I bought this CD for my stepson, one of the coolest 11 year-olds on the planet; he’s well into his dubstep and also his sci-fi so on the strength of the cover I couldn’t really go wrong. When I picked it off the shelf it didn’t occur to me that the scientist in question was Scientist, the legendary dub engineer who cut his teeth with King Tubby in the early 70s and went on to record some of the most seminal dubs of the 80s, with some of the wickedest covers in vinyl history:
It’s a double CD with a collection of dubstepish originals and a disc of Scientist refits. Truth be told the dubs aren’t up to that much. There’s an argument that the kind of studio wizardry that Scientist and his contemporaries were famed for doesn’t work so well on tracks that were 100% digital in the first place. There’s a certain sound that comes with tape being spliced and fed through echo chambers and reverb plates that doesn’t translate when those tracks are already drenched in digital effects from the beginning. Some of the echoes on the drums sound so off-kilter that you might think the CDs got stuck, but in some circles that may well be described as genius … you see I have a confession to make. I never really dug Scientist in the first place because I never really dug dub. Such a comment may have many a music fan reaching for the nearest sharpened object, and as a big reggae fan I realise I am courting controversy (not on a Frankie Boyle scale I realise, but it may have one or two readers spitting out their Red Stripe). It’s just I always needed the vocal cut. It’s the thundering low end and the shark-attack drums offset by the sweet vocal melody that creates the all-important contrast, the floor shaking low end and the soaring high end, the bass bins and the tweeters doing their thing in perfect harmony. Don Carlos or Gregory Isaacs in the late 70s / early 80s perhaps did it better than anyone. Mean, hard drums and bass elevated by sweet soulful vocals. In comparison the dub records often sounded, well, a little dull. Indeed it’s a strange paradox that one of the few countries where dub never really took off was Jamaica and in the late 70s a steady stream of records were produced by the likes of Bunny Lee and Scientist and shipped straight to Europe, mostly bound for the UK market, where dub was as well received by prog-rock stoners and London punks than by ex-pat Jamaicans.
So while the Scientist mixes may not all live up to expectation, there are some nailed-on classics amongst the original dubstep cuts. If nothing else it shows the current rude health of the genre and once again demonstrates how far dubstep has come. Which is good because a quick root around the dubstep groups on soundcloud and facebook suggest otherwise. There seems to be a growing number of home producers and fans alike for whom a good dubstep track is nothing more than a growling bass wobble, horribly sharp snares on the 3rd and some ear-bending generic sample, preferably from an American movie and preferably with someone shouting ‘oh my fucking God’ or something before the predictable ‘drop’ kicks in. Like drum n bass a decade ago, much of it is becoming a parody of itself, as the tunes fall over themselves in an attempt to get harder and dirtier. I’d love to name and shame a few of the culprits but as a new label still at the stage of trying to win friends and influence people, I’ll hold off for now. The obsessive quest for ‘filthy’ dubstep seems to have gone a bit far now. Cos there’s nothing filthy about a lot of it; it’s just shit. So it’s good to see the likes of Mala, Shackleton and Kode9, alongside artists like Pinch & Emika still pushing things forward, producing innovative, menacing dread dubs. The standout track though is Jack Sparrow’s Red Sand, proving that funky is well and truly back and could be due a resurgance in 2011, to take us away from all that filth.