“Dem ting just start by accident – a man sing off key an’ when you a reach a dat you just drop out everything an’ leave the drum, an’ lick in the bass, an’ cause confusion an’ people like it.” This is how producer Bunny Lee describes the beginning – a fumbling, haphazard and humble birth in the heart of Kingston. In late 60s Jamaica, King Tubby invented dub. It’s a music still rooted in the low-tech life of the ghetto, unlike the reggae of Marley and Tosh, Toots, and Jimmy Cliff, figureheads of a more commercial sound. Tubby made most of his music in a studio in a poor and violent area of West Kingston called Waterhouse. But 40 years later, Tubby’s dub still ranks among the best, and the music he invented has evolved in many directions to form new genres, including grime, punk, most modern dance and dubstep.
“The very best dub and reggae is deep, deep music – both in its sonic construction and lyrical content.” Chopper Reedz plays saxophone in dub band Fat Freddy’s Drop. “We want our music to have that impact – for the grooves to be so deep you can fall into them.” “It’s not music that was on the radio when we were kids – we had to go out and find it. New Zealand’s music scene in the late 80s was pretty conservative, but there were enough people making an effort to import good records from the US that a scene developed.” Dub has now found a home in countries all around the world, especially in Canada, where there are more dub poets performing than anywhere else outside Jamaica. Just as the reggae beat now forms the basis of a great deal of modern music, dub poetry is at the root of hip-hop, grime and rap. I spoke to Chet Singh, a member of the Canadian Dub Poet’s Collective. “It’s really rooted in neo-colonial migration and the economic expansion of Western countries – places like Canada. Immigration fuels the economy, so what you found happening was that a lot of West Indians and Africans, people from the so-called ‘third world’ started to come to Canada in very large numbers, and the experience was one of racism.”
“We were poets, we were activists, educators, and very much engaged with the society. So we were making art, but we were also affecting social change. It wasn’t just performative for us – it was our life, it was our work.” Dub has an intimate connection with black cultural politics. “It was cultural affirmation; it was a rejection of colonial inferiorisation of black peoples and an affirmation of culture and language. It was a struggle against oppressive conditions, whether they be political or economic.” At first it was a symbolic glitch in international law that allowed reggae tracks to be reworked into dub. Jamaica didn’t ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works when it gained independence from the UK in 1962, meaning dub producers like King Tubby and Bunny Lee didn’t have to worry about copyright laws. But because of the deep beats, dub and reggae are listened to for pure apolitical pleasure across the globe. Speaking to a number of dub poets, I heard the same thing over and over again: “reggae, more than any other music, is like a universal heartbeat.”
Dubstep has its roots in South London, an area where the music is still connected to African and Caribbean cultural politics. A hybrid made up of grime, drum and bass, garage and two-step, dubstep is also rooted firmly in the foundations of dub and reggae – black rebel music. But along with many others, Bristol-based producer Guido finds it hard to define the genre. “It’s just 140BPM with sub, but if you think about it that’s been done before. That’s quite a loose template for a musical genre. The stuff that you lay on top of that foundation can be from any influence. It could be a little bit of jazz piano, it could be a classical arpeggiated riff, it could be saxophone or it could be a kind of grime sound, so that’s when it means it’s not just dubstep. You can put anything on top of bass and 140.”
The music began in the Big Apple record shop in the South London borough of Croydon. It seems important to the sound that it emanated from the inner city. Burial’s music is often described as taking you on a journey through the empty streets of London in the early hours. Mala also says of his own music that it expresses the struggle of growing up in London with no money. Strictly Wax sees the dubstep culture focused in the city, a lot like hip-hop. “Having said this, dubstep works everywhere – I have played sets at house parties in quiet villages, and it has the same effect on everyone.” It’s distinctive in many ways, but like most forms of modern electronic music, dubstep shares Jamaican dub as its origin.
Chet Singh seems to know a lot about the sociology of music. “It’s always about a convergence. And that convergence can be positive, it could be spiritual, it could be political, but it could also be highly commercialised. So with art and culture there’s always that tension.” Mainstream reggae became bland, and now the pop markets are rapidly absorbing dubstep. But new and exciting mixes are appearing all the time. “No one should police culture” continues Singh “Culture is about possibility. Culture is about convergence. It’s about making something anew. Culture is always being created – what is African culture? What’s Jamaican culture? Culture is fraught with tension. So culture’s about possibility.”