots reggae and remains vital in the hands of longtime thumpers such as Ras Michael, a Jamaican who now also lives in Los Angeles.
Such spiritual/practical covalences are what make the Jamaican struggle stick together — no surprise, since history pounds out the lesson that, as with politics and music, politics and religion go together like rum and Coke. Hebrews got monotheistic when Judah’s King Josiah consolidated his strength by banning idols and establishing a centralized state cult. Constantine rode a growing Romanized Christianity in his successful battle to become emperor, then steered the religion toward his own ends. A few words from Allah wrote Muhammad’s passport to embark on a military/metaphysical campaign that united scores of perennially feuding Arab tribes under the flag of Islam. Luther’s fervor to wrest the Bible from the pope and lay it on the people leaped straight from the individualistic and nationalistic Renaissance spirit.
In the same way, reggae, especially by way of Marley, buddied up with the putatively laughable new religion of the Rastas. Strange how people don’t mock other religions — we’re used to baby gods popping out of virgins, swan-gods who shag virgins, pop slut-goddesses who claim to be like virgins, but not gods like Ras Tafari with actual worldly dominions. In ’50s Jamaica, though, the bankers’ daughters weren’t laughing so loud. The lords were shaking and the serfs were smiling, because the Rasta way was precisely appropriate to a former slave colony.
As much a political movement as a theological one, Rastafari is an ideal expression of its guts-and-fire environment. You don’t often get a chance to take a squint at the birth and growth of a major religion, but French journalist Hélène Lee, in The First Rasta (recently published in English by Lawrence Hill Books), deserves a fat cigar for unearthing the roots of a faith whose popularity has outstripped even voodoo’s in the Caribbean and gathered millions of devotees worldwide. Link by link, she establishes the chain that connects the Jamaica–via–New York black-unity movements of Marcus Garvey and Athlyi Rogers with that of Leonard Howell, the creator of the Rastafari myth.
Charismatic preacher, healer and stud, Howell deserves credit for the ultimate stroke of genius — making the deity accessible. Where’s God? Up in the sky? Some mystic abstraction? A dead Hebrew carpenter? Nope, he’s right over there, a living king, Ras Tafari Makonnen, a.k.a. Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
Regardless of Selassie’s polite refusal to have divinity thrust upon him (he was a Christian), thousands of Jamaicans just complimented Jah on his modesty and braved increasing oppression to embrace a religion that suited their needs. They could now throw off their burdens and dedicate themselves to a philosophy of justice, unity, nonviolence, self-reliance and humility. There is no hell to scare you in Rastafari, and no pie-in-the-sky heaven to dupe you. As Marley sang it, “If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on Earth.” God was black, and he wanted you back with him in Africa.
Most anybody could get behind such a creed — except for that last little detail. Just as white American campus radicals in the ’60s were natural allies but only stepbrothers of the Black Panthers, Howell’s political religion has worldwide resonance but a big, nasty racial stumbling block.
And in dub, that’s one brick you won’t trip over. Dub has no vocals to speak of. No vocals means no words, and no words means no cant about His Majesty Selassie or Marcus Garvey, no back-to-Africa separatism. All that’s left is a revolutionary beat, an all-enveloping bass and a lot of change.
Early dubbists frequently poached backing tracks of tunes designed for vocals. Like nationalizing the bauxite plant — we’re gonna keep the structure, but run it our way and pocket the profits — the notion harmonized with the spirit of the times. In the ’60s, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs made new meanings by cutting up texts and tapes. And in the ’70s and ’80s, Jacques Derrida got a lot of hippie college profs excited with the notion that you could deconstruct and re-reference words intellectually, without regard for the author’s author-ity.
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.”
On old reggae records, though, the horns often sound like asthmatic goats. “Sometimes it’s just luck,” Scientist suggests. “Something might sound that way, and the song hit. So now you find that becomes an influence. Everybody now want to tune a little bit funny.”
As a dubbist, Scientist has his own style. Many engineers lean more on dramatic bong-whang effects; he mainly discovers different ways to bring out melodies. “Melody is something that’s stuck in people’s head. If you take the melody out of the song, it’s like takin’ the milk out of the coffee.”
