Sound System Scratch and Return of Sound System Scratch (3.5* for the general public, 4* for reggae fans, 5* if you’re heavily into dub)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Well over thirty years after the time frame in which these sides were recorded, and given the non-proliferation of roots reggae outside diehard fan circles Down Under, the average Australian listener is going to feel a little, um, lost when faced with these two collections of dub plates from the legendary Black Ark studios and the hands of producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry a.k.a. The Upsetter. After all, if you’re not familiar with the originals, how, you might ask, are you going to handle the dubs?

Well, boys and girls, before we answer that question maybe we’d better fill in a little background, like, first, who on earth is this Scratch the Upsetter dude and what in the name of creation are these things called dub plates?

Well, taking the second one first.

dub plate, in its original context, was an acetate disc used as part of the recording process (a ‘test pressing’, if you like) before the studio moved on to a final master and subsequent commercial release of the recording in question.

As such, they were used all over the world, and you’ll find the odd collectible here and there containing an unreleased version of an album or single that has subsequently been retracked or remastered. Here’s a well-known one from Neil Young.

In Jamaica, on the other hand, in a dance hall scene dominated by disk jockeys and sound systems rather than live musicians, the dub plate takes itself off into an entirely different universe.

For a start, different sound systems were aligned to rival studios, and while they might play something from a rival studio there was a predictable tendency to stick to the sponsor’s product, particularly when it comes down to a sound clash, where rival sound systems compete to out do each other. Sure, it’s fine to play the hits, and to have your selection of tracks that are guaranteed to pack the dance floor, but when it comes down to a competition, you want an exclusive, compris?

Now, one way of getting your exclusive is to take a well known song, or more particularly a well known rhythm (or, in Jamaican patois riddim) and drop some of the vocal or instrumental passages out to give the DJ something to rap or toast over. 

In that sense, if you get hold of a nice little track, that’s a little on the nudge, nudge side like Breakfast in Bed, as done by Dusty Springfield or, in Jamaica, Lorna Bennett and with a little effort transform it into something like this. That, coincidentally, was my introduction to the wonders of dub back around 1974...

Alternatively, with a little bit of studio wizardry you can transform the same piece of music into a number of one-off items where the ‘official’ lyrics are tweaked to name check the particular sound system, remark on the operator’s extreme good taste and cast aspersions on the operators of rival systems.

So, in that sense, it all comes down to the producer, who may or may not be the studio owner. If you’ve got some dude wearing both hats (as Lee Perry was with the Black Ark Studios) you’ve effectively got unlimited studio time to play around and churn out inventive and innovative rearrangements of well known tracks and the result has been described (admittedly on the record label’s website) as some of the greatest, most complex and seriously mystical music ever to come out of Jamaica.

Now, as you might expect, there’s a wealth of material along these lines out there, and any common or garden fan’s probably only going to scratch the surface. Personally, I’ve always had a weakness for the dub melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo and tend to steer clear of the rapping toasters, so Hughesy’s collection includes the likes of King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown and a few other odds and ends without going too heavily overboard.



© Ian Hughes 2012