Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Allure of Dub

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard dub music.  Goes back for sure to a time when it was what they did with reggae records only, at a guess during a year spent living in London, 1976/7.  For the first 6 months I was living in Shoreditch as a volunteer helper in a hostel for people who had been released back into the community from psychiatric hospitals, for the remainder in Tufnell Park with a guy who was living in and rebuilding the interior of his house.  Dub music crept up on me from various sources.  Heard on the streets, source unidentified.  On local radio shows – the name David Rodigan springs to mind.  In the hostel – a young Jamaican guy, quite disturbed, haunted by duppies, possessed this one early album by melodica man Augustus Pablo.  Record shop windows – Prince Buster ‘The Message Dub-Wise’, said by some to be the first album of dub mixes.  Lee Perry interviewed on the radio (perhaps by Rodigan) giving it large with his incomprehensible, vaguely biblical patter.  These are fragments I remember, how it seeped into me.

I’d been a bit snooty about reggae up until a year or two before, associating it with skinheads and cultures beyond my ken, then won over by Marley and the Wailers somewhat.  Oh, and Desmond Dekker, ‘The Israelites’.  But this dub stuff, it was huge, stately, booming.  One minute it’s just the steady throb of drums and the bass, then bursts of magnificent, heavenly horns, laden with reverb, exploded by flashing fingers on the equalising slide-bar.  Ghostly voices way down in the mix, suddenly hitting the foreground, trailing off in echoes and distortion.  To me it was about as psychedelic as psychedelic gets.  When the mood for it takes me, still feel that way, forty years later.

First dub album I bought  was called ‘Rasta Have Ambition’, a compilation album featuring mostly d.j. cuts on side 1.  But on side 2 – what I was after – five dubs by King Tubby, one of the great dub production artists and another claimant for the originator title.  It started with a track called ‘Invasion’, which had all the qualities of those many unidentified dub tracks I’d heard on my rounds in the Smoke.  Got to admit, the album trailed off a bit after that.  Some dub stays on the spot for too long, forgets to startle, lacks resonance.  But ‘Invasion’ was the business.  I’ve heard other mixes of it since, under different titles, claimed by different artists.  With what appears to be a blurring of the roles of producer, mixer or engineer, and a plethora of ‘versions’ to boot, it’s hard to know what’s what.  Best to just find what you like and enjoy it.

Bit further down the line came Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and the Upsetters’ ‘Super Ape’, which was the business from beginning to end, made me a devotee of Perry’s Jamaican ‘Black Ark’ productions, and remains a favourite to this day.  Mixes like thick soup, the sound rolling through layers of distortion, constant unexpected insertions…  But also tunes, riffs, melodies that lodge in your memory.

Within a few years, dub techniques were in common use well beyond reggae.  Plenty to be found on the web about the history of all that, I’m sure.  Just wanted to relive and share that first thrill.

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