Scientist’s involvement with music was really accidental. His father was an electronic technician, and young Hopeton found he liked taking things apart and figuring out how they worked; that’s how he got his nickname. No schooling, just an interest, but the more he did it, the better he got. King Tubby, a technician himself, used to call Scientist down to the studio and get him fixing amplifiers and speakers.
A lot of fixing was needed, because ’70s Jamaican music raised new technological challenges. Scientist says his customers used to tell him, “‘All my speakers and all my amplifiers wanna pop. What’s going on with this reggae thing?’” Diabolical frequencies were tearing up King Tubby’s tweeters.
“How R&B and rock & roll was mixed back in them time, it had a very narrow audio spectrum, it was mostly mid. No highs, no lows. So there wasn’t any way to successfully test speakers. Wit’ your amplifiers and instrument, everything look normal as far as t’ numbers. But if I play some amplifier, this is a piece of shit! It taught us you need to not put a Band-Aid on a problem. Find out why it’s doing that to the equipment, and prevent it. Reggae influenced the electronic industry so much — a lot of people in my opinion don’t give it the props.”
Dub vs. Remix
“Dub is about tripping out the tune, and a remix is more about tricking out the tune.”
“The dub is closer to the essence of the song; the remix is on the edge of becoming something new totally. We are always testing the limits.”
—Mark Quan, Riddim Doctors
“To use jazz terminology, remix is more in, dub is more out. A dub is generally going to make a song deeper and stranger.”
—Tom Chasteen, DJ
Musicians hired Tubby and Scientist for the sounds they were getting. And listeners started buying records for the sounds rather than the stars. So, contrary to any intention, Scientist became a star himself. “It so happened,” he says, “that I did t’ings that was unique and influenced all these different genre of music, and I find myself in the spotlight.” He prefers that you don’t point that thing at him, though. Get somebody else to jump around on the stage. He’ll be in the back, in the dark, making it sound good.
Scientist is a scientist. He never picked up on the Rasta thing, doesn’t have much use for religion in general. His science was his salvation. That and one other thing.
“Growing up in Jamaica, I was getting to go on the wrong track. I drop out of high school, still doing my electronics, but I find right after that I start thinking about beer and cigarettes, trying to be a man, trying to hang out with the boys. But the moment I pick up a joint, that was my last cigarette and my last beer.”
Lyon, the singer, has been listening in the corner of the room; a light goes on in his eyes, and he pokes his joint in my direction. I’m glad to be sociable. “Oh, I didn’t know you burned,” he apologizes.
After I partake of the sacrament, I look at these two with new eyes. And they both appear different. To my right, Lyon is smiling more, almost squirming with enthusiasm. To my left, Scientist has gotten taller. He’s gotten up on the mountaintop; he’s got Word to deliver.
“Reggae is the music that can bring about peace — different people, of different races, different background, can all sit down, can all shake hands, and we don’t have any violence. You have a bunch of people gettin’ irie smokin’ herb, and after that there’s no incidents. Y’know, the CHP, they don’t have any job to go to — no dead bodies, like when you have a big rock & roll festival, people drinkin’ alcohol and they’re all driving down the road drunk.”
“Alcohol kills, marijuana heals,” says Lyon. He has a high, childlike voice and talks fast. “In any other country but America, reggae is on the radio 24/7. I sing in different languages, so I go to many different countries. It is everywhere. It’s very revolutionary music. We’re for real.”
When I get home, I can’t help marveling how these guys manage to tie their shoes, forget making music. I prowl around my house, heart thumping. The walls look like the bars of my cage — that Humboldt we were sucking up was ridiculous. I feel strong, restless, like a wild animal. A . . . lion? I’ve got work to do (I think . . .). But all I want to do is hear dub.
While researching this article, I never asked anyone about ganja, but received several unsolicited testimonials regardless.
It’s no accident that a lot of early Jamaican dub albums have titles like Herb Dub (Jah Lloyd) and Roast Fish Collie Weed & Cornbread (Lee Perry). The words ganja and collie (kali) both have roots in Hindi, and Howell was acquainted with Hindu rites involving cannabis. From the magic mushrooms of Palestine to the ayahuasca plants of the Amazon, natural substances have been used in religious contexts since Noah was a punk. They pry you out of your work boots and get your head into a place where you can talk to the spirits. Dub does the same thing; that’s the dope-dub-deity connection.
