https://doi.org/10.1558/jwpm.32925

Book Review

Christopher Partridge. 2010. Dub in Babylon: Understanding the Evolution and Significance of Dub Reggae in Jamaica and Britain from King Tubby to Post-punk. London: Equinox. 319pp. ISBN 978-1-84553-312-0 (pbk).

Reviewed by: Lewis Tennant, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand

lewis.tennant@aut.ac.nz

Keywords: dub music; rastafarianism; United Kingdom; Jamaica; reggae; sound systems

Despite the pioneering studio techniques of early 1970s Jamaican producers having had a significant influence on a wide range of musical scenes and styles that have followed, there has been relatively little produced in the way of books wholly devoted to dub music. Christopher Partridge’s Dub in Babylon is a significant contribution to scholarly discussion on the music itself, as well as the social, cultural and political elements that have informed and influenced it. Introducing himself in the book, Partridge contextualises his approach to the subject succinctly. A British religious studies scholar with an academic interest in popular music studies and a lifelong love of Jamaican music, Partridge traces the history of the music from its inception in Jamaica to its adoption in, and influence on, Britain. Dub in Babylon frames dub music’s trajectory within the significant sociocultural and religious contexts that have informed it. Partridge ultimately suggests that though dub had a marked social, cultural and religious impact on 1970s Britain, as the music and culture surrounding it developed in the UK, by the 1980s there was a shift away from the emancipatory discourse that was central to the original Jamaican music and culture.

To examine the trajectory of the music and culture from its origins in Jamaica through to its adoption in 1980s Britain, Dub in Babylon is organized into two sections. The first addresses the societal forces that shaped and informed Rastafarianism, the Jamaican religion linked to reggae and dub’s roots and culture. The impact of Rastafarian faith on post-war Britain, where many Afro-Caribbean diaspora embraced both the religion and associated music and culture, is then discussed. This section also defines the music itself, explaining how Jamaica’s unique sound system culture led to studio experimentation, and in turn how these “dubs” were intended to convey religious and cultural messages to listeners. Notwithstanding the important role this discussion has in Partridge’s overall argument, the explanation of the production, structure and sound of the music itself presents a valuable standalone examination. That is, while the term “dub” in recent years has often been erroneously attached to a range of electronic music, Partridge thoroughly explains what makes actual dub music distinct as a production style, cultural movement, and genre.

Where the first section provides valuable and thorough context for Partridge’s thesis, the second concentrates on the main focus of the study. Here dub music’s influence on Britain in the 1970s is examined in the context of the UK representing a post-Jamaican Babylon (Rastafarian metaphor for Western oppression and greed) to Afro-Caribbean immigrants, an oppression also felt by the predominantly white punk movement of the time, which led to a uniquely British coalescence of music styles and scenes. The section then discusses a uniquely British dub style that is evolving, termed “postpunk dub”. Concentrating on white producer Adrian Sherwood and his pioneering On-U Sound record label, Partridge argues that postpunk dub is a form of postmodernism where formerly spiritually significant elements of the music (such as referring to “Africa” or “Babylon” in artwork or vocals) were effectively watered down, ultimately undermining the music and movement’s original intentions and messages.

A criticism—or perhaps more fairly, a differing interpretation—of Partridge’s key thesis might be that postpunk dub represented a uniquely UK interpretation of the music that, rather than being foremost a dilution of the original liberationist Jamaican discourse, in fact presented its own unique anti-establishment dialogue in the context of 1980s Britain. For example, though many of the original messages of the original movement were lost during this period, it is not as if the key singers and players in the postpunk dub scene sought to hyper-commercialize the music, as might be argued to have happened with some forms of hip hop music. That is, though Partridge’s thesis is compelling, it might be interpreted as arguing that British postpunk dub practitioners somehow “sold out” the original music and scene. Though this is presumably not the intended message, there might be scope for further discussion of a reinvented anti-establishment discourse and movement that emanated from the British producers of the 1980s. Such a discussion might, for example, ask how the musicians’ experiences in Thatcher’s Britain informed their understanding of the subculture in which they were involved and the music they produced.

A minor error in the book (and one only mentioned as this reviewer is from New Zealand) is that Blair Peach, who was killed during an anti-racism demonstration in Southall and was then the subject of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Reggae Fi Peach’ (1980), was not a local black man. Peach was in fact a New Zealand-born teacher and activist.

In summary, Partridge’s background as a theologian bodes well for a critical analysis of a music style heavily bound in the religious faith of its original creators. His discussion of the sociocultural and political factors that led to the development of the Rastafarian faith is thorough, and notwithstanding this being a compelling topic in and of itself, provides clear explanation of how reggae and dub music are often so intrinsically linked to the religion. This discussion also provides crucial context for Partridge’s overall thesis, where he traces the trajectory of dub music’s creation and reception in the United Kingdom, claiming the original social and religious discourse of early Jamaican dub music was eventually diluted in its British context. Though there are perhaps no surprises for the reader well-versed in the story of Jamaican music in terms of the overall historical timeline that Dub in Babylon provides, the inclusion of these contextual elements is crucial to framing Partridge’s central thesis, as well as providing a valuable introduction for those new to studying Jamaican music and the sociocultural contexts that surround it. On a most pragmatic level Dub in Babylon is a significant piece of work in that (at the time of review) it is one of only three books that specifically address dub music. Dub in Babylon is thus a significant addition to the topic, alongside Beckford’s Jesus Dub: Theology, Music and Social Change (2006) and Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007). The book is a robust and well-researched piece of work with an ably argued thesis, and is accessibly written for scholars and non-scholars alike.

References

Beckford, R. 2006. Jesus Dub: Theology, Music and Social Change. London: Taylor & Francis.

Veal, M. E. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1752196308081157