When Jamaican Sound Engineers Invented Electronic Dance Music
I began this article and its accompanying DJ mix before Lee “Scratch” Perry passed away yesterday, but a number of his tunes feature in the mix so I felt compelled to add these thoughts:
I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’s been as influential on the development of dance music as Lee “Scratch” Perry. He began working in the Jamaican music industry in the 1950s, singing on ska records in the early ’60s, then started his own band (The Upsetters) and label (Upsetter) later that decade.
From his home studio (The Black Arc) Scratch further defined the sound of reggae. After producing the early and seminal (Bob Marley and The) Wailers records he invented a number of recording and mixing techniques giving shape to the dub genre; he produced some of the first drum-machine-based dancehall tracks in the early ’70s; and continued to be on the scene consistently making new and interesting music right up until his death yesterday.
Here’s my homage in the form of a Spotify playlist featuring some of my favorite Lee “Scratch” Perry tracks.
My friends Wayne Marshall and Jace Clayton each wrote much deeper post mortems on the genius of “Scratch.” They’re well worth a read If you’d like to learn more:
- How Lee “Scratch” Perry Sculpted the Sounds of Reggae by Jace Clayton for Pitchfork
- The Magic of Lee “Scratch” Perry by Wayne Marshall for NPR
I first heard dub music as a child in the 1980s. My family and I listened often to the nightly reggae shows on WERS in Boston, and at some point I began to notice and search out those stripped-down, instrumental versions with the psychedelic echo and reverb effects that the DJs played in the background. What I didn’t realize at the time was just how innovative and influential the dub-masters who’d created those tracks were.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Jamaicans perfected the art of throwing parties where DJs (selectors) played, and talked (toasted) over, records of the day in order to move crowds on the dance floor. The producers of those events became competitive, building ever-more advanced sound systems to better handle the bass frequencies that made bodies move.
Meanwhile, studio engineers also pushed bass and honed in on the overall sound and rhythm for optimal waist-winding. DJs frequented recording studios, asking engineers to “dub” special records from tape to one-off records (dub plate specials) that they could play at that evening’s party. That way they could test the tunes over a bass-heavy dancehall sound-system and see what made the most magic with the dancers. This accelerated feedback loop allowed DJs, musicians, and producers (who often also owned the record labels and the dancehall sound-systems) to get a quick read on which sonic techniques were most successful, and it pushed their musical innovation to unforeseen levels.
One outcome was dub music. As engineers strove to elevate the physical and psychological effects of the music on dance attendees, they stripped the music down to its most essential elements — the drums and the bass — while filtering and mixing in and out the other instruments; often saturating them with the mystically swirling sounds of delay, reverb, and other effects. The restraint and acumen shown by the best of these dub engineers, like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, made for a new type of musical expression in which the recording studio became an instrument; a metaphysical tool unveiling previously unknown sonic dimensions.
Today it’s normal for DJs and electronic musicians to perform knob and fader tweaks on their equipment as they rock a dance party, but in the ’60s and ’70s these marginalized black Jamaicans innovated sounds that no one had yet imagined, and ultimately ended up at the center of 21st century popular music from punk and hip-hop, to EDM and reggaeton.