The sight of the latest Diddy album sitting atop the US charts is only the latest reminder of the huge impact digital sampling has had on hip-hop and rap music. Diddy/P-Diddy/Puff Daddy kickstarted his career by taking the sampled rhythms and melodies of well-known tracks (such as the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”) and adding new vocals and sounds to them. He was by no means the first. Ever since Afrika Bambaataa co-opted a Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” for his own “Planet Rock” in 1982, the practice has become commonplace.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, digital sampling technology didn’t exist. But the practice of “recycling” rhythms was born in Jamaica. Producers and owners of small independent labels found that altering the mix of a track—say, dropping the vocals in and out of the mix, adding horns, and/or eliminating the vocals altogether—was a lot less expensive than recording a brand new track. Thus was born the “version”. Soon, versions were commonplace on the flipsides of Jamaican singles.
In his liner notes for Version Dread, veteran Heartbeat archivist Chris Wilson goes to some length to explain the difference between versions and dub. He has a point, but it’s really a matter of semantics. Dub, which came into its own in the early ‘70s, added the trademark echo and panning effects, but this was more a natural progression than a demarcation point. And Version Dread gives listeners a chance to hear a bit of this progression taking place. Most of the 18 tracks collected here span 1966-70, but a handful postdate the dub explosion of the early ‘70s. Crucially, they all have one element in common: Although issued on various labels, they were produced by Clement Dodd and recorded at his famous Jamaican Recording and Publishing Studio, aka Studio One.
While Dodd is the figurehead, the common perception is that he had very little to do with the actual recordings at Studio One, at least until the mid-‘70s. The arranging and mixing was usually the work of house engineer Sylvan Morris and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo. Version Dread effectively serves as a showcase for the legendary Studio One house band, known as the Soul Vendors and the Sound Dimension (another of Dodd’s innovations was calling the same group by different names, a marketing trick employed by many producers to this day). The deep, almost subterranean rhythms became rocksteady’s and later reggae’s signature sound, and Version Dread includes some classics. The woozy horns of “Why Oh Why Version” combine with the relentless bass to make the song sound drunk. On “Please Be True Version” and “Hold Me Baby”, those same horns add bright pop hooks.
At their roots, though, these tracks are all about the basslines, some of the most earth-shaking, lyrical, and infectious in the history of Jamaican music. The slinky “Born to Dub”, the ominous “Declaration Version”, and the coy “Pick Up Version” are perfect examples of the dexterity at hand. A few versions are already recycled from older, classic rhythms: The mind-blowing title track is built on “Throw Me Corn” (the basis for Peter Tosh’s “African” among many others), and “Zion Lion” uses the equally famous “Melody Life”, while the version side of Willie Williams’s 1982 smash “Armagideon Time”, famously covered by the Clash, is based on “Real Rock”. All three rhythms are from the Soul Vendors/Sound Dimension. Ex-Heptone Leroy Sibbles is usually credited as the Studio One bassist, although Brian Atkinson played on some of the seminal rhythms as well. (In an interesting side note, a re-formed version of the Soul Vendors, with Mittoo and Atkinson, has been touring with the stated aim of “putting the record straight”. Hmmm.)
The mixing effects on these tracks are fairly minimal, especially on the ‘60s material. Technological limitations left Morris and company with fewer ways to manipulate sound; therefore, on many songs, the music drops out when the vocal drops in, and vice versa, creating a now-familiar stop-start effect. Otherwise, some reverb is evident, but if you’re looking for King Tubby-style pyrotechnics, you won’t find it here. After Morris left Studio One in the mid-‘70s, Dodd is thought to have taken over mixing duties, and several of his dubs are included on Version Dread. The dubs themselves are rudimentary, with synthesizers and echo units making more frequent appearances, but the Studio Rhythms are still unimpeachable. Throughout, the vocal performances are excellent, with Burning Spear, the Abyssinians, Ken Booth, and Horace Andy all making appearances.
It’s tough to sum up a decade-spanning and naturally flexible sound in a single disc. But Version Dread does it pretty well. Dub heads may find it slight, and purists may lament the in-and-out vocals. Anyone with an ear for reggae history, though, will like what they hear.