Heavy Heavy Stuff - and this ain't no bluff!

by Bill Dew

Reggae music, among many other things, serves as an inexhaustable reservatory for apt precepts and pithy aphorisms. Packing up your troubles in a skengdon bag? The everyday runnings in hot pursuit? Driven to distraction by that ‘leaky roof’? Chances are that some sufferer has concisely and precisely voiced your concerns, in the insouciant, offhand process of voicing a rhythm.

"Something’s on my mind - I’ve got to tell everyone!" These lines, couched in the electrifying vibratiuncle of Mr and Mrs Hinds’s one son Horace, just about carry the swing where my mood is concerned. There’s something fishy afoot in the groves of rock academe; an insidious campaign every bit as cynical as the great ‘world music’ car boot sale of the 1980’s.

Having exhausted (!) the global village groove to which we were all supposedly attuned, the egghead tendency now take the name of the dub in vain, flinging left and right their fatuous references to a dub sensibility. Reggae has weathered the storm of critical adulation on a number of previous occasions, of course, its unassuming phalanx shifting uncomfortably in the spotlight. What seems to set this current trend apart is the attempt being made to spice the ingustible pop soup with the fire and brimstone of dub, as though this most intensely devotional music were just another ingredient for the melting pot. Horse is horse and arse is arse, as I would say - and never the twain shall meet! The 'word’ has been dulled and deadened by inappropriate overuse of late, and the accompanying ‘sound and power’ look depressingly likely to follow suit.

Clearly, the collective critical faculty has been clouded by the anaesthesia of Ambience. Swamped by the seeming preponderance of near instrumental, non-narrative music (sorry, musics!), our desperate scribes have been scraping the barrel for adjectives. How else to transcribe the 57 varieties of bleep, beat and burp that constitute Techno, than by plundering the dub store?

In the dizzy, abstracted parlance of nowadays, the term can signify anything from a freestyle workout by the sons of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to a bald backing track tacked onto the dying grooves of a desultory dance 12". The Face have been plugging a vague notion of dub in their trite lists of ‘ins and outs’ since the dawn of the decade, without devoting a scrap of serious coverage to the burgeoning UK scene, much less attempting to place the form in cultural context. Reducing a phenomenon to the level of a glossy photo-spread duly discharges a duty, but reeks of’ the coffee-table journalism that is The Face’s stock-in-trade. Like most pinnacles of Black culture, dub seems in perpetual descent between two stools; either snubbed and marginalised by the mainstream, or plucked periodically from relative obscurity to be gold-plated with all manner of infelicitous misreadings.

Confusion lies at the heart of the beast. Implicit in even The Wire’s astute coverage is the perception of dub as a self-contained musical form, zapped down from on high in digestible, album-length pieces. Engendered, no doubt, by the innumerable Trojan and Heartbeat reissues, this simplistic view fails to take into account the economic stringencies of Jamaican commerce, and the pivotal role played by the UK sound system fraternity (of which more later).

The tangled roots of dub have been exhaustively chronicled by the likes of Trojan’s Steve Barrow, and it is now common knowledge that King Tubby’s two-track engineering experiments gave birth to the form. With the vocal part already riding a separate track to the instrumentation, a rhythm could be stripped to the raw bone, the harmonies slotted in and out at the opportune moment and to maximum effect. These acetate pressings soon transcended their humble origins as engineering tests, and became the first dub plates when dropped on the unsuspecting crowd at Clement Dodd’s Downbeat dances. The finely judged interplay of sweet vocalistics and the fulsome flurry of bass and drum, dipped fleetingly in reservoirs of reverb and echo, caused an absolute sensation!

For the first time, sounds no longer relied upon American R&B imports, their titles cunningly obscured to maintain exclusivity. The major sounds now controlled home-grown remixes on slate, customised direct from the studio. This practice continued well into the 1980’s, both here and in JA, although the ever-accelerating turnover from pre-release to more widely available disco has rather obviated the need for impropriation.

