Kool Herc

Originating in Jamaica in the early 70s, evolving from ska and reggae, dub music has emerged as a global sound and historical cornerstone for present day hip hop and electronic music. Both can trace their rhythm-driven roots to dub, which in its most simple and literal sense means the remixing of already existing songs.

Osborne Ruddock, aka King Tubby, is credited as dub’ founding father, and he was one of the first to turn the mixing board into an instrument and transform the deejay into an instrumentalist. An electronics engineer, Tubby worked as a master cutter for Treasure Isle Records. While pressing dub plates, he experimented with leaving the vocals out of popular Jamaican songs. Further altering the track, Tubby. would strip down the rhythms and radically emphasize the drum beat and bass line. Though mostly lyric less, sometimes short vocal samples, often from the original, were used along side various sound samples. Tubby played extensively with equalizers, reverb and delay, and he worked his studio mixer and primitive effects devices, many of which he had built himself, as instruments, hitting spring reverb units to interject thunderclaps or sirens as he mixed the track live. What was especially innovative about Tubby’s studio effects was that they were an integral part of the song as opposed to merely audio polish.

Bringing his rhythm-driven experiments to local Kingston dance halls on his sound system, “Home Town Hi-Fi,” Tubby would surprise the crowd by playing the original, known vocal track then play his dub version. The crowds couldn’t believe it and loved it. Playing dub versions of popular songs eventually became a dance hall mainstay, and making dub versions of these vocal hits quickly attracted Jamaican record companies as it allowed them to spin affordable new releases out of the same track. The word dub itself became synonymous with the remixed instrumental b-side of a record.

Reworking a track into a bassy but spacious instrumental gave sound engineers room for experimentation and mcs, which in Jamaica are actually called deejays, something to toast over. Toasting was chatting or rhyming over a mic and is regarded as a precursor to rap music.

By the end of the decade, Jamaican dance halls were filled with dub music. Low, fat bass and heavy-footed rhythms drenched in reverb, peppered with heavily processed sounds continued, and still do, to characterize the music. All are products of Tubby’s early audio experimentations. Numerous other producers and musicians have contributed to dub’s evolution, many of them coming directly out of Tubby’s studio. U-Roy, who worked extensively with Tubby, was one of the firsts to popularize toasting. Lee Scratch Perry, who put out the seminal dub album “Black board Jungle” with Tubby in 73, was influential through his telltale use of eclectic sound samples, often layering barnyard animals, thunder claps and train whistles over dub rhythms. Sound engineers and audio alchemists Prince Jammy, Scientist and Prince Philip all apprenticed with King Tubby.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry Manfred Werner – Tsui, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As dub expanded into the global music stream, it found innovative and rhythm-savvy producers worldwide. In the 80s, Roots Radics and rhythmists Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare would be dub instigators on the international stage. Britain’s Adrian Sherwood brought dub rhythms to the sounds of African Head Charge and Dub Syndicate. Another notable British dub producer Mad Professor, who has released over 100 albums, has done numerous remixes for Sade, Pato Banton and Massive Attack.

In the US, hip hop and deejay culture can trace its roots to dub music and the sounds of the Jamaican dance hall and its sound system culture. Hip hop pioneer Clive Campbell, aka Cool Herc, who moved to the Bronx from Jamaica when he was twelve, revolutionized the inner city dance party as well as the role of the turntable. He developed a technique using two turntables of remixing a track live by alternating back and forth between the instrumental breaks of a song. He would also toast Jamaican style over American R and B records, later leaving the vocals to MC Coke La Rock and Clark Kent with which he formed Kool Herc and the Herculoids.

Dub Poetry in which reggae rhythms provide the backbeat to spoken word also emerged from Jamaica in the mid 70s. Jamaican poet Oku Onuora is credited with coining the term and described a dub poem as having a built-in reggae rhythm. Unlike the improvisational style of Jamaican toasting, dub poetry usually involves pre-prepared material and in some cases is performed with a live band as opposed to deejay. Politically and culturally charged, dub poetry, like toasting and later rap, would offer a far-reaching avenue for the”people’s media,” delivering social commentary and striking discourse within an often disenfranchised and illiterate populous. Jamaica’s Mutaburuka and the UK’s Linton Kwesi

Johnston are two of the most famous dub poets. Toronto is home to a large number of dub poets who have further evolved the form by sometimes mixing it with jazz rhythms. Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph and Ahndri Zhina Maniela are to name a few.

Originally the result of King Tubby’s sonic experimentation, dub music has ended up border less and incredibly influential. Founded upon the rearrangement of pre-recorded music, dub made studio effects and processed sounds an integral part of music production. Sound engineers and studio equipment contribute heavily to the composition and are key to making the sound come alive. Most keenly though dub introduced the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing songs, opening the door to endless possibilities and providing the foundation for urban music and the art of the remix.

by Romina Wendell
Orginally published in

Vancouver Folk Festival Guide 2006