Agony Shorthand

Friday, August 08, 2003
I & I ON A SOAPBOX, SEEN?….I’ve put it forth on this site before that after the amazing wealth of 1960s ska, rocksteady and “blue beat”, my decided regggae preference lies with tripped-out experimental 1970s dub a la KING TUBBY, LEE PERRY and AUGUSTUS PABLO over the more “pure”, more renown, vocal-dominated Rastafarian form from the same era. I think I stand pretty firm on the fact that BOB MARLEY and many of his pop reggae peers – not to mention most of the nonsense-spouting “toasters”! – are flat-out boring and often incredibly annoying (with the caveat that there’s probably some leftover 1980s university hippie/hacky sack baggage contributing to my revulsion). Knowing this, and because this revulsion disappoints him (and because he’s a stand-up guy), my pal Tom Arnaert sent over a recent (?) article from THE WIRE magazine about this dichotomy. Looks like it’s not just me splitting the difference. Simon Reynolds writes a good piece about this (isn’t that the guy that wrote the totally panned book “The Sex Revolts”?) – and I quote,

“…Dub theory (shares the) exaltation of producers and engineers over singers and players, and the idea that studio effects and processing are more crucial than the original vocal or instrumental performances. Which is why thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry and Tubby, but surprisingly little on reggae vocalists or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists, keyboardists, in building kinaesthetic moodscapes (aka grooves). The mystery of “skank” has failed to provoke a downpour of eloquence. The really distorting side of the Afro-futurist privileging of the producer, though, is the fact that reggae actually involved people saying stuff about stuff has almost totally been forgotten”

I’d argue it hasn’t at all been forgotten – just the stuff they were prattling on about (Jah, weed, mystical Rastafarianism) was so goddamn bothersome and alien to the lives of so many non-Jamaican reggae listeners. Or at least it is now. There’s no denying that there were some terrific players involved – I mean, Sly and Robbie and so many of the dub pioneers actually played music before it was remixed, too – and there obviously had to first be something for the Tubbys of the world to work with. 1970s reggae latched on with so many white folks – a lot of them UK punk rockers – because it was the product of a remote, class-oriented subculture, with a small network of cool indie or semi-independent labels, and because it was bearing a distinct outlaw drugs/guns/political outsider vibe. That package doesn’t hold a whole lot of cachet any longer (the world is ever more connected; class matters in music less than it ever did; indies are a dime a dozen, and I think we’ve all been about “outlawed” to death). People, myself included, knew there were some kernels of genius in reggae somewhere, we just needed to look past Marley, Tosh, Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and god forbid, “Eek-a-Mouse” to find it. To me, THAT’S what the surge of appreciation for pre-70s reggae roots and for dub is mostly about. It’s really about the music now, and all the politics and the glory of Haile Sellasie and the get up/stand up nature of the rest of it is pure window dressing for the good stuff.