A Year of Listening Dangerously (Part II): How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dub by Daniel Letourneau
A Year of Listening Dangerously
Part II: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dub
If you've ever spent a minute swiping left or right on strangers' faces, you've no doubt seen a phrase that sends Sideshow Bob-shivers up my spine: "I listen to everything, except country!"
Issues with modern pop country notwithstanding, I understand it is harder these days to give a straight answer to the question of "what kind of music do you like?". Thanks to the Internet we have incredible, instant access to vast libraries of music, so it’s easier than ever to have personal playlists that jump from tech-metal to Tejano to trip-hop. Even if you are not a connoisseur of the eclectic and strictly a listener of mainstream popular music, styles have transformed in innumerable ways, particularly in last decade or so. Surfing through the radio dial, you might find that country sounds like pop, pop sounds like hip-hop, and hip-hop sounds like EDM. The one-size-fits-most approach to songwriting and production helps ensure that crossover appeal is baked into the major-label chart-toppers. What all this means is that it might be more surprising to hear a specific answer to the question of what kind of music you like than to hear some declaration of genre-agnosticism. It’s the “except” addendum, the motivation to describe oneself by what one dislikes, that bothers me the most about the phrase.
There are always things we don’t like, or think we don't like. Part of my motivation to listen to 1,000 albums was to branch out and challenge myself. Sure, it could have been easy enough to listen to 1,000 ambient albums and call it a year. I'd probably be pretty content with that, and to be fair, I did stay in my lane for a lot of my listening. But I also wanted to use this experiment as a means to explore the unfamiliar to me and the things I avoided.
For about as long as I can remember, I had it in my head that I actively disliked Jamaican music. I'm not sure when or how it happened. Maybe it was hearing “Three Little Birds” one too many times during Shane Victorino’s tenure with the Red Sox, maybe I greened-out while “Welcome to Jamrock” was playing in a college dorm, maybe it was just a long-standing aversion to melodica. Whatever the reason, reggae and its ilk were styles I believed I never "got," and I assumed were not for me. However, reggae’s more experimental offshoot known as dub always seemed like one of those things I should like. Dub’s influence is so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine a lot of my favorite music ever existing if there was no dub. I figured that I owed dub some due diligence, and as part of my regimented listening sessions I set off on a mission to see whether I could get over my issues.
A history of Jamaican music would need to be far more exhaustive than I have room for here, but a bit of background first for the uninitiated. As a musical style, dub has its roots (no pun intended…yet) in a long line of Caribbean music, which stems from African musical traditions spread eastward through the practice of slavery. Going back to the 1950s, roughly the dawn of the modern musical era, the most common form of Jamaican popular music was a folk style called mento. Similar in sound and as a result often confused with calypso, mento and its characteristic off-beat rhythms were the seed for the next few decades of Jamaican popular music. Over the next twenty years, mento would evolve thanks to growing influence of African-American rhythm and blues music. Next in the evolutionary chain was ska, which urbanized the rural mento sound, followed by rocksteady, which slowed down ska tempos and often featured vocal harmonies similar to US soul groups. Reggae filled the Goldilocks Zone between ska and rocksteady, settling on a mid-tempo formula of skanking off-tempo guitar strokes, heavy and melodic bass lines, back-beat drums that emphasized the third beat, and socially conscious lyrics. It was reggae’s increased attention to the drum-and-bass rhythm section that helped led to the development of dub. Savvy DJ’s would take B-side instrumental versions of reggae tracks and play them through their custom designed sound systems, creating the first “remixes” by adjusting volume, filters, and effects on the fly. The idea was to attract locals to your club and keep them there to dance and (more importantly) drink, but the dubs took on popularity of their own. By the early-mid-1970s dub was being committed to record, and in the span of only a few short years the style coalesced with remarkable clarity.
To start understanding the dub sound and where it came from, I first turned to the Trojan Records compilation Jonny Greenwood is the Controller. As a bonafide hip white male, I'm legally obligated to like Radiohead, so seeing the name of their mop-topped mad scientist on a compilation of Jamaican music seemed like a sign that this was a starting point for a rube like me. It helped that this collection is very, very good. It is perhaps a little light on true dub, but serves as a great introduction to the larger world of Jamaican music from the influential British label.
