August Pablo and King Tubby’s “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”
The 1976 dub album King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown is considered one of dub’s definitive albums, and its title track one of the genre’s definitive songs. Furthermore, the album’s engineer, Osbourne Ruddock (“King Tubby” himself) is considered essential to the rise of dub. But what gives this track, the album it appears on, and the personnel who created it such a seminal standing? The necessary prerequisite to this question might be: what is dub?
Dub can be tricky to define, at least partly because the word has meant many things throughout music history. The word’s origins are rooted in recording technology: the “dub plate” was one of several names for the vinyl-coated metal disc used to press vinyl records (Partridge 310). The process of transferring music to the dubplate (also known as a reference disc or acetate disc) is called “dubbing” (Partridge 310).
According to music scholar Christopher Partridge, dub as a genre emerged from the “demand for exclusive, unreleased music in Jamaican sound system culture (in which sound systems competed for audiences by, amongst other things, playing new music)” (310). Here, the term “sound systems” refers to the equipment and personnel needed to play music in a public location, and during the 1950s these set-ups became a hallmark of Jamaican music culture and the rise of reggae (Veal 108-109). Accordingly, a brief investigation into the workings of sound system culture is essential to any discussion of dub.
Jamaican Sound System Culture and the Rise of King Tubby
The first sound systems typically took the form of street parties where DJ’s would play American R&B music from massive speakers (“BBC – The Story of Reggae”). Before long, though, sound systems moved indoors and evolved into highly commercialized and competitive events (Maysles 100). Rivalrous sound systems were constantly vying for access exclusive records, often in the form of “pre-release” dub plates, and the genre of dub grew out of this demand (Partridge 310).
One of the most popular techniques used by sound system operators to fashion a unique sound was to remix pre-existing tracks, often changing them so much that they hardly resembled the “original” song. Traditionally, dub artists would exploit the fact that record singles often included an instrumental version of the song as a B-side (Anderson 209). They would take this instrumental track and load it with a variety of other sounds, from new instruments and vocals to effects such as echo, delay, and reverb (Anderson 209). This act of remixing, combined with the reggae sound of its Jamaican birthplace, forms the core of the “dub” musical genre.
It is in this context of dubbing and Jamaican sound system culture that Osbourne Ruddock, AKA King Tubby, entered the scene. In 1968, Tubby founded his own sound system, Home Town Hi-Fi, in Kingston, Jamaica (Maysles 100). Drawing on his background in electronics repair, King Tubby was able to produce a number of effects during performances, such as splitting bass and treble between two amplifiers in order to manipulate them individually (Maysles 100).
Tubby quickly gained a reputation as the most talented sound system operator in Kingston. Around the same time, he began experimenting in creating his own dub music within his small studio in his home in Kingston (Maysles 101).
Again, Tubby’s background in electronics proved useful to his craft, as he constantly tampered with sound boards, reverb units, and other machines to drastically alter their sound (Maysles 101). For example, Tubby was particularly fond of finding sounds he could make by abusing his equipment. The most popular example of this technique is when Tubby would smack his spring-powered reverb unit, making the spring inside ring and twang loudly (Maysles 115). He invoked this technique on a number of his tracks, like “A Heavy Dub” and “Marcus Dub” to create an intensely jarring, thunderous sound (Maysles 115-116). Another popular story tells of Tubby replacing the volume knobs on a four-track MCI soundboard with sliding faders, in order to independently control the volume of each track (Veal 114). Scholars have since pointed out that this is particular tale is probably more legend than fact, since consoles from that time already had faders; the more likely possibility is that Tubby replaced the original controls with after-market ones that were easier to control. (Veal 114). Regardless of its factuality, the anecdote underscores Tubby’s status as a tech wizard in the sound system community.
King Tubby Meets Augustus Pablo
According to music scholar Michael Veal, King Tubby’s focus on remixing pre-existing recordings rather than working with live musicians both solidified the genre of dub and differentiated Tubby from other engineers, making him the “most organically ‘musical’ of his contemporaries” (117). Veal further argues that Tubby’s particular focus on the intricacies of remixing rather than on working with musicians in the studio is what elevated him above his peers, comparing his experimental and spontaneous remixing technique to improvisation in jazz (Veal 117).
Despite his own musical genius, King Tubby can’t take all the credit for the lasting impact of Rockers Uptown. The 1976 dub album was, after all, a joint creation between Tubby and producer-musician Augustus Pablo. As producer of Rockers Uptown, Pablo played a huge role in shaping the overall sound of the album, from the renowned bass lines to the Rastafarian lyrics and hand drumming (Veal 122). Pablo also contributed as a musician to Rockers Uptown, with his signature melodica sound appearing on several tracks (Veal 122). Pablo notably gave the oft-dismissed melodica a serious, reflective, and occasionally haunting presence on the album, and has thus been credited with raising the instrument above its status as a children’s toy (Deschermeier).
Within the album, the title track has seen the most popular success and critical acclaim. “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” is a remix of reggae artist Jacob Miller’s 1974 song “Baby I Love You So,” and again, Augustus Pablo’s backing rhythm factored into the track’s success (Veal 123). Pablo’s rhythm on “Rockers Uptown” has in fact become something of a holy entity in dub music, and (in the spirit of the genre) has been sampled and remixed on countless other dub tracks, including one of Pablo’s own melodica instrumentals (Veal 123). Tubby also recognized the brilliance of Pablo’s rhythm, and remixed “Baby I Love You So” as essentially a drum and bass track interspersed with only brief intrusions by the melodica, piano, guitar, and Miller’s vocals (Veal 123). Each of these instruments only enter the foreground for a few seconds at a time before fading away. In this sense, it hardly matters that Miller’s vocals are basically a collection of short, jumbled phrases, for the track is designed to keep its listeners’ attention honed in on the underlying rhythm, rather than the accompanying instrumentation.
Significance and Lasting Appeal
“Rockers Uptown” is considered an excellent encapsulation of King Tubby’s remixing techniques, and as such the track alone may provide listeners with both a good sense for Tubby’s unique musical “language,” as well as several of the hallmark features of dub. Some particularly significant elements of the track worth listening for include the wide open soundspace constructed by Tubby’s reverb, the rapid tempo of the snare relative to the bassline, and the sudden silencing of the rhythm section just before Miller’s last syllable and the end of the song (Veal 123). Each of these elements and more blend together to form what most music scholars and critics consider the definitive dub track. In sum, “Rockers Uptown” is perhaps less of a formative or revolutionary moment in dub’s history as it is a perfect summary of the genre’s trademark sound, and one which showcases the mastery of sound production possessed by two masters of the trade.
Anderson, Rick. “Reggae Music: A History and Selective Discography.” Notes 61.1 (2004): 206-213. Web. 16 March 2016.
“BBC – The Story of Reggae – Sound Systems.” Niceup. Web. 31 March 2016.
Deschermeier, Kurt. “Augustus Pablo – King Tubbys [sic] Meets Rockers Uptown.” Stylus Magazine (2003). Web. 31 March 2016.
Maysles, Philip. “Dubbing the Nation.” Small Axe 6.1 (2002): 91-111. Web. 16 March 2016.
Partridge, Christopher. “King Tubby meets the Upsetter at the grass roots of dub: Some thoughts on the early history and influence of dub reggae.” Popular Music History 2.3 (2007): 309-331. Web. 16 March 2016.
Veal, Michael. “Jus’ Like a Volcano in Yuh Head!” Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Web. 16 March 2016.