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Jammin’ In Jamaica – The History Of Jamaican Dub Music

Jammin’ In Jamaica – The History Of Jamaican Dub Music

Around the explosive, political and musically transitional period of the late ’60s, America, Jamaica and England were affected by a new production technique that first reared its head in Jamaican studios. Special effects units like delays, echoes, and reverbs had gained popularity through producers like Osbourne (King Tubby) Ruddock, who owned a sound system and cut acetates at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studio. By accidentally leaving out parts of the vocal mix to a song, Ruddock stumbled upon a new formula that offered more options for performing studio magic. He took this new mix with him to a dance, and played the recognizable version first. Then he played his ‘accident,’ and the dub mix was born. Not only did he blow the people away that night; he ran back into the studio to do it again.

In the 1970s when a single was released, it was often answered by another record that gave the second artists’ commentary on the first record. Sometimes, many spin-off versions came out of this technique, known as toasting. This form of rapping caught on later in the United States via the concrete jungles of New York City. On many Rap mixtapes and CDs, artists would modify toasting by ‘dissing’ each other when they had beef among themselves. Though some of the product was hard to find, fans ate up the resulting, often-exclusive releases anyway. Toasting utilized catch-phrases that incorporated the sharp Jamaican dialect–it added a rhythmically expressive, deep melodic quality to Reggae music. When many of my fellow Jamaicans speak, their accents often make them sound like the music: quite rhythmic, quite expressive, quite melodious, quite harmonic, and quite textural. Some popular Jamaican phrases follow:

Babylon – hard living, trouble My yute – homeboy

Bwoyfren’ – boyfriend N’yam – eat food

Cool runnin’s – it’s all good ‘Ole on a likkle – wait just a minute

Cho’ – never mind Oonu – you all

Diy’yah – over here Pickney – children

Frock – a dress Redi dress – showing out

Is fi’ mi – it’s mine Roll tide – keep it moving

Good good – that’s fine Selectah – a DJ

Gweh – get out of my face S’mody – somebody

Gwine – going Soccamibassa – dressed poorly

Gyalfren’ – girlfriend Tegereg – troublesome; a P.I.T.A.

Leggo beas’ – wild, unruly Tump you – hit you

Maahgah – skinny Whe’ mek? – why?

Dialects of Jamaican ‘patois’ can be spoken fast, slow, or moderately. Some of the diction is easier to understand than others because it may depend upon which region of Jamaica one is from. Some people may have emotional inflections in their speech patterns, while others may have musical ones. One thing for sure is that unless you can’t hear, you will definitely know it when a person from the islands is talking or singing…’yah, mon.’ But even without vocals, this underground Dub music of Jamaica was still shaping itself into a more defined entity. By 1973, ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock was experimenting with instrumental versions of songs by manipulating sounds on the tracks. His equipment contained a disc-cutter, mixing console, tape machines and effects units. He worked with the top producers on the island to compose and release the dub album “Blackboard Jungle.”

Instrumental versions of songs soon showed up on the B-sides of singles, called ‘dub mixes.’ Whether tracks were abruptly punched-in with buttons or smoothly faded-in with the sliding fader, they were still given a heavy dose of sound effects. In some cases, interesting effects were created by running a looped tape over the heads of a tape machine. To facilitate this method, a section of the tape was identified for ‘surgery’ or ‘splicing.’ Splicing occurs by putting the section of tape on a ‘chopping block’ with vertical and diagonal grooves etched into it. The grooves guided a razor blade as it sliced the tape at the beginning and end of the section to be cut. The two ends of the isolated tape were then taped together and run through the tape rollers, which passed the tape over the three heads (erase, record and playback) in a repeated, looped manner.

The playback head picked up the signal and played it till the ‘stop’ button was depressed. If the splice wasn’t precise, this procedure could become tedious and time-consuming. This method may not have caught on in the fast-paced world of ‘put it together quick’ Rap music, but sampling sure did. Electronically-made sounds and sampling went on to become worldwide phenomena. Like tape looping, Jamaicans used sampling to create new music such as Dancehall Reggae. You’ll want to see the chapter “What Makes Music” in the forthcoming “Musicology 102” for more on sampling. If the info in that chapter tweaks your interest, we’ll be covering more studio techniques that you may find interesting in the sequel to that book, “Musicology 103.”

Dub remixes were released as a standard configuration by the mid ’70s, and DJ’s constantly played them in the clubs. The open relationship between the United States and Jamaica allowed new styles and trends to drift between the two cultures. By the end of the decade, Rap music made its introduction by creatively looping drum and bass lines with a rhythmic (non-melodic) vocal track and new sounds. Rap brought showmanship to a new level by using the techniques of Jamaican Dancehalls and sound systems, courtesy of innovative DJs like Kool Herc. In case you may have forgotten, we opened up the book chapter by talking about the DJ who brought thunder to the clubs. ‘Big ups’ to these unsung heroes–they changed the era’s musical protocol by breaking down music and remixing it. In America, R&B, Funk, Jazz and Dance music were also broken down and rebuilt; adding anticipation, excitement and exhilaration to physical activity (dancing) and other types of live performances.

Dub music was often fused together in a live setting (people are around), with the mixing board serving as the action centerpiece, as if it were a musical instrument. In the hands of an experienced, partially or totally insane sound engineer or producer, this meant hit records. Besides tweaking the sound processing devices to get a desired or unexpected effect, other studio tricks were also employed. Some techniques include the use of gunshots, screams, sirens, whistles, test tones, mechanical sounds; even physically striking a reverb unit to get a new sound. Therein lays the answer to the exclusivity factor, which was taken very seriously in Jamaican music. Since no one else had the sounds, no one else could play them. To quote pioneering rapper Rakim (of Eric B & Rakim), “I said it before.”

