Perfect Sound Forever

King Tubby

An Influence on Practically More Genres Than Anyone Else
Except Perhaps Elvis Presley

by Paul Dickow (June 1997)

Shortly before my sophomore year in college I realized that my musical tastes were taking off in all directions. I was listening to experimental rockn'roll, old punk, hip-hop, techno, and the freshly introduced drum n'bass more or less all at once. This isn't really abnormal, but it occurred to me that there had to be some kind of thread tying it all together.

I got to Portland and immediately did a record store tour. At Second Avenue Records I found myself unusually attracted to the reggae section. I had become hooked on DUB just from looking at the covers of the reissued King Tubby lp's (there are probably thousands out there). I bought a couple of them and I figured out why I was so drawn to this music. I had heard a lot of reggae with vocals, and I was familiar with modern labels such as On-U Sound, but I hadn't heard old dub.

The late, great King Tubby (aka Osborne Ruddock) got his start in the 60's; he wasn't a musician (Tubby wasn't an instrumentalist, as such) but he was a recording engineer. The apocryphal version of the story is that Jamaican dj's needed ways to recycle the same basic music endlessly so that a few records could last through a whole dance party. King Tubby took this idea to the next level: he pioneered the music of post-production recording.

Essentially, records 'by' King Tubby consist of Tubby and one of his associate bands, such as the Aggrovators. The group plays a song, and then King Tubby completes his song through a remix. A few aspects of King Tubby have remained integral to the dub genre: the bass and drums are mixed high in the mix; the melodies are mixed in spordically. I'm still hooked on this setup. Tubby allowed for the instruments to be controlled via the mixing board by an engineer--who could imply the melody by turning the knob, make an instrument echo unexpectedly, or make the whole group sound like they were playing in a concert hall underwater with primitive reverb equipment.

King Tubby's most interesting work, in my opinion, is that from the 1970's. The systems were well enough in place to be consistent, but the recordings still retain the rough charm of tape-delay echoes, spring reverbs, and thick analog tape sound. I would argue, however, that you don't have to listen to King Tubby to enjoy what he invented. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I actually convinced myself that early dub was the musical element which tied all my interests together. I still believe this. Pretty much everything I listen to has, to some degree, this element of post-production processing and remixing. My favorite punk groups--Pere Ubu, The Pop Group, The Ex, and Crass--were all using rough editing techniques and dub effects like sudden echoes to create a sense of disjuncture and mayhem. Not long after, experimental New Wave groups like the Flying Lizards employed these same dub techniques.

More important than King Tubby's impact on rock n'roll, however, is that his invention of the processor-as-musician role facilitated hip-hop and other electronic musics. A lot of hip hop employs the dub tradition of giving the bass and drums most of the room in the mix, and is open ended enough to be edited in remix for use by dj's. Like the dub mixers, the hip-hop dj can be a musician through manipulating readymade musical sources. The dub engineer with his tapes is analogous to the dj with his records and mixing deck.

I feel like every record I buy is referencing dub. Recent experimental rockn'roll groups use echo, reverb, and fades to process their music; many electronic groups use dub-reggae-ish melodies on more slow, groove-based tracks, King Tubby has everything to do with this. He built some equipment, and did live remxing of reggae bands for years. Eventually, this was adopted in the UK when punk was adopting reggae as a form of resistance music and it's still around. For me, listening to King Tubby helps me to understand why every record I buy is more or less a remix album.

I guess I'm making King Tubby seem more consequential than is necessary. If you like the sounds which can be created with really ringy, clangy spring reverbs, and like the bass and drums of reggae, then go out and get some King Tubby records!

ED NOTE: also see DUB GONE CRAZY for some more history on Tubby

Suggested Listening:

Blood and Fire has been releasing various retrospectives--some of individual dub engineers like King Tubby and my second favorite, Scientist--and some collaborative works. The packaging is consistent and well done and is a great addition to any collection. Rod Of Correction Showcase on Clocktower (now reissued on Abraham) is also especially fine.

Linton Kwesi Johnson LKJ in Dub
Dennis Bovell Dub of Ages
Burning Spear Garvey's Ghost
Culture Culture In Dub
Clint Eastwood and General Saint Two Bad D.J.
Prince Far I
Augustus Pablo
Mickey Dread
Lee 'Scratch' Perry
Yabby You
Michael Smith
Prince Jammy

African Head Charge In Pursuit of Shashamane Land (On-U Sound)
Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor No Protection (Wild Bunch)
Black Uhuru Dub Factor
Macro Dub Infection (Caroline)
Scientist Dub Science

The Clash (of course)
XTC Explode Together and Mr. (Andy) Patridge Take Away
The Slits Cut
The Pop Group Y (currently available on Radarscope--one of my favorite punk records)
Public Image Limited Second Edition
Pere Ubu Dub Housing
Flying Lizards Flying Lizards
Beats International (recorded a tribute to Tubby)
Liquid Liquid

Mouse on Mars
Squarepusher (sometimes)
Seefeel (to an extreme)
Audio Active

A great site you'll want to check out: Dub Page