Tub's Dubs

A reissue of two classic albums exposes King Tubby as a master postmodernist

The next time some bore at the coffee shop starts expounding on the contributions of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring to postmodernism, you can probably derail the rant by bringing up King Tubby. Osbourne Ruddock was a revolutionary artist whose audience wasn't elitist in the least. Anyone who lived in Jamaica in the Seventies and could afford to buy a record could purchase a piece of Tubby's art.

King Tubby was one of the originators of dub, a record-production style that began in Jamaica in the late Sixties by simply wiping the vocals off a popular rock steady or reggae ditty. The resulting stripped-down mix gave dancehall DJs space to talk over the instrumental track, clearing the way for "dub poets" like U-Roy and Big Youth, who essentially invented rap. Tubby exponentially expanded the dub palette around 1972 by adding echo and reverb effects to keep the mix of a song in constant flux, while simultaneously bearing down hard on the thunderous drums and bass. Before him, dub versions were consigned to the B-side of a 45 rpm single. But he broke tradition and launched a new art form by issuing an album consisting entirely of versions in 1974. His first two dub LPs are collected on the double-CD import The Dubmaster Presents the Roots of Dub and Dub from the Roots (distributed in the U.S. by Caroline Records).

Tubby's compositions were often as successful as the hit songs from which they were derived. While you can appreciate one of his versions without knowing a single note of its source material, a song like "Declaration of Dub" only becomes fully resonant as a redefinition of the Abyssinians' "Declaration of Rights." To hear it is to mentally cross-fade between his dub and the original record. Not that he made the comparison easy. Unlike today's club remixers, who slice and dice vocals and instrumental hooks to provide signposts for the original verse and chorus, Tubby's minimalist productions provide few aural landmarks. They also take studio craft to the extreme with treatments that feed back into one another until the instruments dissolve together into a metallic fizz. It's the sound of pop music eating itself. Comparing "Declaration of Dub" with "Declaration of Rights" is simple enough for the first few bars. The opening organ riff and "ooh-ooh" background vocals let you easily fill in Johnny Clarke's lead voice. A slightly different drum and bass mix from line to line takes you to the chorus. But no further markers appear, and you soon lose your way, with no choice but to surrender to the throbbing drums and bass.

Few tracks on these albums feature vocals at all. The ghostly singing on "Roots of Dub" is pushed so deeply into the background, you wonder if it isn't merely bleed-through from oversaturated master tapes. Vinyl surface noise, not to mention the comparatively low fidelity of Seventies hi-fi gear, would have concealed the voice that even today requires close listening to discern, but Tubby left it in on purpose -- presumably because the large sound systems used in Jamaican clubs would have made it evident.

One reason that Tubby's original creations survive his own radical surgery is the strength of producer Bunny Lee's house band, the Aggrovators, who provided backing for Clarke, John Holt, Cornell Campbell, and other top-selling singers whose songs Tubby reimagines. The Aggrovators boast the skin-tight rhythm section of influential bassist Robbie Shakespeare and Wailers' drummer Carlton Barrett along with guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith, keyboardist Augustus Pablo, percussionist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, and other now-legendary members of the reggae pantheon.

By peeling back the layers of well-known tunes and reducing them to permutations of sheer rhythmic glee, Tubby was way ahead of his contemporaries. Whether you appreciate his dubs as a reaction to the smooth sheen of classic Jamaican pop or simply love the low-frequency slam, his art feels palpably vibrant on this two-disc set.

 
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