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Dub, American Style

There's more to West Coast instrumental pop than surf music — just ask Dub Narcotic Sound System, Grassy Knoll, President's Breakfast, or Money Mark.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Much has been made of late of the brave new dub-influenced pop tunes wafting across the Atlantic. All manner of this danceable British music, from the ambient-techno encounters of Aphex Twin to the dreamy songs of Tricky and Portishead, is permeated by dub, a meditative studio methodology that originated a quarter century ago in Jamaica, the home of reggae.

More quietly — if anything can be said to be quieter than ambient music — a dub revival is also coalescing in the United States. But aside from the Beastie Boys, whose percussion-and-organ instrumentals betray youths spent under the spell of such Jamaican innovators as Lee “Scratch” Perry and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, none of the dub-influenced U.S. rock bands have achieved the notoriety of their U.K. brethren. Such groups as the Dub Narcotic Sound System (from Olympia, Wash.) and President’s Breakfast (from San Francisco) are using dub as a creative launch pad, but their work is too disparate to fit easily under a rubric like “trip-hop,” the umbrella term for much of the new British dub-influenced pop.

Dub’s rise in America is particularly strong on the West Coast, whose beach culture would make for a nice climatic correlation with Jamaica if dub — a studio art — weren’t by nature an indoor activity. (Well, there’s always the hemp connection.)

A little history. In dub, a song’s backing tracks are treated with simple studio effects to create new versions. These dub compositions focus the listener’s attention not on the familiar strengths of pop music — melody, lyrics, instrumental leads — but on the simple pleasure of a heavily echoed drum reverberating into seeming eternity; or on the repetition of a horn blurt, severed from the original full horn section by liberal use of the mute button. Dub’s emphasis on reverberation carves out imaginary spaces for contemplation — and casual partying. The result is an odd form of spiritual music: one that is indebted to technology, however primitive.

The founders of this movement were such prolific producers as Augustus Pablo and King Tubby; in their heyday their sound systems, or studios, produced more music than the average-size record company. Today’s dub-influenced pop echoes these pioneers in several ways: by using such dub standards as unnaturally exaggerated reverb and the recycling of riffs and rhythms; by often adopting dub’s languorous pace; and, most importantly, by conveying the implicit message that technology is not the enemy of humanity, but a tool of artistic expression and personal reflection. (Island Records, for one, has recognized the new dub explosion with a series of historial reissues, off to a great start with a Pablo overview, Classic Rockers, and an updated edition of the Raiders of the Lost Dub compilation, now titled Time Warp Dub Clash.)

In drawing from dub for inspiration, Aphex Twin, Tricky and their U.K. cohort are simply the latest in a British line of reverse assimilation that includes the Clash, the Specials, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones; U.K. pop’s creative debt stretches back almost half a century, to the first wave of Jamaican emigration to its colonial parent.

Lacking a prominent Jamaican community on the order of England’s, America has allowed for more diffused absorbtion of dub’s musical lessons, in settings that include everything from Meters-style pop instrumentals to highly experimental jazz.

Dub Narcotic Sound System leader Calvin Johnson had a modest purpose when he formed the group. “A lot of people in town here are in bands, but when they have a party they’re not listening to the same kind of music they make,” he says on the phone from his Olympia, Wash., studio for which he named the band.

Johnson should know Olympia’s scene better than most; he founded K Records in the early ’80s to document, and eventually fuel, the city’s musical community. “I thought it would be neat to make a record that someone in Olympia might actually play at a dance party — not that I know if that’s happened yet.”

In the spirit of his prodigious Jamaican role models, Johnson’s Dub Narcotic has during its year-and-a-half existence released a full album of instrumentals, an EP of songs and a handful of 7-inch singles and cassette-only recordings. The band’s lineup is as informal as a party, as is its attitude toward recording. Ridin’ Shotgun, an EP the band recorded with Memphis producer William Brown (Stax’s first black recording engineer) while touring the States this past summer, is due out at the end of October. Also in the dub tradition, Dub Narcotic accepted a commission from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to rework one of the band’s songs, the result of which is featured on the Blues Explosion’s Experimental Remixes EP (Beastie Boy Mike D contributed to a remix, too).