“The mystic quality of dub music is part of why I love it so much,” says Tom Chasteen, a Dub Club DJ at the Echo and elsewhere, and a mixer who works with the L.A. Weekly Music Award–nominated local reggae band Future Pigeon.
Eddie Ruscha, bassist for Future Pigeon, is on the same page. “Dub is spiritual, like a deep inner-spirit thing.”
“Dub is the moment,” says Dr. Rock, co-founder of the DJ-dub experience Great Stone Soundsystem. He lived in the Caribbean for many years and believes he has an angle on the feeling. “It is all about adding and taking away from the moment while living in it. Dub should always represent the sound of the sufferah’s soul — triumphant, mournful, highly comical and deadly serious.” If that seems like one toke too many, it sometimes is. The Doc says he has to tiptoe around some audiences; heavy dub can scare people.
Hey, they just came to dance, man, not get into some heavy trip. One supposes. But exactly why do people dance, anyway?
The Great Stone — Dr. Rock and pard Cypriano Rizla — are dubbing between bands last month for one of the Rhythm Room nights at Santa Monica’s Temple Bar. The African/reggae artist Jerri Jheto has just gotten a warm though not gaga reception, and the DJ duo, feeling the uncertain vibe, keep it light — upbeat tunes, lotta vocals, not very dubby. But Rock and Rizla are getting as freaky as they can with the material: applying monster echo to the sampled last syllables of vocal phrases, looping sections, sneaking in snatches of scratching and dissonant two-disc overlap.
The audience is all races: white, Latino, black, Asian. A quarter each — non-proportional to the Westside demographic. A couple of young women are smiling, beginning to sway, like, that’s what we’re here for, right? Their guys, of course, need a drink first to loosen up. Coalescence time. Tonight’s gonna be pretty good.
It’s more intense across town in Echo Park at one of the Wednesday Dub Club nights in the, uh, Echo bar on Sunset Boulevard. Ten o’clock, and the place isn’t open yet, 20 people lined up before the easy-to-miss doorway in this borderline-downscale neighborhood. At 10:15, the first dense bass booms leak through the walls onto the street, and comers start swooping in from every direction — admission’s free before 11. There’s a blond girl in a Catholic-school plaid skirt. Three other girls, one black, one white and one Latina, are grouped on the sidewalk, hashing out their chances of getting past the 21 age limit with fake IDs. A skinny black guy sidles up to them, claiming he’s 19 but can get them all in. The girls know he’s just playing them, so they say fuck it and split.
L.A. Skank & Dub
(Photo by Larry Hirshowitz)
Inside, DJ Chasteen leads off with the heavy shit, no warm-up. The mega-loud bass gets inside your bones, inhabits you like deep water, the slow rhythm unconscious and unstoppable; you’re periodically shattered by a blast of echo, then you can re-gather your molecules. On the video screen: footage of demolished villages. Instruments on the bandstand indicate Jah Faith’s band will be playing too. Again, it’s all races equally divided, 80 or so devotees, and it’s only 10:40.
By midnight the club will be a writhing swarm, but at this moment the real action is still to come. Back out in front, a Latino couple are taking their last breaths of cool oxygen before the sweatbox heats up. The woman, 28, hails from Panama, where reggae is like air. The man, gold stud in his lip, age 33, picked up hints of the music on L.A. radio when he was a kid. Maybe it was Roger Steffens’ The Reggae Beat on KCRW, which turned on the light bulb for so many in this town. They say they’re here to dance, and the Dub Club plays the best music; it’s the only club they regularly hit.
Another scene. On a packed-to-suffocation weekend night at the Echo, Chasteen is spinning his redoubtable crate cargo; Future Pigeon are opening a night featuring Lyon and vet Jamaican singer Mikey Dread; Scientist is mixing live. Pigeon open with their island version of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” and churn through a set of roots, ska and pop-reggae bolstered with horns. Thumping the bass is tall pipe cleaner Eddie Ruscha, son of artist Ed Ruscha; scrawnster Jason Mason, a.k.a. Roy Corduroy, washboards a guitar in man-machine fashion and occasionally steps up to the mike for a distinctively grainy lead-vocal yelp. These two musicians/DJs/promoters are the plotters behind Dub Club, and the Echo is its third hole (following Spaceland and the Short Stop) in three years.
