What are you listening to? Rob Fitzpatrick on Dub, from Guildford to Kingston

“To listen to music is a rare and rewarding pleasure, one that transforms the everyday just by pressing the play button. What are you listening to?” Richard King

In the fourth of a new series of blog posts, journalist Rob Fitzpatrick explains his love of dub all the way from Guildford to Jamaica.

Sometimes it’s as instructive to talk – and to think – about those questions you can’t answer as it is to bang on (and on) about those that you can. When I think about the experience of hearing music – of really feeling music – I think of dub. And the emotional resonance of dub, the rich space it carves out in the air around you as it plays, makes me think about almost everything else. With that in mind, here’s a question – and it’s a big one – that I still can’t answer after some 30 years of feeling a gravitational pull towards dub and its endlessly inventive offspring. Why bass? Why me? I grew up in a village outside of Guildford in Surrey with parents who owned about five records, four of which were classical LPs. I can’t claim to have fallen in love with the bass pulsing from those heavy speakers in the lounge, because there weren’t any heavy speakers and we didn’t have a lounge, we had a Sitting Room.
Yet when I first heard dub – a mid-price Lee Perry compilation LP and a C90 which twinned a load of Augustus Pablo productions with Big Youth’s Dreadlocks Dread – I was gripped immediately, yet had no idea why. I still don’t, really. Sometime soon after I spent an evening – or maybe it was ten evenings, life was fairly care-free at the time – flat on my back listening to Black Uhuru’s awesome Dub Factor LP and that really sealed the deal for me.

A track like Android Rebellion was angry computer music leavened (or perhaps crushed further) by the most spectrally beautiful voices. Man and machine in perfect disharmony – each one doing something the other could never, ever do. Only the human voice could yearn like that, but only a machine could deconstruct that voice with such brutal, loving precision. So I began to gather up what I could, scoring high with Yabby You, low with tedious Roots Radics represses.

What I wanted was to hear those voices, that voice, float high above the sizzling hi-hats and hungover kick-drum thump before being snapped off, leaving an echo that would disintegrate into a vast, wonderful nothingness. Of course, some dub – a lot of dub – is just instrumental and tedious, but those moments where it did what I wanted it to do, or, even better, did what I had no idea it was going to do? Those moments were worth all the small disappointments in the world. Dub prepared me for a lot of the music I was destined to fall for. There was plenty of it in the kick and snare dynamic of late-80s hip-hop and it was there in every aspect of Bristol’s Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty. What was jungle, but dub thinking refracted through ecstasy rather than Sensimillia? Dub was there in the post-rock of Tortoise and Slint, the breakbeat futurism of DJ Shadow, the minimalism of grime and UK garage, then there’s dubstep, which began as a tiny, south London scene only to be reimagined as EDM and now threatens to take over the world, whether it wants taking over or not. So dub is more than a methodology of production, more than a simple orientation to bass, it actually defines the idea of the remix and through that the whole of dance music culture.

In 2009, I went to Jamaica to interview Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. One night during the trip we ended up staying over at his farm in the heartland of the island, Spanish Town. After the long drive from Kingston we took tea on the verandah, the darkness quickening around us. It was the weekend and the local sound systems were up and running – as we sat in silence waves of distant bass rolled in through the thick night air and soon we were enveloped in this wonderful noise. It was too far away to be an aggravation, too heavy to be ignored, it was more than music, this was an elemental part of the geography. So Blackwell and I did what any sensible person would do in such a situation. We sat in silence, our feet on a low table, our china cups rattling gently in our laps, and we allowed that relentless, fearless, unstoppable bass to take us over again.

Read other posts in the What are you listening to? series

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