Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora

Paul Sullivan
London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-78023-199-0
RRP: $31.54 (CAD); $25.00 (USD); £15 (UK)

tobias c. van Veen

Université de Montréal (Canada)

Paul Sullivan opens his Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora by writing that “dub is a genre and a process”, as he describes the intersection of Afrodiasporic and Rastafari soundsystem culture with bass-heavy music styles as “ethereal, mystical, conceptual, fluid, avant-garde, raw, unstable, provocative, postmodern, disruptive, heavyweight, political, enigmatic ...” (2014: 7). Dub resonates as an echo through all of these signs, though Remixology tends to provide a lightweight treatment of the complex of metaphors Sullivan commences with. Less an intensive cultural study, even less so indulging in the kind of rich poetic license one would expect from a music journalist such as David Toop, Sullivan’s make-do journalistic approach combines first-hand interviews with a repackaging of well-travelled tales to tell a rich narrative of dub’s musical and cultural development, focusing on its producers, soundsystem operators, selectors and DJs. Avoiding the usual rounds of critique that gives cultural studies its edge—there is very little here on gender/sexuality, power/violence, colonialism/race or nationalism/politics—and leaving unremarked the sometimes provocative and interesting statements that arise in interviews, Sullivan nonetheless provides a gentle-enough grand narrative of dub’s outward spread from Jamaica. In the process Sullivan lays the groundwork for naming the “dub diaspora” as a transnational network based upon postcolonial migrancy and the dissemination—through copying, remixing and versioning—of dub studio and performance practices.

Remixology proves a readable and insightful treatment of dub for lay readers and studious scholars alike, beginning with a smart retelling of dub’s origins in Jamaica, where Sullivan weaves the history of soundsystem culture into the invention of reggae and lover’s rock, providing a convincing case for the evolution of dub as a creative studio practice of “versioning” reggae tracks where “the engineer could also be an artist in his own right” (2014: 47). Though there is nothing particularly new to be gleaned here for readers of Michael Veal (2007), Sullivan’s at-hand interviews provide fresh takes upon the early years—from the 1970s through dancehall—by crafting a series of mini-biopics focused on individual practitioners such as Lee “Scratch” Perry (“keenly experimental” (2014: 41)), King Tubby (“polite, fairly reserved, and clean-cut” (2014: 45)) and Scientist (who created “a clean, minimal style of dub that proved highly popular” (2014: 53)). Though these biopics of these and other producers often rely upon secondary sources, they nonetheless provide a concise and efficient insight into a practitioner’s background, style and creative process. Sullivan details how such producers came to dub music by articulating the social milieu of studio production—the individual quirks and social relationships that gave rise to various alliances and fall-outs—to an overview of various producers’ primary recorded works and how their style differed from (or borrowed from) the work of others. Thus, for example, Sullivan smartly describes how “Tubby worked with a mixing board and vocals, while Perry constantly worked on live rhythms and compositions” (2014: 48). Such effortless wordcraft—that defines an important methodological and sonic distinction in dub music production—encapsulates Sullivan’s style.

Though at times I had wanted Remixology to delve deeper into the sociopolitical complexes of Afrodiasporic identity, history and religion that strike through dub cultures, the attention of the text to both an accessible level of diction and argument is an achievement that cultural studies scholars, lost in the quagmire of postmodern verbiage, would be well-advised to learn from. That said, Remixology felt oddly lacking—given its journalistic strokes—in its descriptive exploration of dub as a musical sounding. An attempt to evoke in words what dub sounds like, particularly when addressing specific tracks cited in the text, remained strangely absent. Nor are the albums themselves evaluated from the perspective of a music critic; instead, a sparse but repetitive deployment of jazz-style journalistic clichés abound in describing its practitioners—the “legendary”, “monumental”, and so on. Likewise, Sullivan cultivates a particular (if not peculiar) perspective upon the undefined distinction of the “underground”—to which Perry apparently “went” to after the mysterious Black Ark studio fire (2014: 50)—to the “mainstream”, the latter to which UK ambient dub house act The Orb apparently belongs to (2014: 90) (indeed, The Orb are not otherwise discussed in Remixology, which appears something of a strange omission).

