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Of course, in the strict musical sense, "dub" refers to space-oriented, studio-manipulated reggae and to the method of creation that it has spawned. Since the late '60s, when Jamaican DJs and sound-system operators convinced the island's record labels that the B-sides of singles should carry instrumentals of the A-sides (initially called "versions") in order to better rock parties, dub has been a beautiful musical canvas. When, in the early '70s, genius engineers and producers such as Osbourne "King Tubby" Ruddock, Errol "ET" Thompson and Lee "Scratch" Perry decided to begin splashing that canvas with the synthetic sounds of a studio mixing board, dub joined abstract expressionism as both a kind of process and a kind of result.
Dub's majesty may not be a popular 20th-century cultural tale, but it's definitely not new either. What is new is that no matter what musical direction you glance at in 2003, in one form or another, dub glances back.
Some of this is just a matter of underground systems growing popular. The dance-music world's indebtedness to DJs-- those who improvise and refashion records and rhythms using two turntables and a mixer--is no secret. Nor is hip-hop's appropriation of it all -- hip-hop was paying attention to toaster-fronted sound-systems popular in Kingston. (A fact absolutely known by DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who moved to the Bronx and is often credited with sparking hip-hop's flame.)
Yet in 2003, dub's very sound, not just its set-up, can be heard blasting out of a diverse variety of clubs: Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder and Timbaland are adding its multicultural bounce to hip-hop's monochromosomes. Thievery Corporation, Kruder & Dorfmeister and seemingly most of Bristol, England have brought its smoky sensuality and hood-ornament bass lines to electronica lounges. Jungle and drum & bass are its hyperkinetic kid siblings. Minimalist techno producers use its thick, undulating bottom to spice up their music's thump. Jam-band kids with diversified post-Dead/Phish inspirations have finally embraced this soundtrack of their early pot-smoking days into their stage shows (some by incorporating the mixing board that is dub's primary instrument). And indie-alternative kids have treasure-trawled the thrift-store vinyl hope chest of influences and come upon it.
Still, you may ask yourself: Well, how did we get here? The easiest answer lies in that very punk and post-punk golden era (1974-1981) that indie kids will mine for inspiration until the revolution comes. It's not only a period when the first British punks embraced first-generation West Indian immigrants and reggae heads as brothers in anti-establishment arms -- establishment being the House of Lords and the House of Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- it was a time when punk and dub were also the two coolest things around. It was dub's beachhead on music culture -- and one that it never relinquished.
This collision of worlds is beautifully documented in Wild Dub -- Dread Meets Punk Rocker Downtown, a thirteen-track compilation of rare dub mined by the label Select Cuts -- wise moves by some of English punk's best-known artists (the Clash, the Slits, PiL and Generation X, among others). It's a snapshot of two cultures uniting, and it's the first step in dub's musical proliferation and expansion.
"It was a time when the West Indians taught the English people how to party and helped them claim the right to a nightlife," recalls Vivien Goldman, one of the compilers of the set and its annotator. She's better suited than most to make such fanciful statements. A reporter for a variety of British music magazines in the '70s, a lover of outward-bound black culture (she's also written extensively about free-jazz guru Ornette Coleman and Afrobeat deity Fela Kuti) and a member of the legendary Flying Lizards, Goldman has lived this transformation firsthand, noting the characters stepping through the door of illegal parties that fueled this mix.
"If you were young and going out at that time, these were the places to go out to [in London]," she says. "No entrance fee, and something spontaneously rocking there all night. It was a reggae thing. After-hours joints, parties held in uninhabitable-type places. Very anarchic and very liberating." No wonder, then, that it was a cultural cauldron for the likes of the Clash, Boy George and future On-U Sound producer Adrian Sherwood.
At a time when punk rock was still scarce, Goldman continues, "if you wanted to play the hip records, you played the new Jamaican releases. It was the thing that was happening." And so the music got under the skin of the young white musicians, until it had become part of their vocabulary, a vocabulary they continue to pass on.