About | Remix Defined | The Book | Texts | Projects | Travels/Exhibits | Remixes/Lists| Twitter

Dub, B Sides and Their [re]versions in the Threshold of Remix, by Eduardo Navas

Text and image source: Vague Terrain

Note: This text was originally published on Vague Terrain, Digital Dub Issue, August 08. It is reposted here with minor edits, and an additional quote by Bunne Lee, to clarify the history of dub in Jamaica.

Abstract: This text outlines the foundation of dub as a musical movement that found its way from Jamaica to other parts of the world, in particular NY and Bristol. Upon looking at history, it can be argued that dub and other musical genres that it has influenced have constantly thrived on the threshold of culture, feeding the center. In support of this argument the essay links the influence of dub to the theories of Homi Bhabha and Hardt & Negri. Dub is also linked to Remix as a discourse of global production.

A Night at Kadan, San Diego CA

On a Wednesday night, during the summer of 2007, I hosted a couple of friends from the east coast, who were in San Diego to participate in Siggraph.[1] We went to a bar in North Park called Kadan. Local friends thought that it would be a good place to meet for the evening because it was Drum ‘n’ Bass night.[2]

It was a bar like many others in the area: the bartender at the front, and some chairs and tables with enough space for bands to perform in the back. It was already quite busy when we arrived. Upon entering, I heard some jump-up with bits of early jungle mixed on the decks. I thought about how Drum ‘n’ Bass had reached a moment when all those styles which had been guarded by their respective innovators now could be juxtaposed with no problem, either on the turntables themselves, or in the studio. The critic in me reflected on how the desire to escape boredom can lead to interesting forms of expression. The boredom with “rollers” in the Drum ‘n’ Bass scene in particular, as many know, led to experimentation in other styles sometimes leaning towards jazz-like compositions.[3] And that evening I was hearing a mix of mainly rollers that had traces of previous styles from 2step to jump up, and even some darkcore.

I did not recognize any songs played during the first few minutes we got there, which was fine because I had not been following the latest Drum ‘n’ Bass releases for the last year or so. We settled at the front of the bar with some beers and began to chat. Every so often we would hear rappers come in and out of the breaks, just cutting through the rhythm, perfectly in sync. I would break out of the conversation from time to time to pay attention to the mix. The voices were so clear that I sensed that there was something different. First I noticed that two or three voices were repeated, then when a song in the style of V Recordings[4] was played and a rapper came on top I decided to get closer.

I understood what was different about the sound. The DJ was spinning Drum ‘n’ Bass with no lyrics whatsoever, while three MC’s were improvising, doing their thing on top of the groove. They were so good that I thought it was all pre-recorded, and that it was the DJ who was playing the tunes with vocals on top. But this was not the case. And I thought, “This kind of energy… this is how it may have been in the early days, in some way in Kingston and later in the Bronx-maybe even London, and Bristol: Selectors/DJ’s spinning and MC’s/rappers just rhyming.” It was an anachronistic moment in time, when I saw the roots of hip hop as a world movement: where it had been, where it was at that moment-yet, it was not necessarily clear where it was going. And that was exciting for me-it kept the tradition alive while mixing it up; each improvised rhyme, each record mixed in with another showed an awareness of history.

In the tradition of freestyling, the voices demanded that we listened because the MC’s/rappers had a story to tell. The tales in themselves were like most stories of MC’s and rappers; the performers talked about their crews and where they come from, whom they listen to, whom they respect, and how much street credibility they have earned. What mattered here in the end was the form of delivery, and the energy produced by the live performance. What stood out for me was how the MC’s/rappers were freestyling in a localized Rastafarian style. The rhymes were leaning towards the early sound of reggae, but at a frenetic, locomotive speed contemporary of Drum ‘n’ Bass-syncopated, and in perfect staccato, with extreme cohesion between rhyme and beat. At that point I thought of the Drum ‘n’ Bass tunes I was listening to at Kadan as equivalent to early dub plates, riding the threshold of versions and instrumentals. Dub was present that evening in remixed form.

The Threshold in Dub

The history of dub, like that of hip hop certainly is always up for debate for researchers. Depending on who you read, and what CD reissues you may be listening to, some people will say that it was King Tubby who discovered dub almost by accident in the studio of Lee “Scratch” Perry, while others will say that it was Ruddy Redwood who, while observing his engineer, Byron Smith, in the studio of Duke Reid, realized the potential creativity of music with subverted lyrics.[5] Both tales recall a similar instance: In Reid’s case his engineer left the vocal track’s volume down, and in the case of Tubby he turned the voices off in the mixing board, realizing that the instruments had power of expression on their own. In both tales, experimentation with sound as abstraction took place: echoes and reverbs were added, while the bass line became privileged.

It is not an issue for us in this instance which of these two pioneers first conceived the concept of dub, but that what developed as dub exposes a musical element that thrives on a threshold; what Homi Bhabha calls the liminal space where identity is constantly defined, where one is neither one nor the other, where one is both and neither; where a third space to gain autonomy can begin to take place.[6] I cite Bhabha’s theory with the understanding that it has been questioned by some, including Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri for proposing what they call indecidability; for ultimately only enabling the subjects to vacillate within a space that makes them predictably marginal to the status quo, unable to develop an actual identity following a Hegelian dialectical philosophy. The criticism of Hardt and Negri is that both postcolonial and postmodern theories are looking at Western enlightenment thinking as a ghost to fight from the past; they argue against those who share Bhabha’s position: “Power has evacuated the bastion they are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists thus find themselves pushing against an open door.”[7] In other words, that which postcolonialists claim to resist has assimilated their rhetoric.

