Dub Origins

Where it all started: Lee Scratch Perry, March 2014.

As a term for classifying popular music by genre, “dub” dates back to the late 1960s. In both this regard and others, its history intertwines with that of “punk.” Although casual listeners might struggle to detect any sonic similarity between your average “dub” track and the stereotypical three-chord fury of The Ramones, The Stooges and The Sex Pistols, the more one knows about the two genres, the more apparent it becomes that they represent opposite sides of a coin minted in an era of abandoned dreams. If punk expresses frustration at the failure of government planning and protest movements alike, early dub scores the inward turn that followed such outbursts. Or so it must have seemed to the people who discovered it in no-longer-swinging London or lethargic Berlin.

Things were obviously different in Jamaica, where popular music was integral to national identity. Pride in the success of their most famous cultural export, together with a leftist government that made strategic use of reggae, led many Jamaicans to identify it with the state in the 1970s. To the extent that early dub is a product of that context, its social function was quite different at home than it was abroad. Having said that, however, it is still possible to see the work of Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and other dub pioneers as an alternative to the image of Jamaica promoted by and through the figure of someone like Bob Marley.

It is crucial to note, in this regard, that the term “dub” literally refers to what today would be called a “remix,” the doubling of an original and, what is more, one that results in a finished product whose derivative nature magically shape-shifts into a new form of originality. What appealed to early punks about dub was precisely this practice of cultural recycling. Nothing was ever new, just a version of something that already existed before. Pretending otherwise would be to surrender to the logic of a system bent on repackaging repetition as novelty.

Paradoxically, the best way to slip free of these shackles was not to hide the role of copying, but to bring it into sharp relief. Creating “new” works out of odds and ends literally lying around the studio provided a way to make listeners think about the production process even during the blissful release of consumption.

Dub inverts popular music’s traditional approach to distinguishing one song from another, going out of its way to blur artificial boundaries created to spur commerce, and the way in which the genre promotes a feeling of distance, whether literally, through the implementation of an aural echo chamber, or figuratively, by cutting audiences off from the extroverted sentiments of mainstream reggae.

The rhythm is still there, but instead of inviting you inside to join the party, it draws attention to what keeps you waiting outside, to what inevitably leaves you feeling excluded. Although you can lock into the groove coming through the barriers, the immediacy of the beat gives way to a muffled deferral.

In other words, the distancing characteristic of dub recordings goes hand in hand with a closing of the gap between the producer and consumer. To be sure, Brian Wilson, George Martin and, above all, Phil Spector had already brought the labour of the studio out of the shadows before the heyday of 1970s dub. But dub pushed even further in that direction. There is a reason, to state the most obvious example, that tracks by groups that worked with Lee “Scratch” Perry are marketed under his name.

As historians of hip-hop have noted, the prominence of the DJ in that genre was shaped, in part, by trends in reggae culture. Even as Bob Marley was becoming a huge international superstar of the sort that white, suburban audiences brought up on Elvis or The Beatles could readily identify with, the milieu that gave rise to him was turning away from the rock and roll model where lead singers are the face of the music.

Although this may seem like a point too obvious to bear restating, a back-to-basics approach in thinking about dub is necessary for coming to terms with the many contemporary subgenres that purport to betray its influence.

Photograph courtesy of Preestam Slot. Published under a Creative Commons license.