Dub from the Roots

Looking for Leslie Ruddock, brother to King Tubby and the unsung hero of dub

King Tubby has been dead for fifteen years, the victim of a still-unsolved murder in Jamaica, yet he remains among the most respected figures in reggae, credited with the innovations that gave modern-day trance, techno, and hip-hop a sonic heft and deep-bass grooves. Still, he was always a behind-the-scenes string-puller. You'd never find King Tubby in front of a microphone onstage.

Then there's Tubby's baby brother, Leslie Ruddock, a shadowy figure who has settled into solitude in suburban Palm Beach County, resisting any and all attempts to unveil his own unmistakable imprint on reggae music. An electronic genius, by most accounts, who built from scratch the machinery that helped create Jamaican music's most crucial subgenre, Young Tubby -- as he is known by reggae cognoscenti -- goes to absurd lengths to keep his accomplishments under wraps. He has been remarkably successful.

The name King Tubby exemplifies reggae roots. Born Osbourne Ruddock in January 1941, his nickname came not from a weight problem (he was actually quite trim) but for his knowledge of all things electronic, tube amplifiers in particular. While a Google search will turn up hundreds of documents detailing the story of Kingston's Daddy of Dub, not one mentions his baby brother.

The mysterious King Tubby, inventor of dub
The mysterious King Tubby, inventor of dub

Both Ruddock brothers shared a passion for music and uncanny abilities as tinkerers with gadgetry. Anything that could be taken apart -- speakers, amplifiers, telephones, ham radios, television sets -- was studied and put back together. As kids, they would even come to enjoy the small electric shocks they'd get from the transistor radios they messed with.

In the late Fifties, Osbourne Ruddock's career as a repairman blossomed as he became a master of audio mechanics, spending hours rewinding transformers and building tube amplifiers that were bigger, louder, and cleaner than anything ever heard on the island. With a simple home-brewed two-channel mixer, he crafted his own sound system, "King Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi," a mobile DJ booth that pumped reggae that could be heard for miles. He also began working in a Kingston studio owned by Duke Reid, a former policeman turned record producer. Ruddock's job was cutting discs, mixing and transferring tapes onto the raw vinyl platters. One day, King Tubby accidentally left off most of the vocals from a tune he was mixing. But he loved the sound of his minimalist mistake.

When King Tubby became a well-known engineer/producer, he built his own simple studio. Never proficient on instruments himself, he was a postproduction composer. After the musicians and singers would lay down the basic tracks, he would turn sound-sculptor. A vocal line might pop in for two or three measures, never to appear again. The underpinning bass grid often, without warning, dropped out entirely. A guitar would chop out a few strums, then evaporate. The vacuum left behind gave the music its magical appeal. This fourth dimension was fortified by a mind-warping sense of echo and reverb.

During reggae's golden age of the early Seventies, King Tubby's studio became a launch pad for an assortment of greats. Among his most famous collaborators: producers such as crazy dub surrealist Lee "Scratch" Perry and seminal studio whiz Bunny Lee, singers such as sweet soul crooner Horace Andy, Watty Burnett of the harmony group the Congos, the incomparable Johnny Clarke, original toasters like U-Roy, and melodica master Augustus Pablo. With Pablo, the work was especially fruitful, culminating in 1976's King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, early dub's definitive statement.

Last year, London's prestigious newspaper Guardian/Observer called King Tubby's 1971 discovery of dub one of "50 moments that shaped musical history [and] changed our lives," crediting him for "creating the template for modern dance music." Two years ago, The Source magazine named King Tubby "the don of hip-hop."

Like his kingly brother -- rarely quoted, described by friends, family, protégés, and associates as a nice but extremely private man -- Leslie Ruddock has spent his 58 years avoiding any sort of publicity. Regardless, after a series of unanswered calls and ignored messages, on one bright afternoon in early January, the man often called "Young Tubby" answers the phone at his home in suburban Boynton Beach. He doesn't sound at all pleased. In fact, he begins with an animated, don't-you-know-who-I-am? rant.

"My brother was the King!" Ruddock shouts into the receiver. "The world famous -- internationally famous -- UNIVERSALLY FAMOUS!!! -- King Tubby!

"So if you want an interview, come up with a big fat check," Ruddock thunders. "And I'm not talking about $1000 or so, I'm talking big money. 'Cause Tubby's is a big name."

After remaining in the deep background during one of reggae's most important sagas, isn't Leslie Ruddock interested -- even slightly -- in having his story told? Setting the record straight?

"No," he says after a millisecond's pause. "I don't want to bother with that unless I see some money. The record's straight the way it is."

But behind his sonorous voice -- which sounds like it belongs to a smooth soul singer instead of a semiretired radio repairman -- a kindness starts spiraling out from behind the gruffness, and against his will, the tales squeak through.

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