By means both fair and foul, rhythms would change hands between producers and soundmen at a bewildering rate, leading to a blanket radio ban on dub in the early 1970’s. Musicians, denied the official profit from pirated sessions but dependent nonetheless upon the paltry fees, seemed almost to take the ambivalent stance of sleeping partners in the cut-throat roughneck business. (Grudges are borne to this day, however with Coxsone and Joe Gibbs jointly awarded the dubious honour of the Plastic Smile.) The producers of the day were quick to capitalise. on this innovation, backing each release with a reassembled ‘version’ intended for live vocal interpolation at the dance.

While Western fortunes were lavished upon studio facilities and creativity-enhancing opiates, a handful of Jamaicans were turning the pop aesthetic inside out by priming conventional song structures with unexpected and audacious dynamics. The case for invention borne of bitter necessity cannot be stated here too clearly: even now, the relatively unsophisticated treatment meted out to D. Brown material by Winston ‘Niney' Holness sends a shiver down the spine! By the simple expedient of restraining the bass and allowing the tension to percolate through the membranous instrumental substrata, the emotional charge of a simple tune could be boosted immeasurably.

This phantasmagoria of sound, a music without precedent despite its rocksteady roots, was at once alien and familiar. In time, the gradational washes of echo trickling between the steady riffing were darkened further by submarine bleeps, revving motorcycles and all manner of outlandish sound effects. Junior Tucker’s reading of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Look Into Your Heart' (Top Ranking), for example, incorporated the grating sonority of an iron foundry in dub form. The infernal clanking was entirely at odds with the rather cloying rhythm, but discord and dat chord meshed organically after a few plays.

That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of a good dub - the manipulations mold themselves so closely that they become integral to (and inseperable from) the logic of the original tune.

The music has undergone a popular renaissance in the last decade or so. Not only have the likes of Pablo and Yabby U seen the economic sense in reissuing enormous tracts of back catalogue, but the racks are also full to overflowing with compendiums annonated with little respect for contextual coherence or chronology. Considering the torturous lineage of a much-versioned tune, and the infinite potential therein for recycling and adaptation by vocalists, DJ’s and engineers, a Pete Frame style ‘family tree’ could comfortably be compiled for each dub set.

A trawl through an unfamiliar collection can net the sweetest surprise, but most, in truth, contain a surfeit of lacklustre material. For a music capable of transporting the listener through time and space, these sessions can be pedestrian enough, and the intrepid dub excursionist should be prepared to wade through the mire in search of priceless booty.

Any critique of the form, however is inevitably built on the sinking sands. To furnish the reader as I have attempted overleaf, with a list of classic sides may be moderately instructive, but rather takes the shadow for the substance. There is a limit to the secrets yielded by even the most comprehensive record collection. Dub is the ultimate studio music: it exists on vinyl, but only lives and breathes in the natural habitat of the dance!

Perhaps with the passion of remembrance, perhaps in the hankering after a time when music had the power to change lives, or perhaps with the sense of wonderment that an ‘outsider’ brings to events beyond his immediate grasp: my narrow provincial worldview seemed to expand 360 degrees when first I stepped into the dance.

Croydon’s Mighty Observer had gone some way toward preparing me for the aural assault in the unlikely setting of Bournemouth Town Hall - the subsonic rumble and the soaring topline like a jet disengaging from the runway, the lethal arsenal of incendiary effects and the disembodied cries of African ancestry clogging the ether. I had chanced upon the tail end of a phenomenon in transition, and the humble collection of steamy, smokey Jamaican exotica that I had struggled to amass up to that point now made perfect terrifying sense. I was hooked!

