Dub London: Bassline of a City

Dub music has had a profound effect on the capital over the last fifty years. Now, a new exhibition at the Museum of London seeks to showcase and celebrates the influential musical form. Peter Gray reports.

Nicely timed to coincide with Black History Month, the Museum of London’s new exhibition, Dub London: Bassline of a City, will celebrate the art and influence of dub reggae music and culture in the capital.

Not so much a musical genre as a production style, dub took the structure, bass line and melodies of traditional reggae and mixed it into a new form, something both similar to what came before, but also somehow completely different.

The early pioneers of the style were not musicians but engineers like King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Jammy. Their sound was the result of rigorous experiment, taking conventional reggae tracks and stripping them apart in the studio. In so doing, the mixing desk became as expressive an instrument as any guitar or piano.

These stripped down instrumental versions of popular reggae tracks would sometimes end up as the b side of a single. However, the tracks would often end up becoming popular in their own right.  

Being instrumental, these dub versions were also useful for DJs who liked to talk/rap over tracks. This practice was known as toasting in Jamaica and these early rap tracks became incredibly popular.

London has been linked to the style since the mid 1970s, when Jamaican Londoners began to import the sound of their homeland to their new home in the UK. In those days, dub music was played by Sound Systems at blues parties held in the homes of ordinary Londoners. In time, however, the music would outgrow these humble beginnings, as a series of clubs began to spring up around the city. Dub was on its way to becoming one of the most influential musical forms in the city.

Sister Stella of Rastafari Movement UK and collaborator on Dub London: Bassline of a City said: “Dub for me, highlights and defines key moments of my youthful self during a complex era of changing “socio-political” times in the 1980s. Racism was literally in your face and at the time it was intense … 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 of Dub that gave me a profoundly deeper inner, almost electric surge of strength. It the bassline you know, as it hits you, it pushes out all negativity… and allows space for magnificent ideas, of hope for my people.”

Although dub has its roots in traditional reggae, the sound has gone on to influence countless other genres, including punk, post punk, drum and bass, garage and even grime. Artists who have been influenced by the form include The Police, The Clash and Massive Attack.

The exhibition will showcase a number of key objects from the history of dub including an iconic speaker stack from the Notting Hill Carnival, a bespoke vinyl record ‘shop’ which visitors can sample and a series of 21 newly acquired photographs tracing the history of dub music in London.

Dub London – Bassline of A City is currently closed due to the Coronavirus Crisis. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

For information on other great exhibitions in London, please click here.

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What: new exhibition
When: No Record
Where: Museum of London
Website: Dub London