[11 May 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If there’s anyone in the world who knows more about reggae than Steve Barrow does, they really need to get out more. Blood & Fire, the label that the Englishman co-founded in 1993, has fast become the premier source for top-quality reissues of long-sought-after Jamaican gems. The Rough Guide to Reggae, which he co-authored, is arguably the most thorough, and easily the most readable, book ever published on the subject. Barrow has stated that he wants vintage reggae to attain the same cultural status as vintage jazz and blues. He’s the man for the job if there ever was one.
To help further his goal, Barrow agreed to helm the dub entry in the fine Rough Guides music series. At a generous 20 tracks, the result is the most essential single-disc, multi-artist collection of dub music to be issued to date. Drawing on the deep riches of his Blood & Fire catalog and not bound by the need to showcase certain new releases, Barrow gets straight to the core of some of the most original, influential popular music ever made.
When “dub plate” versions of reggae songs started to emerge in the early 1970s, a handful of pioneering producers were solely responsible for the new sound. Working in makeshift studios with simple, often homemade equipment, Osborne “King Tubby” Ruddock, Errol “ET” Thompson, Vivian “Yabby You” Jackson, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and their cohorts transformed simple rhythm tracks into mind-blowing, phantasmagorical adventures in sound.
Reggae’s, and particularly dub’s, influence on various forms of hip-hop, dance, and even rock, has been well-documented. But rarely has it been presented so vividly. Listen to King Tubby’s/Keith Hudson’s “Satia” alongside the Police’s “Walking on the Moon”, and you’ll hear that the former could almost serve as the backing track to the latter. Or try listening to the sparse, skittering percussion of ET’s “Wire Dub” and Maximillian/Inner Circle’s “Down Rhodesia” and not getting the impression that you’re hearing the genesis of drum & bass. In fact, such is the artistry at work that, despite being a quarter-century old, everything here sounds startlingly contemporary. That’s a direct reflection of the producers, mixers, and backing musicians (many of whom are legendary in their own rights) involved.
The majority of the tracks on Rough Guide . . . are from King Tubby, which is appropriate, as he is generally recognized as the man who set the template for mind-bending dub. Bass drums sound like squishy raindrops. A single guitar chord or snare hit is looped and spun around the track like a boomerang. Vocals drop in and out of the mix like disembodied voices. On Morwell Unlimited’s “Lightning & Thunder”, Tubby uses reverb to create his own thunderclaps. The thunder turns to gunshots on Santic All Stars’ “Shooter Dub”. Motorboats and planes cruise through Ja-Man All Stars’ “Dub Zone”. Much of this music was recorded in what you could call “rough” parts of town, and the inner city vignettes played out in these mixes presage the sound effects that are so commonplace in today’s hip-hop.
Also featured are dub versions of some early reggae standards. “Conquering Dub” is a take on Yabby You’s “Conquering Lion”, one of the most oft-versioned rhythms ever. The Abyssinians’ classic “Satia Massa Ganna” provides the basis for two different interpretations, while Horace Andy’s “Money Money (Is the Root of All Evil)” gets uprooted by Prince Jammy. Everything, regardless of the mixer, plays into the hazy, otherworldly King Tubby sound.
As can be expected, The Rough Guide . . . features immaculately-restored sound, as well as an introductory essay and track-by-track notes from Barrow, allowing you to become completely immersed in time and place. The exclusive reliance on the Blood & Fire catalog poses no problems except one, and it’s what keeps this compilation from a “perfect” rating: there is only one Lee Perry track, and nothing from his and King Tubby’s Blackboard Jungle Dub, arguably the most ambitious and well-realized dub record of the era.
Whether you’re a collector who simply needs a consolidated, definitive single disc for easy access, or you’re one of the many music fans who thinks of “dub” mixes as the annoying instrumentals that come on the B-sides of 12” dance singles, The Rough Guide to Dub is required listening.