King Size Dub, Chapters 6 & 7 (Echo Beach 2000, 2001); Select Cuts from Blood & Fire, Chapter Two (Select Cuts, 2002); The Groove Corporation presents Remixes from the Elephant House (Guidance, 2001); Dubblestandart, Streets of Dub (Select Cuts, 2003); Rockers Hi FI, DJ Kicks: The Black Album (Studio K7, 1998), Al Haca Soundsystem, Inevitable (Different Drummer, 2003); CoolHipNoise, Showcase & More (Select Cuts/Echo Beach, 2003); Nick Manasseh, Step Like Pepper [NM Meets the Equalizer] (Efa/Caroline, 2003); Richard Dorfmeister Presents A Different Drummer Selection: A Decade in Dub '92-'02 (Different Drummer, 2003); Hi-Fidelity Dub Sessions Chapter 4 (Guidance, 2003); King Tubby: The Roots of Dub, and Dub From the Roots (Moll-Selekta, 2003).

          The center of gravity of Jamaican-inspired music shifted away from Yard at some point in the past decade. To be sure, reggae artists from all over the world still go to the Rock to get that island sound, or the stamp of legitimacy. And for many serious fans, Jamaican productions remain a benchmark for measuring that ever-more-elusive notion of what "authentic" modern reggae ought to sound like. Yet the Jamaican attitude and style of production-above all, the dub approach--have inspired so many international branches that in turn cross-fertilize each other that it is getting harder and harder to trace the influence back to an original source.

          Having listened to Jamaican music and its offshoots for over 30 years now, it's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that Jamaican music, heard in a global context, has been in a long creative rut. I probably wouldn't feel that way if I were submerged in Jamaican music. But I listen to Jamaican music with one ear tuned to the rest of the world. In this context, Jamaican music has come to seem rather inbred. I must qualify that immediately by saying that there have been a lot of rhythmic innovations in dancehall (much more so than in its cousin, hip-hop). And a ton of great roots-inspired music has come out of Jamaica since most of the studios went digital. The creative re-invention of the roots into the dancehall has been carried forward by Gussie Clark (Music Works), Penthouse, Bobby Digital, Steelie and Clevie, Exterminator, and by modern mixing wizards like Paul "Groucho" Smykle, Soljie, and Stephen Stanley. Roots fans often point to King Tubby as if he alone inspired the subsequent worldwide Dub Revolution. Credit is due to Tubby for creating much of the basic architecture of the dub style. But listening to the startlingly innovative dub being put out in the late 1990s and early 2000s by series like King Size Dub and Hi-Fidelity Dub Sessions, it is clear that these artists were listening to modern Jamaican innovators, as well as to sounds and styles that seem to be beyond the reach of Jamaican producers (jungle, trip-hop, and drum & bass, for example).

          If one looks for new ideas in this tradition, one has to increasingly look a foreign, to European hotspots of post-modern reggae like London, Vienna, and Germany. In reggae proper, groups like Aswad and collectives like the Cave Crew in England and Runn in the Netherlands have evolved fresh styles of reggae, influenced by global cross-currents that are much more audible than in Jamaica.

          But it is in modern dub that Europe has really set new standards in Jamaican-inspired music. Many of the remixes of roots tunes that Blood & Fire have put out on the Select Cuts series are breathtaking. The Groove Corporation clearly listens in on modern Jamaican music, but they take it in unforeseeable directions. (See their gorgeous reconstruction of Luciano's "Police and Thieves" on the Elephant House Remixes). Further afield from traditional dub are Rockers Hi-Fi (see their entry in the ground-breaking DJ Kicks series), and Bally Sagoo, whose cross-breeding of dub with banghra and Bollywood is often delightful. (Check his "Funky Rickshaw Dub" on "King Size Dub 6").

          The Vienna-based Kruder and Dorfmeister, under their own name, and in side projects like Tosca, have carved out a dub-influenced sonic domain that is without peer in contemporary music. (Check the outstanding Dzihan & Kamien dub of Tosca's "Busenfreund" on "King Size Dub 7," an album that also includes impressive entries from G-Corp and Rockers Hi Fi, as well as a somewhat more rootical Viennese dub group, Dubblestandard). Dubblestandard's 2003 release on Select Cuts, "Streets of Dub," is yet another indication of just how routinely high-quality is much of modern European dub.

          Also expanding the boundaries of modern dub is the German collective Al Haca Soundsystem, whose 2003 release "Inevitable" includes some guests as illustrious as Sizzla. But on the atmospheric final four cuts, when this album strays furthest from the mooring of Jamaican roots, it is most original. Pressing further into uncharted waters of dub-influenced music, we find a 2003 Select Cuts Showcase by a Portuguese trio, CoolHipNoise. They list their three main points of reference as Kingston, Havana, and Lisbon. If Jamaican music is first among equals here, the uplifting final result would be impossible for musicians who are working within the trajectory of Jamaican music, per se. This album was mixed by Nick Manasseh, who has played his own important role in the evolution of modern European dub.

          I am also impressed by the high degree of cross-fertilization among many of the artists mentioned above. For instance, Richard Dorfmeister has released a mix album that surveys some of the best of Different Drummer's product from 1992-2002. This includes remixes of G-Corp, Rockers Hi Fi, and International Observer. The latter's "London" alone is worth the price of admission. "London" also appears on the latest Hi-Fidelity Dub Sessions (#4, 2003), along with many terrific cuts, such as a Dorfmeister remix of Cutty Ranks' "The Stopper," and an entry from the always scintillating Smith & Mighty.

