Dub just may be the music world’s greatest accident. In 1968, Kingston, Jamaica sound system operator Ruddy Redwood went to cut a one-off dubplate and engineer Byron Smith accidentally left the vocal track. However, Redwood kept the dubplate and played it at his next dance, with his deejay toasting over the rhythm and it was, of course, a wild success. Every producer in Jamaica followed Redwood’s lead and the rest is history. In his new book Remixology: Tracing the Diaspora of Dub,Paul Sullivan shows just how wide dub’s swath was, and how it still resonates today.
But this book is not a history of Jamaican dub. Not even close. Rather, it is a history of the reverberations and explorations that followed the “sound system specials” and later, King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Scientist’s aural excursions. In fact, a central definition and theory throughout the book is that dub is not defined by its Jamaican origin or musical structure, but rather the method “to create space and atmosphere.”
The book, then, is “wider,” than it is “deep” in most places, and that can be both a strength and weakness. In fact, Kingston occupies a really small space in the book, much less than the London, Bristol and Manchester scenes, for instance. The Berlin chapter is also expansive and fascinating, with the fall of the Berlin wall leaving an abandoned and lawless cityscape that ironically echoed the politically war-torn wild, wild, west of Kingston in the mid-Seventies. On the other hand, the Canada chapter feels lightweight and superfluous, tacked on to bolster the book’s “diaspora” theme. In the interest of making certain connections, the timelines jump around a bit and can be hard to follow. However, having each chapter illustrate a micro-history of a particular city was a good call; it’s easy to get lost within a chapter and that city’s musical growth, without having to try to follow a strict timeline of the musical mutations.
Sullivan does an admirable job of tracing and connecting these different musical variations as well. UK’s Jah Shaka’s sets were described as “the kind of thing that moved your bones. It was a music that wasn’t being played live by a band but it was live…a live form using records.” That was in 1976 but could easily describe the explosion in popularity of the acid-house and dubstep revolutions he later covers. Likewise, he does a nice job differentiating between the 12” mixes of late ‘70s and early ‘80s NYC disco, and their relationship with their long-playing Jamaican brethren. That same thread is again picked up and followed through the dancehall, digi-dub, ragga and jungle scenes, amongst others.
I was unfamiliar with some of the permutations —bro-step and grime, to name two — but in my opinion, many of these offshoots lost a central element and attraction of dub: the groove. The song was always central to Jamaican dub and the producer was always in service to the “riddim.” Instead, the new strains seemed to simply up the beats per minute and emphasize the effects over the song — the chief offender being the almighty (and always crowd-pleasing) “drop.” In some cases, that “drop” BECAME the hook of the song.
No matter though; Sullivan has crafted an excellent and detailed account of the various “versions” of dub and it’s a fascinating and academic — in the best sense of the word — read. If any of the above piques your interest, this book will likely send you, as it did me, to the time/space continuum that is the internet, searching for sound clips to further inform and enhance the trip. Enjoy.
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