Whether we side with Bhabha or Hardt and Negri is something to entertain at a later point in this text. What we should focus on at the moment is on how these positions are at play in culture simultaneously, and more directly how they link to dub. It is important to develop a critical understanding of dub as a discourse in relation to these thinkers because their positions expose the anxieties that have informed the creative drive behind music culture since the rise of the radio. In terms of recent history, Bhabha’s as well as Hardt & Negri’s theories present particular critical positions that have been inherited from the 1990’s. This text, then, will first present a brief introduction to early dub, followed by a historical outline of dub’s influence as a movement that constantly moved on the periphery of the cultures of Jamaica, the United States and England. Once the history of dub as an international musical influence is outlined, we will then go back to Bhabha and Hardt & Negri to further reflect on their critical positions in relation to dub as a global influence that is intimately tied to politics of difference and social struggle.

Dub: From Acetate to Digital

Dub as a musical concept vacillates among various definitions. The term itself exposes the conundrum upon which Bhabha and Hardt & Negri contest the margins of culture. Dub is often linked to the term version; it is also cited in relation to Reggae B-sides which at times were seen as instrumentals, but in the end, while dub vacillates among these terms, borrowing and informing them, a dub recording has come to be understood as a thing of its own.

Dub got its name from the process of making acetate test plates. Recording engineers, before digital technology, created master disks plates known as test dubs as a necessary part of the process to master a recording. These plates basically were produced to test the levels of tracks, fading them in and out.[8] As dancehall culture evolved in Kingston these plates became important for selectors (the equivalent of the Disc Jockey in pop culture today). And as previously mentioned, it was either, or perhaps both, King Tubby and Ruddy Redwood (by observing his engineer Byron Smith) who came to focus on the actual manipulation of sounds, including vocals as an art form of its own in terms of post-production.

Dub has a close relationship to versions also known as instrumentals, and commonly called B-Sides. What complicates their relationship is that dub recordings were not necessarily instrumental versions of a song, but alternate versions that would have some variation, overemphasizing the bass. Versions in many ways were one of Kingston’s interpretations of Remix as discourse, but which does not completely fit the concept of remixing as it is understood today. A version could be a combination of a cover, a variation of a song, or at times be a re-mix of original recordings along with new tracks on top. A song could have hundreds of versions. For example, Dick Hebdige explains that Wayne Smith’s “Under mi Sleng Teeng” around October 1985 was estimated to have around 239 versions.[9] These were variations that included adding instruments or adjusting levels on pre-recorded tracks, as well as what normally would be called covers. The concept of version becomes blurry very quickly and begins to cross over to the concept of the instrumental and eventually dub, all which came to be included in the genre of B-sides. Here is a the mythical story of how Redwood came to realize the potential of dub:

According to Ruddy Redwood, owner of Ruddy’s Supreme, one day he was in Duke Reid’s studio when he heard the engineer Byron Smith play a tune by the vocal group the Paragons, except that Smith inadvertently forgot to bring up the vocal track in the mix, so that all that could be heard over the studio monitors was the instrumental track. […] When he [Redwood] played the disc in the dancehall it caused a sensation, and immediately Ruddy cut his own versions-initially called ‘instrumentals.'[…] He also got guitarist Lynn Taitt to play on many of them, thus consolidating their exclusivity.[10]

To further shed light on the development of dub, and complicate the conundrum of who actually developed it, here is a quote that provides more details of the event described above:

When dub started it wasn’t really “dub.” Tubbys and myself was at Duke Reid’s studio one evening, and [a sound system operator] by the name of Ruddy [Redwood] from Spanish Town was cutting some riddims, with vocal. And the engineer made a mistake and him was going stop and Ruddy said, ” No man, make it run!” And then the pure riddim run because him didn’t put in the voice. Rudy said, “Now take another cut with the voice.” And then, him take the cut with voice.

[Ruddy] was playing the next Saturday and I happened to be in the dance. And they play this tune, they play the riddim and the dance get so excited that them start to sing the lyrics over the riddim part and them have to play it for about half an hour to an hour! The Monday morning when I come back into town I say, “Tubbs, boy, that little mistake we made, the people them love it!” So Tubby say, “All right, we’ll try it.” We try it with some Slim Smith riddim like “Aint Too Proud to Beg.” And Tubby’s start it with the voice and [then] bring in the riddim. Then him play the singing, and them him play the complete riddim without voice. We start a call the thing “version.”[11]

It appears that Tubby may have actually manipulated the sound during the pivotal session with Redwood, because Bunne Lee includes both Tubby and himself in the act of dubbing along with Redwood’s engineer; but this is the instability of oral history that we will have to live with for now, because it is not clear exactly what they did. What is of interest is that in both quotes we notice a few key elements at play, first the text mentions instrumentals which were B-side recordings of original songs. And also, we notice that Redwood would add to his B-sides other elements like guitars to make the alternate compositions interesting on their own, and in this way the instrumentals were also versions, which Bunne Lee suggests he and King Tubby developed after Redwood’s session. Dub, then, carries the trace of b-sides, and versions, with the pivotal difference that dub emphasizes the manipulation of sound in post-production.

In this sense, Dub has a direct relationship with remixes of today. Dub compositions privilege the tracks as the starting point of creativity, as an activity of post-production. When Tubby was in the studio tweaking by “accident” the knobs of the soundboard, as the story goes, he was by himself (whether he was the first to do this or not, he was definitely one of the first and certainly the best known). He was having a creative dialogue with the machines and the tapes. What he and others like him were doing was certainly informed by the practice of creating versions as described above. Certainly some would argue that to claim what a B-side was or is, whether an instrumental, a version or a dub in the end may be up for argument, because it becomes obvious just in the brief history outlined that these terms were intimately intertwined.