Moving on from the demise of dub in Jamaica, Sullivan emphasises its influence upon New York hip-hop, not particularly as a bass riddim spatialised sound (which is less prevalent in most hip-hop, to be sure), but as a studio practice and structure of soundsystem performance, noting that “both grew out of impoverished urban areas as a means of self-expression” (2014: 97) (and to which we might add: “self-empowerment”). One of the more intriguing moments here is when Sullivan unpacks DJ Kool Herc, who, though of Jamaican descent, has in interviews denied that Jamaican dee-jaying informed his “pioneering” approach (2014: 99). Here Sullivan draws upon eyewitness accounts of Herc’s toasting style as well as dub and reggae musical selection to suggest otherwise, while also resampling an interview with Jeff Chang (2005) where Herc pays respect to his roots in Jamaica’s Trenchtown. Remixology is at its most critical when questioning the reliability of self-mythologising narrative, insofar as Sullivan remains suspicious as to how memory is often recontextualised by performers for the service of other values (such as appearing “authentically” American).

Keeping to NYC, Sullivan draws attention to DJ Spooky and the coining of the dub-and-dread influenced hip-hop genre of “illbient”, though only over the course of a scant two and a half pages (2014: 102–04). Though Sullivan mentions Spooky’s Jamaican roots, it would have been interesting to hear more about the creative connection between Spooky, British-Guyanese producer Mad Professor, and Canada’s Twilight Circus Dub Soundsystem (Ryan Moore, originally from Vancouver, BC, who now lives in the Netherlands), precisely because of their overlapping series of collaborations with Spooky’s Dubtometry (2003). Indeed, the connections forged through Spooky’s album are more or less synecdoche to the entire thesis of the “dub diaspora”—a provocative thetic slogan of which much more needs to be said. More also needs to be said concerning the dub diaspora in a later chapter on dub techno. Though Sullivan mentions how the Berlin club Tresor was “heavily-involved in the formative Detroit-Berlin connection” behind (dub) techno, he doesn’t explicitly reflect upon how the “dub diaspora” was manifested in, as well as was already a constitutive aspect of, this connection (2014: 169). Other opportunities are also missed to further posit the musical imaginary and means of the dub diaspora; for example, while Sullivan is attentive to the work of Basic Channel, Maurizio (Moritz von Oswald), Tikiman (Paul St. Hilaire, whom Toronto’s Deadbeat later collaborates with) and the Chain Reaction (sub)label—a worthy feat considering its scant academic attention—there is oddly enough no mention of Mike Ink’s label Studio One. Ink’s minimalist rhythmic structures have yet to be analysed as drawing from their more famous Jamaican namesake. These critiques of the conceptual rigor of “dub diaspora” aside, Sullivan provides a useful discussion of dub techno, describing Basic Channel’s nine-record M-series as defining “the dub-techno blueprint” (2014: 171) while conducting informative conversations with both Oswald and Stefan Betke (a.k.a. Pole).

Sullivan’s narrative is at its most detailed when it builds into the profound impact dub has had upon British music, from digidub and post-punk to “UK rap and the dubcore continuum” (2014: 116). Remixology shines in Sullivan’s evidently more familiar surroundings of ragga jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, 2-step, garage, grime and dubstep, where he traces in some detail the early import of dub music, immigrant musicians and soundsystem performance to the UK during the 1970s. Sullivan outlines how reggae and dub soundsystem and production styles mutated into post-punk, ’80s dancehall, ’90s electronic music and millenial dubstep developments, providing one of the more efficient reviews of the UK dub continuum. Particular attention is paid to the influence of dub soundsystems—such as Lewisham’s Saxon Studio International and Coxsone Outernational, and their complex series of named allegiances to their Jamaican counterparts—providing a sociohistorical context that is not always present in other chapters. Of particular interest too is the focus on dubstep; Mala’s quote that “Britain isn’t Jamaica but it’s still an island, with an island mentality” (in Sullivan 2014: 142) resonates with the larger patterns of postcolonial migrancy and cultural adaptation at work in the British context that likewise remains marked by its “island” posture of structural racism. While Sullivan is attentive to how racism has factored into the British Jamaican cultural context, he is not as critically aware as to how his own prose often implicitly replicates the paradigm of race itself; for example, he describes how “employment and housing were denied to [Jamaican immigrants] because of their race” (2014: 57)—rather than the critical and important understanding that discrimination takes place because of racism (or more accurately here: because of white supremacy). Sullivan pays particular attention to the year 1976, when Eric Clapton’s infamous on-stage “drunken rant” to “stop Britain from becoming a black colony” mirrored similar “racist diatribes” from Conservative MP Enoch Powell that likewise reflected the IMF-imposed welfare cuts under the Labour government (2014: 71).

