Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Dub Party

The Blood and Fire Soundsystem

By Michael Endelman

MAY 1, 2000:  I'm talking with music journalist Steve Barrow about using one-off remixes, improvised rhymes, and bone-shattering bass tones to rock an all-night party. Typical, except that we're not discussing the Boogie Down Bronx in '79 or Raving London in '89. It's the musical culture of Kingston, Jamaica, in the early '70s that's the focus of our attentions. "It is the original inspiration for many facets of modern dance music culture" argues Barrow over the phone from London. "If you envisage the modern dance scene as a car or bus, then Jamaica invented the transmission system."

Although he's not quite a household name among stateside reggae fans, Barrow has been documenting and archiving Jamaican music for more than 20 years, both as a journalist and, more recently, as the A&R director of Blood and Fire, a label known for its beautifully packaged and meticulously annotated reissues of classic and overlooked '70s reggae. Blood and Fire's archival mission has taken on a missionary flavor now that the label's documenting of reggae's pioneering developments -- including the remix, the dubplate, and the MC -- has coincided with pomo DJ culture's incorporation of these elements. And though the label has reissued sets by microphone rockers and Rasta rootsmen, Blood and Fire is most associated with the cavernous instrumental soundscapes of dub, as is reflected in the make-up of the first ever Blood and Fire stateside package tour: Blood and Fire Soundsystem, which brings three seminal MCs (Dillinger, Trinity, and Ranking Joe) to Bill's Bar this Sunday.

Largely the result of studio experimentation by Osbourne Ruddock (a/k/a King Tubby) in the early '70s, dub is an offshoot of roots reggae that strips a vocal from its backing track and then runs each element of the instrumental arrangement through a battery of mood-shifting, time-displacing, suspension-creating effects. "Dub takes something that has been working quite well in the Jamaican dancehall," Barrow explains, "and breaks it down and reconstructs it to give it a whole new lease on life. If you want to get into a rhythm, then you've got to break it down, you've got to penetrate it. And dub does that. Dub can transform a sweet love song into a weird sonic landscape of pleading and loss and all of that. Similar to drugs like LSD, it can trip you out."

The British author and musician David Toop argues that dub is "the most pervasive music form of the age." Although hip-hop has been playing its trump card lately, Toop's claim (from a '94 issue of the arty English music mag the Wire) fit the moody mid-'90s musical landscape of post-rock exploration (Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die), trip-hop orchestration (Tricky's Maxinquaye), and ambient beat-science. Still, the downbeat grooves cooked up by the cerebral Chicago cats and the blunted Bristol beatheads were always more of a headphone bugout than a dance-floor shakedown, and that doesn't quite match up with dub's original purpose.

At least, that's Barrow's position. "King Tubby didn't create the music so he could expose the inner dynamic of the rhythm. He did it to cause a rumpus in the dancehall. Dub works in the dancehall because it allows people to dance off it by implication. If you don't give the crowd the whole rhythm in one parcel, and you just give them pieces of it, then the space in the composition encourages the dancers to come up with moves."

The Blood and Fire Soundsystem tour is an attempt to re-create the vibe of a '70s Jamaican dancehall. Although it has no real parallel in America, the traveling sound system has been at the core of Jamaican music for almost half a century. Each of the original units boasted its own powerful speaker system, electronic effects, and choice records, plus an operator (who worked the mix), a selecter (who chose the records), and boastful, yarn-spinning DJs (what we call MCs). To reproduce this, Barrow and his crew will be carrying their own amplifier, a space echo, a digital mixer, a sampler, two turntables, and a collection of rare '70s dubplates. Plus DJs Dillinger, Trinity, and Ranking Joe, who made their reputations in the mid '70s by combining righteous Rasta material with harder-edged rudeboy talk. Although none of the three is a big draw in the US, some fans may know Dillinger from his snorters anthem, "Cocaine in My Brain."

The Blood and Fire tour is a rare opportunity to catch some seminal Jamaican artists in a unique setting. But Barrow also hopes audiences will appreciate some of the deeper aspects of this formative music. "In Jamaica, the sound system is the main engine for the music's development. It both reflects the concern of ghetto Jamaicans and works as a medium of transcendence. It is the place, as [Bob] Marley said, where you 'forget your troubles and dance.' "

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