“Mesmerized by the groove state, a snare shot, soaked in digital delay, ricochets into the air above your head, decaying slowly over an insistent, throbbing subsonic bass line that drives deep into your body. Jamaican dub creates a hypnotic beat, building a tension until it breaks…dub is loose.”
Dub has its roots deep in the Jamaican “sound systems” of the ’50s and ’60s and the mobile deejay dance parties. It was cultivated by such luminaries as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Osbourne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock, and Horace Swaby, a.k.a. Augustus Pablo. Dub evolved from the instrumental versions that Kingston producers started issuing circa 1969 as B-sides to vocal releases. The city’s competitive sound system landscape had evolved: no longer did playing exclusive singles yield a sound’s superiority -- dominance was now achieved through the multiple versions of a hit song within a sound system operator’s musical arsenal. Therefore a sound man would typically order several copies of the same record from the label/studio, each with a different mix.
The “versions” (instrumentals) provided room for producers and engineers to add further instrumentation and deejays to toast their lyrics. Jamaican deejays are precursors of rappers; deejays initially chatted their lyrics over instrumental breaks on rhythms played by sound system selectors. The Roland Space Echo was widely used by dub producers in the 1970s to produce echo and delay effects.
Dub exists both as a science and a ritual, the rhythm above all else.
King Tubby During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tubby was responsible for turning dub into an art form, the creative re-mixing he pioneered at a tiny front-room studio in the Waterhouse ghetto making a long-reaching impact. Like his friend and sometime rival, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Tubby was one of a handful of Jamaican visionaries whose innovations not only changed the shape of reggae in unprecedented ways, but which also formed a template for so much contemporary music production, be it in rap and hip-hop, jungle, garage and grime, or various forms of electronic dance music — especially dubstep, the British bastard offspring of Jamaican dub.
Greatly misunderstood, and sometimes under-represented in music literature, King Tubby was not a standard record producer until very late in his life, and his regular occupation was providing transformers to stabilise the electrical current of island businesses and sound systems alike. Nevertheless, the remix culture we take for granted today is largely reliant on Tubby’s ingenuity, the techniques he introduced indelibly changing the way contemporary popular music is made and issued.
Rather than referring to his waistline (which was definitely slim), the nickname ‘Tubby’ stems from his mother’s surname, Tubman. He developed an interest in electronics in his teen years, and studied the subject at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in uptown Kingston, supplementing his knowledge through correspondence courses from the USA.
He began building radios from discarded parts salvaged from business rubbish tips, and soon opened an electrical repair shop at the rear of his mother’s home. In addition to the transformer work he later did at the premises, Tubby began building and servicing amplifiers for local sound systems there, and in 1958 he established one himself, an initially small set known as Hometown Hi-Fi, which played American rhythm and blues music, and only appeared at select local venues in the early days.
Nevertheless, its popularity led to the crowning of King Tubby following a Waterhouse sound clash in the early 60s, and towards the end of that decade, once U Roy became the set’s star toaster, King Tubby’s Hi-Fi shifted gears and moved into the major league. His sound system was also the first to unleash reverb on the general public — a major sonic innovation at the time. Tragically, the sound was destroyed by police in 1975, their hostile actions a terrible affront.
Because so little was documented at the time, King Tubby’s early involvement in music has sometimes been misrepresented. Tubby’s nephew recently clarified that although he maintained equipment at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio during the late 60s, he was not an apprentice engineer or staff dub cutter there, as has often been stated.
Additionally, legend has it that Tubby was present when soundman Rudolph ‘Ruddy’ Redwood had resident engineer Byron Smith mix off some exclusives for his sound system, on which the vocal was inadvertently removed, paving the way for the phenomenon of ‘version’ B-sides, in which previously recorded vocal songs would have their rhythm tracks removed for alternate instrumental versions or toasting deejay cuts — though Tubby once claimed he was the first to do this himself. In either case, Tubby acquired a two-track tape machine which he began using to mix ‘versions’ as exclusive acetates for sound systems.
Things definitely stepped up a notch after Bunny Lee helped Tubby acquire an obsolete MCI mixing desk from Dynamic Sounds in 1971, leading Tubby to turn the front room at 18 Dromilly Avenue into a remix studio, adding delay and reverb to the ‘version’ B-sides he was mixing, thus creating dub as we now know it.
Soon the most important independent record producers with no studios of their own were beating a path to his door, with Niney the Observer, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Keith Hudson, Yabby You and Augustus Pablo being among the most noteworthy to benefit from the Tubby treatment. From 1972, the space was regularly used for the voicing of rhythm tracks as well, though it was not big enough for a full band to record there.
King Tubby was also instrumental in making the dub album a viable format for release, leading to the growing overseas popularity of the form during the mid-70s. Yet, the limited nature of Tubby’s recording equipment has stimulated much debate over the years. An important element of the mixing desk was its high-pass filter, which Tubby used to dynamic effect on many of his greatest dubs.
