When the hot afternoon sun roasts the planet from high above, the chill-out sounds of the Caribbean islands seem like a natural fit. Many people instinctively head straight for one of Bob Marley's legendary reggae recordings. Great choice, but there's another tropical diversion that's shining bright this season, burning its way into the public consciousness: It's called dub.
This mostly instrumental form of musical expression is not some fanciful new creation of a modern-day studio whiz-kid on P Diddy's payroll. Dub actually is one of the first technology-based musical styles, having emerged from Jamaican record studios in the late 1960s. It is essentially a studio technique that strips down multitrack reggae recordings to their bare essentials, leaving only the bass, drum, and trace amounts of vocals and other instrumentation. The sound is then sweetened with echo and delay effects.
The resulting music originally was used as backing tracks for singers during dance parties, not unlike the work of modern-day track artists who sing over prerecorded DAT tapes or CDs. (No doubt, trained seals like Milli Vanilli were just honoring these pioneers with their lip service.)
As the popularity of dub grew in Jamaica, a new king of the Kingston nightlife emerged: the MC. It was dub records or "plates" (one-off vinyl pressings) that allowed MCs, who previously had just announced records, to move center stage and play a more vocal role in leading the party. Microphones, beats and turntables, sound familiar? That's right: Hip-hop's roots can be traced directly to early Jamaican MCs toasting over dub plates.
The technique of "singing over records" was introduced to New Yorkers by Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc, according to Daniel Haaksman, a DJ, producer and music journalist. And Haaksman should know a thing or two about dub: A huge fan of all things dub, he has compiled and released two various-artist collections of the stuff, including "More Dub Infusions," which highlights the latest and greatest in modern-day varieties of dub.
In 2000, Haaksman debuted "Dub Infusions 1989-1999" on the German label Sonar Kollektiv. That CD focused on 10 years of "neo" dub, that is, digital-studio approximations of dub's stripped-down aesthetic. Loops and samples replaced live musicians, but that didn't stop Norman Cook's "Dub Be Good to Me," Renegade Soundwave's "Blue Eyed Boy" or Shantel's "Cell Blando" from ushering in an era.
Haaksman describes "More Dub Infusions," released last month on the same label, as "a more contemporary" sampling of what's hot in today's dub, what's happening "at the moment." On "More Dub," the style is stretched and pulled in many different directions, feeling its way through various genres of music. (For instance, on the double-CD set "Rhythm Collision Vol. 1 & Remix Versions," legendary punk band Ruts DC gets a revisit by U.K. reggae/dub guru Mad Professor and the remix treatment by Zion Train yielding a disc's worth of dub-licious cuts.)
But even in its various incarnations, that dub sound somehow remains, demonstrating its resiliency as an art form. It is a testament to the longevity of the tradition and its unique techniques: Dub is not going away anytime soon.
On "More Dub," on the album-opening Rhythm & Sound w/ Cornell Campbell track "King In My Empire," breezy beats blow troubles away, relaxing the listener into a trancelike state. You can actually picture the palm trees swaying in the hot sun. Ahh, the summer. With its relentless hip-hop drive and video-game sound effects, the Walworth Road Rockers Dub version of Roots Manuva's "Witness (One Hope)" sounds like a RZA Wu-Tang Clan joint worthy of an Ol' Dirty Bastard rap. Another bold experiment, Williams Traffic's "Rainbow Dub" is an almost funky journey through time and space narrated by boomy-voiced actor James Earl Jones. Finally, Darth Vader gets the remix treatment!
Without a doubt, the most curious cut on "More Dub" is credited to the oddball pairing of "Drugstore Cowboy" director Gus Van Sant and mind-expanding counterculture hero William S. Burroughs. On "Millions of Images," Burroughs' voice resonates while slinky guitar echoes into oblivion. Proof positive that dub's boundaries are limitedless and that its possibilities are endless.
"It also illustrates that you can find dub elements in a rock/folk song like 'Millions of Images' ... or in a tune like 'Tag Am Meer' (translation: 'A Day By the Sea') by the German hip-hop crew Die Fantastischen Vier (translation: The Fantastic Four)," Haaksman explains.
A third volume in Haaksman's dub series is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2003. (He's also completing a dub-inspired EP of original music with his brother, to be released on Haaksman's Essay Recordings.)
Born in Italy but raised in Germany, Haaksman, 33, began listening to reggae when he was growing up in the 1980s. Although his first dub record was Linton Kwesi Johnson's "LKJ in Dub," he didn't fall head over heals until he saw the light during a rave in Frankfurt (as many of us do).
"I saw Alex Patterson from The Orb DJing in the chill-out room," Haaksman recalls. "He only played original dub music, which really impressed me while coming down from ecstasy. Such a nice and relaxed music."
The love for dub has spread far and wide. In its European hotbed, hard-working producers have developed their own styles. But you won't hear much of it in the clubs; the tempo is too slow and the records don't usually have much in the way of vocals. More than likely, you'll hear dub in cafes and shops -- the minimalist sounds make the perfect background music, something of a Muzak for a new millennium.
But that hasn't stopped mainstream artists from exploring dub's unorthodox canvas. For his latest vinyl single, "We Are All Made of Stars," hit-maker Moby enlisted house king Timo Maas to do not a pumping club banger, but a dub remix. Even popular underground acoustic rocker Michelle Shocked has gotten into the act, devoting half of her new two-CD set, "Deep Natural," to dub mixes of the songs on Disc One. And the dub parade continues: Remastered packages of classic dub releases blanket the shelves alongside the latest dub experiments.
While the source material for early -- now known as "classic" -- dub came from live musicians whose tracks were reworked by studio wizards like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Augustus Pablo and King Tubby, most current dub tracks are digital creations, built on samplers, sequencers and computers. But, Haaksman says, as long as the material adheres to the basic principles of dub -- the isolation of rhythmic structures, the laying bare of the essentials and the use of effects -- it still fits the bill.
"You can basically dub every musical style," Haaksman says, "be it rock, soul, funk or jazz."
And Haaksman's "More Dub Infusions" ably demonstrates just that, delivering a highly enjoyable listen in the process.