"...the subworld...an environment which registers on our perception at the level of sensation, displaced effect, a suspicion of the other existence. In a similar way, sub-bass frequencies can register as tremors in the chest and stomach, rather than audible sound."
-- David Toop1
The subworld is the aural nether where sound grumbles along below sea level, snugly hugging the contours of territory with great spectral and counterfrictional lassitude, beyond the 'economy of desire,'2 way below the fetishized thresholds of pain, near the edge of all audibility. This is where its signature sound (pungent alloy of ephemeral noise, found sound, archival musics, distended rhythms, echo, natural ambience, auto-piloted composition, psychodynamic mood enhancement, and disembodied voices), rumbles along at the somnabulatory frequency of 30 hertz.
The pinna, that supposedly fully-equipped swirl of conch shell pasted to either side of the human head, attempts a precise location of the source of 'this entire atmospheric essence'3 in vain. The distancing effects of echo for instance, disintegrate syntax, precisely-authored instrumentation, and foments dislocation, blurring -- sound resides both forward and back, as well as inside one's head (head as drum) where sound can wreak its havoc. These reverberations invoke boundlessness as the self emerges from its cave to 'make the hills come alive with music.' Meanwhile, the deep dilated waves percolate into the cauldron of our solar plexus.
The subworld is comprised of 'metarhythms,'4 'hidden currents,'5 'brain-melting echo,'6 'in the obscurity of the decibels of the sound systems where dub deploys its magnitude.'7 It's produced by a secret enclave of neuronauts, marginal homebodies, bassomatics, soundwave surfers, macrobiotechnicians, hypnoriddimtists, and 'psychic travellers driven by desire and curiosity.'8 They have made of this 'landmind' web of data, that some might call consciousness, a kind of clandestine pleasance or speakeasy sanctum of the auditory cortex (next to the temporal lobe) where musical sounds can become the phenom of 'hearing music in one's head.'
I remember my last months in the sunny studio confines of WFMU's9 fortress-under-siege. The at-once dense and spacious 'new' dub (Subsurfing, Skull vs. Ice, Woob...) the remix or remangled dub mixes (Massive Attack vs. the Mad Professor, Watershell vs. Incarnate) further fudging originality and parameters of authorship. This pseudonymous proliferation of 'new' sound and reconstituted 'old' roots -- the past as ticket to the future, the primitive as model for the electro-canonical -- wafts and fibrilates until the studio's speakers begin to shred like paper flowers in a big wind.
I'm resurrected out of my cynical overexposed-to-music funk. I leave my grumbling sniveling body behind in the studio's squeaky chair, totally immersed because 'bass is immersive, echoes are immersive...'10 and 'produce large vibrations in an object'11 as the speakers further decompose, screws rattle loose, components melt down, let go of all moorings. These speakers (like most of our minds' ears) were not designed to accomodate subsonic tremors.
The dodgy denizens of this vast substratum, to a great extent, evade the prefabricated pitfalls of fame, the standard 'fandemonious' infantilization of stars, the sycophantic lifestyle of promotion. They ask, 'How can we believe in the absolute freedom of thought when confronted with such an allegiance to the rules of fame.' 12
They attempt to make collective the unconscious (as composer Hildegaard von Bingen articulated in the 12th century: 'Those voices you hear are like the voice of a multitude') previously horded by the book tour mystic, controlled by religion, and marketed as competitive self-actualization. They refuse to sing, get hairstyles, pose for defiant pout-sexy record sleeve portraits ala Billy Idol. They help obliterate the idea of 'youth culture' as angst-in-vanity sales engine by acting upon what Doris Lessing called 'divine discontent,' by remaining behind their turntables, in the dark; the only lights being the constellations of L.E.D. pinpoints on their mixing boards.
These culture workers circumvent the vectors of power that the image elite control, faceless boards of CEOs, Burroughs' 'grey men,' who cannot 'be critically assessed [because they] cannot be located' 13 in their mirror glass towers of defused accountability. They of the ether practice 'psychic nomadism' 14 by subsuming ego in the 'meaningful patterns in the noise.' 15
'George Bataille presents an option still not fully explored: In everyday life, rather than confronting the aesthetic of utility, attack from the rear through the nonrational economy of the perverse and sacrificial. Such a strategy offers the possibility for intersecting exterior and interior disturbance.' 16
Think of the Carter Family's harmonies, Negro prison blues field recordings or the multiple vibrato of Tuvan throat singers, the trance-inducing Master Musicians of Joujouka, the Gyoto Monks, their mantric grunts and grumbles sending shivers and 'sympathetic vibrations' down that most 'bass-ic' of neurological bass strings: the spinal cord.
Think of bongwater gurgling in the ornamental hookah: confluence of two ethereal realms, smoke and water. Think too, of a fat spliff, seeds crackling and popping, 'full of holy sparks' as Kaballist Isaac Luria, in a related sense, described our spheres of existence.
