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A bass odyssey: how dub came to the capital

A major show celebrates dub music and the movement’s impact on London. Dan Carrier talks to curator Terry Dhaliwal Davies

08 October, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Coxsone Internation-al Sound System, from the 1980s. Photo: © Jean Bernard Sohiez / Urbanimage

FOR lovers of loud, bassy music, the cancellation of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival removed a key date in the calendar to enjoy the thrill of hearing a seriously big sound system at work.

Such a delight is at the centre of a new exhibition at the Museum of London, which considers the world of dub music and the cultural impact this offshoot of reggae has had on London culture over the past 50 years.

Dub springs from studio producers remixing records, losing the vocals – or sticking them on loops and through effects – and then beefing up the bassline and adding other sounds and instruments. Since its inception in Jamaica in the 1970s, it has become hugely popular. And with London sitting next to Kingston when it comes to the development of reggae music and associated genres, it is no surprise that our city has a long association with dub.

Usually found on the ­B-side to a vocal track, dub tunes are often used by sound system DJs as the backing tracks for personalised toasting sessions over a micro­phone. And, as the exhibition explains, the rise of dub has influenced much else. In the early days this included punk and post-punk, while perhaps more recognis­able is the way it has helped shape drum ’n’ bass, garage, dub step and grime. These genres frequently borrow or reference dub melodies and bass lines as samples.

Exhibition curator Terry Dhaliwal Davies says the show is part of the museum’s push to improve collections that reflect what she calls “the lived experience of Londoners”. “We have looked across London to consider what is not rep­resented by the museum,” she says.

Channel One Sound System pictured in the back­ground at Notting Hill Carnival in 2019. Photo: © Eddie Otchere / Museum of London

“One area we thought should be in our archives was relating to London’s record shops – and within that, reggae specialists. And covering this unique genre and the culture it has spawned came from here.”

For the show 15 owners of key record shops were interviewed and each was asked for 10 tracks. The result is a record store built into the museum’s display with music to listen to.

“We have used this to illustrate a social history of the record shop, a consideration of who owned them and the role they played,” Terry adds.

“We heard from many that the record shop became a community hub – for some people travelling to London from the Caribbean for the first time, it offered a new home, the chance to hear music that was familiar, and to meet others.”

The show includes historic photography and more recent images. The museum sent a photo­grapher to the Notting Hill Carnival last year to capture the event through the eyes of the people who run the famous Channel One sound system. One of Channel One’s famous speaker stacks, which has enter­tained thousands each year at Carnival, has also been included – though sadly due to restrictions inside the museum, it won’t be pushing out rumbling bass.

“We wanted to talk to people who have been part of the dub movement and understand how it came about, its wider impact on London culture, and what it means today,” adds Terry.

The starting point is in the 1970s, when black communities faced endemic racism which in turn helped a new specifically black London culture develop. This was often expressed through meeting up at house parties or clubs to listen to dub. It became a new musical language for many, and while popular in Jamaica, London producers nurtured the genre and took it to a hugely diverse audience.

Sound System at the 1989 Notting Hill Carnival. Photo: © Adrian Boot / Urbanimage

Terry adds: “London has always been a place where you can call yourself a Londoner and bring your own cultural heritage to the mix. The Windrush generation faced racism, a lack of accommodation and access to meaningful work. The importance of community meant retaining a feeling of ‘home’ through Caribbean music and culture. This led to introducing reggae and dub through sound systems set up at blues parties held in homes, creating a protected space for people to express themselves.”

As with so many artistic movements that were at first an expression particularly of Caribbean culture, dub is now a universal sound. “Dub crosses boundaries,” says Terry. “It truly is a music that unites people and has done for decades. It is a reflection of how our city reinvents itself and cross fertilises arts and represents a cultural mash. For so many, the sound of dub is a huge part of growing up in London over the past 50 years, no matter your ethnicity.”

Dub’s influence stretches beyond the record shop, turntable or dance hall, she says, and the exhibition attempts to show the wider cultural and social impact. Sister Stella of the Rastafari Movement UK, who has contributed to the show, says: “Dub highlights and defines key moments of my youthful self during a complex era of changing socio-political times in the 1980s.

“The A-side of a record would awaken me to social commentary which spoke of politics, race, class, humanity, justice and injustice, of love and of sorrow.

“But it was the B-side dub that gave me a profoundly deeper inner, almost electric surge of strength. It allows space for magnificent ideas, of hope for my people.”

To listen to records in the display you have to bring your own wired headphones/ earphone (with standard 3.5mm or 6.35mm jacks). Bluetooth headphones will not work in the space. The museum is currently unable to supply this equipment.
Dub London: Bassline of a City runs until January 31 at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN. Admission to the exhibition and museum is free but advance booking recommended. For availability of daily walk-up tickets call 020 7030 3300. www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london

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