It’s interesting to hear Scientist work, because you kind of don’t hear him work. You might notice a trickle of echo here and there; subtle shifts of emphasis. Mainly, you notice that it sounds good. He’s gotten around quite a bit in the eight years since he “got stuck” in L.A. after doing sound for former Black Uhuru singer Michael Rose — he even mixed a No Doubt recording last year. Yet mention that he lives here, and people say, “Huh?” When he vows that the spotlight isn’t for him, he kids not.
Scientist has his club gigs, his studio jobs. But it’s become harder for a man of his reputation to hide as the dub scene expands. Temple Bar in Santa Monica, the Vine in Hollywood and the Echo now form a string of regular dub-night venues across the city. Local musicians from electronic-jazz explorer G.E. Stinson to computerized fizzers DubLoner and Polycubist are extrapolating on the Jah echo. DJs and fans are trading rare sides and self-compiled mix-discs like underground weaponry. When I tell my colleague Tom Cheyney I’m writing about dub, he says he’s caught a number of touring gigs in town where live dubbing was integral to the mix — shows by roots magician Burning Spear, the reggae revival band John Brown’s Body and drum-&-bass/Latin-dance blendsman Sidestepper.
The great Spear has sung Jah praises, chucked and dubbed since the dawn of reggae; he’s Jamaican. John Brown’s Body are mostly white and from the American East Coast. Sidestepper is the concept of white Brit producer Richard Blair.
What about young Jamaicans? They still dig into dub: Every 7-inch single still has a “version” side, and the contemporary eclectic hitman Sizzla, for instance, regularly tweaks out a few album tracks. It’s just not such a major thing on the island anymore. Just as Lester Young begat Stan Getz, and just as Howlin’ Wolf begat Mick Jagger, so King Tubby begat Fatboy Slim — and the satellites keep spinning into new orbits. With techno-remix re-manifestations of dub emerging worldwide, from Tokyo to Vienna, the music’s composite face has grown ever paler.
Is that okay?
Depends on whom you ask. I hear from another local DJ, Kirk Gee, about some people he’s seen in his neighborhood on Jefferson Boulevard near Arlington Avenue — folks from the First Church of Rasta, who hold reggae events every Friday night. I drive over and talk to King Oji, the high priest.
I have to strain my chin upward to look King Oji in the collarbone. He has milelong dreadlocks, hard-muscled legs, snaggled teeth and a ready smile. Born Vernon Vanoy in Kansas City, he played pro football for several years after being drafted by the New York Giants in 1969; his life was changed by meeting Bob Marley in 1979.
The international headquarters of the First Church of Rasta is a bare-bones storefront to which all people of all colors are invited — King Oji considers us all Africans, and wants to do his part in uniting us through an open-door, community-oriented ministry that emphasizes ancient Ethiopian traditions. He believes there will be a “cultural revolution” within the next 20 years, and that reggae will help bring it about. Though his message is “nonviolent and positive,” the church’s periodical, Kings Chamber, talks about the role of the “violent warrior,” who is “the Freedom Fighter who will pick up guns and bombs if necessary.”
These are peaceful people. They just know things must change, and in true Rasta fashion, they employ every means at their disposal toward that end. There are the meetings, the music and the newspapers. There’s upsetter wordplay like “new-clear war” and “I-Deal Nation” — rightly seeing language as power, underclass sharpheads have always known how to bend words their own way, and nowhere is this more vivid than in Rasta patois about “polytricks” and “resisting against the shitsem.” There are organically grown victuals: Just the way it’s done in Jamaica, they take a fresh coconut, whack off its top with a machete, and give it to me so I can slurp the rich water-milk. When I’m finished, I swear to Jah, I feel stoned again.
The whole experience gets me thinking about a few precedents for the kind of activities the Church of Rasta is promoting. There were Rasta founder Howell’s “yards,” centers for potions and politics. There were the everybody-welcome Kingston music workshops of drummer Count Ossie, whose beats provided the kick for the earliest reggae. And here in Los Angeles, there was the music-centered community organizing done by Horace Tapscott and Billy Higgins.
Only difference is, those previous models were about one race. King Oji seems to have made a significant leap: We’re all slaves.
That’s one way of looking at cultural imperialism: Colonize the colonizers. But there are other ways, too.
