Cultural revolutions: how dub reggae’s beats conquered 70s Britain

The bass-heavy sound of Jamaica had a huge cultural and social impact on London and beyond, as a new exhibition shows

A report by Rob Walker for London’s Guardian.

Music producer Mad Professor has been mixing dub reggae in his Croydon studio for 35 years. “When dub hits you in the chest you feel it,” he said. “It gets inside you – it shakes your belly.”

With its heavy beat of drum and bass, and the hypnotic spacing of reverb and echo, dub is a world apart from the music it grew from – the reggae of artists such as Bob Marley and Desmond Dekker.

But it emerged from the same ghettos of Kingston in Jamaica, half a century ago. And Britain is where dub found its most fervent adopted home – thanks in large part to the Windrush generation that arrived from the Caribbean after the second world war. A cultural legacy that is now being celebrated in a new exhibition, which opens at the Museum of London on Friday.

“It’s a soundtrack of our lives,” said Mad Professor, 65, whose real name is Neil Fraser. He moved to England from Guyana when he was 15 in 1970. It was a time when white music dominated the radio – the Beatles and Rolling Stones – and immigrants, he said, felt culturally alienated.

Producer Mad Professor at his Ariwa Sound Studio in south London.

Producer Mad Professor at his Ariwa Sound Studio in south London.

To hear reggae or calypso – the music he’d grown up with – you had to go to record shops, or you had to create it for yourself. So that’s exactly what he did, joining a movement that captured what was going on in black communities across Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, from Brixton in London to Manchester’s Moss Side.

Dub’s stars were not famous singers or guitarists, but the sound engineers and producers who worked alongside them – the likes of King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Jammy. Their sound became one of the most influential genres of the modern era – copied by everyone from the Clash to Kanye, the Police to Prince.

Dub producers, in essence, reinvented how a recording studio could be used, Fraser said. Turning the mixing desk into an instrument, the engineer into an artist.

They would take existing, often well-known, reggae tracks and completely deconstruct them – stripping out the vocals and adding layers of electronic sound on top. In the process creating a completely new track – barely recognisable from the original.

“Dub is the skeleton of reggae because it is so stripped down, it’s so raw,” said Fraser.

These “versions”, as they were called, appeared as the B-sides of reggae singles, but often became more popular than the A-sides – thanks to the towering speakers that would boom out the bass lines at street parties, churches and dance halls.

With vocals faded out, DJs could talk and sing over the B-sides – a practice known as “toasting” – sometimes adding their own unique take on a tune and creating one-off vinyl dubplates”.

Crowds enjoying carnival, Notting Hill, 1979.

Crowds enjoying the carnival weekend, Notting Hill, 1979. 

“Uniqueness made it special,” Fraser said. Special in particular for women, said Theresa Dhaliwal Davies, the curator of the museum’s exhibition. Women didn’t always feel connected with reggae, she says, but dub offered something more embracing, almost evangelical in form.

In the oral histories she’s recorded for the exhibition, women – some now in their 80s – tell of how dub “spoke to them” in a way reggae never did. “They’d feel that vibration and how important it is,” Dhaliwal Davies said.

“The A-side of a record would speak to me of politics, race, class, humanity,” said Sister Stella of Rastafari Movement UK – a collaborator on the exhibition. “But it was the B-side that gave me a deeper, almost electric surge of strength. It’s the bass – it pushes out all negativity and allows space for magnificent ideas, of hope for my people.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a replica of a dub reggae record shop. A place where you would gather, not just to buy music, but to chat and meet other people, said Dhaliwal Davies. Somewhere you’d go to find out what’s going on in Jamaica or equally just around the corner.

It was curated with the help of dub MC Papa Face, who ran one of the best-known dub and reggae record stores in London in the 1980s.

People arriving from the Caribbean would come straight from the airport to the shop with all their luggage, he recalled. “They’d just landed and the shop would be their first proper experience of England – they knew they were going to be sorted out there – it was like a safe haven, like a home.”

For him, nothing can touch dub. “You can have all the troubles in the world going on around you – maybe you can’t pay your rent that week – but you’d go to a dance hall and escape for a few hours – it was just a beautiful feeling.”

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