My argument is that dub, as a musical genre, however, rose above the other concepts because of the creative possibility that it provided, as well as the practical efficiency it gave to the sound engineer. These elements are quite relevant in “do it yourself” (DIY) culture today. The creative drive behind dub was successful and has become assimilated into what is known as remix culture for two reasons: one, it allows the individual to thrive alone in his studio with proper sound equipment, to then quickly disseminate the composition in the community, and often allow others to create other versions of the composition. Dub was the first activity in electronic music and Remix Culture to make the most of individual input in large part dependent on technologies of post-production, while also making it efficiently available to others for further development, and input, when the time was appropriate.[12]

To further elaborate, the engineer did not need anyone, just the recorded tracks. No one else, like a performer who would normally want to have retakes, had to be around. It was only the creativity of the engineer that was primarily at play in dub. And if someone came in to record at a later point, then, that person had to listen to the producer of the track and live up to the expectations of what was already recorded. This further reasserted the enslavement of the performer to the machine: the rupture that musicians had been coping with since the conception of the phonograph.[13] A pivotal element that would become more evident as dub culture grew is the lowering cost of producing your own music, which today is available to anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet. Accesability, then, has enabled dub to become an influence in just about all facets of electronic music. Currently, anyone can dabble with some form of creative production whether it is music or visual manipulation with tools often developed in open source communities. Dub marked a moment when the producer and/or music engineer overtly became not only a musician but a conceptual artist focused on selectivity. This is the legacy of Lee “Scratch” Perry, who wore many hats including, gofer, promoter, engineer, producer, and performer.[14] Dub created a space where individuals who enjoyed playing live with the soundboard could conceive doing it in front of a crowd, just like they would do it alone in the studio. This is the concept behind some performances by Mad Professor, a pioneer of dub in England, who tours and performs with his actual studio on stage.[15]

Subversion and the Threshold

Based on what has been noted, it can be argued that a dub recording is not an instrumental, nor a version, but both and neither at the same time. It vacillates, dabbles, and questions its definition as well as those of version and instrumental. The pioneers of this genre actually experimented with tweaking pre-recorded material. In this sense dub explored elements later found in the Selective Remix, as I’ve defined elsewhere:

[The Selective Remix] consists of adding or subtracting material from the original song. This is the type of remix which has turned DJs into popular producers in the music mainstream. One of the most successful selective remixes is Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” remixed by Coldcut in 1987. For this song Coldcut produced two remixes; the most popular version not only extended the original recording, following the tradition of the club mix, but it also subtracted some sections as well as added new sounds, while always maintaining the “essence” of the song intact.[16]

With the concept of selection as the foundation of its creativity, dub is different from the concept of an instrumental in that unlike an instrumental, a dub composition will have traces of vocals, many times half a sentence that gets lost in a reverb that resonates for several bars. Dub compositions do not allow the listener to get lost in complete abstraction. It over emphasizes the bass, and brings forward all other instruments, freeing the drums for experimentation (something that would become the focus in rhythm science, particularly Drum ‘n’ Bass), and then turns the vocals into riffs that come in and out, similar to horns in actual songs. The riffs complement the exploration of the more abstract elements in the composition.

A dub composition rides the threshold, that liminal space that Bhabha and Hardt & Negri contest. Dub finds itself in-between complete abstraction which would be found in pure instrumentation, and the more concrete narratives found in lyrics. Dub deliberately subverts speech, presents it muffled, thus pointing to the power of spoken word as a form of representation. It negates speech, unexpectedly making it much more powerful, by showing its limited role within an almost instrumental composition. Dub privileges the bass line and guitar riffs, but without the lyrics coming in and out in similar fashion to a horn section, the song would simply fall apart; the average person would be prone to finding it boring.[17] Dub becomes a simulacrum, a cave, where one sees the shadows of the story upfront, but always undefined. One senses the narrative, but this one never completely appears. If one knows the original tune, then one can project the lyrics, and have an allegorical experience; if not, then, one may try to figure out what the actual lyrics may say.

This is the case with songs like “Moses Dub” by the Revolutionaries, or “Satta Dread Dub” by Aggrovators and Kin Philip. They begin with instrumental intros, guitars on top of the over-emphasized bass line, and then a break follows with a reverb of the last note played on the instruments; and then the lyrics come in. The beginning of a phrase, here, then gets lost, then a reverb, and out again, all instruments drop except for the bass, then a reverb and from the back the lyrics come on top to then get lost in an echo, and so on. This approach varies immensely and there are too many other groups to name, but as is common knowledge to all Jamaican music lovers, other acts like Prince Jammy and Perry’s Upsetters made the most of these few studio effects.[18]

This in-betweeness, this inability to completely be a version or an instrumental, while also comfortably relying on both for cultural dissemination, is what has allowed dub to have great expressive power. It has also turned it into an appealing model for music genres that have followed it. Like dub those other movements did not develop in the center, but in the threshold in that liminal cultural space, the periphery where things can be redefined; that space around which Bhabha and Hardt & Negri contest their positions.

Traces of dub are quite common and taken for granted when a DJ tweaks knobs and levels to create sound effects on the fly. This excites the dancers on the floor, and it is a direct act coming from the early studio days of dub experimentation, when artists like Perry and Tubby would tweak again and again the same tracks. Plastikman, Juan Atkins, Timo Maas, Paul Oakenfold among many other contemporary DJ stars use the DJ mixing board following principles first explored alone in a studio, in Kingston. Today, the tweaking of knobs is part of lucrative spectacles developed around DJ Culture to fill up arenas.

