- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
A Night at Kadan, San Diego CA
On a Wednesday night, during the summer of 2007, I hosted a couple of friends from the east coast, who were in San Diego to participate in Siggraph.1 We went to a bar in North Park called Kadan. Local friends thought that it would be a good place to meet for the evening because it was Drum ?n? Bass night.2
It was a bar like many others in the area: the bartender at the front, and some chairs and tables with enough space for bands to perform in the back. It was already quite busy when we arrived. Upon entering, I heard some jump-up with bits of early jungle mixed on the decks. I thought about how Drum ?n? Bass had reached a moment when all those styles which had been guarded by their respective innovators now could be juxtaposed with no problem, either on the turntables themselves, or in the studio. The critic in me reflected on how the desire to escape boredom can lead to interesting forms of expression. The boredom with ?rollers? in the Drum ?n? Bass scene in particular, as many know, led to experimentation in other styles sometimes leaning towards jazz-like compositions.3 And that evening I was hearing a mix of mainly rollers that had traces of previous styles from 2step to jump up, and even some darkcore.
I did not recognize any songs played during the first few minutes we got there, which was fine because I had not been following the latest Drum ?n? Bass releases for the last year or so. We settled at the front of the bar with some beers and began to chat. Every so often we would hear rappers come in and out of the breaks, just cutting through the rhythm, perfectly in sync. I would break out of the conversation from time to time to pay attention to the mix. The voices were so clear that I sensed that there was something different. First I noticed that two or three voices were repeated, then when a song in the style of V Recordings4 was played and a rapper came on top I decided to get closer.
I understood what was different about the sound. The DJ was spinning Drum ?n? Bass with no lyrics whatsoever, while three MC?s were improvising, doing their thing on top of the groove. They were so good that I thought it was all pre-recorded, and that it was the DJ who was playing the tunes with vocals on top. But this was not the case. And I thought, ?This kind of energy? this is how it may have been in the early days, in some way in Kingston and later in the Bronx?maybe even London, and Bristol: Selectors/DJ?s spinning and MC?s/rappers just rhyming.? It was an anachronistic moment in time, when I saw the roots of hip hop as a world movement: where it had been, where it was at that moment?yet, it was not necessarily clear where it was going. And that was exciting for me?it kept the tradition alive while mixing it up; each improvised rhyme, each record mixed in with another showed an awareness of history.
In the tradition of freestyling, the voices demanded that we listened because the MC?s/rappers had a story to tell. The tales in themselves were like most stories of MC?s and rappers; the performers talked about their crews and where they come from, whom they listen to, whom they respect, and how much street credibility they have earned. What mattered here in the end was the form of delivery, and the energy produced by the live performance. What stood out for me was how the MC?s/rappers were freestyling in a localized Rastafarian style. The rhymes were leaning towards the early sound of reggae, but at a frenetic, locomotive speed contemporary of Drum ?n? Bass?syncopated, and in perfect staccato, with extreme cohesion between rhyme and beat. At that point I thought of the Drum ?n? Bass tunes I was listening to at Kadan as equivalent to early dub plates, riding the threshold of versions and instrumentals. Dub was present that evening in remixed form.
The Threshold in Dub
The history of dub, like that of hip hop certainly is always up for debate for researchers. Depending on who you read, and what CD reissues you may be listening to, some people will say that it was King Tubby who discovered dub almost by accident in the studio of Lee ?Scratch? Perry, while others will say that it was Ruddy Redwood who, while observing his engineer, Byron Smith, in the studio of Duke Reid, realized the potential creativity of music with subverted lyrics.5 Both tales recall a similar instance: In Reid?s case his engineer left the vocal track?s volume down, and in the case of Tubby he turned the voices off in the mixing board, realizing that the instruments had power of expression on their own. In both tales, experimentation with sound as abstraction took place: echoes and reverbs were added, while the bass line became privileged.
It is not an issue for us in this instance which of these two pioneers first conceived the concept of dub, but that what developed as dub exposes a musical element that thrives on a threshold; what Homi Bhabha calls the liminal space where identity is constantly defined, where one is neither one nor the other, where one is both and neither; where a third space to gain autonomy can begin to take place.6 I cite Bhabha?s theory with the understanding that it has been questioned by some, including Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri for proposing what they call indecidability; for ultimately only enabling the subjects to vacillate within a space that makes them predictably marginal to the status quo, unable to develop an actual identity following a Hegelian dialectical philosophy. The criticism of Hardt and Negri is that both postcolonial and postmodern theories are looking at Western enlightenment thinking as a ghost to fight from the past; they argue against those who share Bhabha?s position: ?Power has evacuated the bastion they are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists thus find themselves pushing against an open door.?7 In other words, that which postcolonialists claim to resist has assimilated their rhetoric.
Whether we side with Bhabha or Hardt and Negri is something to entertain at a later point in this text. What we should focus on at the moment is on how these positions are at play in culture simultaneously, and more directly how they link to dub. It is important to develop a critical understanding of dub as a discourse in relation to these thinkers because their positions expose the anxieties that have informed the creative drive behind music culture since the rise of the radio. In terms of recent history, Bhabha?s as well as Hardt & Negri?s theories present particular critical positions that have been inherited from the 1990?s. This text, then, will first present a brief introduction to early dub, followed by a historical outline of dub?s influence as a movement that constantly moved on the periphery of the cultures of Jamaica, the United States and England. Once the history of dub as an international musical influence is outlined, we will then go back to Bhabha and Hardt & Negri to further reflect on their critical positions in relation to dub as a global influence that is intimately tied to politics of difference and social struggle.