Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Dub
Why it’s daunting: Though it isn’t precisely the first kind of music that involves what we now refer to as the remix, dub was arguably the first popular and influential art form to be predicated on creating entirely new music from already-existing recorded elements. Starting in the mid-’60s, Jamaican DJs began rocking dancehalls by creating, or dubbing, stripped-down versions of reggae songs (sometimes big hits, but more often obscure B-sides) that removed almost everything but the bedrock “riddim” of the bass and drums. Blasting these records over complex, high-powered sound systems, they invited local “toasters,” or MCs, to deliver their own interpretations of the lyrics, usually repetitive call-and-response vocals that kept the crowd happily moving. To top it all off, the “version” was frequently given a unique twist with the addition of a unique melodic element, such as a new instrument played live, or a distinctive treatment given to the song using elements of the sound system.
Explaining how dub was born is simple enough. It’s much more difficult to explain why and how it became so incredibly influential in such a short period of time. Clever “selecters” (DJs) in Jamaica, the U.S., and the UK immediately recognized dub’s potential as a musical art form. They realized that they could now create an entirely new sound made not with instruments or singers, but with technology, thus providing an important framework for later developments in electronic music. Dub also showed how tools traditionally associated with reproducing music could now be seen through the filter of creating music, which had an immeasurable impact on what would become hip-hop. By popularizing the notion of remixing existing hits to give them new contexts and new sounds, dub helped democratize pop music and spawned a generation of producers whose own take on the remix forever altered dance music.
It isn’t only its nearly incalculable influence that makes diving headfirst into dub a daunting proposition, however. Like the electronic and dance scenes that it preceded, dub produced literally tens of thousands of recordings, many of them unique to the selecter who created them; some tracks became exceedingly rare and acquired an aura of legend. Dub opened up new aesthetic possibilities for reggae at a time when some practitioners of the style were beginning to bristle under its limitations. It spawned an entire counterculture, marked by an idiosyncratic slang that infiltrated the lyrics and even the basic terminology of dub, making it seem somewhat closed off to outsiders. And because it arose during the turbulent late ’60s, dub musicians quickly noted how easily the style lent itself to the low, lazy feel of a marijuana high or the detached, mystical feeling of an acid trip. It quickly evolved into an art form both immediately recognizable and infinitely malleable.
Possible gateway: The 1976 King Tubby/Augustus Pablo team-up King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown
Why: By 1976, dub was firmly established as the next big step in the evolution of reggae, and it had grown beyond merely chanting catchy dance slogans over stripped-down reggae tracks. Augustus Pablo, in particular, had mastered the art of recreating sound-system tracks using a live band—and here he had a great one, with the legendary Robbie Shakespeare rocking a smooth, steady bass and Chinna Smith creating distinctive, echoey guitars. Pablo had already made his name by adding a simple but unforgettable element to his own experiments in dub: the small, still voice of the melodica. It gave his records a remarkably distinctive sound, and quickly became as key an element to his brand of dub as Earl Scruggs’ rapid-fire banjo was to bluegrass.
King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown’s listeners got two for the price of one: Pablo wasn’t flying solo here. He teamed up with King Tubby, one the first and arguably the best sound-system operators in dub’s history. Tubby had been in the game since it began, and on this masterful album, his selection and Pablo’s execution made for the purest distillation of the art form ever recorded. The two built their album around a pair of tracks by reggae artist and Inner Circle lead singer Jacob Miller, and presented one after another, they pretty much define the genre: “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown,” a dubwise version of Miller’s “Baby I Love You So,” offers an emotionally powerful, perfectly executed interpretation, saturated in a magical energy and possessed by an almost transcendent ambience. The other Miller track, “Each One Dub,” sounds darker and heavier but equally moving, and the rest of the album is nearly perfect, with not a bad song in the bunch, from the exotic feel and evocative melodica line of “Brace’s Tower Dub” to the spectacular closing song, “Satta Dub.”
King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown was years in the making, the product of intense work and perfectionist tendencies by two of the best men in dub music. Each of them, as well as their sidemen, constantly kept busy with other projects, and by the time the record saw release in 1976, it had been fussed over for almost four full years. It’s more than worth the investment of blood, sweat, and weed, though; King Tubbys stands as not only the most perfectly complete album in a genre driven more by singles, but also the pinnacle in the careers of two legends who often went from strength to strength. (Note that the album has been released on a number of labels, often with different track listings, different sequences, different cover art, and even different titles; the best version, as it were, is the Clocktower Records edition, but there’s nothing wrong with the more commonly available Shanachie release.)
