Most recently lending its name to a genre that strayed far from its namesake on both sides of the equation (“dubstep”), dub has been infinitely listened to and cited, with its influence stretching from electronic music to punk rock. My first introduction to dub came when an older friend showed me the song “The Guns of Brixton” by the Clash (hypothetical article: an homage to all the older, much-cooler-than-myself friends who have shown me music) in the process of explaining where the ‘dub’ in ‘dubstep’ came from. I quickly recognized in the Clash track the distinctive sound of those infectiously repetitive staccato chords that are a prominent feature of most reggae tracks (in more technical language, this was “a chordal instrument (usually guitar and/or piano) playing starkly on each offbeat eighth note, elaborated by a syncopated “shuffle organ” emphasizing the offbeats in sixteenth-note double time” (Veal 32)). Later, I would also learn that the Clash brought in Lee “Scratch” Perry, one of dub’s (and reggae’s) most famous figures, to produce their single “Complete Control”, and a few years after that brought in another famous dub artist, Mikey Dread, to produce some dubs for their triple album Sandinista!. It was only a few years after this initial exposition that I decided to further explore dub: I took out a book on electronic music from Clark’s library, Modulations: A History of Electronic Music, which included a handy discography at the end of each chapter of recommended albums for all the genres it covered (I’ve since returned this book and I would highly recommend it for anybody interested in electronic music in general, as it has chapters on dub, ambient, krautrock, house, techno, hip-hop, jungle, in other words, all the major electronic music genres prior to 2000, the year of the book’s publication). What I found when I listened to some of these recommended albums was music where elements flew in and quickly oscillated out (often abandoning a single part in total isolation for a few seconds), music I could dance and vibe to but which also seemed to stretch out past the physical immediacy of my dancing. I was starting to catch on to what makes dub interesting. The feelings I got were similar to Michael Veal’s first impressions of the genre, as explained in his book Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae: “It was as if the music was billowing out from the speakers in clouds, dissolving and reconstituting itself before our ears… in alternating snatches, dub seemed to convey the stereotypically optimistic and melodious quality of much Carribean music, the improvisational disposition of jazz, the contemplative dreaminess of pop psychedelia, the ominous undertones of black insurgence, and the futuristic soundscapes of experimental electronic music and science fiction.” (8) All the parts sounded sort of organic, like reggae, but there were far stronger intimations of studio tinkering, elements that couldn’t naturally have been played live by a musician in one take.
Dub, of course, developed out of reggae, as producers engaged in a “remixing” process of sorts that, like most remixing today, was not just a rearranging of parts but also the addition of other aural elements. As I learned more about dub from the book mentioned above, Modulations, I found out that the producers behind dub (to use a cliché now) used the studio as an instrument: “[King] Tubby more or less invented the techniques of “dub” by dropping parts of the rhythm in and out of the mix, using equalization effects and altering the feel of the record with echo, delay, and reverb.” (I’ve lost the exact page number for this… crap) In the same way that Pierre Schaeffer took found and recorded sounds from our natural environment and transformed these into musique concrete with his tape experiments, dub producers took the popular genre of reggae as their source and palette with which to further experiment with the studio. The studio then became more than a place where music was simply recorded as realistically as it was played in real-time. As Veal explains, “Prior to the 1950s… the role of the engineer had nevertheless been widely misunderstood as a purely technical one, concerned mainly with the ostensibly “accurate” translation of musical performances onto a recorded format. This perception began to change with the introduction of multitrack technology…” (36-7). The engineer was/is far more involved in the creative process than was admitted and acknowledged. Subtle choices such as the channel (stereo recordings have two channels: left and right) in which the lead guitar track is in affect the way a piece of music is heard. (now this is just my personal, hypothetical assumption, but without the advent of stereo in the late 60’s, dub surely would/could not have come into existence, at all) Dub allowed the engineer to really flex their creative impulses: “Roots reggae’s unique interplay of density and spareness