The atmosphere at the People’s Club in Paddington was even more intense, if anything. Sir Coxsone Hi-Fi rocked the crowd in fine style, as impossibly beautiful women from the Black diaspora dispensed lucozade and hallucinogenic beer from their post behind an iron grille. I’ve been able to trace many a vital selection from those glorious sessions in the intervening years - roots smoochers like Freddie McGregor’s sublime ‘Jogging', incredibly vibrant love songs like Delroy Wilson's 'That's The Way Nature Planned It' and cut after cut to ‘Rockers Tambourine’ - but certain tunes are lost to antiquity. Furthermore, the finest music remains lodged in dusty sound boxes, locked in the scratchy-scratchy bakelite grooves of countless ‘special' slates.

I am not, perhaps, yer typical white devotee of the form, I attend but a handful of dances a year now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The profound religious fundamentalism that inspires the music (and which is, in some cases, inspired by it) does not escape me; I choose, rather to draw a discreet veil over the cod-spirituality. I would sooner consult with ‘big people’ than look to an indifferent music press to fill the chasms in my musical knowledge (despite having long since come to man's estate myself). Position me in a second-hand vinyl graveyard with a few crispies in my pocket and I’m as happy as the proverbial pig in shaving cream, but drag me under the strip-lighting of a trendy disque-boutique and the clinkies will need to be surgically removed from my palm. Inhale? Hell, I don’t even smoke!

It pains me to think of reggae purely in terms of ‘revival’, although many a soundman and record-shack proprietor have made a tidy sum from trading under the nostalgic flag of convenience. The exorbitant prices charged on the collector’s market for old-time music ensure that the sounds that raised the consciousness of a generation will go cruelly overlooked, and the hapless punter of today is left to the abstracted mercies of the CD pirate and the harbour shark.

Were music possessing an ounce of this intelligence and spirit being produced now with any regularity, then the trite and tested could, perhaps, be overlooked. With the US and JA locked in mutual parasitism (swingbeat mixes - I ask you!), and the golden oldies of Studio 1 bombed into the stone-age by insensitive and grasping producers, many hoping to rekindle the flame have been looking closer to home,

Loath as I am to criticise Jah Shaka, a man of grave conviction who has done more to promote the music as a galvanising social force than any other, his regular sessions are now endurance courses. The dance is seen merely as a rootsier adjunct to the orbital rave, a grotesque misnomer borne out by the pitiful turnout at an excellent Donette Forte gig I once offended, just days after queuing round the block for Shaka in the company of several student unions. Neither Shaka nor Aba Shanti-l would consider themselves to be peddlers of 'revival'. They cram each session with modern cuts created using modern studio techniques, and their agenda seeks to give an impeccably modern reading of fundamental truths and rights. And yet, as another dubplate hits the deck and a wearying set of weedy melodic cliches are once more trotted out, it is difficult to imagine a music less likely to ignite fervour or herald transcendence.

White students are not the most discriminating of audiences, and the self-delusion of snake-oil salvation offered by a culture reduced to stylistic shorthand is no more harmful than that offered by rave, or heavy metal. A realignment of expectation is called for, sadly.

The advances in technology have not been kind to reggae. The re-creation of Dub as a stand-alone genre has bought about a musical de-evolution, with tunes assembled from scratch in the studio. Gone is the collaborative vibe, the heady interaction of Players of Instrument and the extraordinary build-up of pure sound behind the mix which slithered, thrillingly, like aural electric eels through the dubmaster’s net. Modern-day, ‘digikal’ roots are constructed outside in, encasing the void in layers of musical papier-mache before deflating the balloon within.

The times are dread, and the heady air of peaceful militancy engendered by the music of the mid 70's is in perilously short supply. Reggae culture (as opposed to the mediated Ragga variant) thrives traditionally on adversity and hardship. It remains the most potent and rigorous medium for the expression of class frustration, anguish, pride, solidarity, peace and love, and does not sit comfortably in the glare of widespread adulation. When the media party is over; who’s gonna take the weight - and does there remain anyone capable of providing the soundtrack?




