Spacebomb: Dub is a verb

Dub music is a sub-genre of Reggae music that grew in prominence from the late 60s and throughout the 70s in Jamaica. It is wildly entertaining, thoroughly danceable, fad-oriented, and intensely consumer driven. Put your headphones on: it’s learnin’ time.

In America, if Michael Jackson makes a record, the master tape is sitting there with all the orchestration, maybe it’s a beautiful symphony. Nobody else ever heard it in their life! So what, the musicians don’t get any feature? People are still interested to hear, “What would it sound like without all these voices on it? What were the guys actually playing?” But it’s so low in the mix, it doesn’t come across the same way. So with [Dub], we don’t stop there!

– Michael “Mikey Dread” Campbell

An introduction

Dub music is a sub-genre of Reggae music that grew in prominence from the late 60s and throughout the 70s in Jamaica. It is wildly entertaining, thoroughly danceable, fad-oriented, and intensely consumer driven. At the same time it is highly experimental, risk taking, driven by innovation, and has quietly been one of the chief influences on popular music in the last half of the 20th century. The basic principles of Dub are the forerunners of almost every sub-genre of music that can be categorized as “dance” (hip hop, disco, trance, trip hop, dubstep, house, etc.) as well as being highly influential to various forms of rock, punk, and post-punk music. Its textures are oft compared to early electronic experiments in the classical world and it is in many ways a music of improvisation, with its most prominent innovator (King Tubby) taking inspiration from his love of jazz. From an economic point of view, it allows a label to efficiently capitalize on its resources and produce sellable material quickly and inexpensively–easily one of the most clever economic innovations that the industry has ever seen.

So you’re telling me it’s the perfect music?

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A brief, brief history

The story of the music industry in Jamaica is a beautifully simplistic story, a paramount example of basic supply and demand–a fluid, creative, and flexible institution that adapted quickly and creatively to a variety of circumstances surrounding it (something our own Luddite industry could learn a thing or two from). It goes something like this…

In the beginning–in low income Kingston–restaurants, bars, other social institutions and enterprising entrepreneurs invested in sound equipment to attract the local constituency who very rarely had access to record players or radios of their own. Very quickly these “sound systems” took on a life of their own. Like a local sports team, every neighborhood was proud of its local sound system. Every week the sound systems would clash at local dances, each one hoping to play the newest and hippest music. Originally this music was brought back from cane cutters working in Louisiana, a side-line money making opportunity for low paid itinerant workers who felt they had superior musical taste. With even a cursory glance you can hear the massive influence of New Orleans R&B on the aesthetics of Reggae music: Check out the “reggae-style” guitar in this Fats Domino tune that was a number one hit for weeks in Jamaica.

Listen to “Be My Guest” by Fats Domino:

[audio:|titles=Be My Guest|artists=Fats Domino]

Very soon the sound systems learned that the only way to GUARANTEE they would be playing new music at the weekend dance was to make this music for themselves: pay for it, produce it, open a studio, find the artists, etc. Thus, the Jamaican music industry was born. And so it went, on and on, from Ska to Rocksteady to Reggae to Roots Reggae to Dub. All of this wonderful music was made DISTINCTLY for the purpose of wowing a crowd at the Friday night dance (and as an interesting side-note it is why there is not a very large tradition of live performance in Jamaican music history). It is important to know the context in which Dub arose because it — maybe more than any Reggae sub-genre that came before it — is a love child of sound system culture. The developments that birthed Dub are simple but steady evolutions that can be easily documented by listening to a few songs.

The first surprise that sound system operators sprung on their captive audience was playing a hit song without the vocal track. This allowed the audience to sing along and provided a welcome surprise and, no doubt, a bit of one-upsmanship to a rival DJ. Listen to this Bob Marley and the Wailers track as it was originally heard and then listen to its instrumental version.

Listen to “Keep on Moving” by Bob Marley and the Wailers:

[audio:|titles=Keep on Moving|artists=Bob Marley and the Wailers]

Listen to “Keep on Moving (instrumental)” by Bob Marley and the Wailers:

[audio:|titles=Keep on Moving (instrumental)|artists=Bob Marley and the Wailers]

This is simple enough but was exciting to the audience and more importantly injected studio technology as an instrument into the creation of the music. This was taken a step further when King Tubby, the first and foremost dub pioneer (arguably alongside Lee Perry) began not only bringing down the vocal fader but altering much more by improvising arrangements; highlighting the bass and drums for a section, then the piano, then the guitar, all kinds of different combinations. Additionally he began to use the studio in even more boundary-pushing ways, adding first reverb and EQ changes, then delay and other effects to splinter what the audience would recognize as a hit song into a million recognizable but fascinating fragments. These proto-dubs were called “Versions”, as they were different versions of a well known song. Listen to this fascinating Version from a record called Dub Serial, arguably the first all Dub record ever pressed.