Dub in Hip Hop, Down Tempo and Drum ‘n’ Bass

Dub, as Jamaican music, is perhaps best known for its link to hip hop in the seventies and eighties in the Bronx, NY. Kool Herc is now officially known as “the father of hip hop.”[19] He brought the culture of toasting (talking over the mike to make toasts while also animating the audience) to the Bronx. With his mobile sound system, and the concept of the breaks-he made the most of that instrumental section, where the drummer could find expression just for a few bars before the lyrics came back. This was the basis for turntablism. DJ’s became obsessed with finding breaks they could remix on the spot for dancers and especially B-Boys. The selector in Jamaica is equivalent to the DJ in New York, and the MC (Master of Ceremonies) is equivalent to the rapper. While the selector spins the records the MC animates people to get busy on the dance floor; this was called toasting, or talk-over. This activity of mixing and remixing live for the audience, while the MC talked over the records, which was further explored during the early days of hip hop in the Bronx, made it to the music studio, becoming the foundation for hip hop music, aligning itself with Disco, another studio based music genre.

Soon after WWII, people from Jamaica migrated to England to fill up jobs that English people did not want to perform, and the music of Jamaica started to ambivalently become part of English culture, as the immigrants from the West Indies were not always well received by the English.[20] West Indians children born in England developed new musical forms of their own, and in the nineties dub and reggae along with hip hop influenced the development of Drum ‘n’ Bass, as well as trip-hop and down tempo,[21] music genres with multi-ethnic contributors, particularly in Bristol, England. Artists like Goldie attest that Drum ‘n’ Bass was the first form of music that England could call its own because it had not been imported.[22] Nevertheless, Drum ‘n’ Bass is informed by the tradition of breaks (evolving into breakbeats) that started in the U.S. with turntablism.

In England breaks were sped up. In this sense the turntable as an instrument played a vital role. A breakbeat record played at 33 RPM could be replayed at 45 RPM, and it would sound strikingly like the early jungle sounds. Also, by doubling up the beat in this way, jungle (early Drum ‘n’ Bass) became fully mixable with down-tempo, or trip hop compositions, often played at 60 or 80 BPMs. This allowed producers in Bristol to push for the beat in abstract form and explore rhythm in similar fashion to the early dub days in Kingston. This fetishization of the rhythm came to be called Rhythm Science. Drum ‘n’ Bass producers in particular also strategically inserted lyrics to create a sense of abstraction with hints to open ended narratives. The influence of dub is strongly sensed in early jungle.

Down tempo was influenced by hip hop compositions also often favoring or over-emphasizing the expressive power of the instruments, not the voice, although the lyrics were important, and complete songs did develop. As it is historically acceptable, one of the first trip-hop bands was Massive Attack. With their album Blue Lines (1991), they came to explore the possibilities of rap in UK culture. Their compositions were also clearly influenced by the Kingston sound, particularly the aesthetic of dub. This would become even more obvious in their second album, Protection (1994) which was published simultaneously with its doppelganger No Protection mixed and produced by Mad Professor. No Protection was clearly informed (if not fully formed) by imported dub culture. Other Bristol groups followed, like Portishead, and their internationally successful album Dummy (1994), as well as Tricky, and his album Maxinquaye (1995). Tricky initially collaborated with Massive Attack, but by the late nineties had moved on to work on his own projects. The label Ninja Tune was founded in 1991 by Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Coldcut.[23] In Ninja Tune we find today a mix of all the genres mentioned so far, Drum ‘n’ Bass riffs seamlessly combined with breakbeats and down-tempo tunes, and other styles in-between that would defy an easy label. It is worth noting that artists like Massive Attack and Portishead are not so concerned with labels for their music as well. Other contributions during the nineties came from the label Mo-Wax which produced albums like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. Shadow, originally from Davis, California today is perhaps best known for his seminal composition “Midnight in a Perfect World.”[24] It is important to note how class is at play at this point in music influenced by dub, since Shadow while thriving on the periphery of music culture is college educated, something that many in the first generation of hip hop were not able to attain.

While acts like Portishead and Massive Attack have found some acceptance in pop culture, Drum ‘n’ Bass artists have not been able to become as popular, although Drum ‘n’ Bass itself as a musical form is actually incorporated into bling bling type hip hop as well as car commercials. Goldie may be one of the few Drum ‘n’ Bass artists who actually became somewhat well-known in the mainstream. He even dabbled with acting.[25] But other artists like Photek and LTJ Bukem remain well known mainly within the more immersive circles of electronic music. Their compositions are unlikely to be played in major radio stations, at least in the United States.

To this day, dub has informed the more popular genre of “electronic music”, but even this format is not fully part of the mainstream; instead, it thrives as a semi-sub-culture that at times attains momentary attention in mainstream media. Electronica, itself, thrives on the periphery of a stable market, which is possible due to the economical stability offered by global sales in large part on the Internet. Now that an outline of dub’s evolution is in place, its relationship to the periphery can be entertained with the theories of Bhabha and Hardt & Negri.

Dub ‘n’ Theory

We need to revisit the critical positions of Homi Bhabha as well as Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri in more detail. As previously explained Bhabha focuses on how identity is defined in the liminal space between cultural fields. He is interested in developing a theory of the Other that does not ultimately support colonial ideology. He writes:

I want to take a stand on the shifting margins of cultural displacement – that confounds any profound or ‘authentic’ sense of a national culture or an ‘organic’ intellectual – and ask what the function of a committed theoretical perspective might be, once the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world is taken as the paradigmatic place of departure.[26]

Bhabha with hybridity proposes to consider activities by groups like the ones responsible for the evolution of dub in terms of difference not diversity. The reason being that the notion of diversity, he argues, is epistemological, an object of empirical knowledge, something that demands a stable identity, while difference is always in the process of enunciation. It is always becoming, and changing.[27]

