Scientist Launches Dubstep Into Outer Space
Many musical genres have long tails, exerting imperceptible or unconscious influences down the decades, but very few can claim to have changed the history of recorded music like dub can. The haunting reverb and delay that drip off those 1970s reggae basslines are still echoing in most of the music we listen to today, from rock to pop to cutting edge dance music. Most of all, dub changed the way music was recorded, in the skilled hands of pioneering engineers like Scientist. "When an audio system can handle reggae's wide frequency response," he once said, "you know you have a good system. It pushes audio equipment to the extreme."
The first dub albums started emerging in Jamaica in the early 1970s, and by the end of the decade, it was becoming the norm for 7-inch singles to be arranged in the binary format that defined the genre: a lead, vocal single on the A-side, with the dub version of the same track on the B-side. "By the end of the Seventies, people were going into record shops in Jamaica, buying a single, and playing the B-side first," Guyana-born dub producer Mad Professor has observed. "That's the effect dub had on people."
In this formative role, dub versions became fixed as the missing half of a yin and yang relationship, like the echo of an original record: just as every physical object has a shadow, went the rationale, every record has its dub. While its arrival occurred in the 1970s, as a refraction of roots reggae, to its proponents it is an essential force, with an almost atemporal, organic presence. It certainly has a physical presence, as anyone who has felt their ribcage vibrate to a dub bassline will confirm. Interviewed in the 2007 documentary Dub Echoes, Steve Barrow, editor of The Rough Guide to Reggae, describes the power and physicality of dub at its 1970s peak: the genre's godfather King Tubby's sound system resonating across Kingston. "You could hear it for two or three miles, at night-time. That would draw people in, because these dances in Jamaica take place in the open, not in a hall. They call it dancehall, but there's no hall," he says, gesturing upwards to a non-existent canopy, "just the sky".
This was the context in which Scientist, aka Hopetown Brown, discovered dub. Born in 1960, he repaired TVs and radios from a young age, and began using his expertise with electronics to build his own amplifiers, using materials bought from King Tubby's studio. By the mid-1970s, he had become Tubby's pupil in the art and science of dubbing records (it is a verb as much as a noun, describing the process applied to an existing record). Amused at his precocious enthusiasm for the technical aspects of music production, his mentor exclaimed to fellow reggae legend Bunny Lee, "Damn, this little boy must be a scientist" - and the name stuck. Brown went on to work for, and with, many of the greats of Jamaican reggae, both at King Tubby's and Channel One Studios, before becoming one of its biggest names himself, with a series of 1980s albums sporting hilarious names like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders, Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires and Scientist Wins the World Cup.
His influence on latter-day bass explorers making electronic music in Britain is the subtext for this intriguing project. Following the rapid rise of dubstep in recent years, from the multi-cultural London suburbs to the world's dancefloors and pop radios, it comprises an album of new compositions by the cream of the British dubstep scene, which are then dubbed by Scientist on a second, separate CD.
The connections are less obvious than the two genre names might suggest: dub's popularity in Britain's Afro-Caribbean communities may have ambiently influenced some of the young dubstep musicians of the 2000s, but it's broader than that. The processes and aesthetics of sampling, remixing, and DJ-ing (ie the live reworking of recorded music), as well as the use of delays or reverb on vocals, drums and other motifs, all point back to dub. Dub provided the foundation for hip-hop's praxis, and indeed the evolution of dance music through the 1980s and into the multi-genred octopus it is today, from trip-hop's down-tempo, bass-led introspection, to techno's atmospheric, intricately programmed sound washes, to the cut-and-paste approach of everyone from Basement Jaxx to Mr Scruff.
Dub's aesthetic sees the engineer become the artist, and the mixing desk an instrument in itself. Watching Scientist on a promotional tour for this album in London's Fabric night club, this is rendered literal.
The headline slot is billed as "Scientist vs the Upsetters", in which he mixes live songs performed by the legendary 1970s reggae group. So while The Upsetters play anthemic reggae classics like Dennis Brown's No Man Is An Island, the engineer and man of the hour is applying ghostly reverb and other effects to them, but is nowhere to be seen.
Eventually, I find him, half-hidden amidst the high desks of the lighting booth, tucked far away from the stage: it really is like watching a talented instrumentalist, as he carefully tweaks knobs and pushes faders up and down with a deft flick of the fingers - not invisible, but not showing off either.
Superficially, dub's weakness as an art form might seem to be its modesty and sparseness, as much as it is its strength, too. If you are stripping down complex arrangements to their bare elements, isn't there a danger of boredom, of fatigue with the open spaces? Scientist himself, in an interview in the late 1990s, put the case that dub was the revenge of the engineers on pop music, a strike back for those who felt pop sonics were never holistic enough, until dub completed the picture.
"If you go back in time, when you listen to Rolling Stones and The Beatles that have unlimited money to go make whatever record they want, it sounds paper thin! It sounds like they are in somebody's bathroom, the drums sound all clink clink clonk! No bass to it. When you run those music (sic) through the spectrum analyser you see that it's only picking up a tiny portion of the audio spectrum."
There is little danger of limited spectrum bandwidth with either dub or dubstep. Korg Back Dub, Scientist's reworking of the synth-led melodic head-rush contributed by Bristol's Guido, dances merrily in the trebly end, but is always anchored by a substantial bass weight. The dub CD is substantially more interesting than the "straight dubstep" CD: the latter is mostly edifying for the information it provides about the final product, like a list of ingredients on a cheesecake package. Scientist's invisible touch resonates throughout the dub CD: in the shimmering echoes of a melody twinkling in joyous slow-motion, in shuffling dubstep beats drenched in reverb.
The experiment only fails when Scientist restrains his interventions. The rush of supplementary white noise at the start of Dog Money Dub (from an original by Asbo) sounds promisingly like a wave crashing, but the subsequent, smaller ripples of bass are overpowered by the dubstep itself. There are smatterings of reverb, vocals deveined like langoustine, and the spooky howl of a reconstituted synth line, but it still sounds too much like London, and not enough like Kingston.
2012 Dub (Scientist vs Pinch and Emika) and After All Dub (Scientist vs RSD featuring Prince Jamo) provide much stronger examples of how dub reggae might offer more than just an estranged avuncular role to dubstep. The basic rhythm pattern of dubstep remains, but is overshadowed by fleeting, echo-drenched guitar licks, expertly-applied reverb, and bass which is powerful, but subtle with it.
For all the intriguing sonic connections made on this double CD, its paradox is that it seeks to unite two long-lost musics who would appear to be kith and kin, when actually, the DNA match isn't all that close. The names make the younger genre sound like a patronym, a reverent acknowledgement of its elder, and a lot of dubstep is naive.
The fact that a generation of young trailblazers can now make music using just a laptop is undoubtedly a good thing, an emancipating technological change which dubstep enthusiasts have taken full advantage of. But there is still a great deal about sound design to be learned from the kind of musicians who built their own mixing desks.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.