« Program: Dub: The Medium Is The Message

Interview: Michael Veal

Afropop producer Wills Glasspiegel talks dub with writer, professor, and musician Michael Veal. Veal is the author of the seminal dub book, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Sounds in Jamaican Reggae.

W.G.: How did dub begin?

M.V.: Like a lot of styles of music, the way it developed was partly by intent, partly through accident and partly through experimentation.

Bunny Lee is one of the main producers associated with dub music and he actually says that they were at the studio one day mixing some tunes with King Tubby and another guy named Ruddy Redwood, who was a sound system operator. And as they were mixing, they dropped the vocals out by mistake and then, at the very end, the engineer put the vocals back in.

They thought that that was a mistake that they couldn’t use, but Bunny Lee said something like, “No, that was great. That was cool the way you did it. You left the vocals out and then you put that little snatch in at the end… Let me take this to the sound system dance on Saturday and let’s just try it out on them. Let’s just see how the audience responds.”

They played it and everyone loved it because it was teasing them — it teased the audience with the absence of the vocals. Then the audience started singing along with the parts where the vocals had been removed.

That’s really how most engineers and producers in Jamaica account for the birth of dub because one of the key elements in the music is dropping parts out of the mix and then bringing them back, and keeping the listener in a state of surprise and suspense. Supposedly it started that day. But nothing starts in any particular moment; it’s really a process and it’s very difficult to pinpoint precise origins.

W.G.: Do you remember when you first heard dub and can you tell us the story about how you got drawn in and surprised.

M.V.: I grew up in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. I’m African American but I have members of my family who are married to Caribbean people and so I grew up hearing a lot of reggae. I can’t remember specifically when I encountered dub music… it would have had to have been in the late ’70s and the early ’80s. Actually my family – my parents – live very close to VP Records in Jamaica Queens, which is the biggest American distributor of Jamaican music.

There was a girl working there that I liked so I used to go there to buy reggae records. And this dub music was amazing because it was reggae music; but it had all this kind of fragmentary stuff on the top, all these echo-y sounds and really spacey atmospheric sounds. I just thought it was an amazing way of putting the music together – or maybe pulling it apart would be more accurate.

I’d also come out of being really interested in experimental classical music like Cage, Stockhausen and all those musicians in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and experimental jazz. So I really love the electronic manipulation of music and I love the groove. Dub was perfect because it combined both of those elements.

It had this really earthy reggae rhythm to it but it had all this atmospheric sound processing that just was fascinating and made every song like a mystery, a mysterious poem, like a series of vignettes.

W.G.: We talked about the song form breaking and changing but it was actually also the equipment that was breaking and changing and being re-wired. Tell us about it.

M.V.: Jamaica is a place where there’s not a huge amount of capital at people’s disposal. The producers and engineers have more money at their disposal than most but even they are working within fairly strong constraints. So they had to be able to repair their equipment. They had to have the know-how, the technical ability to go in and repair that equipment when they needed to. And someone like King Tubby, who was trained as an electronics engineer, he could go in and repair his equipment when he needed to. He could repair the circuitry and that led him to also being able to tweak the circuitry to achieve different sounds and different results and take these pieces of equipment and make them sound differently than they had originally been designed to sound.

That’s the core of it. It was just ingenuity and genius born of necessity in a very economically challenged environment.

W.G.: What’s the role of reverb and echo in dub music?

M.V.: Reverb is one of the core elements of dub music. The reverb makes the sound hang longer in space. The reverb is like the glue on the mix. It’s the thing that allows all the fragmented sounds to hang together, and it makes the mix sound organic and whole.

Reverb and echo are somewhat similar. Reverb is something that was developed to create or to simulate a sound space. You can have synthetic reverberation that implies a soundspace of a small room, like the one we’re talking in now. Or the soundspace of a cathedral or the soundspace of the valley between the mountains. Or the soundspace of the bathroom or of a stadium, an arena – any kind of spatial configuration, reverb is developed to simulate those different environments.

Echo is the repeating sound and it’s created through delay units, analog delay units or digital delay units. It’s fundamentally a rhythmic device. Echo in a dub mix is when you hear those sounds spiraling out of the mix.

W.G.: Could you talk more about the concept of soundscape?

M.V.: Well, in the traditional model of a pop song, as I said, you’ve got a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, the formal arrangement of the song, and that song is generally built on the rudiments of music as they’re understood in the Western tradition — melody, chords going through changes, lyrics, and rhythm.