Inhale the blue aromatic smoke to define the capacity of the lungs and test the limits of the bloodstream's ability to absorb the psychotropic molecules of tetrahydrocannabinol, the 'mind-bending chemicals' 17 through the blood-brain barrier into the grey matter's various pleasure centers where they dismantle the neuro-clusters which control the glands and hormones, raise adrenalin levels, and amplify natural brain activity by mimicking essential brain chemistries.
LSD, for instance, is known to mirror trance states: time-space perception alteration; synthaesthesia; deep feelings of cosmic unity and eternity; lucid thought; and noesis. The tweaking of neuro-transmitters allows the tangible to become substanceless ('meditation fumeuse' 18 ) and boundaries, mores, aesthetic prejudices are blurred, become liquid, liberated from the mind's 'material matrix' as paleontologist-theologian, Teilhard de Chardin once described it.
In a similar manner of absorption and amplification, faders, knobs, and microchips are deployed in the roles of psychotropically-drenched cells in synaptical space, the 4th world, a subworld, where musics are destratified (not pseudo-egalitarianism), defactionalized, genre-obliterated and engaged in inveterate play: '90% fun and 10% danger.' 19
A world where chanting Buddhists meet sacrilegious Beastie Boys on 'Shambala,' where medieval psalms are electronically hybridized, as Hildegaard von Bingen so presciently prescribed, 'underneath all the texts these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling...must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me.'
Here 3rd world roots, tribal trance, indigenous, ancestral, and organic communiques are downloaded by psychotropic acousticians on electro-prosthetic mixers to extrapolate and amplify the neural-organic sound for the 21st century: producer as amabassador, Albert Hoffman, anthropologist, and surrealist. 'The imagery of altered states, along with the desire to travel through intangible dimensions...to float and be intoxicated by rhythm and frequencies are central to the force of music.' 20 (I think of Jon Hassell's muted trumpet 'mindsweeping' the inner-atmospheres, Adrian Sherwood's work with African Head Charge as the first post-modern 'African' music, the fused techno-Arab-dub of Muslimgauze, or Rockers Hi-Fi exploring echo-manic 'dududububub' space.)
The exhalation of blue spectral smoke aromatically tags its surroundings, defines space. Dub, the first ambient music of ganja, is very original music that deals with this psycho-architecture.
There have always been ambient musics -- classical, folk, and indigenous -- that evoked atmosphere, that intrepreted domain, effectively weaving an aural tarp over the ghosts of inexplicable phenomena, outlining the unknown. Fill cheesecloth with holywater, watch it assume shape, dimension.
Ambient music is the aural strategy of atmospheres. (I think of Dvorak and the symphonic music one associates with high seas adventure flicks starring Errol Flynn but I think too of Dutch carillon music swelling the Sunday air with calls to the faithful, Asphodel's 'Throne of Drones' compilation, Montreal's concrete music label, Empreintes Digitales, Nonplace Urbanfield).
Ambient defines liminal and subliminal space, as a 'recovery of silence' 21 in the concentric orbital world of hypothetical subatomic particles but also in the just as hypothetical black holes of outer space.
Reverb, a key element in psychoactive ambience, can be visualized as the stone-in-the-pond, concentric emanating waves. Representing, in cosmic terms, the planets revolving around the sun and electrons orbiting their protons. But then the waves hit shoreline and fold back into one another to produce a crunched accordion effect of sound, ricocheting from one ear to the other -- a visualization of the aural havoc that reverb can wreak on the stable human ear.
Ambient defies gravity and musical composition but abides the open systems of nature and seems to take its instruction from the Tantra: 'hear all sounds as mantras.'
Dub, short for double, to dupe, duplicate, on the other hand, is the original reggae tactic (B-sides of old 7') that remixed rambunctious instro versions of vocal trax. Dub is, in essence, beholden to rhythm and gravity. The bass-drum configuration of dub is a hybrid, made heavier by the sleight of sound effects of echo and reverb which 'imbues it with new life, turning the rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation.' 22
Dub is the 'accidental' invention of King Tubby, electronics engineer and sound system operator, who began fidgeting with the 'implements of sound' 23 to produce 'crucial' 4-track shack attack versions, 'massive towering exercises in sound sculpting.' 24 And, along with a few others (Prince Far I, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Prince Jammy), forever altered the methodology of musical construction and the shape of our inner most ear.
They made of linear chug-a-chug-a, predominantly folksy reggae music (beholden to pop song construction) a kind of urban spatial jazz. Their forebears may well be the avant free jazz adepts: John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk (the way they shook up pop standards) as much as any indigenous reggae legend.
The madness of their method: strip the vocals and the fun begins. Then add stratum upon substratum of echo, delay, reverb to these stripped barebones rhythms 'to manipulate patterns of sound in innovative ways.' 25 And with this patina of enhancements on 12' discs they were capable of havoc and other great things, producing not only entertaining backing trax for toasters, early rappers who sang over these delirious platters of insouciant sound, but skewing the vestibular apparati (which monitors aural signals, apprising the brain of the position of the body with respect to gravity, sound and other forces) to skew our sense of equilibrium. Knock you down with cosmic sound. Unhinging those intoxicating reggae rhythms from gravity.