Listen to “Satta Amassa Gana Version” by King Tubby:

[audio:|titles=Satta Amassa Gana Version|artists=King Tubby]

It is impossible to mention Dub, King Tubby, or pretty much any period of Jamaican music without mentioning Lee Perry. Perry was experimenting with the same things at the same time in the insular, competitive, and incestuous environment that was early 70s Kingston. His style is distinctly wilder and more “avant-garde” than his contemporaries, as well as distinctly more additive. Listen to his original Bucky Skank, and then his own Dub that appeared on his landmark Dub album, Blackboard Jungle Dub. He has overdubbed a flute on the dub version and has created a distinctly unique song, using one overdub, a few studio tricks and his imagination.

Listen to “Bucky Skank” by Lee Perry:

[audio:|titles=Bucky Skank|artists=Lee Perry]

Listen to “Blackboard Jungle Dub (version 1)” by Lee Perry:

[audio:|titles=Blackboard Jungle Dub (version 1)|artists=Lee Perry]

These two pioneers pushed Dub past a novelty dancehall trick into a legitimate genre of its own–sculpting sound with their mixing console and spinning, turning, and transforming songs into countless other incredible sonic creations all sellable and marketable to the delight of not only the audience but to record label owners throughout Kingston. Listen to how far things had come by the time King Tubby released his monumental Dub album King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown in 1976, three years after Perry had released Blackboard Jungle Dub. King Tubby’s dub is based on Jacob Miller’s “Baby I Love You So” featured here first.

Listen to “Baby I Love You So” by Jacob Miller:

[audio:|titles=Baby I Love You So|artists=Jacob Miller]

Listen to “King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown” by King Tubby:

[audio:|titles=King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown|artists=King Tubby]

Dub continued to grow and change. Reaching out far past Jamaica, it would go on to influence the entire sonic aesthetic of our universe. It is an incredibly unique music, the examples here only scratching the surface. To me, more than anything else, it is the ultimate marriage of a yearning to please an audience and the eagerness to take sounds to another planet, to maximize your imagination and let it overflow all over your art.

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Space dubs

I took art as an elective in my last year in high school. Now, let’s be honest: this was clearly an attempt to avoid any and all possible work that I could as my high school career wound down. However, it turned out my teacher, the inimitable Adele Catherwood, was one of the wisest people that I ever encountered in my entire educational experience. And besides entertaining us with stories of partying with Bob Dylan (she was removed after only one year of teaching at Norfolk Christian Schools, not surprising but unfortunate) she hammered home one thing: “Art is never finished, it only stops in interesting places”. This has been a guiding light to my entire musical journey since I heard that for the first time in 2001. Seemingly recorded music is immune to such thought, as it is a very “finished” feeling when you put out a record. However, the flexibility and freedom that Dub music allows delivers us from such a finite box and allows us to see one song in potentially infinite ways. It is a prism that we can experience a recorded event through, and in the right hands one song can turn into a vast array of color combinations, all equally enjoyable but in different ways.

Clearly, the other fascinating aspect of all this is how a record label, assuming they can interest an audience, can turn one product into MANY different products. There is an economic wisdom here that is very clever, and the proliferation of digital media makes it cheaper than ever to share alternate versions with prospective listeners. Spacebomb is dedicating itself to exploring the relatively untapped (by American record labels) potential of this art-form, both artistically and economically. This past week I spent several days dubbing our first two records with fellow dub-conspirator Karl Blau with much success. We are excited to begin this journey and share it with you, to show you several different points at which we feel our art is interesting. To highlight many aspects of one recording session and present it upside down, backwards and sideways. As always, we will thank you for listening. It is all we can ask.

Speaking of listening: here’s one more example of a beautiful Dub from King Tubby’s chief protegé, a man who calls himself Scientist.

Listen to “Penny I Love You” by The Wailing Souls:

[audio:|titles=Penny I Love You|artists=The Wailing Souls]

Listen to “Scientific Dub Mix” by Scientist:

[audio:|titles=Scientific Dub Mix|artists=Scientist]

Listen to the entire playlist on your smart phone or at your desk on 8tracks

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Spacebomb Records presents Smalltown and Toby Whitaker Big Band on Wednesday, August 3, at Balliceaux.  Ages 21+, free. Balliceaux is located at 203 N. Lombardy St. in Richmond, VA. (804) 355 3008

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Matthew E. White

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