Dub from the Roots

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

In the Sixties, as King Tubby grew famous, Leslie Ruddock tired of following in his footsteps. Convinced he could become an engineer and technician in his own right, he moved to Brooklyn, where he took his electronic knowledge to a new level. By the early Seventies, with the technology of New York City at his disposal, his achievements outstripped his brother's back on the island, say many who witnessed his innovations.

"To me, a lot of people give Tubby too much credit," says Denver "Jamusa" Silvera, a popular DJ on Davie's Caribbean radio station WAVS-AM (1170). He met Leslie Ruddock in Brooklyn in 1970. "He told me Tubby taught him a lot of things, but then again he created a lot of things here."

One of Young Tubby's creations went to the core of dub's sonic spirit. By combining three tape recorders, he invented an echo/feedback system that created a mind-boggling 168 echoes a minute. "Nobody was putting echo in reggae music," he claims. "I started that when I was just a young guy."

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

Another associate, Hyman "Jah Life" Wright -- now a New York label boss -- recalls how Ruddock's unorthodox methodology gave the music its disorienting giddiness. "He had a Fisher reverb unit that used a spring, a metal spring," Wright remembers. "He'd lift the spring and it'd splash, and he'd combine that with the echo unit and get these different frequencies." The effect is better heard than described, but Wright tries his best: "Cha-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya. We did a version of a song called öQueen of the Minstrel' with that echo thing and it went öPeeeeow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow.'"

Ruddock recorded these sounds and sent them down to King Tubby. "I got a telephone call from my brother in Jamaica," laughs Ruddock, "and he asked me, öHow the hell did you do that?'"

When the sound turned up on King Tubby's mixes, it instantly revolutionized music on the island. "As soon as I öeard those records, I knew it was our stuff," says Wright.

Young Tubby's remarkable inventions made friends like Silvera ask him, "öYou know how rich you could have been if you had patented that?' But he didn't want to get involved with that part of the business. He wanted to stay behind the scenes." Silvera even advised him to design an emblem to label the power amps and preamplifiers he'd assembled. "You know, so they'd say, öBuilt by Young Tubby.' But he wouldn't do things like that."

Leslie Ruddock's son Keith still remembers running around King Tubby's studio as a young child. In fact, he lived with King Tubby in Kingston before moving to the States in the mid-Eighties. While in Jamaica, he learned about primitive equipment that could work miracles. Today, with digital 48-track mixing consoles and ProTools at his disposal, he still remembers the magic created at King Tubby's.

In 1991, Keith came down to West Palm Beach, where the lack of opportunity stifled him. "I'd be down there more," he says, "but nothing's going on." So during the last two years, he has lived in Washington, D.C., playing club gigs across the country under the Digital K rubric. "We do the sound system thing," he explains. "I'll DJ, and we have a toaster on the mike. I'm playing dub plates and tracks from a laptop, but we keep that old school Seventies dancehall vibe."

Ever since she followed her brother from New Jersey to South Florida in 1996, Leslie Ruddock's daughter Michelle has been honing her DJ technique as Mixette, playing house parties and occasional club events and specializing in, as her dad jokingly calls it, "hip-hop shit." Like Keith, Mixette stays grounded in the analog realm but is gradually inching toward the digital domain. "I can mix and scratch with my laptop," she crows. With 15,000 MP3s on there, she no longer has to travel with 10 crates of records. "I still keep the basics," she adds. "Two cases of vinyl, a bag of CDs, and my laptop. I don't forget any of my elements -- they're all there with me."

Yet this regal reggae bloodline also bears the taint of seclusion. Keith e-mailed New Times out of the blue, introducing himself as King Tubby's nephew. First contact with Mixette was extremely positive. Yet when Leslie Ruddock was invited to sit for photographs to accompany this article, he reacted with a combination of annoyance and hostility that evidently trickled down to his progeny. Mixette stopped answering her phone; when finally reached, her initial openness had shifted to icy quarantine. Keith left several messages promising to return to West Palm Beach -- first for Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and finally sometime in late January. He insisted he'd put everything aside for a meeting and photo shoot. "Press always comes first," he added.

Then, as February rolled around: "I can't make it down," said Keith. "Family problems."

In contrast to Keith's accent-laden patois, his father's sharp, clipped English bears almost no trace of his heritage. "I don't do that öYeah, mon' thing," Leslie Ruddock snaps. "It don't work no more. Remember, I didn't just get here -- I grew up in this damn country. I've been in this country since Johnson was the president. Jamaica is just the land of my birth -- what's the big deal? I left it a long time ago."

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