Dub is one of the most revolutionary forms of music to have emerged in the twentieth century. Together with Beatles producer George Martin, dub pioneers such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry probably did more than anyone else to change the mixing desk from being the control centre of the studio into a real creative and artistic tool.
The roots of dub music are found in the instrumental versions of reggae songs used to fill the B-side of 7 inch records in the 1960s. These “versions” were already used on soundsystems across Jamaica to allow for live vocals to be added (similar to the role of an MC in modern dance culture).
In the following decade, pioneering producers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby turned dub into a musical style in its own right by releasing records with an emphasis on repetitive instrumental tracks and experimental studio effects. These artists achieved great popularity in Jamaica but the sound of dub never achieved much mainstream acceptance abroad.
Although dub is no longer the creative musical force it was in the 1970s, it survives in the sounds of many other musical genres today. The concept of the remix has its origins in the studio meddling of dub producers while Dubstep and Jungle both owe a large debt to the sound. Artists from Radiohead to Massive Attack have also been influenced by the sonic exploration and emphasis on rhythm and bass found in dub music.
At its finest moments, dub is like no other kind of music. It can be stark and minimal but at the same time powerful and chaotic; sometimes producing a warm and comforting sound and other times sounding dark and alien. As an introduction to the genre, here is a selection of essential dub tunes…
Taken from the groundbreaking Blackboard Jungle Dub album released in 1973, this is one of earliest truly dub tracks to come out of Jamaica. The use of sound effects and echo add to the eery sound of the melody, all accompanied by a thumping rhythm section. This set the standard for others to follow.
King Tubby, probably the most famous name in the history of dub music, was already producing remixes for his soundsystem before opening his own studio. Here he created his own form of bass driven, percussive dub music and worked with (as well as becoming one of) the biggest names in Jamaican music until his death in 1989.
This classic from 1981 mixes Michael Prophet’s You are no Good into an expertly produced dub monster. By isolating the vocal hook and accompanying it with a heavy bassline and echoing horns, Scientist creates an absolute killer tune. One can only imagine the atmosphere the first time this was played on a soundsystem in Kingston!
Starting at 2:30 in the video, this is another dub classic. Snippets of Jacob Miller’s vocal line fade in and out over a hypnotic rhythm while everything is treated with just the right amount of delay to create a true dub masterpiece.
Here we have an example of dub’s relationship to dancehall culture. This is a heavy track obviously designed for the dancefloor, with no vocals and minimal studio effects to allow an MC freedom to toast over the music and work up the crowd. The influence of dub on later forms of dance music is shown in the sampling of this track in this jungle classic and, more recently in the world of dubstep, Rusko’s Jahova.
The recycling of musical ideas is part of the fabric of dub (and Jamaican music as a whole). Dub’s influence on other styles shows that there are fewer barriers in music than we think there are. Techniques such as sampling and remixing create a kind of folk music for the age of recorded music in which other people’s ideas are always open to reinterpretation. This leads to experimentation and progress and, in the case of dub, ultimately created some of the most unique music ever to have existed.