If a case can be made for crediting one person with the invention of the modern remix, Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock may well be remembered as the true originator. Years before 12-inch-vinyl singles began pumping out of stateside discos in the latter half of the 1970s, Tubby and his Jamaican brethren (including frequent co-conspirator Lee “Scratch” Perry and protégés Prince Jammy and Scientist) had been hard at work in the small confines of his recording studio in the Waterhouse section of Kingston, Jamaica, transforming the reggae hits of the day into spacey, stereophonic and effects-laden instrumental masterpieces that were the earmark of the “dub” style, as it came to be known.
An electronics and engineering prodigy (as a teenager, he repaired radios and later built his own power amps), Tubby rose to prominence in the mid-1960s as a mobile-sound-system operator, eventually founding his Home Town Hi-Fi setup in 1968. Tubby's rig was the first on the island to make use of high-frequency horn tweeters and separate amps for the bass and treble channels, and his legendary dance parties — often with the mighty U-Roy toasting rhymes over throb-heavy beats — consistently drew huge crowds long into the reverberating night.
Around this time, Tubby began cutting dub plates, or vocal-free versions of popular songs, for a raft of record producers who would then distribute the acetates to local sound systems for airplay. “He would always make sure nothing went on the stamper until it sounded exactly as it should, making full use of the entire bandwidth to give that full, almost self-satisfied feel to the records,” writes Lloyd Bradley in his definitive reggae history, Bass Culture. Tubby's flawless technique with these early test pressings led one of his clients, producer Bunny “Striker” Lee, to broker a deal for him to buy a 4-track mixing board and open his own studio.
Mixed and produced in 1972 with Lee Perry and released the following year, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub (Upsetter; rereleased on Clock Tower) purports to be the first full-length dub album, comprising various rhythm tracks that were sifted through the array of customized signal-processing equipment at Tubby's fledgling studio. “A lotta those equipments, King Tubby build those 'imself,” Prince Jammy told Blood and Fire label founder Steve Barrow in 1996. “If 'im don't build most a them, 'im just improvise on them an' mek them different from the original.” Among the units Tubby had tweaked was a vintage Fisher reverb, as well as the 4-track board itself, which he upgraded with new faders that allowed him more precision in manipulating levels and bouncing submixes, pushing the tiny console to its outer limits.
As the '70s progressed, a revolving door of producers and singers brought their tracks to Tubby for the dub treatment. Rooted in the interplay of the bass and drums — with horns, guitars, keyboards and vocals phasing in and out of the mix on an extreme wave of echo, delay, flange or other filters — dub music signified an earth-shaking innovation in multitrack mixing, and Tubby was at its epicenter. The movement became international in 1975 when Island Records in London released Augustus Pablo's hit LP King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown. The album has maintained a long-standing influence, called out by everyone from The Clash to Massive Attack as a crucial dub classic.
Nearly 15 years after Tubby's death — he was gunned down by an unknown assassin in an apparent botched robbery outside of his Duhaney Park home in Kingston — his music and production aesthetic still hold sway over a broad swath of musical styles. Techno, drum 'n' bass and even hip-hop owe a debt to his revolutionary sound experiments, and producers such as Tricky, Madlib, Carl Craig, Bill Laswell and many more cite him as inspiration. Thanks in part to a spate of reissues curated by the UK-based Blood and Fire label (as well as the recently rejuvenated Trojan imprint), King Tubby is forever assured his rightful place in the pantheon of reggae royalty: an icon of all that is dubwise.