For several days this summer, I’m in Jamaica with my wife and kid. Our chosen destinations are the two places we were told not to go: Port Antonio (they don’t like white people) and Kingston (they rob white people).
The problems are nothing much. Around Port Antonio, my wife catches hell because of her camera. I can understand one woman in a marketplace getting mad when asked if she can be photographed; some people are sensitive about that. When two other women lay a blood curse on my spouse for taking a picture of their pig, though, it seems a little weird. Overall, the (extremely poor) people there are tolerant of us at worst, and it’s a wonderful, quiet, little-touristed place.
Kingston, by contrast, is like any other big city in the world: crowded, hyper, and there are places you don’t go at night. Local elections are held while we’re in the country — two men are shot dead in post-polling contention; such activity has eased since the ’70s but not disappeared. I’m there for the history (fascinated with the idea that the “wickedest place on Earth,” the slaving/pirating mecca Port Royal, largely sank into the water during a 1692 earthquake). And I’m there for the dub.
Background: I’ll admit to having gotten a little ticked when, in the booming ’80s, I was told that newly rich Japanese were all over the USA buying up vintage saxophones and hauling them back across the ocean. Let ’em have the bank buildings, I thought, but how are we supposed to play good jazz if all we’re left with are those damn sterile-sounding Yamaha tenors?
So when I’m in Kingston looking for ’70s dub records, the shoe’s on the other foot, with some pointier historical shards of racism and colonialism tossed in, and it’s not entirely comfortable. Still, I think of it as spreading the revolution, and hope I will be received in the spirit of international brotherhood for which I congratulate my rich American ass.
I hire a music-minded taxi driver to be my guide and (I might as well face it) bodyguard. He drives me around to various stores, and I succeed in paying $30 each for a couple of scratched and battered rare dub LPs.
The smallest place we hit is a combination sound-system repair shop and record store — I can easily picture Scientist in the backroom firing up his soldering iron. I doubt if there are even 100 records on the shelves, and it looks unpromising, but I pick out a few old LPs, handing them across the counter to a silent and stern-looking guy in a white shirt.
First selection on the turntable: kind of a jazzy thing — no go. Second choice: generic Jamaican pop — ditto. Third time’s the charm? The needle drops, and out through the speakers there emerges a scrabbling oompah, with Munchkin voices trilling words of love. The guy has put a 33-rpm disc on at 45.
I glance up at the counterman; I’m laughing at his little joke.
He doesn’t laugh along. He looks me in the eye, record still spinning. Turns his back. And walks away.
Here’s what Scientist says: “Everybody you could say is racist to some degree. You have black people who would never welcome a white person into the family and vice versa. And you have people of all different color that is above alla that. Me personally, I try to deal with everybody on an individual basis until you cross that line, then I can say, well, you’re a racist.”
He’s not really a man of words. But when he talks, it means something.
A World of Dub
The true soul of dub will always be Jamaican, and you can’t do better than to stash some King Tubby (Dangerous Dub, with Roots Radics), Lee Perry (Upsetter in Dub), Burning Spear (Living Dub, Volume One), Prince Jammy (Uhuru in Dub), Tappa Zukie (In Dub) and tons more, the best stuff hailing from the mid-’70s to early ’80s. It does not all sound alike: Some is heavier, some jazzier, some more playful, reflecting not only the dubbist’s conception but the source material being zonked. Keep in mind that if it doesn’t say “dub,” it’s probably either rockers-type straight instrumental music (like most Augustus Pablo, which is eminently driftworthy nonetheless) or a vocal album by somebody who also dubs (Perry or Spear).
Dub could never be contained, and just like jazz or Christianity, it has been splattered all over the globe; every culture has absorbed dub to grow something new that savors with the local flavor and jerks with the local quirks. Among the beneficiaries of dub baptism have been the Clash, Public Image Ltd., the Slits, Bill Laswell, the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, Kruder & Dorfmeister, and every other mixologist you can name. Below, in general order of roots orientation (from most to least), are some current artists who devote a major slice of their pie to the dub experience.