All that exists in dub music but they gradually augment those with a conception of music that had much more to do with the ambient, atmospheric aspects of the music.

W.G.: Is there a story about King Tubby that you think best embodies who this man was and how his personal culture and the culture around him helped give birth to dub?

M.V.: I think there are lots of really interesting stories about King Tubby but the most important thing is that he had the technical knowledge of electronics and circuitry to be able to go through and tweak his equipment to create all of these interesting, unusual sounds. He really understood the rudiments of electronics engineering and it enabled him to get very creative on the electronics aspect of the music and that, in turn, enabled him to create amazing sounds.

Today, we have all these people that are involved in things like circuit bending and taking electronic instruments and playing around with the circuits and misdirecting things so that these instruments create all kinds of strange sounds that the designers never intended them to produce.

King Tubby was a forerunner of that. He was a forerunner of going in and tweaking the equipment to get unusual sounds. I think another really interesting thing about King Tubby is that when he had his sound system, he designed his own amplifiers for the sound systems. The front of the amplifier was lit up with LED lights and they were all different colors. Actually, it was the red, green and gold Rasta colors.

When you went to a dance by King Tubby, you saw this amazing piece of lit up equipment. It’s the kind of equipment that anyone who was spinning records at a sound system or a dance would have but in most people’s hands, that would just be a piece of equipment that’s getting the job done. By putting those vivid lights on the equipment, it really made it clear that this is the focus of this event — it’s what I can do with this mixing board and this amplifier.

Tubby had customized his circuitry within the amplifier. Actually, he built that amplifier himself from scratch and he built into that amplifier a kind of tape delay unit. No one really knew how he was getting those sounds.

The point is that Tubby really brought the electronics aspect of popular music to life and made it very vivid and it became, not only a sonic, but a visual spectacle in and of itself.

W.G.: There was a quote in your book about Lee Scratch Perry where you said, “Perry’s personal transformation paralleled the transformation of Jamaica music and Jamaica.” I wonder if you could just kind of introduce us to Lee Scratch Perry and speak to that quote.

M.V.: Lee Scratch Perry was a protégé of Coxsone Dodd. He came up kind of sub-producing for Dodd at Studio One, supervising studio sessions, going out with Dodd, running errands, etc. He worked his way up through the ranks but he came out of the ska era, which was kind of conservative. It was straight-forward pop music. But, by the 1970s, Lee Perry had become inspired by Rastafari (though he was never an adherent) and his music changed in accordance with the evolution of sound recording technology.

He himself was a very creative individual. Like King Tubby, he found unique things to do and unique sounds to make with his sound technology as it evolved, as they gained access to increasingly sophisticated pieces of sound equipment. So, by the 1970s, he was a completely different animal. He was creating these amazing psychedelic reggae soundscapes that sounded nothing like what he did in the 1960s when they were doing ska music and rock steady music.

W.G.: How does this happen to Lee Perry? I mean, he’s doing ska music and then, out of nowhere, from what I can tell, it goes to the weirdest place I’ve ever heard.

M.V.: Well, right, but it took time. It took time, along with a lot of social and political changes in Jamaica. It took spiritual changes associated with the influence of Rastafari. And in Perry’s case, it also took a lot of ganja and white rum. But most of the engineers in Jamaica were very clean cut techie-types of guys that were not drinkers or smokers.

W.G.: How does that happen?

M.V.: They were doing ska music and then the music evolved into a style called rock steady. Ska music was very R&B and very jazz derived. And, if you look at the musicians who are the kind of dominate forces in ska music, most of them were horn players, people like the great trombonist Don Drummond. And the saxophonist Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook.

There were great rhythm section players there, too. But it’s really in rock steady period – that’s 1966 to 1969 – that was really the period in which the rhythm section players started to come to the forefront. And the most important of those players were the bass players, people like Jackie Jackson, especially, who was one of the first electric bass players in Jamaica.

In rock steady, it’s when the bass really came to the forefront of the music. So the music slowed down, the bass patterns moved to the forefront, time and became very melodic and very riveting.

And that created a lot more space in the music. Once that space was created in the musical structure, the engineers could then come in with their sound processing and open it up further, along the atmospheric dimension.

That opened up a space sonically and it opened up a space in the song form for them to then start treating it with reverb and echo and filtering and getting into the atmospheric dimension.

W.G.: That’s very architectural.

