Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop
King Tubby's "Dubbin' of the Ten Thousand"
(Originally published at Stylus Magazine)
I got into reggae and dub music the same way most everyone else does--first Bob Marley, then Burning Spear, Culture, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and so on. In my younger, more political days (read: my undergrad years), hanging out in Berkeley and reading socialist newspapers, I was drawn to the uplifting political messages of such songs as "Marcus Garvey" and "Get Up, Stand Up." I've never lost my love of these songs; if anything, my appreciation for Marley's music continues to grow. But my interest in the directly political side of Jamaican music is not nearly as strong today as it once was. In part, it's because of my own disillusionment with politics (which, in the United States, has become a sad, depressing joke). However, it's also because I've become far more interested in Jamaican music than I ever was with Jamaican lyrics.
The dominant features of Jamaican music are rhythm and experimentation. At the heart of both these features is one name: King Tubby. True, "Scratch" and Marley get the lion's share of the accolades when it comes to Jamaican music history. That's probably because Tubby didn't perform; he was a studio wizard and an entrepreneur. But his production techniques and dub plate experiments are without equal, and his greatest tracks are, quite simply, on par with the best music ever created.
Sadly, it's only been in the past few years that the bulk of Tubby's recordings have become widely available. I've picked up most of these albums, and I enjoy all of them immensely. However, there's one Tubby song that stands out above and beyond everything else that bears Tubby's name: "Dubbin' of the Ten Thousand." It's from Motion Records' 1999 album, The Sounds of Channel One: The King Tubby Connection. It's a fairly obscure disc, featuring unreleased vocal and dub tracks recorded in the late 70s and early 80s at the famous Channel One studio in Kingston, Jamaica, and mixed by Tubby in his Drummlie Avenue studio. "Dubbin'" is the dub of dancehall DJ Badoo's "Rockin' of the Ten Thousand," which in itself is a version of Badoo's minor UK hit "Rockin' of the Five Thousand." To make this even more complicated, the rhythmic structure in all three versions--a strong, looping bass line and a bouncy beat--is actually taken from the classic 60s song, "Drum Song," which was first performed by Jackie Mittoo and Sound Dimension but has been used and reused by countless Jamaican artists ever since.
Now, I've heard the original, Sound Dimension song, and I've heard Badoo's vocal version of both the "5,000" and the "10,000" songs. They're all decent tracks, but they're nothing spectacular. The driving beat in the original was interesting enough to be used by other artists, but it wasn't really the focus of that first version (the horns dominate, and those horns now sound pretty dated). Badoo's monologues in his two versions paint a picture of a typical sound system evening in Kingstown. And while the driving beat and the guitar chops are the same in the vocal versions as they are in the dub version, it's Badoo's voice that is prominent.
What Tubby must have realized, after producing these two Badoo songs, is that the beat here is simply out of this world. So, for Tubby's version of the song, he kept things as simple as he could: crank up the bass, the drums, and the looping guitar lick, and strip out all but a smattering of Badoo vocal samples that he uses as accentuation. And although this is a dub, Tubby's not interested in overproduction. There are no moments (as in many dub songs) when everything disappears except a stretched-out, echoing cymbal clash. The effects used merely enhance what is already in this song: adding a dusty, echo effect to the cowbell-like snare and bongo-like drums, a reverb warmth to the guitar, and a delay effect to a few of the Badoo samples.
The results of Tubby's production: one of the best beat-driven songs I've ever heard. I've been a fan of reggae for a long time, but the first time I heard this song was the first and only time I've ever sensed what reggae might sound like in Jamaica, in a culture submerged in music and poverty, where music and expression are the only things that keep some people alive. There's a deepness in this song that I've only glimpsed in other works. It's as if this song was not a few decades old but a few hundred, a few thousand years old, performed by the earliest musicians, sitting around a fire at night, wondering if the sky would ever return.
Now, I'm fully aware that Tubby was as much a scientist as a musician, and the "deepness" I felt was a product of studio manipulation, not a live, fire-induced trance. But, in a way, that's why this song is so perfect: Tubby managed to create in a studio a sound that could only exist in our imagination. The minor additions of reverb, delay, and echo here merely accentuate the very elements of this song that most deserve accentuation. He didn't have to turn this song into an elaborate dub voyage because he didn't have to. He had this beat; that was enough. So he took everything else out and added a few accentuations to make that beat even stronger. That's why they call him the King: because he knows when to stop. Believe me, that's a lot harder to do than it sounds (ask Brian Wilson).
This is not the most groundbreaking reggae song ever made. This is not the most technically advanced song Tubby ever created. This is not even a particularly popular song. But, to me, this is the perfect song and the perfect beat.
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