PRINT Summer 1997


Digital Reggae

MAKING LIKE A CROSS between Mondo 2000 and Condé Nast Traveler, Business Week recently offered its readers a peek at the business trip of the near future. The CFO of the twenty—first century, the magazine testified, will be a cyberpunk in all but name, required to don a pair of VR goggles and “‘fly’ over a 3-D landscape representing the risk, return, and liquidity of a company’s assets.” And damn if the accompanying computer graphic of one such landscape—a pastel mesh of aquamarine blue and salmon—didn’t make that glowing moor of financial data look as inviting as a sunlit beach in the Seychelles.

The longing I felt gazing at that digital vista is no surprise; if the hype is right, VR is bound to offer us not only unforeseeable stockholder satisfactions but also beauty and pleasure, which means the way we hear and create music, too, will surely change—and one could argue that dub, the abstract, ganja-soaked offshoot of reggae, has given us a head start on that transformation.

Originally, a “dub” was a version of a reggae song that the producer—King Tubby was the first—manipulated, often to the point of unrecognizability. One good place to hear this process at work is on the two opening cuts of the Augustus Pablo compilation Classic Rockers. The first track, “Baby I Love You So,” is a straightforward reggae ballad. But on the dub version, the famous “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown,” Pablo and Tubby drop the vocal out, bring the bass forward, and scatter the drums around the stereo mix so that a space, humid with spliff smoke and echo, opens up inside the song. The difference between the two tracks is the difference, as cyberspace theorist Marcos Novak has put it, between architecture and sculpture, between a space that’s been “modulated in a way that allows a subject to enter and inhabit it” and one that hasn’t.

In fact, one might hypothesize that entering dub’s vertiginous expanses is good training for exploring VRs, where depth perception and a mastery of the intricate layers of nested windows will be invaluable. Recent events bear out this cyber-dub connection. Though dub has existed in the margins of popular music for decades, it wasn’t long after phrases like mirror world and flame war perked up in the pop-cult discourse that a full-blown dub revival sprang up, right on time. The coinage dubwise joined eponymous and subversive in every self-respecting rock critic’s lexicon, the English label Blood & Fire began a loving series of early-dub reissues, and leading lights of the “post-rock” movement—Tortoise, Ui, Rome—fell all over themselves pledging their debt to the genre.

One result of dub’s ubiquity is that the remix, while more voguish than ever, is no longer necessary—nowadays most dub tracks are built from scratch, without an original song as referent. The fruit of this leap can be heard on three recent compilations: Macro Dub Infection, Volume 2, Axiom Dub, and Land of Baboons: An Illclectic Collection of Brooklyn Soundz. Though the three records share artists, distinctions can be made. MDIV2, perhaps the most radical extension of dub, offers precious little ganja-haze amidst its austere tracks—artists like Eardrum and Skull hold on to the vertigo at dub’s heart, but forsake the warmth of the bass. The chill at the center of this music seems alien now, but will someday feel familiar to us; it’s the cyberspace equivalent of existential dread.

The more this-worldly textures of Axiom are, by contrast, comfortably womblike—perhaps because compiler Bill Laswell is a bassist by profession. Axiom stitches together Jamaican basslines, British ambient synths, and German drumming, wagering that cyberspace will be the long-awaited global village of our dreams. Land of Baboons, abjuring these extremes of dys- or u- topia, predicts that cyberspace will simply offer more of the same-old same-old. The gritty textures of “Lulla” and “Residence Dub” reflect the gray streets and shabby lofts of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a neighborhood inhabited by the members of the WordSound dub collective who appear on Baboons.

Disparate as they are, these compilations only hint at the variety dub offers. There’s Jacob’s Optical Stairway and Spring Heel Jack’s 68 Million Shades . . . . . which plant the sped-up breakbeats of jungle in dub’s echo chamber. There are the digital soundscapes of England’s Mad Professor, whose No Protection, a celebrated remix of Massive Attack’s Protection, chops up the body of trip-hop, patches it back together, and reanimates the corpse. There’s the sunny environs of Rockers Hi-Fi’s Mish Mash, which tweak the genre’s gloomy timbres with a snippet of “Do You Know the Way to San José?” There’s Badawi (aka Israeli-American Raz Mesinai), whose Bedouin Sound Clash sets the Sinai Desert nomads who taught him percussion wandering through an analog desert. Then there’s the austere but jaunty electro-dub of “raum für notizen” (Room for notes) by Germany’s Nonplace Urban Field, whose name sounds like a euphemism for a virtual city.

If the dub-cyber connection sounds oddly familiar, that’s not because your head has turned into one of those dizzying dub spaces where echo and source can’t be distinguished. The association was first made thirteen years ago in William Gibson’s pioneering cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (Axiom includes an excerpt in its liner notes), which features the Zionites, a group of dub-listening Rastafarian satellite dwellers. But rather than prophetic, Gibson’s use of the Zionites seems retrograde. The rastas are the earthiest characters in the book; when Gibson’s hero, Case, gets lost in a virtual world, his rasta sidekick Maelcum places a pair of headphones on his ears, and the music’s heartbeat is the trail of breadcrumbs that lead Case back to the real world. It’s the only off—note in Neuromancer, because dub isn’t pulling us out; it’s drawing us in.

Jeff Salamon is a senior editor at The Village Voice.