Getting down with dub

Boston Globe, September 3, 2011

In the beginning there was dub.

Well, in the beginning there was reggae. But from the early 1970s in Jamaica, sound engineers led by now-historic figures such as King Tubby stepped out of the shadows and became performers in their own right. Using controllers, mixers, and effects, they generated a spaced-out alter ego to reggae, usually shorn of vocals and underpinned by extra-heavy lines of pulsating bass.

Naturally, dub quickly traveled alongside reggae to the United Kingdom, where it roosted and spread out. Second-wave masters like Adrian Sherwood with his On-U Sound system and Neal Fraser, a.k.a. Mad Professor, developed new techniques and performance styles and began making dub mixes of other styles of music.

But dub itself, at least the deep stuff, remained a specialty culture despite finding fans around the world. The physically aggressive bass throb and low importance given to lyrics almost ensured it would stay that way. Meanwhile, club music exploded into the cornucopia we now know – house, techno, jungle, drum, and bass, garage, grime, and endless subgenres and regional variants.

Now, though, at least one major trend in electronic music is coming full circle. At least that’s the argument behind Dub Invasion – a festival of concerts, workshops, and screenings taking place this month, mostly in New York but with two major shows at Good Life, a bar, restaurant, and nightclub in downtown Boston. They feature Sherwood on Wednesday and Mad Professor on Sept. 15, with DJ crews from both cities opening.

“It’s an opportunity to connect the dots,” says festival producer Quoc Pham of New York’s Sound Liberation Front, a group of DJs and music activists. Programming dub pioneers (Lee “Scratch” Perry and iconic producer Clive Chin are in the New York lineup) alongside current DJs who specialize in bass-heavy sounds, he hopes to unearth a sometimes-forgotten history.

Dub, he argues, gave birth to remix culture: “It was the understanding that bass and rhythm – the elemental components of the sound itself – could produce a physical reaction that would translate into a live form. And it was the first time that the music was not a finite form but a canvas for endless innovations.”

Now dub’s essence has bubbled up from the sonic underworld in the form of dubstep, a dark and bass-loaded style that emerged (of course) in England almost 10 years ago. But as quickly as dubstep grew popular, it also lost focus, spawning everything from Arabic or South Asian-inspired variants to pop crossovers that have orthodox DJs rolling their eyes.

Celebrating and restoring the centrality of dub in this evolution is an explicit goal of the festival, Pham says. “The value is to show the connection so the typical club kid who goes to dubstep events sees that the music didn’t come out of nowhere.”

But the goal is more than historical. In New York, Chin, Sherwood, and Mad Professor will do live workshops with vintage equipment demonstrating how they came to invent their sounds. And Pham says gathering enthusiasts of different generations and origins under the dub umbrella is a way to foster exchanges that will take the music in new directions as well.

In Boston, where dubstep nights – orthodox or crossover – occur regularly at venues like Good Life, Enormous Room, or Wonderbar, the chance to present Sherwood or Mad Professor is a big deal, says Reed Allmendinger, a.k.a. Spliffolian, a member of the local sound system Subduction, who is one of the openers for the Sept. 15 show.

Allmendinger expects to see in one place the scene’s disparate factions: the international crowd that is plugged into the latest from London or Europe, the students, the reggae fans, and the older Rastas and deep dub heads from the West Indian community in Dorchester and Mattapan. “It should be interesting,” he says. “A lot of those people will come for Professor, and a lot of the newer dubstep crowd will be interested in attending.”

For his part, Allmendinger plans to honor the festival’s connect-the-dots agenda when he spins; he expects to set the tone of the evening with a mix of traditional dub, old classic reggae 45s, and what he calls “dubstep records of a more reggae nature.”

Reached by phone in London, Mad Professor says that the disconnection between dub roots and descendants depends on where you are. In the multicultural, working-class neighborhoods where dubstep emerged, dub had never gone away.

“Dubstep probably developed in Croydon, the same area where I am speaking from now,” Mad Professor says. “The Croydon crew are quite aware of the roots of the whole dub thing. Others who later got on the bandwagon don’t know so much – but it’s up to them to find out.”

The Professor, as he’s known, has a long history as a dub ambassador. “No Protection,” his 1995 album-length dub remake of Massive Attack’s album “Protection,” is a stellar example of a dub collaboration and probably his best-known project outside the dub underground. In turn, his own work has now been remixed by dubstep producers.

For the Professor, the explosion of dubstep and other strands of electronic music, driven by ever more accessible production and mixing technology, is a good thing even if it has also generated plenty of humdrum material. “I try to check everything out,” he says. “Not everything new is rubbish!”

Ultimately, he says, genre distinctions are less important than the feeling in the music. And this luminary of technology-assisted music offers a caution for all producers and DJs.

“I like real musicians recording a real tape, rather than drum machine and Pro Tools,” Mad Professor says. “In a world of plastic people and plastic smiles, I like sounds that are natural, organic, and real.”