Decades before the sampling-based, cut-and-paste genre of hip-hop took hold, Jamaican dub was recycling recorded riffs like crazy. And "crazy" is the appropriate word. Extrapolating from reggae's repetitious, hypnotic intensity, beginning in the early Seventies the Jamaican granddaddy of dub, King Tubby, was not only assembling the most psychedelic pop the world had ever known, but also challenging standard song conventions. By stripping source material of all but a few identifying vocal hallmarks, Tubby (born and buried Osbourne Ruddock) shredded givens such as narrative flow, dramatic development, and contrast between verse and chorus. He treated all other elements as if they were subservient to the essential reggae rhythm, dropping slabs of processed instrumentation in and out of the mix while buttressing the drum-and-bass backbone.
Dub could well be considered the most revolutionary musical product of the century, certainly the most forward looking. Although the uptown, art-damaged avant-garde of the Sixties may have spliced snippets of tape in William Burroughs-like fashion, no one before King Tubby had ever thought that recontextualizing existing recorded music was a path to commercial success. The repercussions of Tubby's work are enormous. Without the dub versions that made up B-side accompaniments to Jamaican rock steady and reggae releases, the very concept of the dance remix may have never occurred to American producers. But when cheap samplers, computers, and eight-track cassette decks brought the power of a recording studio to any studio apartment, Tubby and his antecedents drew a road map that allowed the technically inclined to make rhythm-based music without the bother of mastering a musical instrument. So songs built upon prerecorded sounds were as inevitable as the folk music compositions 70 years earlier: those codified phrases and verses collected from Appalachian back porches, Childe ballads, Negro spirituals, and the blues. But the evolution of hip-hop, house, trance, and techno, and their continuing influence on pop, would have taken a markedly different shape without Tubby's sizable splash.
Dub, like the Jamaican DJ style invented by U-Roy that anticipated rap, wasn't originally aimed at a mass market. Tubby, who repaired appliances and loudspeakers for a living, developed his radical remixes for the massive Kingston sound systems that provided the newest music for the competitive dance-club scene. Although dub's leap from live event to recorded phenomenon sprang first and foremost from its popularity, never underestimate the economic considerations of reissuing a song whose studio time and musicians were already bought and paid for. The intensely druggy sound of dub, with stuttering echo-laden vocals that dissolve in a hot haze of heavily equalized repetitions, boosted a bass that went straight for the gut punch and brought airplay to a man who wasn't a performer or a producer. Tubby was an engineer and remix man working out of a modest studio. He only needed space to manipulate his tapes, plus elbowroom for a vocalist or added instrumentalist overdubbing a prerecorded track.
The latest collection of Tubby's songs, Dub Like Dirt 1975-1977, on the British Blood and Fire label, is far from a greatest-hits package, because Tubby's prime cuts are already well represented in reggae best-ofs everywhere. But these rarities and previously unissued tracks are great reminders of how far a visionary could crank the kind of bare-bones four-track studio that would tie most producers' hands today. Armed with a few sound effects contraptions plus reel-to-reel recorders and mixing boards, Tubby did serious damage to listener's neurons while creating one of the oddest and most enduring methods of song creation.
Tubby didn't act alone; he relied on top talent like Bunny Lee, who produced all of the tracks here, and musicians of such high caliber it's mindboggling to think of any three of them in a studio at the same time. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (a.k.a. the Riddim Twins) add bass and percussive muscle, plus eccentric touches like the plucked reverb on "Bag a Wire Dub," a radical remix of a cover version of the Mighty Diamond's classic "Right Time," performed here by Johnny Clarke, possibly the most dubbed vocalist ever. Jackie Mittoo's jazzy organ keeps "Fatter Dub" aloft on a bouncy track originally issued by Mittoo only in Canada (talk about obscure) and based on the Heptones' big single, "Fatty Fatty." Elsewhere are luminaries such as Earl "Chinna" Smith, Cornell Campbell, and Bobbie Ellis.
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Sometimes Tubby and friends were content to take a well-known song and reassemble it, as on "Dub Ites Green & Gold," a deconstruction of Johnny Clarke's version of the Burning Spear warhorse. Other times the crew started from the bottom and worked up: Witness "Beat Them in Dub," Bunny Lee's reply to a truckload of songs based on a harmonica riff Roy Richards improvised over a Studio One version of Little Richard's "Freedom Blues" in 1968. It's tempting to blather on about a Jamaican economy that forces people to live on other people's castoffs, and how Tubby turned this reuse into art. But his invention is such a mother it's useless to concentrate on anything but the sheer, bracing, beautiful music that resulted.
How far the ghost of dub has wandered from its cutting-edge conception is evident in an ultrasmooth release by Jamaican saxophonist Dean Fraser, Tribute to King Tubbys (VP Records). The mysterious, superfluous "s" added to the Tubby moniker should be taken as a warning: We've wandered far from primary sources courtesy of the same man who gave us The Verdict, an instrumental disc on the theme of O.J. Simpson's trial. (Check out the VP Records Website at www.vprecords.com and you'll find Fraser's label is probably the spelling miscreant here, variously listing Dean as Fraser, Frasier, or Frazier, depending on the release.)
Fraser is an engaging musician with a fluid, melodic approach that is at odds with the jump-cut sensibility of dub. After the promising disc opener "Ram Dance Hall" (complete with slap-back echo effects, spidery guitar runs, and precious little sax soloing), this Tribute tells its honoree to buzz off via eleven successive instrumentals. Their overarching jazz feel, with Kenny G flurries, elbow out the rub-a-dub credibility. From time to time, a multitracked Fraser compensates with faux section-work meant to stand in for the horn charts that power the hottest cuts on Dub Like Dirt, but it isn't quite enough to summon Tubby's driving force.
The backing tracks have the tight, spare soul of classic roots reggae with enough borrowed riffs to activate sagaciously wrinkled listeners' nostalgia. And the Firehouse Crew (which shares billing credits and production duty with Fraser) traces their lineage directly to Tubby's studio. So does "special guest" Winston "Boo-P" Bowen, who lights up the mento-flavor "Brucking" with his angular, no-nonsense lead guitar. But as pleasant as Tribute may be, it has little to do with dub. Of far more interest than Fraser's Firehouse foray would have been a brave attempt to add sax leads to actual Tubby tracks, a la melodica impresario Augustus Pablo, now on a comeback trail of sorts and with a back catalogue well worth seeking out. Dub's past is deader than the day before yesterday, and though we can't recapture the uplifting strangeness of King Tubby's first slew of commercial releases, we can certainly do better than bury his memory beneath medicated goo.