Reggae will always be relevant. For evidence, see the Bob Marley posters perennially tacked to the dorm room walls of stoned college students across the country.
However, few move beyond the genre’s most popular practitioner. If you listen to Peter Tosh, you’re probably one spliff away from being your residence hall’s reggae expert.
Venerated L.A. reggae DJ/producer Tom Chasteen knows this, but doesn’t let it bother him.
“Reggae is like that — you can go deeper and deeper,” he says from his home studio on an early Wednesday evening. “There are worse things than people who are only into” the genre's big artists, he adds.
In a few hours he’ll head to the Echoplex for Dub Club, the weekly reggae party he founded with DJ Boss Harmony back in 2000. On any given week, you’ll find them DJing alongside renowned artists like Brigadier Jerry or Josey Wales.
Though married and in his mid-forties, Chasteen approaches Dub Club with the childlike enthusiasm you might expect from his two-year-old son. “I never get tired of it. I really don’t,” he says. “The records were made to be played on big speakers for people dancing and having fun in a chill environment… We’re making [the music] serve its purpose.”
Born and raised in Woodstock, N.Y., Chasteen grew up listening to his father’s vast record collection, which included everything from the popular folk and rock music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to blues and reggae. Though he received a BFA in visual arts from CalArts, Chasteen ultimately became more interested in DJing the parties associated with his friends’ art openings.
In the early ‘90s, he started producing and co-founded independent electronic music label Exist Dance, which released downtempo records (i.e. Tranquility Bass’ “They Came in Peace”) that anticipated trip-hop.
Though an avid raver throughout the ‘90s, Chasteen’s infatuation with reggae soon prompted the creation of Dub Club. Fourteen years later, it remains the best reggae event in L.A.
When not booking acts for Dub Club or prepping his weekly DJ set, Chasteen produces dub music. Popularized by artists like Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, dub songs are largely instrumental remixes of reggae records with an emphasis on drums, bass, and the utilization of digital effects like echo and reverb.
After releasing several dub projects under the Dub Club moniker, including last year’s Foundation Come Again, Chasteen hopes to create a new identity for himself under the name Natural Numbers.
“With Natural Numbers, I’m trying to bring my own spirit and musical influences into dub and to create something more new,” he explains. “Even though [the music] still has a classic reggae sound to it, I’m not trying to recreate something from the past.”
The first Natural Numbers album, Natural Numbers in Dub, is due out October 28 via L.A. indie label paragon Stones Throw. As reverent as it is genre expanding, it’s one of the best modern dub records you’re apt to hear in 2014.
Chasteen recorded the original songs live with a five-piece band, as well as singers Cornell Campbell and Bionic Clarke. Then, he created the hypnotic, head-nodding dubs. Surprisingly, the entire process only took a few days.
"I’m learning to work really fast because that’s the only way you can make records budget-wise — if you want to make them in decent studios with good musicians,” he says.
Before the release of Natural Numbers in Dub, Chasteen will DJ on the Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley's reggae cruise to Jamaica, Welcome to Jamrock. When he returns, he’ll also release an EP with Jamaican singer Gappy Ranks. And he'll be back in the studio, as he plans to wrap another Natural Numbers album and an album with singer Tippa Lee.
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“You don’t stop just because something else has been done great in the past,” Chasteen says. “[I’m] just trying to go a bunch of different directions at once and stay afloat.”