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri use Bhabha as the generalized example to show the limited view of not only postcolonial theory, but also poststructural and postmodern theories. The main reason, they argue, is that these theoretical disciplines keep looking at Western thought as a hegemonic model from the past. Hardt and Negri argue that theories conversant with postcolonialism react against the foundation of Enlightenment thinking:

We argued earlier that modernity should be understood not as uniform and homogeneous, but rather as constituted by at least two distinct and conflicting traditions. The first tradition is that initiated by the revolution of the Reinaissance humanism, from Duns Scotus to Spinoza, with the discovery of the place of immanence and the celebration of singularity and difference. The second tradition, the Thermidor of the Renaissance revolution, seeks to control the utopian forces of the first through the construction and mediation of dualism, and arrives finally at the concept of modern sovereignty as a provisional solution. When postmodernists propose their opposition to a modernity and an Enlightenment that exalt the universality of reason only to sustain white male European supremacy, it should be clear that they are really attacking the second tradition of our schema (and unfortunately ignoring or eclipsing the first).[28]

Soon after they explain that the critical position of the postmodernists and postcolonialists is limited because it only focuses on how power is sustained for white males and do not deal with the foundation of that power, they explain that the very concepts of difference due to this oversight have been co-opted, and comfortably assimilated by the very forces postcolonials aim to resist. Hardt & Negri’s argument of pushing against an “open door” is based on how the concept of difference has been adopted and promoted by Capital (or Empire). To support their view they argue that corporations see difference, as often presented by postmodernism and postcolonialism, as a way to new markets, and that even corporations promote “diversity management” as a way to keep their employees as productive as possible.[29]

There are two elements at play in the criticism of Hardt & Negri. One is that Bhabha and those who share his methodologies do not support a dialectical development of culture, which is what Hardt & Negri are truly interested in. They argue that one must be aware of the ongoing development of what they call Empire, a concept that enables them to view the state of global development in line with the theories of late capitalism as defined by Ernest Mandel and further supported by cultural critics such as Fredric Jameson: “We certainly agree with those contemporary theorists, such as David Harvey and Fredric Jameson who see postmodernity as a new phase of capitalist accumulation and commodification that accompanies the contemporary realization of the world market.”[30] Hardt and Negri ultimately view postcolonial and postmodern theories as symptoms and signals marking a stage of capital that must be assessed critically to move successfully to the next dialectical moment.

The second element of criticism is that postcolonialists (or in Hardt & Negri’s case, Bhabha) place an emphasis on the complexity of identity defined not only by class but also other cultural elements such as gender and ethnicity. Bhabha reflects on the struggle of classes in England with the miner’s strike of 1984-85. He explains that when this moment was later remembered it belonged securely to the “working-class male” safely historicized as another class struggle, but to complicate this matter, the activist Beatriz Campbell interviewed for the Guardian women who also participated in the strike. The interview, argues Bhabha, demonstrated that women’s experience of the struggle was different from that of men’s, and that the conflicts were not only about class struggle, but identity and gender struggle as well. He elaborates:

It would be simplistic to suggest either that this considerable social change was a spin-off from the class struggle or that it was a repudiation of the politics of class from a socialist-feminist perspective. There is no simple political truth to be learned, for there is no unitary representation of a political agency, no fixed hierarchy of political values and effects.[31]

This position on “no fixed hierarchy” is what Hardt & Negri attribute to the indecidability in Bhabha; that is Bhabha’s unwillingness to claim a side and a clear position in terms of resistance as a struggle that is socially shared, as well as his apparent dismissal of a dialectical postcolonial theory. They accuse Bhabha of vacillating unable to come to terms with a larger view of cultural struggles. They further argue that the celebration by postcolonials of constant movement is something that people who actually struggle with class difference are unable to relate to:

Just a cursory glance around the world, from Central America to Central Africa and from the Balkans to Southeast Asia, will reveal the desperate plight of those on whom such mobility has been imposed. For them, mobility across boundaries often amounts to forced migration in poverty and is hardly liberatory. In fact, a stable and defined place in which to live, a certain immobility, can on the contrary appear as the most urgent need.[32]

There are other postcolonialists who do share a materialist foundation in some degrees with Hardt and Negri, such as Gayatri Spivak in particular, but they do not mention her at all in their critical dismissal of postcolonial theory.

I have focused on Bhabha’s and Hardt & Negri’s two critical positions because they are in many ways what contemporary critical theory has inherited from the nineties. As I will argue in what follows, the evolution and influence of dub since its conception in the West Indies can now be assessed with these two particular philosophical points of view in mind. Dub could be seen as a discourse that thrives on the threshold as defined by Bhabha, as well as a discourse that points to what is to come, in the next dialectical stage, as promoted by Hardt & Negri.

Dub-b-[ing] the Threshold

All of the music genres mentioned so far have been part of an ongoing evolution, which have by and large taken place on the peripheries of specific cultures. They find themselves in the threshold contested by Bhabha and Hardt & Negri. In Kingston it was in the more marginalized areas where musicians expressed their frustration about their reality. This becomes evident in ska and early reggae. Lyrics often focused on the hard times of Jamaican reality, as “Scratch” Perry and Bunne Lee lyrics demonstrate:

Bunne Lee: The heat is on.
Lee Perry: You can say that again. Then how business go?
Bunny Lee: Can’t get worse. I good fe bankrupt any moment now.
Lee Perry: Then you Kyann [can’t get a loan]?
Bunny Lee: Wha! Any bank you check now all you can hear is the bank manager amoan and the teller them agroan.
Lee Perry: Man! It look like them a kill us softly…

In the Bronx, it was the African American and Latino working classes that also found expression in recycling recorded material. Rap lyrics became a legitimate form of expression laid on top of looped breaks, influenced by the practice of Jamaican talk-over, toasting and dub. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five echo Perry and Bunne Lee’s reflection above in the style of the Bronx:

Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just
Don’t care
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car
Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head

It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under[34]

And in Bristol, musicians were able to find an autonomous voice more or less following the models developed in Kingston and New York. Here is Tricky, when he was part of Massive Attack:

It’s a beautiful day, well it seems as such
Beautiful thoughts means I dream too much
Even if I told you, you still would not know me
Tricky never does, adrian mostly gets lonely
How we live in this existence, just being
English upbringing, background caribbean

Who cared about Bristol as a cultural mecca prior to the development of down-tempo, and trip hop (and now grime and dubstep)? Mario Blánquez has reflected on this, arguing that the kind of creativity that took place in Bristol happened because the structure of the city allowed musicians to get lost in their bedrooms and studios and create their own compositions with some isolation from mainstream music culture.[36] Bristol, Kingston, and New York are among many other cities that have helped shape music globally since the rise of dub. What this points to is that music is always in a constant state of change. It is never pure or impure. It just keeps evolving. Its power comes from constantly thriving on the threshold, from which, when it moves to the mainstream, it must find its way back away, again to produce the next progression in culture.

If we reconsider the history of dub and the struggle of MC’s and rappers that has just been outlined above, we will note that progression in music culture has happened in part because of social struggles that preoccupy Bhabha and Hardt & Negri. Music was often the vehicle for the politics that shaped Jamaica since WWII. Reggae was about West Indians coming to terms with their roots in Africa and their hard life in Jamaica, which was mythologized in a more comfortable form for the mainstream once their music was introduced to the rest of the world via England with the recordings of Bob Marley and the Wailers.[37] In the Bronx, Afrikaa Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and their contemporaries developed their work in part influenced by the music of Jamaica. They also created work around a struggle, and the same happened in Bristol with the movement of trip hop, down tempo and Drum ‘n’ Bass. All these movements never developed in the center of culture, but the periphery. A periphery that must be noted has been always marked by colonialism.

The individuals who contributed to these musical genres often had social limitations imposed on them, as Hardt & Negri would claim; and yes, many were interested in finding stability, rather than being in a constant state of flux. This search for stability, often due to lack of education and social awareness beyond trying to survive day to day, plus having problematic roles, has become fetishized through the glorification of commodities in bling bling culture. In rap songs from the mid/late eighties one can notice the desire for the stability that money is often equated with:

Thinkin of a master plan
Cuz ain’t nuthin but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent
So I dig deeper but still comin up with lint
So I start my mission- leave my residence
Thinkin how could I get some dead presidents
I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did
I used to roll up, this is a hold up, ain’t nuthin funny
Stop smiling, be still, don’t nuthin move but the money
But now I learned to earn cos I’m righteous
I feel great! so maybe I might just
Search for a 9 to 5, if I strive
Then maybe I’ll stay alive
So I walk up the street whistlin this
Feelin out of place cos, man, do I miss
A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and eric b, and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish
Cos I don’t like to dream about gettin paid
So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made
To now test to see if I got pull
Hit the studio, cos I’m paid in full

What we find in these lyrics, which has been recycled in many ways by those who followed, is the possibility to break out of dire straits. In this way the constant push for indecidability that Hardt and Negri write against can be used by those who search for ways to break through their limitations: that which defines the individual’s instability becomes the very means to move on to a more appealing (albeit not necessarily critically productive) state of living. This is what Eric B. & Rakim rap about in “Paid in Full” above; and once that rap is recorded to then become a commodity, the rappers may find themselves in a position of possible decision-making (depending on the deal they made with the record company). Here is the moment where social awareness can be important as Hardt and Negri write, “Mobility and hybridity are not liberatory, but taking control of the production of mobility and stasis, purities and mixtures is.”[39] Rappers who have struggled monetarily in their upbringing often glorify their ability to make money with their compositions and rhymes, and find this form a way of taking control of their production, though not necessarily the reality in which they function. They often do this while not understanding the contradictory social structure that enabled them to get there based on particular stereotypes, that may bring some economic stability but at the price of becoming labeled in a way that is comfortable to mainstream culture. Due to this reality, Bling culture has no critical conscience. It is the fetishization of hip hop culture. The lack of critical awareness, then, is part of a vicious circle created by lack of education and positive role models. This vicious circle is hard to break out of because now it has become the means for corporate America to earn profits from hip hop as a major industry. Gangsta rap is the most obvious example of this development.

With these contradictions on trying to take control of the tools of production, what one can find in Bhabha’s proposition of searching for agency within the threshold is that, even when one has been pushed to the margins, and is not there by choice, one can actually do something productive within this space. One can actually take control of the tools available if one figures out how to do that. The problem for those who find themselves in such situations is to realize that they do have a way to improve themselves and their communities. The problem is that realizing such complexities comes with education, and education is a commodity that the poorer classes, which are marginalized often cannot attain.

With this limitation in mind what is of most urgency here, is not to privilege class over ethnicity and gender in the struggle for social change, but to see them as mutually intertwined, much how the concepts of version, instrumental and dub are in music culture. Bell Hooks is able to focus on issues of class, gender and ethnicity with great precision; her case is specific to African American culture:

Racial solidarity, particularly the solidarity of whiteness, has historically always been used to obscure class, to make the white poor see their interests as one with the world of white privilege. Similarly, the black poor have always been told that class can never matter as much as race. Nowadays the black and white poor know better. They are not so easily duped by an appeal to unquestioned racial identification and solidarity, but they are still uncertain about what all the changes mean; they are uncertain about where they stand. [40]

Hooks shows how class is important and must be discussed, but that class difference will never be resolved unless we also take into account its intimate bond with gender and ethnic differences.

