Dread Beat And Blood - The DNA of Dub

With Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee and Denis Bovell
Black Ark studio
When the Jamaicans evoked their mutations of dub in 1968, little did they know that their advances in studio technology and revolutionary tinkering would coerce so many subsequent music genres.

From western rock’s adoption of Lee Perry’s maverick mixing desk manoeuvres, house music’s espousal of Tubby’s remix ethos or the low-end obsession in sound-system culture that would fuel the UK’s hunger for bass culture that’d spawn jungle, garage, dubstep and beyond, dub’s influence carries far.

Tracking down dub pioneers Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee and Denis Bovell, Clash traces the links and hears the feuds that still rumble on under the echo of their bass.

Clash is let into a council flat on the first floor of a red brick tenement on Battersea Bridge Road, one mile from the richest area in London. Inside is a dilapidated series of rooms, the main one adapted from a 4 x 4 living room into a bedroom, the bed unmade, and the walls covered in photos of grinning black school kids and a dazed-looking man stood in front of a pile of speakers. On the bed, looking dishevelled and distinctly un-star-like sits Bunny Lee. He is wearing an oversized American football top and shorts, his ash grey hair kept in place by a sea captain’s hat which he puts on for photographs. He is unwilling to answer any questions; it takes him forty minutes and a phone call to his biographer to convince him.

Tappa Zukie walks in, just like that, and explains: “The Englishman want everything for themself. What we need to talk about is how everyone is trying to take away the reggae from us. The Englishman dem try and take it away from us, and they treat it better so we try and hand it over without them even trying to steal it.”

The poverty of Bunny, one of the handful of men who invented dub, is living proof of Tappa Zukie’s statement. Clash tells them that they would help introduce dub music to a wider audience, Clash’s audience. “We’ve been introducing the music to you for forty years,” says Lee tiredly, his grey football top riding up above his stretch-marked brown belly as he leans back and makes another call.

Dub music began in 1968 when, during a recording session at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studio in Kingston, the engineer forgot to put the vocal on a track. This instrumental version was very soon after played at another sound system operator’s dance, teasing a new excitement out of the crowd that spurred Bunny Lee, who was present for that fateful mistake, to coin the concept of the instrumental B-side.

Lee goes on to explain how King Tubby developed on the mistake: “Now Tubbs take it a step further. Soon after he play at a big party [with his sound system Hometown HiFi]. Tubbs start off with a Slim Smith tune, ‘Me Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ and he start with the vocal part, and then him drop it out and lick in the pure riddim. Then him drop in part of de voice once more.”

So much has been written about dub music, about the deep effects it creates, that it is better to leave descriptions to another man. As critic Mark Fisher had it: “Dub works through hints, suggestions and feints: [which] function not as teases but as positive deviations from both climax and idling on the spot...Desire is neither engorgement nor emaciation, but...how to get the right amount you need to keep moving.”

Every producer of the golden era of dub had his trademark: Joe Gibbs and his studio partner Errol Thompson pioneered the delay echo; Lee Perry was the king of the fazer, that rustling, ‘wet’ sound you can hear in his roughshod dub; Bunny Lee was the creator of the jarring cymbal, like sheet metal being struck; and King Tubby was the master of the ‘double exposure’, a fixing of bass and treble frequencies that allowed them to both play in clean equilibrium.

This was the sound of Jamaica, a Jamaica that, if it wasn’t for UK demand, would never have had its dub exported further, whatever Tappa Zukie says. It was label men like Chips Richards and Lee Gopthal that in the early 1970s would encourage Jamaican artists to tack together collections of instrumental B-sides and dubbed ‘versions’ to fuel the hunger for the UK market of (as a contemporary Adrian Sherwood describes to Clash) “people sitting at home, listening to wacked-out dub stuff smoking weed.”

Dennis Bovell had created possibly the first UK dub ‘tune’, aged sixteen in 1969, in a bell tower opposite Wandsworth Prison. He used a quarter-inch tape loop and a recording of his teacher playing ‘Guantanamera’ on flute. Bovell’s troubled history with racism in the UK [he was targeted and wrongfully convicted for inciting an affray in 1974] didn’t stop him from forming fruitful cross-alliances between punk and post-punk and dub music from Jamaica. He was an avid fan of King Tubby - creating pure dub LPs as Blackbeard that aped his mentioned ‘double-exposure’ technique - whilst simultaneously using dub as a foil to one of the most unique voices in UK punk: Ari Up’s.

Up’s love of reggae music has been well documented, and Bovell tells me how on tracks like ‘New Town’ he would balance Ari’s quaver with deep bass. At the same time he would implement styles of ‘musique concrète’ into his dub production - ‘New Town’ was partly about heroin, so he would - in order - tap an ashtray with a spoon, shuffle a box of matches, then strike a match. Bovell also created dub music for Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry, and would explain to Clash how Johnson’s poetry books would be the first written dub: “In one of his books the first three pages would read ‘blood, blood, blood’, just written again and again. The next three pages would be just ‘fire, fire, fire’. Then it occurred to me that he was actually writing in dub, using the same echoes as in the music.”