M.V.: Well, most black music is architectural because it’s built on repeating parts. You can hear these parts interlocking and interacting to create a structure that could really be understood in architectural terms, like a structure that’s working as a machine or the parts of a building that keep the structure intact.

W.G.: But in this case, one of the parts might fall out of the machine at any second.

M.V.: Well, the thing is, the parts are all there. It’s just what they let you hear in the mix at a specific time. The reason that the dub music works so beautifully in its atmospheric aspect is that the parts of the reggae structure hang together so beautifully in their repetition.

You can’t really have a great dub mix without a great rhythm pattern. The best dub mixes are all known because they’re built off of great rhythm patterns. So, even if you’re taking the parts in and out, they’re still there. When the musicians are playing them or when they originally played them in the studio, they just played it as a one-time live performance. It’s only in the remix process that the engineers start pulling parts out and putting them back in.

When you’re listening to a dub mix, there’s often going to be a part of that mix that allow you to hear all the rhythm parts working together. That sets up an expectation for the repetition of those parts, but then the engineer comes in and takes them out and puts them back in, and takes then out.

He’s playing with your anticipation. He’s playing with a sense of surprise and suspense but he can only do that because you heard those parts originally and you heard how wonderfully they worked together and how good it made you feel. And you’re listening for it come back. You think, “When is that bass line going to come back in. Ah, there it is. Wait – it’s gone again. What happened?”

They take these instruments and turn them all into phantoms that are flying in and out of the mix.

W.G.: With the rise of dub, did Jamaica popular audiences miss instrumental bands?

M.V.: In the jazz years, in the ’30s and ’40s, there were big bands in Jamaica. But the economics of Jamaica mitigated against a lot of people owning instruments and a lot of live band performance.

That’s why the sound system became so dramatically popular – it was a way for music entrepreneurs to save money. They didn’t have to hire a whole band; they could just play pre-recorded music. So, that then, became the medium to express the musical creativity of engineers and producers.

But there were live bands playing that music in the studio; they just weren’t gigging widely around Jamaica. I mean, someone like Bob Marley and the Wailers, that was one of the greatest bands ever to play the music or Sly & Robbie or Roots Radics or Soul Syndicate. Those bands had amazing careers touring the world, playing reggae music all around America and Europe and Asia, all the parts of the Caribbean and in Africa.

So, there were fantastic bands playing the music of that era. It’s just that the focus in Jamaican music has always been on studio craft and the sound systems.

W.G.: Do you think that’s part of the reason why Bob Marley didn’t end up supporting dub in this full-fledged fashion because ,in dub, the hero is the producer or the engineer?

M.V.: Well, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, if you want to talk about that holy trinity of Jamaican music, the trio of the original Wailers, they had very strong political and spiritual messages and culture messages that they were trying to get across in their music. And it wasn’t that they had a problem with dub music as a style and its technique, but they didn’t want the messages in their music compromised by re-mixing.

They wanted to make sure that the messages they were trying to communicate through their lyrics got across without manipulation. That’s why they tend to not be so involved with dub music. But it’s not that they were against it. In fact, Bob Marley had dub mixes made of his music, as did Bunny Wailer.

W.G.: And where were those mixes popular?

M.V.: Well, dub music, in a way, was always more popular outside of Jamaica and it was understood more as a genre unto itself more outside of Jamaica than inside Jamaica. Inside Jamaica, they tended to associate it specifically with the sound system because they’d play songs in the sound system and, after the song finished, they’d put the dub version on. And when the dub version came on, the DJ would come and start to DJ or to toast on top of the dub mix. Because now that they’re dropping parts in and out, in and out in the dub mix has more space, he can DJ, he can rap over. There’s space for that.

But in places like England and Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States, they like dub music because of the spacey-ness of it. It reminded them of the psychedelic music of the ’60s and early ’70s. And so dub music tended to be understood in that light outside of Jamaica as a kind of really spacey, psychedelic music.

W.G.: OK, it’s Friday evening in one of the big dub houses or studios in Kingston in the ’70s. Can you take us there?

M.V.: Well, at a place like King Tubby, you’d have King Tubby or one of his assistants in the studio at the board, doing dub mixes of popular tunes for sound system operators who are all waiting outside. There might be dozens of sound system operators waiting outside in the yard to bring their master tapes in there, or producers bringing their master tapes in to get special mixes made for the sound systems. Because each sound system wanted a special mix of a currently popular tune.