And it was always a team of engineers that were working there, rather than just Tubby himself. In the early days of his studio, singer Pat Kelly was one of the resident engineers on an on-off basis, but he was replaced by Philip Smart in late 1973; when Smart subsequently migrated to the USA, it led to a temporary return for Kelly, until Prince Jammy came back to Jamaica in early 76 to become Tubby’s right-hand man. Towards the end of the 70s, the young Scientist became another important apprentice, and Peter Chemist and Professor engineered some fine records at Tubby’s in the early 80s too.
King Tubby’s life was cut tragically short on 6 February 1989, the victim of a senseless murder. The unidentified gunman took cash, jewelry, and most notably, Tubby’s licensed firearm, which was probably the reason he was targeted in the first place. Though Tubby’s murder struck a terrible blow for reggae, the music he made is truly immortal. What follows are ten supreme examples of wonderful work to surface from King Tubby’s studio, conceived and mixed by the King himself, along with some of his closest peers.
King Tubby Meets The Upsetters Originally released in 1975, King Tubby Meets The Upsetter At The Grass Roots Of Dub brought together two of the most influential mixing engineers at the time and helped establish dub music to an audience beyond sound system followers. Rightfully acknowledged as the dub clash of the century, Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby went head to head in this classic horn soaked dub conference - bringing their own original flavor to one side of record.
Lee Perry Some call him a genius, others claim he's certifiably insane, a madman. Truth is, he's both, but more importantly, Lee Perry is a towering figure in reggae - a producer, mixer, and songwriter who, along with King Tubby, helped shape the sound of dub and made reggae music such a powerful part of the pop music world.
Along with producing some of the most influential acts (Bob Marley & the Wailers and the Congos to name but two) in reggae history, Perry's approach to production and dub mixing was breathtakingly innovative and audacious - no one else sounds like him - and while many claim that King Tubby invented dub, there are just as many who would argue that no one experimented with it or took it further than did Lee Perry.
Born in the rural Jamaican village of St. Mary's in 1936, Perry began his surrealistic musical odyssey in the late '50s, working with ska man Prince Buster selling records for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Downbeat Sound System. Called "Little" Perry because of his diminutive stature (Perry stands 4'11"), he was soon producing and recording for Dodd at the center of the Jamaican music industry, Studio One.
After a falling out with Dodd (throughout his career, Perry has had a tendency to burn his bridges after he stopped working with someone), Perry went to work at Wirl Records with Joe Gibbs. Perry and Gibbs never really saw eye to eye on anything, and in 1968, Perry left to form his own label, called Upsetter.
Not surprisingly, Perry's first release on Upsetter was a single entitled "People Funny Boy," which was a direct attack upon Gibbs. What is important about the record is that, along with selling extremely well in Jamaica, it was the first Jamaican pop record to use the loping, lazy, bass-driven beat that would soon become identified as the reggae "riddim" and signal the shift from the hyper kinetically upbeat ska to the pulsing, throbbing languor of "roots" reggae.
From this point through the 1970s, Perry released an astonishing amount of work under his name and numerous, extremely creative pseudonyms: Jah Lion, Pipecock Jakxon, Super Ape, the Upsetter, and his most famous nom de plume, Scratch. Many of the singles released during this period were significant Jamaican (and U.K.) hits, instrumental tracks like "The Return of Django," "Clint Eastwood," and "The Vampire," which cemented Perry's growing reputation as a major force in reggae music.
Becoming more and more outrageous in his pronouncements and personal appearance (when it comes to clothing, only Sun Ra can hold a candle to Perry's thrift-store outfits), Perry and his remarkable house band, also named the Upsetters, worked with just about every performer in Jamaica. It was in the early '70s after hearing some of King Tubby's early dub experiments that Perry also became interested in this form of aural manipulation. He quickly released a mind-boggling number of dub releases and eventually, in a fit of creative independence, opened his own studio, Black Ark.
The Black Ark takes on a kind of mythical quality when viewed through the lens of history—the site of a long list of legendary recordings, given an added dose of magic through Perry’s unconventional and sometimes mystical techniques. He employed multi-track recording in a way that few other dub producers didn’t, creating layers upon layers that gave his recordings a frequently impenetrable density.
At other times, there was an ineffable, spiritual quality to his approach, like blowing smoke into microphones, or burying mics beneath the sand at the base of a tree in order to capture an otherworldly bass drum effect. And then there were moments like having a singer “moo” into a cardboard tube wrapped in foil.
That Black Ark burned down in 1979, after being covered in cryptic magic marker scrawl from Perry himself, only adds to the strange legend and mystique of the studio. There are various versions of why the studio went up in flames, but Perry has taken credit for lighting the spark.