The mix does contain (at least) one complete banger, Marcia Aitken's "I'm Still in Love.” The song itself is a cover of a classic riddim—Jamaican patois for rhythm, but also the name used for songs’ backing tracks—by rocksteady originator Alton Ellis, and is presented here as dub remix that conjoins the original with another rework by Trinity called “Three Piece Suit.” You might also recognize the music as the basis for the cult UK one-hit-wonder “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna, which was a clapback to Trinity before such a thing even existed. That this same backing track would grace three singles, in the same year no less, is not so surprising, as successful riddims would be used over and over, still to this day. In this standout Frankensteined version, Trinity’s nimble dancehall flow over the dubbed out middle section bridges Aitken’s achingly beautiful renditions of the melody. It’s an effective mix that showcases how dub fit in to the past (rocksteady) and future (dancehall) of Jamaican music.
I found that well-curated compilations like Jonny Greenwood is the Controller were incredibly useful for learning about dub. Whether through carelessness, artistic intent, or capitalist subterfuge, there’s seemingly endless variations of dub albums littering music services like Spotify. Often filled with wrong track listings, artwork, or even attributed artists, these half-assed releases can make learning about dub seem like putting together a puzzle with pieces from the wrong box. A good dub compilation helps some to minimize the confusion regarding the who, what, when, and where of recorded dub music. One of my favorites was a record I mentioned as part of my most listened artists for the year, The Revolutionaries’ Drum Sound: More Gems from the Channel One Studios 1974-1980.
Much like American R&B and Soul institutions like Motown’s Funk Brothers or Stax’s Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Jamaican studios often had groups of session musicians on retainer who would be available to cut tracks for whichever artist was recording at the time, and these bands’ instrumental recordings formed the basis of countless dubs. The Revolutionaries were the house band for Channel One Studios and were led by legendary, hyper-prolific Jamaican drummer Sly Dunbar. Living up to the title of the compilation, Dunbar’s drumming mastery is on full display here, but there’s some magic that must exist between the band and the studio, as this eclectic selection of high-quality cuts recorded over the album’s titular time period listens front-to-back like a cohesive album.
The conduits for that magic were the studio engineers and mixers, and in dub these typically behind the scenes roles became elevated to celebrities in their own right. It’s no surprise then that one of the most successful and long-lasting dub artists was a man as comfortable leading a band as he was behind the mixing board. Lee “Scratch” Perry had already produced multiple albums with his band The Upsetters, scoring a minor hit with their instrumental cut “Return of Django” in 1969, before he entered the dub game in 1973 with the album Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. Listening back, it’s remarkable how dub seemed to arrive on record completely formed as a distinct style. You can still hear traces of The Upsetters’ bright, up-tempo instrumental skank, but suddenly everything is murky and bathed in echo. Long stretches of drum and bass run headfirst into swatches of organ and horn sweeping through the stereo field, with Perry’s vocal toasting towering above it all—more Wizard of Oz than man behind the curtain. It’s also remarkable that besides Perry, the other engineering credit on the landmark Blackboard Jungle is the second name synonymous with dub, Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock.
Where Perry was clearly brimming with musical talent, Tubby was an electronics technician by trade, using his skill to create one of Jamaica’s most popular sound systems before bringing his technical wizardry to the studio. Though Tubby was never involved in the writing or recording of the tunes he dubbed, he was time and time again called in to transform master tapes with his custom built mixing desks and effects units, as he did on Blackboard Jungle. Like Brian Eno, Tubby was a magician with recorded sound, I think it shows in the multitude of recordings that bear his name. There is a certain beauty in the way Tubby could could make instruments tumble in and out of mix as if they were being thrown from a moving car, bathed in echo and reverb that he bent to his will. I became mildly obsessed with a marvelous version of the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five” credited to King Tubby which grafts the instantly recognizable 5/4 melody onto a typical 4/4 riddim and features a bit of a lead guitar solo, something atypical of most dub. Then again, Tubby’s productions were often anything but typical, which is why his body of work remains so vital today.
I don’t know that there exists continuing Beatles vs. Stones, Biggie vs Tupac style debates over Lee Perry and King Tubby, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. However, dub didn’t begin and end with only these two figures, and in fact what has been perhaps my favorite dub album, the one that really made it click for me, was Keith Hudson’s Pick a Dub. In the running for the title of first true dub album as part of the same explosive early era as Blackboard Jungle, Hudson’s album has a real capital-A Album quality to it that makes it easy to love and laud. While the whole album is excellent, it was the sublime final track “Depth Charge” that really shook me. The riddim is based on The Four Tops’ “Still Water (Love)”, penned by Motown hitmakers Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson. As such, the tracks share the same cyclical chord progression, but where the original is filled to the brim with typical Motown-era flourishes, Hudson’s arrangement is relaxed and minimal. Guitar chords wash in like waves on the beach before a repeated bass figure attempts to anchor some wildly phasing drums. That description alone isn’t enough to separate it from a hundred other dub tracks, but a little more than a minute in, where the chorus should be, something special happens when out of seemingly nowhere a repeated twinkling piano figure enters the mix. It’s hard to describe how such a simple phrase coursed through me like a drug, but I suddenly heard dub in a different light, and I knew I was completely and irreversibly hooked.
