Dub music is generally considered a subgenre of reggae, and that is where its roots lie, but it has gone through several periods and a variety of innovative artists so that it no longer seems beholden to any genre. Indeed it has influenced nearly everything it has come into contact with. Musical genres as varied as punk rock, hip hop, trip hop, techno, house, and most subsequent permutations of dance or electronic music have all been imprinted heavily with the heavy sounds and trippy legacy of dub music.
Dub has also become synonymous with an underground or revolutionary stance as well as an afrofuturist aesthetic. William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer spawned the cyberpunk literary movement and coined the term cyberspace. It also introduced a variety of scenes that burned like acid into the brain of anyone who read them. One of those took place on a space station named Zion manned by Rastafarians.
Gibson’s Zion cluster is not really explicitly revolutionary; instead they represent an alternative to the capitalistic cybersociety inhabited by the book’s hero, Case. The music they listen to is identified as dub, and the way it is described makes it unlikely to be anything else.
Like reggae, dub has always identified heavily with cannabis culture, and it may well be the most perfect ‘head’ music there is. Its emphasis on the interplay between drums and bass (‘riddim’) and the extreme emphasis on the bass itself in the mix give the music a deep grounding that allow the time-shifting, mind-bending overlay of reverb, echo, and delay to pull the listener’s attention in different directions.
In many ways dub can seem like primitive, tribal music yet it has always been grounded in technology and in using available technology to create an otherworldly experience. At its most basic in the Jamaican Sound System culture, that meant a turntable, an amplifier and speakers.
The dub artist could manipulate sounds at any of the points of this setup, but that becomes more meaningful when other pieces are added, such as the Roland Space Echo, which began production in 1974, just in time for dub’s initial, golden, age. As technology has advanced so has dub culture, and many dub artists boast sound systems and stage setups that rival the biggest electronic DJs and dance music artists.
Gabre Salassi is the owner of Kingston Dub Club, and on Sundays he presides as Selector (DJ) over Rock Your Soul Sunday, a party of carefully selected classic Jamaican, roots rock reggae and deep dub mixes. He explains some of the different styles of dub mixing in a 2017 Billboard Magazine article:
“There are different approaches to dubbing. For example King Jammy [born Lloyd James] tours the world doing live mixes of his own productions; because he produced the song, he has each instrument recorded separately so he can get more detailed in his mixes; I take the actual recorded material as played on a CD, 7-inch or album track and do what mixes I can, so I do dub mixes as if on a sound system, he does mixes as if in the studio.”Gabre Salassi
Golden Age Dub
The first dub superstar was King Tubby, who was an electronics technician and repairman who built sound systems and speakers for dancehall DJs at his Home Town Hi-Fi shop. In 1968 he was mixing instrumental versions of records for producer Duke Reid, and in 1971 he opened Waterhouse Studio, complete with a four track recorder.
Producers brought him records and master tapes to test these sound systems and King Tubby, became a master of remixing and recreating the tracks through experimentation that treated the console like an instrument. In fact, he was really the first remixer, adding effects like echo and reverb until his recordings were essentially new records of their own. Unfortunately King Tubby was shot dead in 1989 and his family has disavowed the music industry and his musical legacy out of fear.
Augustus Pablo became a big name in dub with the release of his album East of the Nile, and collaborated with King Tubby on the classic King Tubby Meets Uptown Rockers with Augustus Pablo. Pablo’s own sound system, called Rockers, was the first to eschew American soul records as part of their set, going instead with only Jamaican music, chiefly roots rock and ska.
Augustus introduced the melodica to reggae/dub and it became an important part of the music, and his son Addis, a recording artist in his own right, continues to work with the instrument. He’s also a curator of his father’s legacy in the Jamaican music industry: “Dub’s development revolutionized the entire music business, as we see today, and the creativity and spontaneity in my dad’s recordings are pillars of Jamaican music; some go back almost 50 years, which put him at the forefront of dub.”
