From “dubplate” to “dubstep,” the word “dub” appears in a variety of contexts and, more importantly, denotes a form of music that has influenced countless genres and musicians. Based on reggae, the well-known Jamaican genre, dub music was one of the early examples of how studio wizardry and technology could radically alter music as a whole.
Often found on the b-sides of reggae singles from the late 1960s onward, “dub” versions of reggae tracks were products of studio experimentation. As evident here, echoes and reverb warp the original track into something ghostly and emphasize the low-end sound, namely the kicks and basslines. Pioneers such as Osborne “King Tubby” Ruddock and Lee “Scratch” Perry worked throughout the 1970s to create entire dub albums, also flirting with elements of psychedelia and the trance-inducing rhythms that would invade the dance floors of the U.S. and Europe in the coming decade.
Like a lot of Jamaican music at the time, dub revolved around the island’s “sound system” culture. “Everything about Jamaican sound system culture is rooted in competition, including the size of a crew’s speakers” according to the Red Bull Music Academy website. Crews would build massive speaker systems and gather groups of MCs and DJs to compete against rivals. RBMA’s website further notes, “Tubby started creating “specials” (or exclusive tracks) to be played by his and other systems.” These large speaker sets would emphasize the cranked-up low end frequencies of dub.
Dub was not popular only in Jamaica — its spread to the U.S. and across the Atlantic to the U.K. helped spawn new forms of music. In her book “Black Noise”, Tricia Rose notes “Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc separated rap music from other popular music and set the stage for further innovation. Kool Herc was known for his massive stereo system speakers (Herculords) … Kool Herc’s Herculords, modeled after the Jamaican sound systems that produced dub and dance-hall music, were more powerful than the average DJ’s speakers and were surprisingly free of distortion … They produced powerful bass frequencies.” The techniques and musical innovations brought over by the Jamaican immigrant community in New York City were some of the key elements in the development of early hip-hop.
In the prologue to his book “Rip It Up and Start Again,” Simon Reynolds writes about the particular form of guitar and bass playing prevalent in the American and British post-punk scenes of the 1970s, mentioning their “brief bursts of lead integrated with more rhythm-oriented playing” and the “compact, scrawny style” of rhythm guitar that allowed the bass to “step forward … to become the lead instrumental voice” were a result of playing “catch-up with the innovations of Sly Stone and James Brown, and learning from contemporary roots reggae and dub.”
Of course, the large Jamaican immigrant community in the U.K. had their own major impacts. Artists such as Mikey Dread and Mad Professor continued to make dub LPs as well as collaborate with more rock-oriented producers to create the aforementioned dub-inflected rock. These same groups helped influence the birth of dance genres such as jungle, acid, garage and of course, dubstep.
Fifty years after King Tubby’s studio “mistakes” helped create dub, its unparalleled influence on the world’s music still lives. Helped by the immigrant communities in places such as the Bronx and London, its spread created some of the most popular genres of music ever made.