Trojan
 
 

In many communities it is customary to acknowledge outstanding achievement by erecting a suitable monument, often cast in bronze or hewn from durable stone. Other than an occasional mural somewhere off the beaten track in downtown Kingston, there is nothing to commemorate the outstanding success that audio engineers working in Jamaica's recording industry achieved during the mid-late 1970s, in what would prove to be roots reggae's golden era. when, in terms of the influence it would have on other nascent forms of music, the island was punching well above its weight. Arguably, both rap and the art of the re-mix can trace their origins back to the recording studios of, what is sometimes considered, another Caribbean backwater.

It is thought, although elements of the story may be apocryphal, that the first re-mix came about more by mistake than design. In 1967, one of the leading sound system operators of the day, Ruddy Redwood, was in the Treasure Isle studio on Bond street in the Jamaican capital. At this time the studio, owned and operated by Arthur 'Duke' Reid, was acquiring an enviable reputation during this, the rock steady, era for its luscious sound quality; a 'warmth', generally attributed to the amount of timber used in the studio's construction, which is evident on many of its hits from that period. As such, it inevitably drew the attention of musicians, sound system operators and record buyers alike.

Redwood had dropped in to collect some exclusive recordings to play at an up-coming dance. Among the records was a soft-wax version of 'On The Beach' which Byron Smith, the studio's sound engineer, had inadvertently rendered minus the vocal track. However, when Ruddy played this record alongside the standard vocal track, which was a huge hit at the time, the audience apparently liked the novelty of alternating the vocal and instrumental versions. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the same studio, a couple of years later, when King Tubby recorded the DJ U Roy, he also used Treasure Isle rock steady classics as backing tracks, with the original vocals fading in and out of the mix. For perhaps the first time, something of the excitement that DJs created at the live dances was captured on vinyl, and such was the record buying public's approval that U Roy's first three Treasure Isle singles occupied the top three positions in the Jamaican charts for several weeks.

The harsh financial realities of the Jamaican recording industry prevalent at the time obliged many producers to become increasingly adventurous, they in turn encouraged sound engineers to be equally innovative with the instrumental B-sides or versions, creating rhythms that would hopefully be strong enough to bear the multiple recycling of vocal and DJ versions. The practice of re-recording a variety of singers and DJs over popular rhythms was now well established,

As the music and its influence continued to develop and progress abroad, this Jamaican style of toasting, as it became known, would eventually be imported to the US where it would morph into rap as a part of New York's hip-hop scene, which would eventually go on to conquer popular youth culture globally.

At a Jamaican dance it was customary for dancers to show their appreciation of a popular rhythm by demanding 'More cut!' The selector could flip the record over and play the instrumental side; the DJ could then add some of his own jive-talk while urging on the audience. If other vocals or toasts worked well in the dance these could be recorded over the existing backing track, further extending the life of the rhythm. When recording engineers began re-mixing the B-sides, so creating a dub version of the track, it added yet another dimension. It also meant that by offering exclusive cuts of certain tracks to different operators they could not only enhance their own reputation but also fuel the fierce rivalry that came to exist between the various sound systems.

During the mid to late '70s dub had become reggae's cutting edge, and there were about half a dozen active studios all trying to fulfil the seemingly insatiable demand for roots reggae that Bob Marley's global trail-blazing had generated. Regardless of the owner or producer, the sound engineer was the vital component in ensuring the final product was as good as it could be.

Masters of the art, such as King Tubby and Lee Perry, are rightly celebrated and others, including Errol Thompson at Joe Gibbs, Ernest Hoo Kim at Channel One, Clive Chin at Randy's, Prince Jammy & Scientist at  King Tubby's, sylvan Morris at Studio One (and later Harry J's) and Karl Patterson were able to create a stunning new form of music on equipment that even then, was widely regarded as obsolete. To that list should also be included Errol Brown who, whilst not as prolific as some of his more illustrious contemporaries, more than made up for it by the quality and measure approach he brought to his work.

After studying electronics at Kingston Technical High School, Brown, a nephew of Duke Reid, became a junior sound engineer at the Treasure Isle studio, and after being mentored by Byron Smith, who had recorded many of the rock steady classics from the late 1960s, he eventually became the senior audio engineer shortly before Duke Reid succumbed to lung cancer in 1976.

Duke's demise brought about Sonia Pottinger's subsequent acquisition of the studio during a period that coincided with the release of several seminal solo works by such classic artists as Marcia Griffiths, Bob Andy and Culture, whose highly respected sequence of albums were given a UK release on Richard Branson's Front Line label. In addition to his work with these major acts, Brown also found the time to experiment with dub music.

By this time, King Tubby had become widely recognised as the champion of the dub sound, working with many of Kingston's most celebrated music makers, including Vivian 'Yabby You' Jackson, Bunny Lee, Niney and Augustus Pablo. via his astute remixing, the pioneering engineer took interpretations of their music on a detour into a dark and mysterious underworld of seemingly endless free-form expression and improvisation with the mixing board taking primary position.

Such became the demand for his remixing skills that queues of young producers would form outside the house that he shared with his mother in Kingston on Dromilly Avenue in Waterhouse, hoping that he could work his magic and sprinkle some of his stardust on their productions. Ultimately, Tubby was unable to satisfy this demand and other engineers felt compelled to test these waters.

In due course many released dub albums of their most successful tracks. Lee Perry, a friend and rival of Tubby, added apparent mayhem and chaos in which anything was possible resulting in many genuinely astonishing recordings. More established producers, such as Derrick Harriott, Harry Mudie and Roy Cousins released relatively thoughtful and constrained affairs while younger, more maverick record label owners, like Keith Hudson and Glen Brown, went to the more extreme end of the spectrum.

