King Tubby: The Roots of Dub/Dub from the Roots

Those currently basking in the sumptuous delights of the incredible Rhythm & Sound recordings will find much to enjoy in these reissues of mid-70s recordings by Dub legend Osbourne Ruddock aka King Tubby. Of course the digital production methods used by Berlin producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald are light years removed from those pioneered by collaborators King Tubby (engineer/mixer) and Bunny Lee (producer). Yet it would be no exaggeration to state that the Berlin duo's work is indelibly rooted in the work of these Jamaican forebears; it would be even more accurate to note King Tubby's massive influence upon the entire rosters of the Chain Reaction and ~scape labels. Certainly recorded works by the likes of Pole, Vladislav Delay, and Monolake tesify to the profound impact dub has had upon the innumerable tributaries of electronic music. (Of course, interest in dub did not just emerge in the electronica era; bands like PIL and The Clash expressed enthusiastic affection for reggae and dub, so much so that the latter devoted the third album of Sandanista to dub versions of album tracks.) Naturally, there are stylistic differences which mark each artist's dub style. Ernestus and von Oswald's Rhythm & Sound recordings are so tastefully restrained and meticulously conceived that each snare hit or echo resonates with maximum significance; King Tubby's joyous dubs, on the other hand, are effusive, bold, and extroverted, more informal and casual by comparison.

Born in 1941, Tubby worked as a disc cutter for Treasure Isle label head Duke Reid. In 1968, Tubby created a remix version of the Techniques' “You Don't Care” where he removed the vocals and, encouraged by its success, went on to do the same with other Treasure Isle songs. On Saturday nights, he showcased his remixes to delighted audiences using his Hometown HiFi sound system, transforming the dubs even more using echo and reverb. Later performances took the concept further with U Roy toasting over Tubby's dubs in a manner that obviously pinpoints dub as a key precursor to DJ and rap styles. Dub's signature traitsódropped vocals, isolated instruments, and echo, reverb, and delayówere fully developed in Tubby's little studio at 18 Bromilly Avenue in Waterhouse, a Kingston district in Jamaica. By 1972, his acquisition of a two-track tape machine mixer and later a four-track mixing board enabled him to work with producers like Lee Perry and Bunny Lee. Sadly, walking home from his Firehouse studio in Waterhouse on the morning of February 6th, 1989 , Tubby was murdered by a lone gunman who has never been identified nor arrested for the crime.

We are accustomed to think of dub as a style of ancient vintage but in fact the first dub album, Blackboard Jungle by Lee Perry, was released in 1973 and therefore predates the Tubby releases, with The Roots of Dub appearing in 1974 and Dub from the Roots following six months later. The opener “Natty Dub” immediately demonstrates how Tubby elastically shapes his tracks. He smothers the song's propulsive, skanky drum and bass rhythm with waves of cavernous echo and aquatic effects, making it sound as if it was recorded underwater. The laid-back pace of Jamaican lifestyle is belied throughout by the inspired, energized quality of the musicians' playing. The instrumental foundation of bass, drums, rhythm guitar, and piano is occasionally joined by bluesy guitar and organ (“Rude Boy Dub”), saxophones (“Roots of Dub”), horn sections (“The Immortal Dub,” “Dub From the Roots”), and synthesizers (“Hijack the Barber”). Of the two recordings, Dub from the Roots has an instrumentally fuller sound with horns fleshing out the more skeletal style heard on The Roots of Dub but the overall mood of both recordings is jubilant and celebratory. Adding to the recordings' charm is the occasional ghost-like trace of the vocalist (“The Stepping Dub” and “Dub Experience”) whose voice can be heard bleeding in the studio into the other microphones.

For dub lovers, these recordings are essential. Certainly they're of significant historical importance but the tracks are hardly lifeless relics. On the contrary, the passion that bursts forth from these grooves enables the music to come fully alive three decades later. Admittedly, twenty-six tracks spread over eighty minutes may prove too much for even hard-core dub fanatics, making one occasionally long to hear the originating vocal versions. Still, the music (as on “Mine Field” and “Stealin',” for instance) generally exudes an irrepressible joyfulness that's palpable. I dare anyone, for example, to hear “Roots of Dub” and not be enraptured by the siren call of its irresistible saxophones. Adding to the historical dimension of the recordings is the fact that these aren't generic dubs churned out by some faceless group of session musicians. Instead, the tracks are performed by legends like Robbie Shakespeare, Chinna Smith, Augustus Pablo, and Carlton and Aston Barrett, many of whom deservedly gained fame playing for reggae superstars like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The Tubby sessions offer those familiar with Carlton Barret's impeccable drumming as a Wailer to hear him in a different setting where his immediately identifiable playing is at the forefront (“A First Class Dub”). How wonderful it is, then, that Tubby's dubs place the musicians fully in the spotlight as opposed to relegating them to backup roles. A key question remains, however. As Tubby wasn't a musician but an engineer, why do we accredit him as the artist behind these recordings and not producer Bunny Lee or the band? Because the songs were 'completed' by him. As they were being recorded, Tubby shaped the music into its final form, using the musicians' playing as raw material that he transformed using a broad and personalized palette of techniques. As such, it's easy to see Tubby as a key progenitor of current remix methodologies and DJ practices with their heavy reliance on reverb and echo effects and mixers.

October 2003