From drone to dubstep, the values and techniques of dub are more present than ever in the music we consume every day. Yet, for many, dub appears an impenetrable genre – the sort of thing we know we should be into, but we don’t quite know where to start with. That’s why we asked David Katz – renowned reggae historian, photographer and more – to write us the Beginner’s Guide to Dub, with quotes from Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer, Glen Brown, Adrian Sherwood, Dennis Alcapone, Roy Cousins and more. We’ve also compiled an accompanying playlist on the last page of this article.
During the last 60 years, Jamaican popular music has rarely stood still, thriving on the innovations of a handful of committed practitioners that continually force the music into new directions. Although it would take time for foreigners to clock the music emanating from this Caribbean island, and even longer for them to comprehend it, there is ample proof that Jamaica has exercised a disproportionate influence on the musical practices of the outside world. And in recent times, dub has proven to be the most influential reggae sub-genre of all.
Without the dub invention pioneered by an elite coterie of Jamaican recording engineers and record producers, rap would never have become the world’s leading form of popular culture; ambient, jungle, house, garage, grime and numerous other types of technologically-driven dance music probably would not have taken off. And there would surely be no such thing as dubstep, currently the focus of youth culture in so many different lands. Yet, who, exactly, is responsible for dub? What purpose did dub serve, and has the form remained static? What, in other words, is dub music all about?
Chris Blackwell once memorably noted that “there are no facts in Jamaica”, since conflicting accounts of who was responsible for what in the island’s incredibly rich music scene continually come into play. Nevertheless, the man most readily identified as the ‘dub inventor’ is none other than King Tubby, the sound system proprietor and electronics technician otherwise known as Osbourne Ruddock, whose tiny front-room studio in the Waterhouse ghetto of western Kingston was a key site of dub creation.
The nickname Tubby did not refer to Ruddock’s waistline. Instead, it stemmed from Tubman, his mother’s maiden name. Though Tubby’s chief occupation involved amplifier repair and the construction and winding of transformers to stabilise the electrical supply of local businesses, music was always a primary fascination, leading him to found the Home Town Hi-Fi sound system as a teenager in 1958. Producer Niney the Observer, who worked closely with Tubby during the 1970s, points out that, although he was crowned ‘King of the Dancehall’ at a neighbourhood event in the early 1960s, his set was initially a small concern affiliated with the tamer uptown music scene, despite its hallmark of technical innovation. “King Tubby used to have a little hi-fi that he played up Red Hills, and there is certain little people follow him—not the rebel people those days. Tubby used to tape songs off the radio, like certain time of night he plug in the radio station and play it back into his sound.”
Producer Glen Brown, another close associate, says Tubby always had an innovative approach to recorded sound. “King Tubby always build some little speaker, and he always have a little Quickly motorbike, so King Tubby build a little thing on the bike—sometimes you’re talking to him, and he’ll record you with it.”
Toaster Dennis Alcapone says this penchant for constant innovation is what made Tubby’s so sound distinctive. “King Tubby’s was definitely the greatest sound ever to come out of Jamaica. You wouldn’t listen to the other sounds, because they was just bringing out normal voices with normal bass. Duke Reid and Coxsone, their bass was heavy, but Tubby’s bass was just so solid, and then he brought in reverb, which wasn’t introduced to the public before—it was mind-blowing.”
Since the years following World War II, when Jamaicans who went abroad for seasonal farm work encountered black Americans making money at street dances and block parties, sound system culture has defined the Jamaican music scene. With powerful amplifiers and banks of speaker boxes, sound systems provided the rhythm and blues beloved by the black Jamaican masses, forming an affordable alternative to the costly live jazz scene, which catered to the light-skinned upper class and visiting tourists. Exclusivity became a key factor, with shrewd proprietors removing the labels of their most prized records to stop the competition from locating a copy. Then, once Jamaica kick-started its own music industry in the 1950s, exclusive acetates cut with local talent, known first as ‘soft wax’ and later as ‘dub plates,’ became necessary components of every sound system, along with a jive-talking toaster on the microphone, who would spice up the dead airtime between songs. During the late 1960s, these components coalesced in dub, when an incidental moment of studio innovation had drastic repercussions.
