These days we are all familiar with the concept of a “remix”. Listen to any pop radio station for more than 30 minutes and you’re likely to hear one. An increased tempo turns a slow country ballad into a dance club hit. A Jay-Z verse turns an R&B song into a radio-friendly single. R. Kelly even turns the last 30 seconds of his “Ignition” into a preview of its own remix. But according to many music scholars, the roots of the “remix” can be traced back to the innovators and artists in the Jamaican music scene of the late 1960s. The newly established Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music at the Marr Sound Archive showcases some of the earliest instances of these recording innovations, which eventually led to the development of the reggae sub-genre known as “dub” and the ever-growing remix culture in popular music today.
In his exhaustive study titled Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, Michael E. Veal explains that in order to trace the development of dub, one must understand the broader context of the Kingston music scene, specifically the importance of “sound system” culture. In economically depressed Kingston, Jamaica, few people could actually afford to purchase recordings, so music was experienced mostly in communal settings around mobile entertainment centers known as “sound systems.” In order to attract larger audiences and stand out from their competitors, the sound system DJs (known as “selectors”) were driven to consistently supply new and unique songs. To fulfill this need, sound system operators and studio engineers began to push the local recording studios to produce new material at a torrid pace.
As a result of the fierce competition and drive for new music, studio engineers began to experiment with new mixing techniques, dropping out vocals or looping certain sound patterns from already popular reggae songs in order to create new recordings for the eager sound system operators. The engineers then began to record these versions onto 10-inch acetate discs known as “dub plates,” which normally were used only for test pressings and sent to record manufacturing plants. However, now, instead of waiting to send these acetate recordings to a manufacturer for pressing, engineers began to simply supply these “dub plates” directly to the sound system operators, thereby cutting out turn-around time and blurring the lines between the musicians, engineers, and the “selectors”. These discs were generally expensive one-off recordings and could only be played a limited number of times before wearing out. Initially, the dub-plates contained song versions in which merely the vocals or instrumentals were absent or would drop out, but as the dancehall crowds responded enthusiastically to these new unique song sound system versions, recording engineers began to experiment with more complex mixing techniques. Initially this practice was called “versioning” but it eventually evolved in to what became known as dub.
As studio recording technology advanced, engineers and producers in Jamaica began to experiment with their new-found creative freedoms. Through the use of mixing board sound effects like reverb, looping, equalization, filtering, tape splicing, tape speed manipulation and other forms of editing, the pioneers of “dub” such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and Errol Thompson transformed the mixing board from a mere tool of soundrecording into a creative site of musical composition and arrangement. By stripping familiar reggae songs down to their most minimal elements, and then building new sound textures through studio effects, dub producers created new, raw and mesmerizing pseudo-electronic music out of pre-recorded instrumentation and vocals.
The popularity of these “versions” led many of the Kingston record labels to begin including these tracks as B-sides on their 7” singles. Thus, on over 30 of the records in the Gillesse Collection, the B-side’s label reads simply “Version.”
In Part 2 of this post, I will explore a few of my favorite individual tracks from the Gillesse Collection.
Works Referenced: Veal, Michael E. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.