They didn’t want a mix that just sounded like the one that everyone already knew from the record. So, you had King Tubby or, as he was known at that time, Prince Jammy, just sitting there running off mix after mix after mix of the same tune. They might do 20, 10, 15 mixes of the same tune in an evening to give out to all the different sound systems.

W.G.: And when they handed out the tunes, what was the format? How did that work?

M.V.: They would be doing various mixes from the master tape. And then they would record it onto a dub plate, which is an acetate. They’d give each sound system a dub plate of that particular tune with a different mix. The acetates themselves, the dub plates, could only stand for about 15 or 20 plays before they burnt out.

They weren’t really designed for a lot of wear and tear. They were really designed in the context of the music industry so that you can preview a release. You come up with a mix of a tune, you want to play it for the people at the record company so they can see how your album sounds. They can hear it once or twice or maybe three times. That’s all the dub plate is really designed to do. It’s not designed to stand up to repeated playing, but it didn’t matter because they’d already made their impact in the sound system and the next week, people are going to be coming in wanting different mixes of the tunes, anyway.

W.G.: So many dub classics are lost?

M.V.: On a compilation of dub music today, like on a CD, we might hear an amazing dub mix, but in all likelihood, that mix was probably only one of dozens of mixes of that particular tune which were done at a given time.

The vast majority of the history of that music has just evaporated into the tropical air. It was heard in the sound system dances and never heard again. It was probably heard for a period of two weeks and gone.

W.G.: Can you speak about how the remix was actually an effort to kind of expand the commercial possibilities of a song?

M.V.: In Jamaica they have a thing called “versioning” in which they want to take a song and wring as much commercial life out of it as they can because, as we said before, the focus is on pre-recorded music more than live music. So, when they get these musicians into the studio to record a song, they want to figure out ways to maximize the commercial life of that song. And that’s where this idea or this process of versioning, as they call it, came in.

They’ll get a singer to come and sing a set of lyrics over that rhythm track, put it out and, if it becomes popular, then they’ll wipe that vocal off and bring another singer in to sing a different set of lyrics or a different melody, and then they’ll put that out – that’s a version of the original. And then maybe they’ll bring a DJ, like, I Roy or U Roy or U Brown or Tapper Zukie or Charlie Chaplin to do a DJ version of that song and put that out. Or maybe they’ll bring a saxophonist like Roland Alphonso or Tommy McCook in to blow an instrumental solo over it. Or they might bring in the great keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, and then they’ll put that out.

These are all versions on that original piece of music. And then sometimes they’ll give the master tape to the engineer and let him do his thing to create a dub mix with all the beautiful sound processing; that’s another version, that’s a dub version. So, we’ve heard a succession of vocal versions, DJ versions, instrumental versions, and dub versions. They’re all attempts by those producers to keep that music out in the commercial marketplace and to generate more and more profit from the same original recording.

W.G.: So how is that model different from our understandings of copyright in the US?

M.V.: The intellectual property regulations in Jamaica at that time were much looser, In fact, they’re still loose and the whole idea, culturally, of what constituted originality was very different and authorship was very different than what they are in the U.S.

They’re trying to tighten things up in Jamaica now so that artist can be recognized for their contributions but the fact of the matter is it’s probably never going to be as tightly controlled as and rigorously policed as the U.S. because the whole cultural concept there around music is that music is partially communally composed and shared and circulates from vocalist to vocalist and through the community. It’s a way of keeping a cultural dialogue and a conversation going. Music is really a medium for keeping a dialogue going throughout the culture.

For that to exist, you can’t really have these strict conceptions of authorship and originality as we do here. If you would try to impose something that strict in Jamaica, it would choke the lifeblood of the music off and I don’t think it could ever happen to the extent that we have it here.

W.G.: What are some of the broader overarching ideas that dub brings to mind in terms of things that are bigger than just the music itself?

The amazing thing about Jamaica is that they took these pieces of sound equipment that were manufactured in other places and they gave them totally new and different and more provocative identities in Jamaica. And Jamaican music has come to be known – even to these sound equipment manufacturers – as an area that they can use to help develop products in the future.

They knew that Jamaican engineers were really pushing the envelope when it came to what this equipment could be used to do and what kinds of sounds it could be used to create. And they knew that in the sound systems, in particular, these sound system operators were really pushing their speakers to the extreme. In terms of the capability for sound production and reproduction, Jamaica became an important site in the development of the electronic aspect of popular music.

Transcription by Val Maczak