Dub from the Roots
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.
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?
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.
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."
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."
America hasn't always been friendly: While in Brooklyn, his friends recall, Ruddock's apartment was burglarized. So in 1982 he moved to Miami, but his first studio space here was robbed as well. He relocated to West Palm Beach in 1985, and opened a recording studio at 2811 W. Broward Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. For a time, Young Tubby's Music Center was the biggest studio between Kingston and New York for reggae artists, and Ruddock fondly recalls the halcyon days of sessions with vocal talents Sugar Minott, Johnny Osbourne, Barrington Levy, as well as the late great Dennis Brown and Augustus Pablo. He closed his studio shortly after his brother's murder in 1989.
During the Eighties, King Tubby's studio in the dangerous Waterhouse district of Kingston hosted a revolving door of talent, and new apprentices learned recording techniques at his side. He launched his own record labels, boosted the careers of upstart stars such as Wayne Wonder, and readied himself for entry into the new digital era.
It was not to be. Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on February 6, 1989, King Tubby locked the studio, started his car, and made the ten-minute drive to his home in Duhaney Park. As soon as he pulled into the driveway at 85 Sherlock Crescent, a gunman emerged. King Tubby was robbed (his licensed pistol was stolen, too) and his wife awoke to the sound of a single shot.
Today, Ruddock's passion is for his family: his 92-year-old mother, his two children Michelle and Keith, and his three young grandkids (all under the age of ten). He repairs equipment in the back room at Boca Music a few days a week. "He really knows his stuff," says Boca Music owner Brian Baldwin. "He catches things that we don't normally catch. He's probably the best electronics repair guy around."
"That's all he does," says Ace Kari, salesman at Schumacher Music in Stuart, where Ruddock also works part-time. "He fixes anything that has wires and tubes and transistors, whether it be a TV or a microphone and everything in between." Kari has gotten to know Ruddock a bit, and understands his reluctance to indulge curious writers. "That part of his life is over and done with. He wants to be left alone. It's a shame, but he's done," he observes.
Ruddock insists he's afraid of nothing but losing his precious solitude. While he teases with tales of never-released Bob Marley and Dennis Brown tracks, photographs stacked four feet high of every reggae star imaginable, and enough crazy electronic gizmos to fill a Heathkit catalogue, he has no intention of sharing.
"I don't have to go back, I just continue. My daughter, my son, and I -- we're moving forward in digital." His voice rises again, this time with pride. "They grew up into it, beside me, constantly. It was handed down to them. They're from the foundation -- it's not something they just heard about. It's right there."
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