“Anyone who’s got a bassline in their music, that’s dub.” – Congo Natty
Rewind the history of modern dance music and you’ll end up at Dub. Breakbeat, Drum and Bass, UK Garage, Dubstep, Jungle, Hip-Hop, even Punk – the Dub sound echoes and reverbs through all these genres. But what exactly is it?
The story begins in 1940s Jamaica, with the emergence of sound system culture. Reggae vinyls were played on enormous, custom-built sound systems that could be heard several miles away from the biggest street venues. A few key players like King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (considered the fathers of Dub music) began experimenting with these reggae instrumentals on the mixing desk in the early 70’s: adding reverb to snare hits; isolating the baseline; manipulating vocals from other vinyl records. All was done in the atmosphere of live performance, with twisting of knobs and pushing of faders as the component tracks of the song played across the many channels of the dub engineer’s weapon of choice: the mixing desk. It was the birth of sampling. The engineer had become the artist.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry was the antithesis of “all the gear, no idea”. Whether it be kicking a garbage can in the corner of the studio every fourth beat of a bar, or recording a herd of cows just a few hundred metres away from the recording desk, he achieved hero status for using unconventional techniques to achieve whatever sound he wanted.
The Dub sound was simple: A re-engineered record coupled with a strong bassline and experimental drum beats.
“Dub” versions of popular tracks were produced on acetate “dubplates” (a term you’ll often hear artists use when referring to coveted exclusives and special versions of tracks) and, because of a lack of copyright law in Jamaica, they exploded in the 70’s and 80’s. The dub revolution was matched by the rise of the Deejay (DJ) who would “toast” over the dub instrumental, voicing political issues, community hardship, and a connection with Jah. It was this technique that helped establish the vocals of hip hop and rap music in the US, and later, grime in the UK.
The first wave of Jamaican immigrants brought the dub sound to London, germinating and finding its way into Punk and Rock. Perry even worked with the Clash, on their album Sandinista.
At first, the dub scene went underground. Most of the original artists and producers lived in London but their music was played throughout the rest of Europe. Slowly, the bass tradition of Jamaica was nurtured and developed in West Indian communities such as Brixton, Croydon and many others across the UK. In the diaspora, it still carried a rawness, a sense of defiance towards authority, and a weighty bass that would shake to your core.
Beyond these styles, the case can be made that all dance music owes its existence to dub. Many things enshrined in dance music culture carry the life-blood of dub: the idea of dancing to pre-recorded instrumentals; the role of the DJ and MC, dubplates, soundclashes, sound systems, rewinds, versioning; the use of effects; big, melodic basslines – all can be traced to one Caribbean island.
More profoundly, the message of dub lives today through dance music. Unification of people, regardless of class, colour, or creed. The power to move; to stop you in your tracks. Messages of social change, and the power of an individual experience.
Lift Up is coming to Fez Club Cambridge on April 25th to give you a firsthand taste of Dub culture. From dub to the many genres born of it, all on one of Europe’s finest sound systems. For more details visit https://www.facebook.com/events/2030235740615385/