“One of the ideas that I draw from Jamaican music is that there are these rhythms that get used and reused in different contexts — with singers, DJs, instrumentalists,” says Johnson. “That’s incredibly exciting to me.” Some of the tracks on the Industrial Breakdown EP add lyrics to material worked out on the band’s exceptional vocal-less album, Rhythm Record Volume One, a catchy smattering of simple grooves atop which Johnson’s melodica playing suggests Ennio Morricone as much as it does Augustus Pablo. On the title track, Johnson intones Marxist axioms over the band’s spare arrangement. Dub, the narcotic of the indie-rock masses?

“In terms of using samples,” says Johnson, “in Jamaica there’s no shame in taking someone else’s song and making your own song out of it. And I never saw dub as a type of music, but as a process,” he adds, extrapolating from his sense of a free exchange of intellectual property. “The fact that it originated in reggae is inconsequential.”

A key ingredient in the Beastie Boys’ fine mess is Money Mark, or Mark Ramos-Nishita. His keyboards were essential in the Beastie Boys’ transformation from a studio concoction to a true live act over the course of their last two albums, Check Your Head (1992) and Ill Communication (1994). And recently Nishita’s been moonlighting with his own music, as well as recording with George Clinton, Beck and the Blues Explosion.

A homespun 10-inch of his organ noodling appeared in record stores last year. It’s since been collected with additional material for the lengthy, 19-track Mark’s Keyboard Repair on Mo’ Wax, the influential London-based label. The record is thick with the porn-flick funk that pervades the Beasties’ recent work. Freed from the sermonizing and antic rapping, Nishita’s favor for pretty melodies and scratchy, off-kilter keyboard sounds is allowed full fruition. (“It’s kind of an act of defiance from the stuff I do with the Beastie Boys,” he says from his Gardena, Calif., home, just back from London.) Nishita does sing a bit on Keyboard Repair, sounding on “Cry” like Mose Allison guesting on Sanford and Son, but it’s the attenuated vamps like “Insects Are All Around Us” that invite repeated listening.

Nishita says he’s excited to be included in an article that mentions the Dub Narcotic Sound System. Turns out that he played along with the band’s Rhythm Record Volume One for an in-store performance at London’s Rough Trade the day before he returned to the States. “I’m gonna do some records where you can add your own part,” he jokes. “That was my idea when I played live to that record — like, There’s enough room here; let me be in the Dub Narcotic band.”

Though Nishita doesn’t aim for the sort of authenticity with which Johnson’s band toys, his album is rich with dub overtones, with its sturdy basslines, deep acoustic resonance and occasional melodica, horn and flute solos. And like the Dub Narcotic Sound System, Nishita understands his studio smarts to be an inherent part of his musicmaking. “The first keyboard I bought was a Fender Rhodes,” he says. “I played that all night long and the next day I had to go out and buy a four-track — so I’ve never really separated my musicianship from my recording hobby.”

Bill Langton, like Dub Narcotic’s Johnson, champions dub as process, or metaphor — more means than end. “I guess our dub sounds pretty different from normal dub, stripped away stuff,” says the leader of President’s Breakfast from his home in San Francisco. Among the band’s members are guitarist Will Bernard (T.J. Kirk) and keyboardist Dred Scot (Alphabet Soup); widely recorded saxophonist Glenn Spearman guests. President’s Breakfast’s recent sophomore album, Doo Process (Disclexia), is a wildly experimental mix of studio invention and live performance. “We certainly try to revere the form,” says Langton, who goes by the name Click Dark, “and put other stuff on it that might also give you some idea of a relationship between dub and jazz, dub and funk.”

Doo Process is thick with dub resonances, but what truly places the band in the tradition of Jamaica’s studio innovators is its ability to combine Langton’s studio technology with live improvisation. “Odpharb” is virtual reggae, with a spongy beat and ska horns, but check out “Yahh!,” on which a sample of breaking glass fills in for a climaxing horn section, or the band’s take on Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” here rendered as low rider anthem.