According to producer Bunny Lee, the genesis of dub took place in late 1968 at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio, where King Tubby was working as an apprentice to engineer Byron Smith, though Lee ultimately credits Ruddy Redwood, the financially solvent owner of the Spanish Town-based Supreme Ruler of Sound as dub’s initial catalyst. And Lee likes to say that Ruddy’s development was a “mistake”, but the way he describes it, the experimentation seems quite deliberate:
“Ruddy was another wealthy man who can help himself. Him inna racehorses and have him record shop and a big club ’cross Fort Henderson, so when him come ah Duke Reid and Coxsone, them give him any tape him want. One evening them ah cut dub plate, and when them cut, it’s difficult to put in the voice, and Smithy ah go stop it, and Ruddy say, “No, make it run.” When it done, him say it art, and me and Tubby stand up right there, me look ’pon Tubby and Tubby look ’pon me. Saturday night, him drop the singing cut first, and the deejay said, “I’m going to play part two!” and the whole dancehall start to sing the song ’pon the pure rhythm. Him have to play it about ten, fifteen times because it’s something new. I say, “Boy, Tubbs, you see the mistake whe’ Smithy make? A serious thing! The people ah Spanish Town love it! You have to start do something like that.” Tubby just bang onto U Roy, U Roy come in and say, “Part two, another version” on “Too Proud To Beg” with Slim Smith, ah so the name ‘version’ come in. When it start, you hear Slim Smith start to sing and then you hear the voice gone! Then you hear him come in again, and you hear U Roy talk, “Love the life you live and live the life you love, here come the brother Slim Smith again, tell them,” and a man say, “Boy, Tubby have amplifier that can take out the voice and play pure rhythm.” Little did them know that’s how the dub make out. There goes version now, and everybody wants it ’pon them record.”
Thus begins the incredible tale of dub, which has so much resonance in our present time. But when you go digging into the past of Jamaican music, you often find that things happened earlier than expected. Indeed, rhythm tracks had already been used for more than one purpose in Jamaica: in 1965, at Studio One, Roland Alphonso blew the saxophone melody of a song called ‘Rinky Dink’, using the rhythm of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s ‘Hold Down’ with the vocals removed. The following year, the rhythm of the Wailers’ popular ‘Put It On’ was also used for Perry’s ribald ‘Rub And Squeeze,’ and there was a wild harmonica take of the Wailers’ ‘Rudie’ called ‘Green Collie’ too. Studio One founder Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd said this was enabled by changes in recording technology, with the two-track Ampex he purchased in 1964 allowing for the technique.
Nevertheless, the standard practice of ‘version’ B-sides being constructed from the customised rhythm tracks of a previous recording clearly follows from the legendary 1968 Treasure Isle session described by Bunny Lee—particularly after Tubby opened a tiny voicing and mixing studio in his front room in 1969, after acquiring an obsolete mixing desk from Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds. And the rise of ‘version’ would ultimately pave the way for the experimental contours of dub, in which previously recorded vocal songs would be remixed to emphasise drum and bass, making greater space for deejays to appear on record, particularly after U Roy, the star toaster on King Tubby’s sound system, showed just what could be done with the form.
Before U Roy, a deejay was just an incidental figure, someone that told a few jokes between songs and made announcements about future dances. But U Roy’s fluid toasting, voiced over Duke Reid’s old rock steady rhythms, brought deejay music to the top-three Jamaican chart positions in 1970—a truly unprecedented feat. U Roy thus turned the deejay into a superstar whose toasts were as important as any singer’s lyrics, prefacing the rap craze in America by the better part of a decade.
Dub began its concerted evolutionary gestation shortly thereafter, once King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and a handful of likeminded peers began exploring the limits of the form, with Perry being the first to delve in wholeheartedly. During the late 1960s, Perry had his greatest successes with instrumental versions, hitting spectacularly with ‘Return Of Django,’ which brought him and his Upsetters band to Britain in 1969. The following year, he began concentrating on Bob Marley and the Wailers, yielding the albums Soul Rebels and Soul Revolution, but continued his forays into the ‘version’ phenomenon through exquisite instrumental B-sides. In 1971, he took things a step further by issuing Soul Revolution II, an entirely instrumental edition of the Wailers’ Soul Revolution set, which allowed listeners to hear the material in an entirely different way; devoid of the singer’s voices, emphasis was now placed entirely on the rhythms of the backing musicians.
