Down with the King
When you have an artist whose various compilations seem to outnumber the amount of proper albums they released, you are dealing either with a genuine master or a helpless, often posthumous goldmine for rapacious record executives. Usually it is a bit of both. Yet, in this era of remastered or revamped overload, consumers are increasingly getting more sonic bling for their buck. Certainly this is attributable to the welcome threat of easy downloading and CD-burning, which has forced companies that once held all the cards to reassess their business model. Thankfully, re-releases these days are consistently packed with bonus material, often rare, occasionally wonderful. This is a refreshing development for even the more recent albums deemed worthy of reconsideration, but for older, certified classics, it is truly a cause for celebration. Finally, for those discs that were poorly transferred in the first go-round from analog to digital, or records that were not initially recorded in optimal conditions, it is a sweet form of redemption.
Which brings us to the overdue and most indispensable upgrade of King Tubby Meets the Agrovators at Dub Station, representing all of the good and none of the bad: killer material at a reasonable price (but what else would one expect from the beneficent gurus at Trojan records?). A reissue that is worthwhile for owners of the original, and serves as a more than enticing introduction for those on the outside looking in on the messy office of old school dub. This new and enhanced edition features twelve bonus tracks, literally doubling the length of its previous incarnation.
At this point, the only remaining question should be, “Okay, but who is King Tubby? And who, for that matter, are the Agrovators?”. Fair enough. To put it as simply and succinctly as possible, without King Tubby there is no dub. Born Osbourne Ruddock, Tubby made a name for himself on the Jamaican scene in the mid-to-late ‘60s as a master of the remix, or “version”—the instrumental B-side of a hit single. Eventually, Tubby began taking liberties with the songs themselves, cutting, pasting, and reshuffling instrumentation, adding volume, echo, and all manner of off-kilter effects. The court jester genius of reggae, Lee “Scratch” Perry, is rightly credited with taking Tubby’s innovations and flying with them, pushing the boundaries of what was previously conceivable, not only in reggae, but in music. Tubby, however, was the progenitor, and his genius lay in the tactical dismantling of a song, essentially creating a separate composition that always retained the élan of the original.
Tubby is known mostly for his masterpiece, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, a collaboration with the one-of-a-kind melodica maestro Augustus Pablo. But the lesser known King Tubby Meets the Agrovators at Dub Station is ripe for reappraisal and some overdue accolades. To be certain, the album could—and should—be titled King Tubby Meets Tommy McCook and the Aggrovators at Dub Station, brevity be damned. The Agrovators were ace producer Bunny Lee’s assembly of top tier session players, including bassist Robbie Shakespeare (later part of the tandem Sly and Robbie) and guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith. McCook, on the other hand, was already a saxophone legend from his tenure with seminal Jamaican institution the Skatalites. This meeting, then, features two of the most important names in reggae at the cusp of their careers.
Anyone familiar with the immediately identifiable Skatalites sound, or McCook’s work with other artists, understands that it is all but impossible to hear him play his horn and fail to feel happy. This is, without any doubt, happy music—which is not to imply that there is anything lightweight, saccharine, or compromised here. Quite the contrary, McCook’s playing provides tasty embellishment to the fat riddims, and is always an ornament to the smoky dub sounds. His sax is very much a lead instrument in this affair. From the first seconds, all the customary elements are in effect: the wall-crushing drums, the deliriously heavy bass beats, and then that horn, like a snake weaving through water. All that follows seldom strays far from the formula of solid grooves punctuated and prodded by McCook’s always compelling accompaniment.
The title track, “The Dub Station”, is so perfect it could stand as an anthem for all that this music is capable of: fanfare and flying cymbals all simmering in Tubby’s broth. Usually the titles refer to the original song being dubbed. For instance, “The Dub Duke” is from “Duke of Earl” and “Jah Say Dub” comes from Marley’s “So Jah Say”. Highlights abound, but special mention should be made of “The Meducia”, which commemorates “No Woman No Cry” by way of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”. The dub runs deep on “Kojak”, which ingeniously uses Duke Ellington’s immortal “Take the A Train” as a brilliant point of departure. And so, 70-plus minutes of these goods, reworked and mashed up by the dub master, going beyond the innovative and into territory that is often something close to ecstatic. Nothing ever sounds terribly dissimilar to the watershed sessions the Upsetta oversaw throughout the ‘70s, but these songs are, literally, more horn-driven and slightly more human, tending more to the sweet side of Perry’s bitter. This, again, is happy music. This is historic music. This is essential music.