          With this music swirling in my ears, the reggae music produced in the U.S. often sounds provincial by comparison. (One almost has to exclude Miami, which has become a branch of Jamaica, from American reggae. And I find it almost impossible to think of the outernational, alternatively deep-grooved and chilled-out Thievery Corporation as American, although they are D.C.-based. But that's the subject of another review).

          On the mainland, there are many first-rate reggae songwriters, such as Big Mountain in Southern California, and Root 1 in Austin. But there is little American reggae that pushes the musical envelope. Most American acts chug along in a well-worn roots rut, and those who try to keep up with dancehall often sound embarrassingly imitative. The best shot for original contributions from U.S. reggae-influenced artists would seem to be in the realm of dub. In this genre artists mostly don't have to deal with the thorny problem of patois. They can take advantage of technological sophistication, and the influences of other styles of music such as rock and R&B, that have long influenced Jamaicans.

          Of four 2003 American dub albums at hand, the one that made the most noise was "Dub Side of the Moon." This project seems like a natural: Americans re-imagining a rock classic in reggae vernacular. Jamaicans have done this with R&B, pop, and country tunes thousands of times, but you certainly can't picture a Jamaican-led studio imagining, much less pulling off, a re-visioning of Pink Floyd. In some ways, this comes across as a very original album, in conception. In other ways, it is derivative by nature. The music is high-quality throughout, although mostly roots, primarily in a rockers or one drop style. But the remaking of "On the Run" in a drum & bass version breaks new ground. Vocal highlights are Gary "Nesta" Pine and Dollarman on "Money," and Frankie Paul's "Us and Them." The latter could be much improved for radio play with judicious editing. Sometimes you don't fully understand an album until you hear it on the radio, and this was the case for me with "Dub Side." I have heard several DJs mix "Great Dub in the Sky" into their reggae shows, and the high quality of the project became more apparent for me when I heard it alongside other top reggae tunes.

          My highest hopes for American dub rested with "Babylon is Ours: The USA in Dub." (The title may be seen as unfortunate, given the U.S. occupation of Iraq). I had high hopes because this was released on Select Cuts, a label with uniformly outstanding music. The collection was put together by Sep Ghadishah of the San Francisco club night Dub Mission, and most of the artists are West Coast. I wanted to like this album more than I did. Too many of these tracks sounded like a collection of effects on tops of beats that were not particularly original: noodlings from regional artists who are living in the backwaters of this global culture. In general, I missed the thematic development and the sophisticated production that is now routine among European dub artists. There are some tracks here worthy of airplay. My favorite was Ben Wa's "Ether Real," which carries a serious vibe. It relies heavily on what sounds like either a sample of Weather Report's "Teen Town," or a re-use of the chord progressions from that song. I also quite liked "Prisoner of Dub" by the Dallas-based group Sub Oslo. Two other songs also caught my ear: "Orenda" by Mark Pistel's Electronic Dub Collective, which recycle's Bob's line "on the street again" to good effect (from "Duppy Conqueror"), and "Uptown Jungle" by the D.C.-based Avatars of Dub, which samples Mutabaruka.

          Another American dub album from the Left Coast with a quite different flavor is "Dub After Time: A Look Back at BSI Records," released in late 2003. Ezra Ereckson and his associates are headquartered in Portland, Oregon (one of my domiciles in Ecotopian days). They have put out a steady stream of intriguing if uneven work in diverse formats. "Dub After Time" draws on their dub-influenced releases, as the title indicates. This is the best collection I have yet heard from the BSI crew. One of my favorites is Ben Wa's "Break That Stone." The more I hear of this talented group, the greater my hunger to hear more. On the farther reaches of the musical spectrum BSI artists frequent, Pan American's "East Coast Bugs" has some nice ambient-style vibes. "The Message" by Henry & Louis and "Wounded" by Alpha & Omega (respect due!) are closer to traditional reggae. The Systemwide version of a cut featuring Doctor Israel, previously released as "Crisis Time," has a nice riff that runs "I-man intention a Revolution," and manages to work in references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Che Guevara. There are several previously un-released songs here, including "Breaking Down the Walls" by Tone Scientist, which reminds me of some of Aswad's more beat-happy adventures.

          Finally, from the Third Coast, Austin Texas, comes an impressive new CD from Echo Beat Sound System. This band, formed only three years ago, looks and sounds like the future of Texas, with three dreads, three Latinos, and a certain laid-back home-grown eclecticism that is common among Austin artists. These guys are clearly absorbing influences that include, but go far beyond, traditional dub reggae. The first couple of cuts, "Glitchopolis" and "Nyingje," are perhaps the closest thing I've heard in the U.S., outside of Ben Wa, to the sort of synthesizing, post-reggae dub coming out of Europe. "Niko" has a meditiative, Augustus Pablo feel. As the album progresses, so does the experimentation, with the beats sometimes venturing into drum and bass territory, or essentially unclassifiable, sometimes meandering excursions. By the seventh and final cut, "Dervish," what we are hearing is really ambient or "chill out" music. I like it, but it's not for dub traditionalists.


[Thanks to Garo and Lauren at Rooftop Promotions for the incredible music they send me; to Eric Smith and the Easy Star Crew for communication over the years; to Nick Treviņo of the Echo Base Sound System; to Ezra Ereckson and the rest of the BSI collective, for being so accessible and so fearless; and as always, to DJ-RJ of KAZI-Austin, my Idren without equal.]

Text provided courtesy of Gregory Stephens.

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