Now is the time for dub. No genre of popular music is better suited to the exigencies of contemporary cultural production. Technology is inexpensive and easy to come by, but people make things hard. Finding a way to play together, seems to require a complexity of scheduling worthy of a railroad dispatcher. Factor in the geographic dislocations that disperse potential bandmates hundreds, even thousands of miles away, and the appeal of constructing music with pre-existing elements, piece by piece, layer by layer, is clear.
To the uneducated ear, dub may seem a forgiving genre, since it is made from trustworthy parts. But that means that its practitioners, like soapbox derby contestants following a strict set of construction guidelines, don’t have much room to maneuver in the effort to make their mark. Creating a record that will stand the test of time demands both a keen awareness of the genre’s history and an intuitive capacity to know which components of its sonic recipe can be modified and which must be deployed exactly as prescribed.
That’s why we are so lucky to have the debut EP from Shockman at our disposal. The nom de platine of Ron Nachmann, who has written brilliantly about dub and electronica for many years, this Voltage Music release strikes the perfect balance between paying tribute to the genre’s musical elders and finding a way to get them back on the dance floor. Most impressively, Shock the Sound does a brilliant job of reconciling the dominant tempos from different eras of dub: the steady grooves of Lee Perry’s Jamaican heyday, the irregular heartbeats of the post-punk era, the narcotic rumble of trip-hop and the anxiety-tinged palpitations of dubstep. Even though aspects of all these periods can be discerned in the EP’s six tracks, the relationship between them never feels forced.
All in all, Shockman — with the help of his collaborators Dubmatix, Subatomic Sound System, Bakir, and earlyw~rm — has produced a remarkably cohesive reminder of the genre’s strengths. Indeed, Shock the Sound holds together so well that listeners can enjoy it without having to think about what makes it special. And they can dance to it, too, which has frequently not been the case with recent explorations of the dub sensibility.
Still, the more dub you’ve listened to, the more you’ll find yourself contemplating Shock the Sound as a statement about the genre’s history. Without ever seeming pedantic, Shockman gives listeners the tools to indulge in complex reflection on what it means to make dub and what dub has to tell us about the way we make meaning today. He confirms its “nowness” with rare aplomb.
All recordings allow us to bring sounds back from the dead, to create a palimpsest of past and present. But dub turns this potential into actuality as a matter of course, preferring the pliant servitude of zombies to the inconstant demands of the living. Originally, when dub was first coming into shape in the poverty of Jamaica, this move was born of financial necessity. The only way to release new records with any degree of regularity was to scavenge old ones for parts. Once the aesthetic advantages to this approach became clear, however, even those practitioners of dub who could afford to make sounds live still favored the use of recordings as raw material.
Money is still a factor, of course. You don’t have to be poor to be too poor to buy studio time. And although the technological requirements for making do-it-yourself recordings with live musicians are less steep than they once were, the expense is still considerably greater than it is for music-making that is conducted with software, turntables or tape. Instead of banding together with other musicians, most dub artists rely heavily on pre-recorded sounds that never need a break or demand a bigger cut of the proceeds.
That’s why the making of dub can be a such solitary pursuit. Although collaboration is a major part of the dub scene, it tends to be of the long distance sort. Unlike rock or hip-hop musicians who are pressured, both socially and financially, to go out on tour at some point, many dub artists spend their careers holed up at home. If they get the urge to work with other musicians, they typically do what Shockman did for Shock the Sound: ask others to remix their material.
As Burial has amply demonstrated, staying out of the public eye is no barrier to success in dub circles. On the contrary, the mystery that surrounds him, the fact that he only meets his public through the mediation of his minimally annotated recordings, have surely increased his following. They also make it easier for his listeners to perceive the uncanny otherness that dub has communicated from its technologically primitive beginnings. The fracturing of vocal lines, the preponderance of effects worthy of a haunted house flick and, above all, the sheer roominess of the space in which musical details unfold: all turn the distance that dub keeps from live performance into a commentary on the inhumanity that saturates the dark places of modern life.
Dub artists doesn’t just rely on dead matter for their source material; rather, they keep reminding us of its lifelessness. They won’t let us forget that every recording is a testament to our mortality. We must take this knowledge to heart, acknowledging the losses we can never make good. And dub helps that difficult task along by returning us to them again and again.
To be sure, there’s something deeply melancholic about listening to any popular music that has outlived its novelty. When a hip-hop vocal lures us in by bedding down with an Al Green sample; when the latest Maximum Rock and Roll-lauded band makes an impression by clumsily tracing the same crude chord progressions played by thousands of its punk predecessors; when fans of classic rock wait — for the thousandth time — for the tipping point when “Stairway To Heaven” turns from a ballad into a rave-up, we are in each case confronted by the realization that most listeners would rather follow the passage back to where they came from than set out for a new destination.
What sets dub apart in this regard is that it doesn’t just inspire repetitive consumption in this manner, but demands that we be conscious of our compulsion. It’s impossible to listen to much dub without hearing how often the same bits and pieces are repurposed. Indeed, that’s the biggest complaint about the genre, the fact that it seems to have abandoned all hope for the new. That’s why someone who is unfamiliar with the genre might look at the track listing for Shock the Sound and think, “There are only two different songs? I’d rather listen to a record that consists of originals than one padded with remixes.”
But that distinction is barely relevant where dub is concerned. Consider Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”. Yes, there was an original recording, put together in Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio in 1976 and later covered by The Clash. But when you listen to all the variations on that track that Perry produced, possibly the most influential dub recordings ever made, it seems pretty foolish to insist that the initial recording always have priority. What matters, rather, is the relationship between the different versions, the way they encourage listeners to suspend the pursuit of firsts — or lasts — in favor of a more fluid conception of creativity.
The same holds true for Shockman’s work. You can put the Shock the Sound EP on auto-repeat for hours without getting bored. But if you immerse yourself to that extent, you are also bound to lose track of where one version ends and the next begins. Instead, the music will gradually construct a kind of relational database in your mind, in which all of the elements Shockman and his collaborators employ become so thoroughly cross-indexed that linear chronology gives way to a coming-full-circle.
There may be more orthodox ways of coming to terms with the intricate connections between then and now, past and present, but it’s hard to imagine one that’s more entertaining. Dub is now, because we are not. Dub is now, because losing track of ourselves is the best way not to double back on our tracks. Dub is now and so are we.