Lloyd Bradley: Dubwise Situation

African Dub Chapter Three


The piano chords at the front of the tune are familiar; then, just as something seems to be taking shape, that bizarre organ flourish comes out of nowhere, just off the beat, and breaks your concentration. But three tracks into ‘African Dub Chapter Three’, you aren’t really hearing right, anyway. Different rules seem to apply. The rockers’ drum pattern drives the flute and piano into the biggest horn blast you’ve ever heard, turning it into a brass-fest for a few seconds. Then, as the bass-line builds up underneath, a crisply chopped guitar takes over to duel with organ snatches that seem to be operating in zero gravity. Suddenly it’s all spiralling out of control as echoes spin across the hi-fi speakers, only to be pulled back into relative normality as unnaturally taut bongos dominate, which then pass the baton to a renegade trombone almost immediately.

Then it gets really interesting.

Instruments ease backwards and forwards, in, out and around the mix, completely rebalancing the tune four or five times in the space of a minute. New melodies are shaped out of bits of rhythm that have been stretched and remoulded, whereas melodic sequences have been chopped down so brutally they can be stacked on top of each other to become the rhythm. All the while the echo and phaser units are picking up horn lines and keyboard riffs apparently at random, and the percussion is careening around as if in a pinball machine.

Welcome to ‘Tribesman Rockers’, one of the many high spots of the 1978 dub album, conceived, created and superbly crafted by the Mighty Two, aka studio owner/producer Joe Gibbs and his engineer Errol ‘ET’ Thompson. Just as you’re coming to terms with what’s going on around you, a familiar melody percolates out of the maelstrom. Lord Creator’s ‘Kingston Town’. Somewhat disconcertingly, as it’s not really possible to imagine a song further mutated from what its composer intended it to be – either musically or sociologically – yet still remain recognizable.

But disconcerting is just what it ought to be. To take each element of the tune as separate – the bass, the drums, the horns, the bongos, the keyboards and so on – then set out to refocus the whole piece of work by adjusting, tweaking, bringing forward or pushing back each of them individually until the whole is satisfactorily rebalanced is to reach back to Africa and the practises that came over to Jamaica as obeah.

Obeah Spells - Voodoo House JA

Behind the smoke and mirrors and the waving of chickens are the art’s central planks – the far less photogenic healing ways: homeopathy, herbalism, that sort of thing. It’s an ancient African medicine that splits the body up into seven centres or ‘selves’ – sexual, digestive, heart, brain, etc. – and by prescribing various herbs and potions would, as practitioners always describe it, “bring forward or push back” different centres; remixing, as it were, a person’s physical or mental state into something very different. In other words, obeah could be used to cure a headache, just as it could make the worst grouch love the whole world or set the meekest of souls up to do battle. In the same way, by adjusting the controls at the mixing desk, a tune as bright and breezy (some might say cheesy) as ‘Kingston Town’ can be reinvented as something so edgy and surprising as ‘Tribesman Rockers’.

It’s an odd but suggestive coincidence that the tune pretty much accepted as the first to employ a specially remixed version side – ‘Hard Fighter’ by Little Roy, in 1971 – was reincarnated as ‘Voo-doo’. The connection gets stronger as dub evolves: by the middle of the decade, the crushing bass ‘n’ drum remixes keep us on our toes with such seemingly arbitrary SFX as explosions, crashes, window breaking and big dogs barking, while through the judiciously employed echo some frighteningly large spaces open up quite suddenly beneath our feet. Such offerings, vividly evoking the smoky intensity of Rasta drumming, were almost allegoric, designed to inspire a notion of simmering, meditative righteousness and to strike dread, both literally and figuratively, into the heart of Babylon. Just as obeah used to scare the crap out of the white folks down on the plantation, which is why the drum was banned among Jamaica’s slaves for decades.

Hard Fighter - Voo-doo

However, appropriate and attractive as such theories are, the big part in the evolution of dub is much closer to the twentieth century and concerns modern Jamaica’s inherent resourcefulness. This is a Caribbean island that probably hasn’t seen snow since the ice age, yet sent a creditable bobsleigh team to a Winter Olympics, so there’s nothing Jamaicans can’t do with whatever they happen to have to hand. Take the roadside barbecue pit just off Slipe Road that cooks on half an oil drum, where the customer tables are eight foot electrical-cable spools laid on their sides and the seats are cut from a tree trunk. Or that ‘Cool Runnings’ bobsleigh team, who adapted from racing street vendors’ pushcarts, itself a vehicle essentially remade from other things, with a low loading bed knocked up from salvaged other things, with a low loading bed knocked up from salvaged planking and with modified car steering gear swivelling the front wheels. (The most interesting reuse I ever came across was an awning over a higgler’s patch in Coronation Market which was anchored with a string tied to the centre spline of a car’s gearbox. This was 1993; it’s probably still in service.)

Dub is part of this astonishing capacity for recycling. It involves taking either the recent or ancient past (in reggae terms, six months ago can be prehistoric), and refashioning it to fit the contemporary requirements of the present. Duke Reid and U-Roy did it with a bunch of old rocksteady songs, just as Justin Hinds and the Dominoes re-trod ‘Carry Go Bring Come’ in both ska and rocksteady songs (coincidentally, another Duke Reid production); and Bob Marley wasn’t above redeploying the Wailer’s 1971/72 Lee Perry sessions as late as his 1978 ‘Kaya’ album. You could say it’s part of a national tradition dictated by the fact that, when you can’t afford to throw too much away, things have to be recyclable.

King Tubby - Duke Reid - Lee 'Scratch' Perry

It swiftly became a virtuosity in itself, with sound systems standing proud or flopping not on whether they had a tune or not, but on how many versions of it there were. Indeed, a crisp dub cut could breathe life into a tune that never quite made it first time out, while reworking a rhythm reached a point at which some provenly popular songs were versioned quite literally several hundred times. While this meant that the original producer or soundman could wring every last drop out of a good bit of work, it also meant that rivals could cash in on the action.

But we’re getting in front of ourselves. In order to understand dub properly it’s necessary to go back to the mid-1960s, before Duke Reid was recording U-Roy’s records on top of King Tubby’s rudimentary mixes. What’s back there, and just afterwards, is a remarkable mixture of resourcefulness, political intervention, sharp business practise, unique musical artistry and vision, advancing technology, opportunism, dancehall patron power and sheer dumb luck. It could be the whole history of Jamaican popular music in microcosm. And as you’d expect in such a pertinent summing up, it all kicked off on the sound systems.

[This is an excerpt from Lloyd Bradley’s 2000-published book ‘Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King‘]

‘Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King’ offered as close to a definitive account of Jamaica’s sprawling music scene as is possible, given the often notoriously poor documentation. A revered black music expert, Lloyd Bradley has written for publications including Blues & Soul, Music Week and the NME. His book ‘Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital’ was the first and only to explore Britain’s modern black music as one continuous thread, further archived at his Black Sound exhibition at Brixton’s Black Cultural Archive.

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