While Remixology is not primarily concerned with audience responses or the transactional and circuitous relations between dancefloors, music, performers and technologies, I was pleased to note that Sullivan grants some quasi-agency to the technological objects and devices that led to dub’s characteristic bass-space of reverb and echo. Sullivan notes some equipment throughout, from the defining use of the Soundcraft mixing board and “Roland Space Echo drum machine” (not a drum machine, of note, but a reverb tape-machine) (2014: 42), through to the use of the Sony Playstation in producing grime (2014: 137) and the creative repurposing of misfunctioning technologies to produce glitch dub and techno, notably Pole’s infamously broken Waldorf Pole filter (2014: 175). However, there is little description of what these devices do, how they work, and how they are creatively disabused to make novel and unworldly sound. Media studies and production studies scholars will find many signposts here, but the in-depth unpacking will have to be furthered elsewhere.

At the very close of Remixology, Sullivan outlines a debate between contemporary dub practitioners over the authenticity of digital versus analogue dub studio practices (2014: 214–21). Canada’s dub techno artisan Deadbeat (a.k.a. Scott Montieth), who is a professional music software designer, argues that digital effects today are “near one-to-one copies” in “software form” of “nearly every piece of vintage hardware today known to man” (2014: 217), while the likes of Clive Chin, who apparently was “lured” back into the studio to combat the rise of digitally-produced dub, argues that digital “just doesn’t sound as pure and warm as analogue” (in Sullivan 2014: 218). Deadbeat nonetheless does not champion the digital as superseding the analogue, as he makes the point that what matters isn’t so much the effects themselves, but what is fed into them (2014: 217). An attentive media scholar would perhaps suggest that the technicity of the object does in fact matter, at the material level, in the composition of sound but also the reciprocal and physical relation of the body/self to technicity, but unfortunately Remixology does not enter into a meditation upon these interesting positions.

Rewinding Remixology’s highlights, one only wishes Sullivan had entered into some interpretative forays over the very meaning of dub, both as a sounding and to its practitioners. The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart, for example, says that he sees “dub as a skeleton key to reality” (in Sullivan 2014: 151), suggesting a technico-ontological explication of reverb space and delayed time through resounding sound, while at the same time, Sullivan discusses dub as a “tool to transport listeners to the past” (2014: 9). How this occurs or what this means is unclear. In his introduction, Sullivan also claims that Remixology “looks at dub’s role as a ‘meta-virus’” (2014: 11), but precisely what this means, other than a meta-metaphor, and how it applies to the dissemination of dub, or the structure of the book itself (which is linear enough in a traditional biopic formulae, and not as a viral spread of replicants—expect no quasi-Deleuzean dreaming here) remains as unclear in the conclusion as it is posited in the introduction. Of course such metaphors are welcome concept probes for further thought—in McLuhan’s sense—though one wonders why, ultimately, the book is called “Remixology”, given that the signifier sees little use inside the book’s pages nor significant definition in relation to dub. Insofar as the book is a discourse (logos) on the remix, it isn’t, really—Remixology is more concerned with the history and worldwide spread of dub music, its practice of versionings, its significant personages and locales of influences, and its forging of what might be called a “diaspora” of sonic and cultural networks, moreso than any particular discourse upon the “remix” as such. Nonetheless, Remixology remains a must-read for any scholar of Afrodiasporic music culture, and certainly for any enthusiast of dub, be they a lay reader or academe deep into the haunted echoes of bass culture—though with the caveat that, if the latter, its claims should be listened to with a critical ear, attentive to what is left out of its empty spaces as much as to what resounds within.


Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Veal, Michael E. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.