Dramatic changes were soon afoot, as mixing engineers began to emphasise drum and bass on the version B-sides, augmented by the application of echo and reverb, as notably heard on the opening lines to Glen Brown’s melodica-led hit ‘Merry Up.’ As Bunny Lee explains, “The drum and bass part, Tubby strike out now, and one of the first drum-and-bass tunes that come out was ‘Merry Up’ with Glen Brown. That reverb, that watery sound at the start, that ah one of the first.”
Tubby was able to make more initial forays into dub because he had his own space in which to work, unlike peers such as Perry, who had to rely on the facility of others, prior to the opening of the Black Ark in late 1973. Other producers heavily involved in dub, such as Niney the Observer, Keith Hudson and Augustus Pablo, never managed to get a studio of their own, which led them to rely on Tubby for the most part (though Niney later worked steadily out of both Joe Gibbs and Channel One). Tubby’s home set-up at 18 Dromilly Avenue was not a recording studio in the conventional sense, nor was Tubby an actual producer in his own right, until he expanded in the late 1980s. His bedroom studio was never large enough for rhythms to be created in full there, but the space was gradually converted into a sound manipulation unit complete with a machine to cut acetates.
“Tubbs is an innovator”, said the late Philip Smart, who was engineer at the studio for much of the mid-1970s. “He didn’t buy his first console, he built it, and that’s what he used until he bought the MCI console from Dynamics, their studio B. It was just that room he had at first. You have a carport, and then the carport is a bedroom and a bathroom, so him turn the bathroom into the voice room and the bedroom into the control room, and he had his repair shop in another little house in the back. His main income was building amplifiers and winding transformers; the music was an addition, because he had the sound and he always wanted to make his own dubs.”
“The home amplifiers like Pioneer, Marantz, it’s them amplifiers him started with”, says singer and producer Roy Cousins, who often recorded at Tubby’s. “He did have about three of them transistor amplifiers, one of them old cutter, and them likkle two-track reel-to-reel that come in a suitcase, him did have one like that him used to put on a stool. Then when Byron Lee decided him going cut stampers, him decided to sell [the equipment in] studio two, which was four-track. It’s through Bunny Lee that Tubby get the mixing desk: Byron wanted cash and everybody just want to leave a deposit, but Tubby go down there with the whole of it.”
Dub gained greater credibility in 1973, when a number of dub albums appeared all at once, each vying for the title of ‘first dub LP.’ Among the most noteworthy were Herman Chin-Loy’s minimalist Aquarius Dub; Lee Perry’s astounding Blackboard Jungle Dub (originally issued as Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle), created in collaboration with Tubby; Prince Buster’s The Message Dubwise, mixed at Dynamics by Carlton Lee; Clive Chin’s exquisite Java Java Java Java, mixed by Errol Thompson at Randy’s; Joe Gibbs’ Dub Serial, also mixed by Thompson, and Studio One’s enthralling Dub Store Special, mixed by Clement Dodd.
When we survey the available evidence, Aquarius Dub is the strongest contender for actually being the first, and Chin-Loy says he assembled the disc as a way of giving deejays uninterrupted toasting time on sound systems. But Chin-Loy’s album has few of the effects that would give dub its outstanding difference, being more in the mode of an instrumental ‘version’ LP; Clive Chin points out that Java Java Java Java had more in the way of experimentation, which helped dub attain more solid footing. “Them time there, Tubby try and experiment more fi dub, but me and Errol start dub music”, Chin emphasises. “When I say start it, I’m not saying we going to take credit for any other man that put out a dub album, but we really experiment, because we had the time and the facility to do it. Another man like Phil Pratt or Niney, studio time was so important that you have to run in and run out.” Had Thompson not left Randy’s for Joe Gibbs, dub probably would have enjoyed a further flowering there, and even though Clement Dodd mixed a great series of dub albums at Studio One, the form remained somewhat peripheral to his general output.