The album’s finest track, “Sounds Spectacular,” makes a deep impression with its thin array of samples and riffs, which the band works into an incredibly rarified brand of funk. “It’s very much an excursion into sculpting,” he says. “I filled up what must have been 40 or 50 tracks, full of horns and synthesizers, and gradually came to strip away so much that literally 15 percent of the total sound is all that I had left anymore. I was just shaving more and more rock and was eventually left with this Brancusi form sticking out in the middle.”

And despite the heavy emphasis on prerecorded material, Langton insists that the band thrives on live performance. The most exciting material on Doo Process is when the musicians are clearly interacting with Langton’s sampling, and where Langton is responding to their ideas with his array of effects. In February Langton’s Disclexia label will release Wood Squares by Bar-B-Que Dali, a live collaboration between key members of President’s Breakfast and clarinetist Don Byron (like Langton a New England Conservatory of Music alum).

Bob Green is getting somewhat used to the dub label, though he denies any particularly deep involvement in the music. When he calls from San Francisco, he reports that he just got off the phone with a Canadian writer who claimed that Grassy Knoll, his band’s self-titled debut on Nettwerk/Verve, is steeped in dub. (Grassy Knoll was first released by Nettwerk in late ’94; the new Verve edition adds a pair of studio demos.)

“For me that’s kind of weird,” says Green, who recently returned to S.F. after a stint in Austin, “because I don’t hear the dub. Well, the bass lines, because of my fondness for Jah Wobble, show that influence. But dub always seemed to me to be an afterthought, where you have established tracks and go from there. Though in my music I do make a lot of having adverse ideas coming together. In a way it’s kind of a dub idea, to take fragments and combine them.”

Green’s statement exemplifies how dub’s influence has been disseminated over the years. Englishmen such as Wobble, the former PiL bassist, and Adrian Sherwood of On-U Sound System have enlarged dub’s listenership and its definition. Green’s music also bears the mark of Bill Laswell’s best work: impenitent jazz-rock fusion unabashedly transformed with postproduction techniques, music riddled with flavorful samples and draped under film-score textures. Grassy Knoll is a tremendous album, thick with hard grooves and powerful playing by clarinetist Beth Custer, trumpeter Chris Grady and other San Francisco musicians, including a tabla player and a DJ. Notably absent is the guitar, which Green, who plays bass and other instruments on the album, said he eschewed in order to keep his album from being labeled “industrial.”

As with President’s Breakfast, it’s the self-consciousness of Green’s studio techniques that make the strongest musical impression — the layering of melodies, the haloing of fragments, the shifting postproduction arrangements, the additions of telling samples. A 1995 Emigre Records sampler (Dreaming Out Loud) featured a Grassy Knoll track titled “Noe Valley,” much of which consisted of meditative music fused together from the manipulated scratches of vinyl records; the effect was more Satie than Public Enemy.

“Those sampled tracks of LP records’ pops” — or scratches — “are samples unto themselves,” says Green. “They’re not with anything else [musical]. So if you get a bunch of them going, you can control where the pops land, and synch them up so you can create rhythms with that as well.”

Grassy Knoll shows Green to be comfortable with cacophony and contemplation. Expect a harder album this spring (with guitar, he promises), after the label has had the opportunity to (re)introduce Green’s music to a listening public so enamored of the acid jazz and studio-generated pop of his British contemporaries.

What’s apparent on both sides of the Atlantic is that dub has become the reigning metaphor for reconciling the tradition of live musical performance, as old as mankind, with the abstract art of using the studio as a recording instrument. It’s as though the reverb echoes of Augustus Pablo and his kin have failed to dissipate over the years. Instead, the reverberating waves of their sound systems have grown wider and more far-reaching, only to encompass the most creative pop music of our day.

Collected in the anthology Reggae, Rastafarians, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub, edited by Chris Potash (Schirmer Books, September 1997). Originally published in Pulse! magazine, September 1995. Copyright © 1995 Marc Weidenbaum. All rights reserved.

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