In Fine Style
he three most important names in Jamaican music of the 1970s are Bob Marley, Lee Perry and Osbourne Ruddock, otherwise known as King Tubby. Whereas Marley's story and his music have been chronicled ad infinitum for three decades now, and whereas Perry's music and his legacy has, in the past ten years, finally been given their proper respect, Tubby's contribution to the development of reggae and dub (not to mention hip-hop, punk, and all shades of electronic music) still remains largely underappreciated. Sure, a number of Tubby reissues have surfaced in the past few years (like the wonderful Dub Gone Crazy and The Sound of Channel One), but those discs tended to focus on one specific aspect of Tubby's career, rather than offering the uninitiated a complete overview of the artist's musical genius. Where's his boxed set? Where's his Songs of Freedom or Arkology? Well, Trojan's two-disk collection In Fine Style might not be as comprehensive as Marley's and Perry's respective collections, but it does compile just about every key track from this master of Jamaican music. As such, it's probably the most essential Tubby document you're likely to find.
Tubby was not a producer or a performer. He was an engineer. His skills on a mixing board were unsurpassed, as just about everyone involved in reggae music at the time attests. But his true talent was in recognizing that recorded sound was a musical tool in its own right, to be shaped and redefined and reimagined in any of a billion ways. His greatest music reflects the transformative power that he found in the manipulation of sound. In his hands, a beat was compacted into a single click or stretched out into a slow rumble, horns were shifted from high-pitched squeals to low, stuttering waves, and the sound of a person singing "hello" was rearranged into "loelh." Of course, all of this sonic manipulation is eminently familiar to anyone who has listened to popular music (dub, electronic, or otherwise) over the past fifteen years. There are computer programs now that allow you to take a one-second sound file and transform it into a three-hour symphony. But when Tubby was creating works like "Dub Organizer," "King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown," "The Power of Love," and the other 43 songs on In Fine Style, all he had was a 4-track mixing desk and a few accoutrements. What he did with this rudimentary equipment is nothing short of miraculous.
He was not the sole originator to the dub style, but he was definitely the style's king. His ability to transform a track was without peer—even Lee Perry attests to that. But Tubby was not just an eccentric interested in creating lots of weird dub effects. He was a businessman; he ran the most successful sound system in Kingston, and he created his dubs as much for cash as for art. Hence, each of the songs on In Fine Style, suffused as they are with those weird dub effects, are nevertheless eminently danceable and listenable. They are catchy, fun, groovy dance numbers that just so happen to also be entirely original and unusual. There was a reason why dub music (especially Tubby's) became so popular in the 70s: the music was good, often better than the originals.
Case in point is "King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown," which was a dub of Jacob Miller's "Baby I Love You So." In the UK, Tubby's dub was listed as side A, and Miller's original was side B. Listen to both versions, and it's easy to see why. Miller's version is an engaging, heartfelt love song (Miller's was one of the more interesting voices of the day), and Augustus Pablo's melodica playing is outstanding. But Tubby took this solid, well-performed work and turned it into something entirely different. First, he removed the vocals, save an occasional "Aaaaah" or "Baby I" that is stretched out so that the grief in Miller's cry becomes a sad, eloquent echo. Then he took Pablo's melodica, the beats, the scratching guitar, and the other instruments and added delay effects to each one, echoing Miller's stretched out cries. There is a tension, a feverish intensity in this dub that is hinted at but not fully explored in the original.
Tubby wasn't just an engineer or a guy who got a kick out of fucking up perfectly good songs by removing vocals and throwing in a bunch of delay effects and filters. He was a musician; it just so happened that his instrument was a mixing desk. That his music has lost absolutely none of its power despite the intervening years (and the intervening dub culture that was created in his wake) is a testament to this talent. If you are unfamiliar with Tubby's work, In Fine Style is a perfect place to start. If you own all the other Tubby reissues that have come out in the past years, then pick this up anyways. Not only does it include a host of unreleased or hard to find tracks, but it's all been digitally remastered, so it sounds as good as it ever has. Really, Tubby is one of the greats of 20th century music; it's about time he's starting to get his due.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2004-07-27