Monday, June 15, 2015

Black Uhuru: The Dub Factor

It was probably Fall 1984, not long after this blogger saw Black Uhuru open a wondrous double bill with the phenomenal King Sunny Ade, when I bought this album on vinyl.  From the first listen, the recording made a huge impression because it was the first of many excursions into the heart of dub, that amazing offshoot of reggae featuring a wide palette of processed sounds injected into the instrumental mix of a song, with occasional samples of the vocals by lead singer Michael Rose and backing vocalists Puma Jones and founder Duckie Simpson.
When reggae shifted gears into dancehall and other genres after the mid-80s, it was years before I went and bought a CD version of this album and all of the great memories of the sonic experience flooded back.  Recently, several albums of choice dub from the likes Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Trojan Records label have rekindled that interest in the outer limits of reggae that dub embodies.

Black Uhuru's The Dub Factor is a reworking of tracks, largely from the great Chill Out album from 1982, which immediately preceded this dub masterpiece.  A few songs, principally "Youth" and "Puffed Out" from Red's "Youth of Eglington" and "Puff She Puff" come from other sources.  The 2003 remastered version adds three tracks, including takes on "Carbine" and "Journey", also from Red, a take on the title track from Chill Out called "Destination Unknown."

As great as the dubs are with the echo, reverb and other effects rendered to the instrumental backbone of these songs, as well as the disembodied vocal samples, the greatness of Black Uhuru, in addition to the excellent musicians and the preeminent Riddim Twins of Robbie Shakespeare (Basspeare) and Sly Dunbar (Drumbar), was the top-notch songwriting of Rose.  He wrote so many memorable songs for the band in that first half of the 80s, when classic reggae was gradually giving way to a digital movement and Black Uhuru reigned as the supreme band in the genre after the untimely demise of Bob Marley.

In addition to the production skills of Dunbar and Shakespeare, who embraced the technological movement to electronics through syndrums and other devices, this album is testament to the skill of Paul "Groucho" Smykle, an Island Records producer, who remixed the record.  Even though The Dub Factor has a crystalline sound benefiting from the latest in studio wizardry, the album delves deeply into the dub aesthetic, combining the studio sheen with a sense of audio adventure.

Following this recording, Black Uhuru issued one more album, 1985's Anthem, which won the first Grammy for a reggae album.  Yet, there was a lack of passion, energy and urgency to that ultra-sleek sounding record that was a precursor to Rose leaving the group.  Though there were several versions of the band over the years, Black Uhuru never again approached anywhere near the heights of its early 80s heyday.  Rose was away from the scene for a time and then returned with dancehall-infused solo albums that sold decently, but were a far cry from his peak as a socially-conscious crusader.  For a brief period a decade ago, Rose rejoined Black Uhuru, but it was a very brief reunion.

It's hard to believe that it has been over 30 years since that record was first heard by this blogger, but its qualities as a landmark in reggae and dub are as obvious as ever.

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