The reflection on dub as discourse so far outlined has been written in a way that I hope will be compelling to those invested primarily in critical discourse as well as those who are participants in music culture. The outline of dub in juxtaposition with the critical discourses so far entertained shows that culture is always in a constant state of flux. It is ever-changing, on a feedback loop from the periphery to the center. The question becomes how to come to terms with this flux. While Bhabha and Hardt & Negri may disagree, their discourses need not be exclusive.

The creative practice behind dub has played a marginal yet major role in all of the musical manifestations so far discussed. People often know about dub, but most may not consider themselves major fans. They often like music that is influenced by dub, and because of this they may buy an occasional dub album. Since dub has consistently stayed on the periphery of culture it is a rare element that shows that the liminal space promoted by Bhabha can be useful; and yes, once one becomes aware of it, a state of flux can be celebrated as the means to an identity that will need to keep being redefined. A question to consider then is, can epistemology be appropriated for post-colonial ends, and not dismissed as Bhabha argues due to its status as a meta-narrative, as a blanket term that allows Western hegemony to stay alive? And should one not question Hardt and Negri’s criticism of post-colonials for their generalized approach? Is not post-colonial discourse too diverse to be dismissed with the swift examination of only one example (Bhabha)? Like dub is to music, postmodern and postcolonial discourses are complementary to Critical Theory.

The concept of dub then can be thought of in terms of dialectics, because the producer needs to become aware of how to work with what is already given. The new will come out of the material already in place-the material manifested already shows what it will be, but it will only be experienced and understood in the actual process of enunciation; whether in the studio as in the case of Tubby and other dub artists, or in media culture at large.

Bonus Beats: Dub in Remix

On June 30, 2008 I went to see Gilberto Gil at the 4th and B nightclub, in San Diego. I knew that Gil is currently Brazil’s Minister of Culture. I had learned about his current position because of an article in the New York Times, which discussed Gil’s innovative approach to improving youth culture in Brazil. He has adopted elements of hip hop culture as a means to educate disadvantaged youth about their potential creativity, and help them envision education as a means to a better life.[41]

Based on this article from 2007, I was under the impression that Gilberto Gil was not performing regularly anymore. But he apparently is able to find the time to promote his own music, while also doing his job as the minister of culture. His concert is full of anecdotes about the development of the different styles of music in Brazil. It is a combination of history and spectacle. Gil delivers an impressive mix of bossa nova, samba and reggae. Throughout the evening he performed some original tracks, as well as three well-known covers. The first was “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, the second was “Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the third was “Something” by the Beatles. All three had a twist to them. “Three Little Birds” was played with a bossa nova feel, while “Girl from Ipanema” was played in the style of Reggae, and “Something” was an unexpected mix of both, Brazilian and Jamaican music. When I heard “Girl from Ipanema” in the style of reggae I could not help but notice the bass, and the drumming. I thought, “This is influenced by dub.” The bass was so over-emphasized that the musicians could just ride it for minutes. The drummer was completely free to improvise, and the percussionist took great liberty as well, although not enough for people to notice the variations. Then I thought about the bigger picture, and reconsidered the concept of version, which as we have seen is part of the foundation of dub. And I realized that what I was experiencing was the influence of versioning itself. Dick Hebdige echoed in my head:

One of the most important words in reggae is “version.” Sometimes a reggae record is released and literally hundreds of different versions of the same rhythm or melody will follow in its wake. […] “Versioning” is at the heart not only of reggae but of all Afro-American and Caribbean musics: jazz, blues, rap, r&b, reggae, calypso, soca, salsa, Afro-Cuban and so on.[42]

A cover is a type of version. And I was experiencing some amazing covers in the concert; only Gil took it a step further. He twisted the cultural context of the songs: to play “Three Little Birds” in bossa nova style, “Girl from Ipanema” in reggae and “Something” combining both music genres exposes the awareness of Gilberto Gil about the power of music as a form of communication and expression which can become a means to better understand the nuances of cultures, particularly during a time of globalization. These three songs were not just covers, or versions performed for the sheer desire to entertain the audience. These songs, as well as all others he performed were delivered with an understanding of how meaning moves across borders, how it jumps from one context to another, and how for this to happen, it must move through the threshold that often separates people in class, gender and ethnicity. As popular as the songs are throughout the world, they were [re]versioned by Gil. Conceptually, the songs were dubbed; they were subverted to serve Gil’s purpose of showing the liminality of music culture. It becomes quite obvious that Gil is using his position as Minister of Culture to put into practice the philosophy that led him to be a critical performer. Gil has been consciously responsible to his Brazilian culture to the point that he was imprisoned briefly to later be asked to leave the country for England during the sixties.[43] The evening was an example of how artists can, if they so desire, touch people beyond the immediate means of their particular art form.

Gil is active not only on the stage but in politics. He is a respected administrator who has been noted for his commitment to improving his country’s culture. And he is not afraid to mix it up and remix it, to take from any area that appears innovative, including hip hop culture. While I could cite some of the latest electronic musicians, such as Pole, who are known for developing long repetitive forms of abstract sound clearly influenced by reggae and dub, I find it much more productive to reflect on the practice of an artist like Gil who has proven and keeps proving that one need not only speak or perform for the few, but can also be active politically. Gil cuts across cultural boundaries in a way that few can. Gil and others like him live the philosophy that made dub and its evolution possible. He rides the threshold.[44]