Twilight Circus Dub Sound System. The heaviest, the wiggiest, the most authenticity-obsessed and the best-produced of the latter-day dubbists is former Legendary Pink Dots drummer Ryan Moore, a guy from (not surprisingly) the dope mecca Vancouver, Canada; he’s now moved to (yes) Holland. Play this shit loud enough, and you won’t need to smoke anything.
Christafari. Los Angeles musician Mark Mohr gave up drugs and booze to originate the genre of “gospel reggae”; he says he’s for “the equality of mankind” and wants to be “a voice for the unborn.” Though his Dub Sound & Power is on the upbeat, roots-lite side, his mixer was Jim Fox, engineer for Black Uhuru, Roots Radics and Culture — a man who knows whereof he dubs. Christafari’s next dub CD drops next year.
Alpha & Omega. London duo John & Christine pump out billowy, rootsy riddims with plenty of echo and a hippie spiritual vibe.
De Facto. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has turned out to be a goddamn cyclone of musical forces, having spun out of the pop-punk band At the Drive-In to the experimental post-rock clouds of Mars Volta and co-ownership of the rising independent noise label Gold Standard Laboratories. Maybe the best (though least visible) of his projects is the dub/Latin freak-out band De Facto, formed with ATDI mate Cedric Bixler Zavalas, Long Beach Dub All-Star Isaiah “Ikey” Owens and Mars Volta’s Jeremy Michael Ward. The horrible event of Ward’s death this year means, in addition to the scars on his loved ones, that maybe only one more in-the-can CD will be added to a De Facto catalog (two full-lengths, one EP) that has brought more bent menace to dub than any other recent offerings, and still packs a trunkful of wild-ass fun.
Dub Syndicate. Producer Adrian Sherwood has maintained the dub family line in England for many years through tech crossbreeding and periodic re-connections with the Jamaican root, mostly via his On-U Sound label. His standbys Dub Syndicate are inventive and weighty on the surface but somehow insubstantial — not enough aural space to breathe deep.
DJ Spooky. Paul D. Miller has always been the embodiment of dub values, while rarely nailing an explicit connection the way he’s now done with Dubtometry (Thirsty Ear), featuring real guys the Mad Professor and Lee Perry. Wheezing, sensual, waydown and smoky, it’s one of my favorite albums (any genre) this year.
Rhythm and Sound. Though Rhythm and Sound w/ the Artists (Asphodel) is a terrific vocalized tech-reggae album with even a potential hit on it (the coolly fierce “King in My Empire”), the simultaneously released Rhythm and Sound: The Versions is even steelier, as Berlin producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald locate the exact center of the modern dub universe using nothing but two chords, a bunch of machines and a phenomenal sense of space. Kraftwerk’s Autobahn can now stand aside; this is the new millennium’s ideal music for driving till you drop.
Slightly Stoopid. This Southland group is just pure reggae-pop and punk for the kids, stoned and friendly, with dizzy dub effects by Long Beach Dub Allstars engineer Miguel.
Dub Gabriel. There’s a lot of swirly eclectic-electric world-music drum & bass out there, but New York–based producer-artist Dub Gabriel, a frequent flier in international dance scenes, supplies the bigness and relentlessness you need for a modern dub fix.
Calamalka. We live in a stew of evil, and you won’t smell it any clearer than in the music of Vancouver’s Calamalka, coming soon from Plug Research. Doomy, doped, cross-eyed and way out there, it’s the hell-bound sound of the soft machine.
Burnt Friedman.Unbelievably weird and disjointed, like sleeping in a bed full of broken lawn furniture, German junkman Friedman’s Can’t Cool (Nonplace) still manages to give you a funk-tech-dub boner with its ceaseless invention and just plain hooks.
Pole. Stefan Betke is one German who’s thoroughly aware he’s no soul brother, but he sure can empty the cosmos into a subtly hissing/clicking dub drone, like a bottomless hole you could easily fall into. Reassuring if you’re optimistic, terrifying if you’re not.
Babylon Is Ours: The USA in Dub (Select Cuts). A way-deep and artfully sequenced collection of American dubbists, compiled by XLR8R scribe Ron Nachmann and DJ Sep. Put it on and leave it on; there’s not a bummer in the bunch.
J. Boogie’s Dubtronic Science (Om). Why not mix dub with urban soul? Every drop of Jah spirituality is drained out in favor of Courvoisier VSOP, a cozy couch and your sweet ass, baby.