Wednesday, March 24, 2010
SCIENTIST: Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires
It’s a dub record, so you know what it sounds like: The chunky wobble of the bass, the rusty scrape of the high-hat, the bass drum’s muddy thud, the horn section playing in a cave, the vamping guitar drenched in cement-floor slapback and the disembodied voices adrift in their delay-unit haze.
Scientist, once a protégé to dub innovator King Tubby, isn’t reinventing the dub wheel here, but he’s a master of his craft. His intuition is perfect, and the addition-by-subtraction process yields a work that never becomes repetitive or dull. There is a bright, crisp sound here, as opposed to the deep murk of, say, Lee Perry’s excellent Super Ape. Little spoken bits at the start of many of the songs (“I am the living dead!”) lend a kind of thematic unity, but it doesn’t really extend beyond those brief catchphrases and the album cover. Scientist’s albums all have amazing titles, by the way, like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders and Scientist Wins the World Cup. It’s like he’s going on all these great adventures, when really he’s just mixing some awesome dub. (He also made an album in 1980 called Introducing Scientist: The Best Dub Album in the World. I like it when artists aim high.)
Like strophic techno, dub is constructed by the addition and subtraction of layers. Each of the repeating elements is congruent with the others, and the music moves through a series of combinations as layers are added and removed, reintroduced or silenced as necessitated by the track’s momentum. Unlike techno, however, these elements are not programmed into a machine, they are parts played by session musicians, recorded to a multi-track tape where they can be isolated from each other in the mixing process. The musicians are typically not the stars of the show, however. It is the man at the mixing boards whose name (or pseudonym) graces the cover.
A few years ago there was a dustup when several tracks from this album were used in one of the Grand Theft Auto games without Scientist’s knowledge or consent. Scientist was apparently upset that his music was associated with anti-social wish fulfillment (“I don't understand why they have someone who steals a car and shoots up the place, then he's listening to reggae and Rastafari on the radio.”) The fact that he received no compensation probably stung a little as well. Just because the cover boasts his name doesn’t necessarily mean he is recognized as the author of this work, however. A managing director at Greensleeves Records said "Basically, Scientist was claiming to own copyrights in songs and recordings as a result of being the mixing engineer. Although we always felt these claims were ridiculous, we had to defend ourselves all the way to trial.” Greensleeves won in court, perhaps because certain people in the legal system just don’t understand how dub works. Apparently, according to precedent, the mixing engineer can not claim authorship of a recording.
So who is the author here? Henry “Junjo” Lawes produced the recordings and wrote the arrangements, which are played expertly by the Roots Radics Band. The original mixes feature vocals by Michael Prophet, Wailing Souls and others, though in Scientist’s mix, these are reduced to well-placed snippets.
Jamaican pop uses and re-uses riddims frequently, and the artistry most often recognized is what a certain performer does with those pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s not unusual for the same Sly and Robbie track to be used for several different songs by several different vocalists. This is similar to the way American rappers will recycle each others’ beats on mixtapes, except in the case of reggae and dancehall the practice is often a feature of “official” releases.
In the early days of dub, a single’s b-side would often be a dub version of the a-side. Somewhere along the way, dub became an art in itself, and whole albums of dub versions were released. I haven’t heard the original un-dubbed versions of any of the tracks on Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, though I suspect I would like them quite a bit. It’s strange that those originals have fallen into obscurity while these versions comprise a recognized classic. Who's the author now?