had set the stage for the texturally and spatially oriented dub, a style in which the Jamaican pop song was electronically deconstructed and reconfigured by a generation of studio engineers who had variously tuned into the potentials of Africa, outer space, nature, psychedelia, and the late modernist machine.” (Veal 34) Dub engineers played around with the feel of the ‘space’ of the recording, creating an aural world that only comes into being through effects (and in a weird way, this ‘space’ does not exist anywhere outside the recording: it exists in the electronics of the machines used, yes, but this seems like a different kind of existence than the existence of, say, the acoustics of a church or the acoustics of a studio. In other words, the ‘acoustics’ of a dub record are not organically ‘found’ anywhere: they are created.). The album that most people are most likely very familiar with that similarly creates an artificial ‘space’ of the recording is Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. (Though I don’t have the space for this here, it would be interesting to dive into the relation between the canonization of this album and of race: specifically, the fact that the white Brit Martin Hannett (producer of Unknown Pleasures) gets far more recognition than the average Jamaican dub producer in introducing artificial/electronic acoustics to popular music, even though many of these dub artists’ finest work far predated Unknown Pleasures) In the next paragraph, I’ll discuss the role of dub in relation to pop music (also, apologies if I’ve been over-relying on Veal: he is just ridiculously quote-able and he says what I want to say but in language that is much much more informed and much more wide-ranging).
Dub producers used the tools in the studio, the post-processing electronic effects on hand, and pushed these past their ‘normal’ limits, which were as lightly applied flourishes to ‘touch’ up tracks. The main three effects that are hallmarks of the genre (as was pointed out above) are echo, delay, and reverb. What producers did with existing reggae tracks was not limited to these effects though; another feature of some dub tracks was the utilization of studio banter that the ‘normal’ producer would discard in the process of polishing and trimming a track. This retaining of studio banter between producer and artist creates an interesting effect: Lee “Scratch” Perry’s track “Khasha Macka” from 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle includes back and forth talk where the producer is heard to be telling the artist in question to “not talk so much”. This exposition of the creation of the track has a similar effect to metafiction that draws attention to itself as fiction and films that break the fourth wall: in other words, there is an awareness of the boundaries of the space of the recording, and these boundaries are broken. The retention of such elements seems to me to be very counter to pop music: where pop presents a seamless, seemingly spontaneous product (which in actuality is heavily edited and mediated), dub does not uphold the same pretension. Adding to the anti-pop-ness of dub is the fact that dub tracks are normally devoid of vocals (unlike, say, reggae). As Veal explains so well: “Ska, rock steady and roots reggae were all, to varying extents, invested in traditional conceptions of race, nation, a linear understanding of history, and a clear distinction between good and evil. The advent of dub subverted these constructs, creating a space in Jamaican music (and later world pop) for the postsong, for linguistic, formal, and symbolic indeterminacy. Nevertheless, dub was very much a reflection of the particular society and historical moment in which it arose.” (Veal 35) Of course, genres are more complex than they seem to be, and dub could be seen as some as not being as politically engaged as reggae. Thankfully, the confluence of punk and dub/reggae (I tend to think that reggae-tinged punk sounds a little hokey) injected a little more sociopolitical awareness into dub (it is difficult to judge how ‘aware’ dub is/was: the absence of more overt and obvious meaning in the form of vocals being a large factor in this). Ok, anyway, I’m meandering now, so time to wrap this up…
So, where does this leave us? If you’ve never listened to dub, hopefully I’ve gotten you sufficiently interested in the genre as a whole that you’ll listen to some albums. And if you’re not interested, don’t worry. I’m only very hurt. Anyways, now, in the tradition of that music book, I present a discography of five (or six) records worth checking out (in no particular order):
Modulations: A History of Electronic Music- edited by Peter Shapiro- Caipirinha (2000)
Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae- by Michael Veal- Wesleyan University Press (2007)
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Article written by: Chris Pirsos ’14 (firstname.lastname@example.org)