The unprecedented mainstream acceptance of dancehall mores in this time may have shaken the Jamaican snowstorm, but the Babylonian system of patronage that smiles beneficently upon the massed Ranks and Bantons will, eventually, find new playthings. For every DJ don and slackness supa enjoying fleeting fame, a hundred wanabees wait in the wings. Right now, however, it’s the solid steppers and fluid fantasias of a bygone age that rule the nation. While the NME deliberate over the amount of ‘ink’ to allow on the page, let’s dash away our malice and prepare to scrub a dub, tip a tone and bruk some bone - with version galore by the score....

Jubilation Dub - from African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 3’ (Joe Gibbs LP)
Unquestionably the hardest cut on this effects-laden analecta. The terrible majesty of this version dwarfs the original vocal cut (Dennis Brown’s 'Repatriation’) - a nightmarish soundtrack to an imaginary trawl through a garishly lit urban hell. As The Mighty Two crank the tension up to breaking point, a solitary keening synth note pierces the rhythm like a speeding siren at the edge of danger. Truly, a hair-raising experience!

Cool Vibration b/w Dub Vibration - Fazall Pendergass (High Music pre)
A lithe, languid instrumental from Chinna’s consistently worthwhile imprint. Aching, heart-breaking minor chords chime lazily behind Fazell’s melancholy blues lick, and both are treated to a sublime process of truncation and dilatation on the flip. An opulent, shimmering vista, drawn miraculously from a limited palate.

Champion Of The Arena - Jackie Mlttoo (Jackpot LP)
A schizophrenic platter from Striker Lee, Side Two comprising of dry, formulaic work-outs in the cheesy ‘reggaematic’ style. Side One, however, features five peerless instrumentals from the late, great organist. Ever been woken from a fitful reverie by the late-night screening of a swinging ‘60’s sinting? This is the perfect warped accompaniment; down at heel and slightly sinister, like Soho viewed through a glass darkly. The title track Is a martial cut to Johnny Clarke’s 'In The Arena’, and the definitive ‘Drum Song’ Is also included.

Tonight - Horace Andy (Stars 12")
The dub section alone appears on the excellent ‘Bim Sherman Meets Horace Andy and U-Black’ set (Sky Juice), but here Horace raises the tone of the John Holt standard to the level of Greek tragedy. Blue is already the mood of this crisp but stately rocker, but wait until the swirling keyboard and percussion drop away to leave the vocal vulnerable and exposed! This heralds an emotional tour-do-force, in which the darker tones previously hinted at surge freely to the fore. Music of tremendous dignity and restraint.

California/By Night Dub - Keith Hudson (Cash & Carry LP track)
A lengthy extrapolation of the classic ‘Darkest Night’ pre (Spur), this eerie evocation saw the light of day on a white label dub set circa 1978. The true-born Jamaican genius interlaces this unsettling epic with slinkily snaking congas, and an off-key girlie chorus that works against all odds. At one highly alarming point, the coiled congas leap right out of the speakers, delivering a wordless message of death to the unwary motorist. Phew! Night-time driving will never be the same again.

Sir D. Special - Roland Alphonso & Brentford All Stars (Studio 1 12")
That’s Brentford Road, Kingston, rather than the home of popular hosiery! Tough but tender, this exquisite, lilting sax spectacular is powered by the booming bass and percussive splash that are Coxsone’s hallmarks. Thrill as the dub dovetails in, bass first, with stentorian horns bringing up the rear. Swoon as Roland enters the fray once more, a mournful, almost feminine counterpoint to the old school rude boy lean. Musicianship of this order Is comparable to that of Duke Ellington or the JBs, and we'll probably never hear its like again.

National Front - Sufferer Sound (Tempus 12")
A delightfully, distinctively British cut from a label most commonly associated with Dennis Bovell. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that Blackbeard had a hand in this production, a very loose rendering of ‘Norwegian Wood’ positively brimming over with idiosyncratic flourishes. The dub spotlight glances off the melody, extending and accentuating certain key notes by accident and design before imploding, 'transformer’ style, in an ecstatic liquid rush of stellar phase effects. Can nobody mix dub like this anymore?


This article originally appeared in issue 6 of Ego, 1995