[1] Siggraph is a major convention that features some of the latest technology in emerging fields. The event happens every year in the United States. See website: http://www.siggraph.org/
[2] Kadan is still holding Drum ‘n’ Bass night, every Wednesday See: http://www.kadanclub.com/.
[3] For a brief history on the development of Drum and Bass see, Javier Blánquez, “Progresión lógica: jungle, drum ‘n’ bass y 2step”, Editors: Javier Blánquez, Omar Morera, Loops: Una historia de la música electrónica (Barcelona: Revervoir Books, 2002), 417.
[4] V Recordings is one of the most popular Drum ‘n’ Bass music labels. It was founded by Roni Size. See their website for more information: http://www.vrecordings.com/ .
[5] The credit for the most part goes to King Tubby. For a different tale where credit is given to Redwood, see the accompanying text of the CD reissue: The Rough Guide to Dub: Original dub master, birthplace of modern dance music, Rough Guides/World Music Network, 2005. Also see Dub Massive Volume One, Fuel 2000 Records, 2000.
[6] Homi Bhaha, “The Commitment to Theory,” The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 34-37.
[7] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Symptoms of Passage,” Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge, England: Harvard University Press, 2000), 138.
[8] See Dub Massive Volume One. This is also common knowledge among musicians invested in dub culture.
[9] Dick Hebdige, “Pre-mix: version to version,” Cut ‘n’ Mix (Comedia: London, 1987), 12.
[10] See Text for CD compilation: Dub Music Rough Guide. For a detailed account of dub as part of reggae, see Michael Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (MIDDLETOWN, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).
[11] Bunne Lee quoted. See, Michael E. Veal, “Dub Plates and Rhythm Versions,” Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (MIDDLETOWN, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 52.
[12] While some critics may argue that John Cage and Stockhausen, Yoko Ono and their contemporaries played with pre-recorded materials as tape loops, their compositions were not open to constant revision by others, which is vital to versions and dub recordings.
[13] These observations are based on my own experience as a DJ, and percussionist, as well as having spent time in studios occasionally, experiencing the recording process. For a historical reassessment of this influence see, Hebdige “Dub and Talk Over,” Cut ‘n’ Mix, 83 – 89.
[14] Erik Davis, “Dub, Scratch, and the Black Star: Lee Perry on the Mix” techgnosis.com. http://www.techgnosis.com/dub.html, 1997.
[15] Todd Dominey, “Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mad Professor: Twisting the dial to twist the music,” Rootsworld.com. http://www.rootsworld.com/reggae/profscratch.html, 2001.
[16] Definition of the selective Remix are entertained in more detail in my texts “Regressive and Reflexive Mashups”, Vague Terrain. http://www.vagueterrain.net/content/archives/journal07/navas01.html, June 2007. Also see “Turbulence: Remixes + Bonus Beats” Turbulence.org. http://transition.turbulence.org/texts/nmf/Navas_EN.html, November 2006.
[17] This, of course, is an issue for those critics holding on to Adornian criticism of music. While I do reflect on Adorno’s critical position in other texts, this text is not the place to point out what banal entertainment may or may not mean for those holding on to culture in the name of critical theory. This is merely an observation without passing judgment on the people that would react to music as boring due to their desire to be entertained.
[18] For other songs see Dub: The Music Rough Guide. Also the Double CD set Dub Massive.
19 Afrikaa Bambaataa calls Kool Herc the father of hip-hop in the movie Scratch. See Scratch, DVD. Directed by Doug Prey. USA: Firewalks Film, 2001.
[20] Hebdige, “Dread in a Inglan,” Cut ‘n’ Mix, 90 – 95.
[21] See Blánquez, “Progresion Lógica[…],” 407 – 436.
[22] See Loops, 407.
[23] For more information see their website: http://ninjatune.com.
[24] DJ shadow, “Midnight in a Perfect World,” Entroduding, CD. Mo-Wax/FFFR, 1996.
[25] For details on Goldie’s career see his website: http://www.metalheadz.co.uk/, An extensive bio is available on VH1’s website: http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/goldie/bio.jhtml, and for a list of films he has been in see, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0325635/
[26] Bhabha, 21.
[27] Ibid, 34.
[28] Hardt & Negri, 140.
[29] Ibid, 153.
[30] Ibid, 154.
[31] Bhabha, 27-28.
[32] Hardt & Negri, 155.
[33] As cited by Dick Hebdige in Cut ‘n’ Mix, 64.
[34] Lyrics for The Message: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/g/grandmaster+flash/the+message_20062225.html
[35] Lyrics from Blue Lines: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/massiveattack/bluelines.html.
[36] Blanquez, “Medianoche en un mundo perfecto: abstracción hip hop y ciencia del beat a cámara lenta (1987-2002),” Loops, 357.
[37] Hebdige, “Bob Marley and the Wailers,” Cut ‘n’ Mix, 78 – 81.
[38] “Paid in Full” Lyrics by Eric B. And Rakim http://www.asklyrics.com/display/Rakim/Paid_in_Full_Lyrics/170733.htm
[39] Hardt & Negri, 156.
[40] Bell Hooks, “Class Matters,” Where We Stand: Class Matters (New York: Routledge, 2000), 5-7.
[41] Larry Rohter, “Brazilian Government Invests in Culture of Hip-Hop” NYTimes, March 14, 2007 (June 2, 2008) <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/14/arts/music/14gil.html?ex=1331524800&en=eea77b521e535427&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss>.
[42] Hedbidge, 12.
[43] Hiram Soto, “The Minister of Culture Will See You Now,” San Diego Tribune, June 26, 2008 (July 1, 2008) <http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/features/20080626-9999-1w26gil.html>.
[44] Gilberto Gil retired as Brazil’s Minister of Culture shortly after the text on dub culture was written. See “Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil leaves politics for music”, July 30, 2008 (August 8, 2008) < http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5jKjYIX1n2KgOYBZkgwhR6rh7bGDA>.

Lascia un commento

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Current Projects






    Remix Theory | is an online resource by Eduardo Navas. To learn more about it read the about page.

    Logo design by Ludmil Trenkov