While Bovell was adapting punk into dub, elsewhere in the UK Adrian Sherwood and his On-U sound brought Jamaica smashing into the face of British punk. Sherwood harnessed the power of artists like Prince Far-I, ‘the daddy of rough voice’ (also nicknamed ‘Prince Cry Cry’ for his habit of breaking into tears when extremely angry). Far-I was a bulky, trouble-prone Jamaican dub chanter who, with gigs at venues like the 100 Club in London, would attract artists like Billy Idol, The Slits and the well-known dub heads John Lydon and Paul Simonon. Far-I would form part of Sherwood’s pivotal ‘Singers and Players’ collective, the first and only dub supergroup comprising of singers Bim Sherman, Prince Hammer, Far-I and Mikey Dread Far-I, a former bouncer, was close friends with Claudie Massop, the infamous JLP strong man of 1970s Jamaica and leader of the Shower Posse, and when Massop was assassinated in 1979 it has been suggested that Far-I’s protection in the Kingston ghettos was gone. In 1983 he was shot dead, alongside his wife, at his home in Kingston. His cousin recalled the scene: “In the living room you see the blood with his fingermarks all over the wall, [like] when person [is] in agony.”

Sherwood’s interest in dub led to a resuscitation of Lee Perry’s career in 1986, with some bumps along the way: one story recalls an On-U Sound boat cruise of the same year featuring Mark Stewart and Bim Sherman when Perry, hanging out in Sherwood’s East Ham home before the cruise, drank a bottle of Polish vodka before boarding the ship and doing karaoke lying on his back as the boat sailed past the Houses of Parliament. Due to suspected drugs on board, the boat began being tailed by the police, only for Perry to get on the megaphone and scream back at them across the dark river: “Fire on your head in the river Thames! Back off Babylon!”.

With 1973’s ‘Blackboard Jungle Dub’ album, Lee Perry is the author of one of the five dub albums that vie for a place as the first ever recorded. Bunny Lee remembers Perry’s famed tendency for improvisation and off-the-cuff conducting: “We used to experiment a lot. You would be playing and Scratch would come up to you and go [makes tearing sound and gesture] and it sound good inna de control room. Scratch even get man to play domino inna de studio, slamming dem down for people to record.” Speaking to me about his use of technology, or lack thereof, Perry tells me, laughing like a banshee: “The four-track that I work on was just four, but they could not find the other twenty. The other twenty was the spirit...” In an unexpected stream of invective he adds: “King Tubby didn’t have any spirit to teach him, Tubby didn’t have any righteousness in him, any godliness in him, didn’t have any Rastafari in him. Tubby is the meanest man that ever live on the planet Earth. Totally mean. So mean that they did come and shoot him.”

He signals the difference between Tubby (acknowledged globally as the originator of the remix) and himself: “King Tubby never make live recordings with musician - King Tubby only use his mixing board and go over riddim they a making in the studio. The difference between me and King Tubby is that me [conduct] the [live] riddims on my side, and he did not make the riddims on his side him only mix them. Him not my competition. They working like scavenger, they just mixing, not creating.”

Back in Battersea, Bunny Lee is also cursing the scavengers. He backbites Lee Perry: “Scratch, him pay taxes anywhere in the world?” before naming one prominent European dub producer, shouting: “What him know about dub? Him nuh come from Jamaica - him make more money out of the business than we. Him a tour and play dub live around the world!” An executive from Jamaican record label Black Solidarity, also perched in the cramped room with Bunny Lee, expands: “[The unnamed producer] is a carbon copy of dub. I’m a explain: if you go to Steve Jobs, and you say to him, we have a copy of an iPhone, him gonna laugh at you, It’s the same with Bunny Lee and dub.”

Speaking to Pupajim, the French dub collective, one could not see a more different picture of the positive adoptions of the Jamaican blueprint. Jim, the singer in the group, gives me a rundown of the sound systems in France, which include Pupajim’s Stand High Patrol in their native Brest, and others like Zion Gate from Nantes, OBF from Geneva, Blackboard Jungle from Rouen and Chalice Sound from Lille. As well as clear Jamaican and UK influences, he cites an early contact with “French new wave artists like Indochine, Gainsbourg and Christophe. I didn’t like their lyrics but their production was an influence. We particularly liked ’80s digital reggae like Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’, and they used similar drum machine patterns.”

In more general terms, the progression from dub to cyberdub is vast - in terms of vocals, Sherwood had singers like Prince Far-I, Basic Channel had Tikiman, while more liberal definitions of dub like hip-hop and jungle had crossover stalwarts from reggae in Super Cat and Top Cat respectively. Technologically, we arrive at the amplifiers built by Autechre and Basic Channel’s large lathe cutting facility in Berlin as a logical progression of King Tubby’s homespun rig and small dubplate production unit in Kingston.

Musicality, Mad Professor points out, is perhaps second in importance to a knowledge of electronics and rhythm in dub: “Dennis [Bovell] for example, is a bit too musical for dub. Dub, when you get to know it, you don’t have to be too musical to make it. More than musicality, there’s something more akin to the spiritual in dub: a direct African connection - like in Joe Gibbs’ early work - where the drums became more prominent. When dub is the bridge to what was lost through slavery, and what Africa retained.”

The last word inevitably falls to Perry: “God is the son of the Spirit. Dub is the baby. Baby have no natty dread, no bal’ head; dub is the electronic baby, he’ll go back to Nigeria, his name is Baby Tafari - repeat after me! Baby Tafari, off on a jungle safari.”

Words by Miguel Cullen

This full article appears in the October issue of Clash Magazine, find out more about the issue HERE and subscribe to Clash Magaziune HERE.

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