Electronic music is the most exciting and revolutionary thing that happened to music in the last 500 years. Plain and simple. Beyond genres and styles, its very own nature has meant —and still means— a radical reformulation of how we think of music, how we make music and, ultimately, what music is. But why?
In the “Why Electronic Music is so f**king great” series we’ll see… well, why electronic music is so f**king great through some of the music paradigm shifts it has meant during its first 100 years.
The end of the song
Music as an eternal flux of sounds
Although quite surprisingly, this is one of the most important tracks in Electronic Music history.
According to legendary Jamaican reggae producer Bunny Lee, a privileged witness of the facts alongside King Tubby, the story went like this: sometime in 1968, Rudolph “Ruddy” Redwood, operator of The Supreme Ruler of Sound (SRS) soundsystem, was cutting an acetate —most commonly known as a ‘dubplate’— of The Paragon’s soon to be a hit “On The Beach” at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studios. As Lee explains in Michael E.Veal’s “Dub. Soundscapes & Shatered Songs in Jamaican Reggae”: “The engineer made a mistake and him was going to stop and Ruddy said, ‘No man, make it run!’ And the the pure riddim run because him didn’t put in the voice. […]
Ruddy was playing the next Saturday and I happened to be in the dance. And they play this tune, they play the riddim and the dance get so excited that them start to sing the lyrics over the riddim part and them have to play it for about half an hour to an hour! The Monday morning when I come back into town I say, “Tubbs, boy, that little mistake we made, the people them love it!” So Tubby say, “All right, we’ll try it.” We try it with some Slim Smith riddim like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” And Tubby start it with the voice and [then] bring in the riddim. Then him play the singing, and then him play the complete riddim without the voice. We start a call the thing ‘version’.”
These instrumental takes of reggae hits, these ‘versions’, became usual on 7 inches’ B-sides and had a huge success in the island’s soundsystems scene as music backgrounds for the deejays’ toasting. And then, Osbourne Ruddok, aka King Tubby, took them a to a higher level.
An electronics and sound engineer, Tubby hadn’t enough with just removing the vocals of the tracks. He also started removing guitar and keyboard chops here and there, added psychedelic effects —reverbs, delays, phase shifting— and highlighted the bass and the drums sections by re-EQing them. He changed the original tracks completely, turning them into something different. Something new. Without playing a single note of music. Dub was born.
There have been plenty of “happy accidents” in Electronic Music’s history, from vinyl scratching to the aberrant use of the Roland TB-303’s filters that gave birth to the acid house sound —more about that in an upcoming post—, but this one is definitely the most revolutionary and decisive of them all.
At its conceptual core, dub and its many derivative practices —edits, remixes, extended and alternative mixes, mashups— mean a complete reformulation of the musical format: a ‘song’ is no more an indissoluble, immovable unity but a sound cluster. A momentary order of sonic elements —the layers that conform it: bass, drums, vocals, synths, etc— in a certain, also momentary circumstances —pitch, length, effects— that can be completely transformed into something different. Something new. All elements and paremeters can be electronically manipulated, re-ordered, re-contextualized; some of them can be removed and new ones can be added. The only law is that there is no law. Not anymore.
Since that day back in 1968, music as we knew it has become transitive: an eternal flux of sounds that can be submitted to an endless string of mutations. No ‘songs’ anymore but significant links of an chain of countless tranformations. Awesome, isn’t it?