Gibbs had been active in the JA music scene from the early ‘60s, working alongside Lee Perry and Bunny Lee as well as producing rocksteady hits for the likes of The Pioneers, The Heptones and The Ethiopians, but rose to international prominence with his production job on Nicky Thomas’ 1970 global top ten smash ‘Love Of The Common People’. An impressive résumé certainly, but one undoubtedly overshadowed by his ’70s partnership with engineer Errol (ET) Thompson (aka ‘The Mighty Two’) which – with the help of a crack team of session musicians aka The Professionals (Sly & Robbie & co) – delivered over 100 Jamaican chart toppers for a host of singers and DJs including Big Youth, Dennis Brown, Prince Far-I and Black Uhuru. Some of reggae’s most enduring albums such as Two Sevens Clash by Culture also bore his fingerprints, and along with Coxsone and Scratch he rightly competes for the title of greatest reggae producer of all.
However it is his groundbreaking ‘70s experiments in dub which lend his claim to that accolade the greatest weight. In particular his four volume African Dub Almighty series represents dub music at its most revelatory, with the third of those Chapters the pick of the bunch, a rival to King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, Blackboard Jungle Dub and Pick A Dub as perhaps the key album of the genre.
The first two Chapters (from 1973 and 1974 respectively) were pioneering for the time, yet offered little clue as to what would come next. But four years was a long time during what was the most fertile period in reggae’s history, as Kingston rocked to the roots train, basked in the glory of the Wailers’ international success, sweltered while DJs competed for dominance on the street corner sound systems and observed dreadlocks disappear into clouds of ganja smoke as the culture of Rastafari grew more fervent in the wake of Haile Sellassie’s removal as Emperor of Ethiopia.
By the mid-’70s dub had surged forward in its sonic development from the kind of primitive instrumental remixes and edits knocked out by Coxsone and Tubby initially as the most economical way of filling the B-Side of a 45, becoming latterly, far more experimental sonic excursions for increasingly enthusiastic audiences on club nights. Crucially for Gibbs however, in the intervening period (between Chapters Two and Three) he acquired a new 16-track recording studio and record pressing plant at Retirement Crescent. Tubbys by contrast had a mere four tracks and Thompson must have felt like a four year old let loose in a sweetie shop, although the first LP released after the move, State of Emergency, was not an especially significant step forward from Chapter Two – perhaps instead it merely served the purpose of allowing the duo to get their bearings and prepare for what was to come.
Some of the sounds and samples on Chapter Three will be familiar to you if you have at least some interest in reggae and dub music. For instance, the backing track to Jacob Miller’s ‘Baby I Love You So’ has been a much sampled dub staple and along with the echoed skanking guitar, provides the raw material for the album’s title track ‘Chapter Three’. But others almost defy description, so it is vital you give it a proper listen from beginning to end. There’s crazy stuff happening all over the place, not least on the aforementioned title track, where at one point it sounds as if a large grate has been removed from the earth, only to reveal a yawning pelagic catacomb; later in the same track, could that be a double decker bus or another HGV grinding abruptly to a halt?
Lloyd Bradley in his superb history of the genre, Bass Culture, devotes a few pages to ‘Tribesman Rockers’ an otherworldly borrowing of ‘Why Do Birds Follow Spring’ by Alton Ellis, where channels shift and screech over horns, flutes and digital bleeps and squeals which sound like they’ve come from some futuristic arcade game.
For good measure, leavened into the mix on ‘Freedom Call Dub’ are some Clangers-style recorder and insanely distorted UFO sound effects, while the guitar groove on ‘Jubilation Dub’ seems to tailspin off the edge of a cliff beneath some seriously phat bass, the whole thing descending into anarchy, the dial grips on that mixing desk having a house party to themselves. Elsewhere, door bells ring, sirens blare and water pools bubble and froth. One’s head begins to melt.
Best of all is ‘Angolian Chant’ – a heavyweight twist on Dennis Brown’s gorgeous ‘Love Me Always’ reinterpreted as “I wanna dub you, dub you always” – with the sustain on Brown’s “wooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” a stroke of genius, the work of a master engineer, one who understands how to fasten divergent musical fragments together, drape silent shrouds over familiar rhythms and brush and polish others until they gleam anew, radically reinventing with echo, splice and overdub.
Lloyd Bradley identifies parallels between dub and the African beliefs and practices which migrated to Jamaica known as obeah, which divides the body into seven centres or selves (eg digestive system, respiratory system, the brain) and prescribes herbs and potions in order to bring forward, push back or heal and realign those different aspects. Bradley noted how the best dub contains those medicinal even magical qualities, excavating, transfiguring, purifying, shredding, even amputating where necessary. African Dub All-Mighty Chapter Three delivers on all of those fronts, in addition to being one of the most authentically psychedelic records ever created. The likes of Scientist, Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge would rewrite the dub rule book, psyching into the FX and detaching it more and more from its roots. By contrast, the music of Gibbs, Thompson and the Professionals was steeped in reggae’s rich heritage. It holds body and soul, past and future, earth and the cosmos in perfect balance. (JJ)