Out of Tune #5: King Tubby

In 1960s and 70s Jamaica, a rich musical transformation was happening. Backdropped against the civil unrest throughout the newly independent nation, a culture of musical experimentation and expression developed. DJs would convert their trucks into mobile sound systems, load up with their record collection, and throw parties in the streets blasting music. These DJs began experimenting with their sound boards: they would layer in heavy bass effects, reverb, echos, delays, and samples. Essentially, they would take instrumental B sides of reggae singles, and remix them. These DJs were creating Dub music– one of the earliest sample-based, remix-centered genres that would lay the roots for today’s music. At the forefront of this developing sound was one man: King Tubby. 

The King at the Controls 

King Tubby was a genius sound engineer who knew the ins-and-outs of mixing. His extensive technical knowledge allowed him to use the soundboard creatively, as one might use an instrument. At a time when the sound engineer was expected to do little more than hook everything up and make sure it all sounded good, Tubby used the mixing board as a vessel for musical expression. His background as an electronics repairman helped him to understand sound in a scientific way. Singer Mikey Dread said that “King Tubby truly understood sound in a scientific sense. He knew how the circuits worked and what the electrons did. That’s why he could do what he did.” 

By manipulating EQs on different parts of the song, playing with volume and dynamics, adding in echos, delays, reverbs, samples, tape loops, playing with playback speed, and adding in huge sub-bass parts suited for the sound systems of Jamaica, Tubby was able to add a haunting, ethereal sound to these downtempo, chilled-out reggae tracks. Once Tubby was able to get a mixing desk and set up his own studio, his career as a producer/artist exploded, with credits on more than 500 songs. 

Overwhelmed by that ‘500’ number? Start with these songs!

King Tubby was incredibly prolific, and it can be kind of overwhelming when trying to find where to start listening to his music. Below are some of my favorite songs of his. Give them a listen!

King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown

This song gives a good opportunity to actually understand what King Tubby did. This song is a remix of an earlier song by Jacob Miller called “Baby I Love You So.” Tubby stripped the track down, added in his echos and reverbs, and used the vocal track in an accentuating way, rather than being the emphasis of the song. 

“Dub Take Five

The king’s version of the classic jazz track. This song really highlights the minimalist approach that Tubby takes. There are only three or four parts playing simultaneously on this song, but by using reverb and delay, the parts easily fill out the space.

“Stop Them Jah”

Another good example of Tubby’s use of delay and reverb. 


Along with a culture of remixing, dub music and the street parties associated with them incorporated the practice of toasting. Toasting, spawning from the African tradition of Griot storytellers, is a form of rhythmic chanting and talking over an instrumental beat. Today, we call it rapping. The practices of dub remixes and toasting, along with the Caribbean traditions of sound systems and street parties all coalesced to form a coherent sound, the foundations of which were brought by Caribbean immigrants to New York in the 70s and 80s. 

The Three Inventors of Modern Hip Hop
(Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc)

Listening to the works of early hip hop pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five makes these connections clear. Through remixing funk singles, adding in bass parts, using samples, and liberal use of echos and reverbs, these DJs were able to create compelling music that would start a wildfire in the music industry. Give a listen to “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheel of Steel” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to hear these developments in action. 

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