Most often the track would begin with a phrase or melody picked out on a keyboard, a fanfare from the horn section or a roll of drums. Listeners would then be taken on a labyrinthine excursion where the rhythm would be systematically deconstructed down to the bare essentials with the drummer hammering away supported by a thunderous bass rumbling along underneath. These two instruments, bound tightly together, would provide the thread that would ultimately guide the listener and hold the piece together enabling the engineer to extemporise on a radical flight of fancy.

The more tracks and channels available, the greater the room for manoeuvre. Various other instruments were faded in and out of the mix, with much delaying, echoing and reverb, loops and crashes along the way. Played loud on an open air sound system, the reverberation could be felt in the solar plexus, graphically illustrating Bob Marley's claim that 'When it hit, you feel no pain.' Under a starry sub-tropical night sky the effect of this Jamaican psychedelia could be quite dis-orientating.

When Errol Brown began to experiment with his own dub mixes he was perhaps more fortunate than most in that he had a wealth of vintage tracks and bass-lines to draw upon. His first foray into this new arena was to remix some of Treasure Isle's rock steady classics. Given that these were such familiar and well-loved favourites it was not entirely risk free. But showing a deft touch, subtlety, and a good deal of maturity, he was able to pull it off with aplomb. It is surprising his his sympathetic remix was able to infuse music that was already out of fashion with a much more contemporary militant edge. with such a rich legacy of top drawer material to hand, Brown continued to mine a very rich seam, eventually completing at least three albums of older late '60s material.

For more contemporary roots material, he was able to be more adventurous. Remaining sympathetic to the original, and generally resisting any temptation to add sound effects or gimmicks, he adhered to the fundamental principles, preferring instead to keep things simple by allowing the quality of the music to shine through. In quick succession, he released a number of well-received dub albums with tracks drawn from Sonia Pottinger's high quality productions.

The usual financial constraints, however, meant that the LPs were pressed in pitifully small runs in covers bearing modest artwork, or even none at all. such was the popularity of these recordings among the dub-loving cognoscenti that they disappeared almost as soon as they were released, with very few of them making their way to the export market. These days, copies do occasionally turn up for sale, but even in decidedly average condition they still often command eye-wateringly high prices.

At the heart of the music were the Revolutionaries, the hugely talented session crew that made up the Treasure Isle and Channel One house bands during the late '70s. Comprising a fairly fluid line-up, its line-up was always of the highest order, ensuring the group maintained its position as Jamaica's leading instrumental outfit throughout the roots era.

On the first 11 tracks on this CD, which originally made up the 'Dubb Everlasting (aka Everlasting Dub') album, the musicians are accompanied by an as yet unidentified player blowing a cool harmonica, an instrument that almost always add another dimension. to reggae and yet remains widely under-appreciated in the genre. This collection has often been confused with the 'Bag-O-Wire' album, which was issued by the London-based Klik Records label in 1975, but while both sets feature several of the same rhythms, these are played at different speeds and on the latter, the tracks have undergone further extensive remixing, credited to Sydney Crooks of the Pioneers.

Given the players, the material and the militant drum style, it is of no surprise that many of the recordings have a distinct Channel One flavour and favourably compare with the best that was emanating from Maxfield Avenue at the time. The remaining ten tracks, which together formed the 'Dub Expression' album, features other familiar rhythms including 'Up Park Camp', 'Movie star', and a re-working of Culture's 'See Them A Come' from their Joe Gibbs 'Two Sevens Clash' album. A couple of well-crafted Marcia Griffiths renditions result in a particularly thunderous take on her old Studio One recording of 'Melody Life', which she had re-recorded and updated for Sonia Pottinger. It is a similar case with 'Give You Love'.

Errol Brown's high quality production standards did not go unnoticed and, following a recommendation from Marcia Griffiths, his services were secured by Bob Marley, when the renowned performer required a sound engineer for his newly opened Tuff Gong studio. Quickly establishing a distinct sound, Brown initially gave Marley's 'Survival' album a harder edge than had been apparent on its immediate predecessors.

At Tuff Gong he would have the opportunity of working with other internationally acclaimed artists such as Third World and Burning Spear, further enhancing their reputations, as well as his own. He also joined Marley's touring entourage; a position that enabled him to develop this area of his skill set, and so allowed him to remain in his preferred role of sound engineer long after Marley's passing and dub was no longer at the cutting edge of Jamaican music.

In recent years, there appears to have been something of a revival of interest in Errol Brown's dub albums and making available two of his rarest collections on one CD, at an eminently reasonable price, should only help consolidate his place in the genre's small, yet vastly influential pantheon. Such is the quality of the material presented here, that it has stood the test of time well and is a testament to the engineer's contribution to the development and success of dub music.

Until such time as there is any official recognition of the contribution made by the tiny handful of audio engineers and dub masters operating in the Jamaican recording industry during the mid-to-late 1970s, the vast body of work issued as B-sides of almost every 7" single from that time will have to serve as their memorial. I am certain no one will begrudge Errol Brown this moment in the spotlight, or indeed his place among such exulted company.

Malcolm Gillett

BABYLON DUBBING
ESCAPE AFFAIR
BIBLICAL DUB
EASY LOCKS
LIVING STRINGS
EVA A DUB
MARIGUANA AFFAIR
DUB DUE
WINNING DUB
37 ORANGE STREET
SPINNING DUB

THE GUN COURT DUB
ITAL STEW
SUPER TRACKS
DREAD AT THE CONTROLS
GHETTO DUB
RANKING MARSHALL
DOWN TOWN THING
BOND STREET ROCK
MELODIOUS DUB
MARK DIS YAH DUB

Trojan
© Doctor Bird Records