Jamaica in the 1960s forever altered the way we listen to music, laying groundwork for DJ culture that now dominates the mainstream. The tiny island’s sound system scene brought crowds together to dance and celebrate music — specifically dub music — in a new way, flocking around hand-built speaker systems that would overshadow any single performer’s popularity, and ultimately helped stage a global sonic revolution.
These parties would be held in the country, where to go you would drive out, put your ear to the ground to listen for the rumbling bass and head in that direction. For power, truck-bound systems would tap directly into power lines. As much as the music, engineering was essential here, so the meatiest bass and best sound would attract the most followers, developing a competitive scene between rivaling crews.
The music of choice was dub — an early sub-genre of reggae that grew to develop an identity of its own. As it built its foundation on technical experimentation, dub put engineers in the producer and artist roles for maybe the first time, experimenting with remixes that would become long-playing and dance-focused, removing vocals, emphasizing the drum and bass parts, and implementing a new array of effects — echo, reverb, delay, and occasionally “dubbing” vocal or instrumental samples. They would also add in dramatic pauses and breakdowns in these new versions to give the song a certain dub-influence and feel. These are all commonly used production techniques today, but they were pioneered in the Jamaican dub and sound system scene over moving “riddims”.
Much as DJs now produce their own remixes to play in live sets, so did dub artists on these “versions” — sometimes creating only one copy of a vinyl record to play at their sound system, ensuring theirs was the only party with that track. And while the “selector” operated the turntables playing the songs, the “deejay” would perform accompaniment on the microphone. These dub tracks even gave way to early rap-like free styling, as “toasters” would spit alliterative lyrics over the beats.
Island Records founder and prominent figure in Jamaica’s ’60s music scene Chris Blackwell once stated “There are no facts in Jamaica,” meaning the island was full of conflicting accounts of who was responsible for what in the country’s music scene. But Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock is widely regarded as the genre’s most influential creator, following an accidental incident that led to the origin of dub “versions”:
In 1968, Kingston sound system operator Rudolph “Ruddy” Redwood’s then famous Treasure Isle recording studio cut a dub plate of The Paragons’ popular song “On The Beach.” When the engineer accidentally left the vocals out, Redwood told him to keep it and played the recording at his next party, with one of his deejays toasting over the instrumental track. It was such a success, he played it over and over, grabbing the attention of artist Bunny Lee. Lee brought word to King Tubby — an engineer who ran his own sound system — tell him they needed instrumental tracks like this too. But Tubby didn’t stop with just an instrumental track, he innovated a new wave of music making, altering the vocals, instruments, and rhythm, mixing it all together for his own “version.”
With this, Tubby conjured in a new sound and helped establish a new depth to the sound system scene where soundmen were making their own varying versions, changing it up between parties with different mixes. With its success, this new dub sound traveled overseas to influence UK punk rock, as well as pop, hip-hop, disco, and later house, techno, ambient, trip-hop, jungle/drum and bass, and dubstep, among others.