Written by Edward Burrell
Frequency 21 recognizes a simple fact, that black people have had an incredibly huge contribution to music over the decades. This is not just in a particular genre, but across all of them. Since Black History Month is about celebrating the contributions that black people have brought to the world across the ages, it seems only right that we should do our part by releasing four profiles on four artists, one to be released every week. These artists have contributed to music by either being a trendsetter, key founder of a particular genre, or a role model to the musical world across different genres. So to start our Black History Month Specials, we have chosen to begin on a dub legend, King Tubby.
King Tubby (real name Osbourne Ruddock) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but he wasn’t always a producer. His introduction to the world of music was actually as a technician in the 1950s. But before I can explain to you how his input to music was so important, there needs to be some context laid out.
As you could imagine, at special events in Jamaica such as weddings or political conferences, there would be some sort of music played by an orchestra. This was the 1950s so Blues was popular, but in the interludes a sound system would fill in the gap.
King Tubby is known for the progress he made with cutting dubplates but he wasn’t the originator. It was actually first done by accident. To briefly explain, the dubplate refers to the vinyl used to master a track, meaning cutting a dub/dubplate, means to ‘double’ over the track, recording over it to get something new and exclusive.
Due to the tropical weather, the sound systems were constant need of repair. Before being involved in music he was a self-taught electrical engineer who could fix things from TVs to amplifiers, and also sound systems themselves.. He operated out of the back of his mother’s house at 18 Drumalie Avenue, working on amplifiers and speakers for other sound systems. It was a makeshift studio with a voicing booth to record vocals as well as an office. The voicing booth was simply the bathroom which he had converted, which he got help from Bunny Lee (Osbourne’s best friend and fellow record producer).
But what drew many other producers, vocalists and so on, was how good King Tubby was at cutting dubs. His talent drew huge names from Chris Lane and David Rodigan himself from Britain, as well as Jamaican producers such as Lee.
His own sound system was called ‘Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi’, which later became one of the best systems in Jamaica because of the high quality equipment which he had made himself. He was a master behind the mixing the desk and eventually he came out from behind of it to become an artist in his own right. He had his own tricks for cutting dubs which gave birth to what we would call a ‘remix’. When Tubby was still exclusively an engineer, he would ask to produce what is called a ‘version’ which is the instrumental on the flipside of the vinyl, called a 45 due to the speed it was played at. He found that they could be reworked with the settings on a DJ’s mixer. These simple tricks were actually kept a secret by Tubby, but even when it became common knowledge, he was still at the forefront of the practice, using things like reverb, delay, echoes, and phase filters, all techniques which are regularly used in today’s music. This is how Dub was born. This is how remixes were born, people bought records for the B-Side, the instrumental dub remix versions on the other side.
The genre ‘dub’ and the techniques of mixing gave birth to many aspects of modern music, so much so that you could describe his findings as invaluable. The most direct link is to reggae, of which dub music is a subgenre, birthed from reggae sound systems, an important part of Jamaican culture.
What is important is that the techniques of mixing that came from King Tubby is something that radio DJs across genre’s such as drum and bass, grime, garage and dubstep frequently use to this day. Drum and bass came from dub by changing the basslines, adding more electronic sound effects and samples, as well as changing the bpm. The interlude between drum and bass was jungle, which still had the ragga sound that dub had, but the BPMs were changed and the basslines were cut from techno tracks. Dubstep and garage used the same techniques but in a different way, resulting in different genres of music.
The idea of a dubplate, which was reinforced by King Tubby after being discovered by accident, created a whole new culture where sound systems could compete with each other. Sound systems prided themselves (and still do) on have the better dubs, which brought forth the idea of clashing. This was originally called a ‘Dub for Dub’ because they would simply play dubs back to back, and see which dub the crowds liked more. The idea of a ‘Clash DJ’ came from this, inspiring many reggae/dancehall artists to start producing music associated with this, and cutting their own dubplates. Those to note would be; David Rodigan, Bass Odyssey, Ninja Man, Pupa San, Super Kat and many more. This has still survived in the modern age with the long running event ‘Redbull Culture Clash’ being based from this idea. The sound systems would cut dubplates from existing artists, layering new vocals and even remixing the instrumentals, resulting in a having a dubplate special.
It is unquestionable that King Tubby’s contribution to music in the world by creating a new genre of music paved the way for so much more to be created. Since it is Black History month, it is amazing to have such a musical icon that not only contributed to the black community in terms of music, but to the entire world.
Check out King Tubby’s first ever dub here.