By the late ’70s, the Imprint label, headed up by top Dub engineer Lloyd James (also known as ‘Prince Jammy’), stepped into the limelight to become one of the leading forces in this new wave of music coming from Jamaica. In the meantime, concerts by Jamaican artists were supported by a core group of Blacks and Whites in England and in the United States. The support of British and American recording artists encouraged a curious fan base to listen closer to Reggae. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and The Police made hits that hinted at Reggae, while Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder gave their own convincing perspectives. Just take a good listen to groups like The Eagles (“Hotel California”) and Steely Dan (“Hey Nineteen”) as you dig through hordes of great music tracks to decipher what they and so many others have created during their fabulous careers. More tactical support was on the way when the new Dancehall genre came out of Jamaica. During the late ’80s to early ’90s, it filtered into the Rap/Hip-Hop culture, by way of transplanted Jamaicans and inner-city Big Apple youth who were already thinking “outside the box.”

The loss of Jamaica’s musical prophet Bob Marley in 1981 shook the shores of Jamaica and chain-reacted to a worldwide level. Before things improved, things got worse and Jamaica’s economics took a nosedive. Political turmoil ran rampant between the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), and the People’s National Party (PNP). Jamaican posses became murderously volatile at home as well as in the States and in the U.K. Well-known activists (including musicians and others) were getting viciously gunned down, left and right. The per-capita statistics were astounding. Something had to give; there was too much trouble popping off on this nearly 150 mile-long island starving for ongoing attention, out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Through multiple Prime Minister hand-offs over the years, the bureaucracy of Jamaica (liberated in a year that holds strong significance to me), has passed among seven pairs of hands:

1962 – 1967 Alexander Bustamante (JLP)

1967 Donald Sangster (JLP)

1967 – 1972 Hugh Shearer (JLP)

1972 – 1980 Michael Manley (PNP)

1980 – 1989 Edward Seaga (JLP)

1989 – 1992 Michael Manley (PNP)

1992 – 2006 P.J. Patterson (PNP)

2006 – Present P.S.-Miller (PNP)

Notice anything interesting? It’s been said that there’s no constant like change: for the first time in history, Jamaica handed off its male-dominated political reigns to another original–the first female Jamaican Prime Minister, in March of 2006. The PNP’s own Portia Simpson-Miller succeeded another PNP member, Prime Minister Percival James Patterson.

Over in England, Reggae and Dub artists made successful entrances into the music industry’s battle arena by slicing and dicing the studio mix exclusively for the club. By the 90s, the eminent sub-division of Dub music emerged not only from Jamaica, but also the U.K. and U.S. with styles like ‘Drum & Bass,’ ‘Jungle,’ ‘Trip-Hop’ and ‘Techno.’ International groups from other genres like The Cure, Depeche Mode, Garbage, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, and dozens of rappers, producers and DJs tested Dub in their tracks. Dub influences are often heard in recordings with electronic drums, bass, keyboards, strings, and horns in Reggae styles like Dancehall. A popular sound was found in an early form of Reggaeton called Dancehall Reggaespanol, or Spanish Dancehall. This style of music appealed more to people of the Hispanic/Latino societies in Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and abroad. Spanish Reggae featured Reggae music with Spanish lyrics and catchy horn arrangements. Traditional Latin music may often feature the guitar in songs.

Many people may not realize it, but the Panama Canal was built not only by local Panamanians, but also Jamaicans and other immigrants from around the world in search of economic relief. It didn’t take long for the music industry to notice there were many Black Latinos in places like those listed above, and in South America. By 1991, Columbia Records acknowledged Dancehall Reggaespanol, as it appealed to a large, multi-cultural fan base. Some acts:


Cocoa Tea

Cutty Ranks

El General

Fab 5

Killer Ranks

La Diva

Lisa M.

Little Lenny


Nando Boom

Nardo Ranks


Sugar Minott


Rude Girl

(La Atrevida)


o Featured artist Lisa M is from Puerto Rico; not only is she making songs like ones on this CD, but she also creates music in other styles such as Merengue. Merengue is popular throughout the Caribbean islands, and in South America. While we’re pointing out well-known Merengue hot spots, let’s not forget the site of the famous, international canal–Central America’s Panama, home of red gold. Lisa M and the remaining “Dancehall Reggaespanol” cast were on the forefront of something that wouldn’t crest until after the new millennium arrived.

o Now going by the name of Reggaeton music, Latin Dancehall music incorporates Spanish lyrics as the driving force; moving forward in its popularity, a whole new generation of music appreciators will be pleasantly surprised to hear this exciting music form: some of them, for the first time. Godspeed, children.

o You may have noticed the name “Ranks” attached to Cutty, Killer, and Nardo. Trust me – these guys are not brothers by blood. In fact, many Dancehall artists used “Ranks” in their stage names. One of the biggest was “Shabba.” He got signed to Epic Records around the time Columbia Records signed another hot Jamaican artist known as Supercat. Since I worked for Sony Music (the distributor of Epic), I marketed and promoted Shabba Ranks’ Epic releases.

o Supercat (also known as Don Dada), was already doing his thing on a ‘super’ level when he got signed to a Columbia Records contract during the late ’80s. He was also one of the first-round draft picks when the label began their Dancehall/Reggae signing spree. In keeping ahead of the violins, let me point out that he was another act I marketed at Sony Music, along with Columbia’s “Dancehall Reggaespanol” compilation CD. Considered a ‘West Indian Godfather’ in ‘the biz,’ Supercat is given love in Damian Marley’s song with the somewhat infamous Bobby Brown, called “Beautiful.” That’s another hit song on Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” CD. Trust that! Supercat still has his mojo too, with his name mentioned twice each time it comes up throughout the song. “Check it!”