How Jamaica shaped the creative spirit and evolution of music production

By in Features





On the heels of the release of Bedroom Beats and B-sides – author Laurent Fintoni shares an excerpt from the book, exploring the pioneering influence of Jamaica and King Tubby. 

“One of the biggest impacts on the evolution of the producer came from the island of Jamaica. More specifically, from the front room of a house at 18 Dromilly Avenue in Kingston’s Waterhouse district where Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock used his interest in electronics, sound systems, and audio recording to develop and popularise a style of production that would become one of the most important innovations of the 20th century: dub, which effortlessly moved crowds through cavernous echoes, valleys of filters, and pools of reverb. By the early 1970s the studio was becoming an instrument in its own right and Tubby, first and foremost an engineer with a sharp mind, put his focus on the beating heart of the modern studio: the mixing desk. In 1971, he bought a second-hand MCI mixing desk and, once installed in his house, began to play it like an instrument with the faders and knobs like so many strings and keys he could use to transform the different parts of recorded material.

A few years before Tubby bought his mixer, in 1968, the concept of version was accidentally born in Jamaica when a studio engineer forgot to put the vocal on a dubplate for Ruddy Redwood, operator of the Supreme Ruler of Sound sound system. That night, Redwood played the accidental plate, and the crowd in the dance lost their collective mind, hearing a tune they already knew as if it was the first time. Wheel-up and come again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The version was accidental future science. Redwood convinced label owner Duke Reid to put the mistake on the B-side of the release, and music would never sound the same again. Versions summoned riddim creators, bands that would work with certain studios in Kingston to create the backing tracks that could become both the A-side vocal hit and the B-side version smash. The best riddims became timeless, with the A-side vocals changing to reflect the mores of the current times while the B-side continued to make the people move. Tubby’s innovation, as Bunny Lee called it, was to take the riddim track and use the mixing desk to strip it down to its bare bones – the drums and the bass – and then apply effects in subtle, intuitive ways to bring those two elements forward while letting the rest – guitars, horns, or keys – float in and out of the sonic spectrum. Throughout the 1970s, Tubby’s name appeared on hundreds of B-sides. The text often read simply: drum and bass, King Tubby’s.

Dub was beat culture inna Jamaican style. People on the island bought 45s and excitedly turned them over to hear the dub. From Jamaica, the dub spread to the rest of the world and took on new and exciting forms, always rooted in Tubby’s approach of less is more. As David Toop put it, “Dub music is like a long echo delay, looping through time. Regenerating every few years, sometimes so quiet that only a disciple could hear, sometimes shatteringly loud, dub unpicks music in the commercial sphere. Spreading out a song or a groove over a vast landscape of peaks and deep trenches, extending hooks and beats to vanishing point, dub creates new maps of time, intangible sound sculptures, sacred sites, balm and shock for mind, body, and spirit.”

For Scientist, who worked as one of Tubby’s assistants, “Dub is electronic music that was developed by recording engineer, where we used the music and add sound effects to it to come up with different remixes.” The producer would funnel the music to the engineer who became the artist by playing the mixing desk, whether using pre-existing multitrack recordings or live musicians and singers who played and sung in real-time while the engineer’s work was captured on tape.

Brian Eno, who recognised the studio as an instrument early in his career, referred to Jamaican producers in a 1979 article as sculptors, in contrast to western producers who tended to act like painters, using the studio to add. “Five or six musicians play; they’re well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which you can regard as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at – things are taken out, for long periods.” And like all the best players who find ways to master their instruments through repeated practice, the best engineers played the mixing desk with feeling.

On the surface, Tubby’s technical innovations were no different than those of his American counterparts Bill Putnam and Les Paul in previous decades, combining electronic engineering with sound engineering to devise new ways to do things no one had thought of yet. And yet the resulting music was vastly different, with Jamaica exerting a deeper pull on what would come next. No doubt this was due to the social differences between the west and the Caribbean. In Jamaica the music was not just entertainment, it was also, and always, political.

The tumultuous politics of Jamaica were built into the music. Tubby’s house, and his studio, stood in a town where murderous political factions competed for power. It was war in the streets. But inside the house, it was a utopia, where broken boxes from foreign corporations could be rebuilt to enhance music that took the pain away. The music was ingenious by necessity and powerful from pressure. Jamaican music had to work harder to satisfy those who had so little and bore the weight of so much. Music from neighbourhoods that white people called ghettos transformed the world by subtracting rather than adding. As Mad Professor put it, “Every object have a shadow, you have to find your shadow. Every sound could be dub, you have to find the dub, it’s as simple as that.”

Bedroom Beats & B-Sides is out now on Velocity Press.

Photo by Ted Balafoukos.

Reference notes:

“He bought a second hand…” Ableton’s history of the studio as an instrument refers to King Tubby’s purchase of the desk

“Tubby’s innovation…” Bunny Lee in Dub Echoes documentary (2008)

“Dub music is like…” David Toop – ‘Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sounds and Imaginary Worlds’ – Serpent’s Tail, 1995, p.115

“Dub is electronic music…” Scientist in Dub Echoes documentary (2008)

“Five or six musicians…” Brian Eno, “The Studio As Compositional Tool” (Downbeat, circa 1979)

“Every object have a shadow…” Mad Professor in Dub Echoes documentary (2008)