Next steps: Thanks to his insanely prolific output, vast discography, and willful eccentricity, Lee “Scratch” Perry isn’t the ideal starting point, but he’s the unavoidable second step. He’s a towering genius and an arguable madman, and his name is essentially synonymous with dub. From the early ’70s to today, there isn’t a corner of the genre he hasn’t lit on fire. From his Black Ark studio mixing board, he created the most distinctive sounds of reggae and dub, and even more so than King Tubby, he’s the man who invented some of dub’s most characteristic sounds, from gated echo effects to massive washes of reverb to slow, rolling bass mixed as high as most producers mix their vocals. His reputation as a near-lunatic seeps through in the best of his music, where he gives every stretched-out note a distinctive feel, and nobody was as skillful at ushering spooky psychedelic influences into dub. There are plenty of good individual albums with which to start looking into Perry’s incredible career. (1975’s Kung Fu Meets The Dragon, 1978’s Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Corn Bread, and the amazing 1991 comeback album Lord God Muzick all fit the bill.) It’s worth picking up the 1997 compilation Arkology, which, while by no means comprehensive, offers a fine introduction to Scratch during his most fertile period.
After you’ve explored the three giants of the genre (and there’s tons more King Tubby and Augustus Pablo to investigate, particularly Pablo’s fantastic 1977 instrumental dub album East Of The River Nile and the indispensable Tubby compilation Dub Gone Crazy), it may be time to move on to some of the more noteworthy modern practitioners of a genre that’s only moved forward since its inception over 40 years ago. Mad Professor, a protégé of Perry’s, carried dub forward into the ’80s and early ’90s with terrific discs like Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton and the Dub Me Crazy series; he expanded and opened up the sound of dub, adding new instrumental layers and moving away from Perry and Tubby’s tight, close feel. Scientist is to King Tubby what Mad Professor was to Perry, and his 1990 nod to his master, Tribute To King Tubby Dub, is his masterpiece, both paying homage to his onetime boss and showing how his high-tech, electro-charged approach expanded on Tubby’s base.
There are some highly promising young practitioners on the scene as well. 1997’s Dub In Fusion, by the Qaballah Steppers, is a fascinating blend of solid dub foundations, exotic Arabian influences, and electronic dance rhythms; the Asian Dub Foundation showed what Asian kids could do given the essential tools of dubwise; and, most recently, Terry Lynn fused modern developments in hip-hop and dance, inspired by the likes of M.I.A., with the fiercely political streak found in roots reggae, and neatly assembled them together in a dub-influenced framework on her 2008 album Kingstonlogic 2.0.
But no one should be in such a hurry to get to the new permutations of dub that they rush past the rich fields of legend. There’s plenty of essential stuff that will point you in the right direction: U-Roy’s early work, which provided the building blocks for later innovators to pick up and assemble; Tapper Zukie’s punk-influenced, remarkably eclectic In Dub from 1976; Niney The Observer’s quirky, distinctive Space Flight Dub from 1972; Dub Syndicate’s Pounding System from 1982; and, much later, African Head Charge’s neo-psychedelic masterpiece In Pursuit Of Shashamane Land. Because dub had such a huge impact on Jamaican music as a whole, there are also exceptional dub-heavy albums by artists who generally trafficked in more traditional forms of reggae: Sly & Robbie’s A Dub Experience, Black Uhuru’s Brutal Dub, Burning Spear’s Living Dub series, and The Abyssinians’ Declaration Of Dub are good examples.
Where not to start: Not to get all racial or anything—this is Obama’s America, after all—but as a rule, white people, and especially white people in the United States, are about as good at dub as they are at reggae. For some reason, probably having to do with the non-sacramental consumption of cannabis sativa, hundreds of American rock bands—most especially hard-rock and heavy-metal bands—have decided that they’ll bust out a cut-rate sound system and create half-assed dub mixes of their own songs, which generally aren’t that great to begin with. Franz Ferdinand, Ministry, and Gov’t Mule have all been guilty of this in recent years, and depressingly, their awful efforts aren’t even the worst ones out there. Generally speaking, dub should be a full-time occupation, and these dub dabblers should be avoided like those Frisbee-slinging stoners on the quad who are way too into Bob Marley.