If King Tubby pretty much defined dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry, an iconoclastic producer and mixer, innovated it in much the way The Beatles innovated rock music. Perry didn’t create dub music, he changed it, redefined it, grew it beyond its boundaries, and in the process he created controversy. Perry called himself The Upsetter and that also became the name of his crew.
Perry arrived on the scene working for producer Coxonne Dodd who was at the forefront of the development of ska as well as producing mainstream reggae acts like Toots and the Maytals. Perry developed a keen ear and participated in the development and dissemination of hybrid forms like dub, dancehall, pop, and modern dubstep.
Though he’s known for his eccentricity and his far-reaching dub experiments, it’s worth remembering that he’s also an amazing record producer with a lot of hits in the reggae field. His production on Junior Mervin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ made it an underground hit in the UK. The Clash covered the song on their 1977 debut as well. Perry then worked to remix the band’s 7″ recording of ‘Complete Control” and a version of “Pressure Drop” that was released later. Ultimately, it’s hard to say what Perry’s overall involvement with these sessions really was, but his name is on the label.
No matter, Perry’s dub work is amazing and in full display on records like From the Secret Laboratory which shows the influence of his work on the UK rock scene. If you want a dose of his more traditional dub work check out the collection Scratch Attack! or Experryments at the Grass Roots of Dub.
Perry was one of the Jamaican creators of dub who moved to working in the UK and working with various acts and producers there. As the 1980s came around there was a decline in interest in dub music in Jamaica. This was precisely the time during which British bands–first punk, but then a variety of pop and rock acts–began to be influenced by the studio sound of dub.
In Jamaica, Scientist, a protege of King Tubby, rose to prominence as a dub artist and producer, taking lead roles at Channel One and later, Tuff Gong studios.
Mad Professor and Jah Shaka became major dub artists in the UK. Mad Professor helped bring dub into the early digital age with his experimental work, and he became a remix producer of choice for British pop acts in the ’90s. A partial list of artists he’s worked with include Sade, The Orb, KLF, Jamiroquai, Rancid, and Depeche Mode. Perhaps most famously he remixed the second Massive Attack album Protection complete, which was released as the dub album No Protection.
Producer Adrian Sherwood with his On-U Sound record label and UK Dub Syndicate recordings further entrenched the ideas and sounds of dub into the ears and minds of British music listeners and musicians.
And let’s not forget Sly & Robbie, the rhythm duo turned production team that has appeared on so many tracks they’ve lost count and who became famous producers and remixers who untilized a lot of Jamaican studio and dancehall techniques, including dub.
Dub Conquers the World
By the mid-90s the DNA of dub music, launched in the dancehalls and record studios of Kingston, Jamaica, was embedded deeply into every form of digital DJ and electronic dance music: dubstep, trip hop, jungle, drum n bass, ambient, you name it.
Dub like remixes of music by musicians from non-Western backgrounds as well as some traditional Western folk musics became a large part of the fusion that is frequently marketed as ‘world music.’ The dub tradition of using only certain lines from the vocal tracks of a song and weighing them heavily with echo, reverb and delay could be used to great effect as another sound in the mix, sometimes stripped of its native meaning.
British artist Jah Wobble and downtown NYC musician Bill Laswell made the aesthetics of dub central to a lot of their work, even that which not explicitly based on dub (and a lot of it is). Laswell has recorded dub series albums as well as a dub version (Illuminated Audio) of Ethiopian singer Gigi’s debut album, which he also produced. Wobble has also had a number of dub projects, but his interest in the form goes back to his work with Public Image Limited, particularly on the second album, Second Edition.
Where to Start
The ideal place to start with music as voluminous as dub is a streaming music service like Spotify, Amazon or Google Music. Start with some of the classic dub masters and work your way around, creating playlists as you go. If you don’t want to start from scratch, there are a lot of good playlists available as well.
Find what you like and take it from there. Don’t be scared of the dub!