I used to think that reggae was all upstrokes, upstrokes, upstrokes, the same formula for every song, and not much else. I would never have thought to say that I “liked everything, except reggae,” but it was truthfully a genre I had given up on. Once that unexpected bouncing, arpeggiated piano line came out of left field and made its way to my ears, I felt like I stopped hearing the “sameness” of reggae and dub and started listening for the differences. It was in those differences that I became reminded of other work I loved. In the horns of The Revolutionaries’ “Dunkirk,” I heard the wiggly sax lines of Ethiopian jazz like Gétatchèw Mèkurya. In the chintzy drum machine of The Upsetters’ “Revolution Dub,” I heard the murky fidelity funk of Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In the psychedelic swirls of rhythms and sound effects throughout Joe Gibbs’ “Jubilation Dub,” I heard Animal Collective’s kaleidoscopic sound palette. In Scientist’s brilliant use of test tones as punctuation in “Dance of the Vampires,” I heard the signature air horn scattered throughout J. Dilla’s Donuts (not to mention some seriously Roky Erickson-ass track titles).
After dub finally clicked with me, I even started dipping my toe into other Jamaican music. While there is a noticeable dearth of women dub mixers, I latched onto albums by reggae performers like Susan Cadogan and Marcia Griffiths. Dub producer Prince Jammy’s genre-defining digital-dancehall smash “Under Me Sleng Teng” with Wayne Smith became a regular staple of party playlists, and I could crush the pronunciation of Yellowman’s “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng.” I had become a fan.
At some point during the resulting rush to find and consume all manner of dub records, I came across the album Dub Terror Exhaust, by a group called Automaton. The group was a project helmed by experimental bassist and producer Bill Laswell, and for this album featured turntablist DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller). It was the kind of album I might’ve discovered through the work of those two artists, being familiar with Laswell’s extensive experimental pedigree and having read DJ Spooky’s excellent Sound Unbound. Instead, I arrived there because the man credited with drums on the album is—who else—Sly Dunbar.
On standout track "The Terran Invasion Of Alpha Centaurai Year 2794,” DJ Spooky lays down atmospheric sounds of planes passing overhead with a drifting piano line that sounds like strains of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies, before Laswell's bass and Dunbar's drums come in, drawing an arrow-straight line from dub to trip-hop, one of the many styles indebted to dub’s innovations. Though the record rides in the sort of ambient electronica orbit that I probably would have enjoyed as much 5 years ago, the reality of dub's history was fresh in my mind as I listened to it now, and I needn't jump to something intermediary like The Orb as a frame of reference, but the original creators who came up with the grooves and studio mixing techniques that revolutionized music history from a tiny Caribbean island. You could say I had finally reached the roots of the matter. Pun intended.
Click the link below for a playlist:
Because I raised such a stink earlier about the accuracy of credits in dub (“these half-assed releases can make learning about dub seem like putting together a puzzle with pieces from the wrong box” was my hot take), I’d like to offer the following corrections to the accompanying Spotify playlist. Spotify as a service makes it easy for me to present this music, but obviously falls prey to misinformation and offers menial support to artists, so always remember to take your streaming with a grain of salt.
Despite my best efforts, I can’t track down the exact origin of “Dub Take Five”. There is a different version that exists on some other releases (King Tubby’s Declaration of Dub, the Bunny Lee and Aggrovators co-billed Bionic Dub), but this version seems to only be on this sketchy Spotify release. I considered not including it for this reason, but it's such a jam I couldn’t help it.
“Dance of the Vampires” is credited to Roots Radic, and the album is listed as Junjo Presents: The Evil Curse of the Vampire. While Roots Radic are the performers and Henry "Junjo" Lawes is the producer, this version completely omits Scientist, who mixed the album and was originally credited with its release as Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampire. The altered credits are a result of some legal disputes over the album’s use in the Grand Theft Auto III soundtrack.
“256K Ram” is credited to Wayne Smith. These are dubs from the same sessions that resulted in Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng”, but the Computerized Dub album should be credited to Prince Jammy.