As technology advanced, Jamaica’s creative dub mixers began attracting interest overseas: the dubs Lee Perry mixed at the Black Ark were dense tapestries of heavily manipulated rhythm, which brought a contract with Island Records; Errol Thompson left Randy’s to mix sound effects-laden dubs at Joe Gibbs, who landed a deal with WEA; Ernest Hoo-Kim crafted thunderous dubs at Channel One with Sly Dunbar and the Revolutionaries house band, some of which were handled by Virgin. But during the late 1970s, the most important evolutionary happenings continued to take place at King Tubby’s, as apprentice engineers such as Prince Jammy and Scientist mixed captivating masterworks, most notably with the Roots Radics band, as heard on the sublime series of dub albums handled overseas by Trojan and Greensleeves. Scientist had a way of isolating the bass that greatly appealed to overseas listeners, and his use of the electronic test-tone as a percussive instrument was truly exceptional.
The dub album reached its international pinnacle of popularity during the late 1970s, when Joe Gibbs and the Professionals’ African Dub Chapter 3 (mixed by Errol Thompson) became the rage amongst reefer-smoking college students in Britain for its ringing doorbells, banging gongs and flushing toilets. The championing of reggae and dub by John Lydon, the Clash and their deejay pal Don Letts led to dub techniques being adopted by punk and post-punk acts such as the Ruts, the Slits, Generation X and Killing Joke. Initially, ‘foreign’ dub was made by transplanted Jamaican sound system operators such as Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes in New York, plus Ken ‘Fatman’ Gordon and Jah Shaka in London.
Then came a series of highly inspired British dub albums from Guyanese immigrant Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser, and Barbados-born Dennis Bovell, along with Adrian Sherwood, the white English reggae devotee who had distributed Jamaican imports and worked with Prince Fari, prior to the formation of his On-U Sound label, even being responsible for the ground-breaking Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series with Fari. “I did my first-ever dubs when I was like 18 or 19, when I did Creation Rebel, which evolved into a band”, Sherwood recalls. “Then I started working with Fari, making the dub stuff a little more interesting, because I was aware there was a big demand for dub amongst black and white sound system fans. A lot of the white smoky bears were smoking spliffs listening to dub music.” Dub was widening its audience, largely through the efforts of these pioneering figures, its appeal making perfect sense in London’s multicultural environment. Brian Eno caught its influence as well, noting that the Jamaica producers treated the mixing desk as an instrument, and drawing directly on their techniques for his ‘ambient’ releases.
Back home in Jamaica, as the dancehall style took over during the early 1980s, it seemed dub’s death knell was sounded by ‘Sleng Teng,’ Jamaica’s first totally computerised hit. Prince Jammy actually cut an album called Computerised Dub in 1986, yet the digital format was detrimental, being less conducive to dub’s mixing peculiarities than the sound of live instruments captured on analogue equipment. But with such strong demand for dub overseas, and with the cost of home recording gear reducing, it was only natural that a new legion of international mixers would spring up abroad, creating bedroom recording spaces of their own.
The Disciples, two white English dub fans making largely digital dub in a suburban bedroom, began crafting their own dubs in the late 1980s, after being inspired by the religious energy at Shaka dances. Alpha and Omega and the Bush Chemists began gaining currency in the 1990s, along with techno-based practitioners such as Zion Train and Dreadzone. Following on from Adrian Sherwood’s experiments with Creation Rebel, dub music began to be made overseas that was not related to a previously-issued vocal recording, changing the purpose, as well as the format, of dub in the process.
Nevertheless, its influence continued gathering steam, as shown when Massive Attack fed directly on the classical Jamaican dub style, roping in Mad Professor for the dub recasting of their Protection album. The Beastie Boys had referenced Lee Perry’s Revolution Dub on their sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique album, and brought further kudos to dub by collaborating with the man on Hello Nasty. The Prodigy transmuted Max Romeo’s Perry-produced ‘Chase The Devil’ for their massive ‘Out Of Space,’ and by the time Kanye West sampled the same tune for Jay Z’s Black Album, it was entirely clear that dub was fully entrenched in the broader popular culture of the western world.
Dubbing Is A Must Playlist
Bob Marley & The Wailers – ‘Put It On’
Lee Perry & The Soulettes – ‘Run and Squeeze’
Bob Marley & The Wailers – ‘Rudie’
Roy Richards – ‘Green Collie’
The Upsetters – ‘Return of Django’
Glen Brown – ‘Merry Up’
Herman Chin-Loy – Aquarius Dub Side 1
Joe Gibbs & The Professionals – ‘Angolian Chant’
Prince Far I – Cry Tough Dub Encounter Chapter 1
For more information on dub’s evolution, check David Katz’s book Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, published by Jawbone.