Outside these confines of gravity spins the jester-savant 'guerilla priest,' Lee 'Scratch' Perry, responsible for so much of the ambience and madcapped experimentation of early reggae. He has always meant to 'cause a confusion' by taking Tubby's notions and adding psychotomimetic loops and kinks, atmospheres, rinky dink piano, mad laughter, gunshots, religious invocation, baby cries (all pre-sampler, mind you), imbuing reggae with eerie multi-tentacled ghostly insinuations and endowing the dizzying, decentered modern self with a kaleidoscope of sound. He is the intersection of Rasta and Sun Ra, Sun Rasta in post-mod ganja space 'looping through time.' 26 Electronic wizardry fused to rasta roots all loosely wrapped around an ego that not even outer space can contain.
But beneath his buffoonery lies 'a guy who perfected a high-tech way to take apart low-tech music in a pretech country fought over by post-industrial governments' 27 and maintains a critical, poetic, nonlinear, and subversive surreptitiousness. A true post-'madern' because, 'the new social relationship between the electronic body and the organic body is one of the best resources for performance material.' 28
These producers created unique musical values, hypnotic sound, a new sense of timing (inspired by ganja? meditation? tropical heat?) which plowed gaping furrows of silent space between notes. Slowed to a yog's pulse so that each note, each thrump shakes and shivers all of its echo and effects out of its system. (I think also of Miles Davis' interminable breaths between trumpet bleats).
These empty spaces, these synaptic sectors serve as the exposed orifices, the tympanic playgrounds for producers to play in; the deep breathing space where contemplation and invention thrive.
But also, one must think of Kingston, Jamaica that 'urban, rural, acquatic, lo-tech, mystical...eerie tropical ghost town...' 29 which, despite its rep as birthplace of some of the most universally soothing and uplifting music, it is a post-colonial hell of unemployment, squalor, and violence.
'Jamaica is such a mad place...so much ferocity and energy... The upbringing...is so much heavier than anywhere else...the vibes coming off them is just so ominous. What we did with Tackhead a few years ago was like that, because we did copious amounts of bad things.' Says Adrian Sherwood, dubmeistern~student of these masters.
But think most of all of the lives of Prince Far I and King Tubby (never mind Peter Tosh!) so brutally snatched away from this world made poorer by their absence.
These originals set the stage for second generation dubmeisters such as the Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood, and Mikey Dread, precocious offspring keeping dub alive during the 80s, extending its possibilities with their snippets of noise, 'saturated mixes, their palettes of improbable sounds, their interventions/manipulations to create veritable environments of sound...exploring all the possibilities of mixing.' 30
They, in turn, upped the ante for 3rd and 4th generation dubble-fronted, post-colonial, multicultural, cybergnostics with their anthropological and psycho-geographical aimmersion in sound laboratories where they produce ethereal relief maps, new sub-genres of ambient-'Serenity' dub (Jah Wobble, Future Sound of London, Tricky, DJ Spooky, Incoming! Records, Alpha & Omega, Coldcut, Unitone Hi-Fi, Bush Chemist, Crooklyn Dub Consortium, Pelican Daughters, Zion Train, Richard Kirk, Transglobal Underground, the Orb...) In fact, the Orb's Alex Patterson said, 'Early dub reggae: You don't have to dance to it, you just nod your head to it. It's still ambient to me.'
I remember my first encounter with the On-U Sound experience: Cat Club, NYC, early 1988. Adrian Sherwood unassumingly hidden behind the controls, samples oozing out from who knows where, a terrifying sensuround reorientation of wild effects, blurring what was live and what was preprogrammed -- postpsychoactive mayhem or, as Sherwood explains it, 'I pull something out, rip it to pieces, add reverb, add delay. That's my concept of dub music. Or dub noise.'
On stage a strange crew: ex-punks, politicos, roots rockers, original rappers such as Melle Mel, and the Sugarhill Gang (McDonald, Wimbish & Leblanc), backbone of many early rap hits, made over by Sherwood into the abrasive missing link between punk, rap, and reggae -- Tackhead, that sonic terror squad later fronted by street urchin rapper, Gary Clail, and let loose in Mid-Thatcher England.
Tackhead also formed the Maffia, the catalyst for the post-Situationist dub of ex-Pop Group (legendary punk funksters) member, Mark Stewart whose feedback, cut-up polemical wall of throbbing noise is the essence of anxiety-as-terror on a discotheque floor. 'As The Veneer Of Democracy Begins To Fade' -- the world upside down never sounded better and twelve years ahead of its time. By the end of that evening I knew my ears would never be the same again.
Another physical manifestation of sensory disorientation occured more recently at the Dub Syndicate show at S.O.B.s in NYC, where the bass was massive, arising as huge swelling pressure changes in the air, an aural nautical motion caused by two objects colliding, creating a sudden rise in air pressure. The lower the frequency the further the waves are from each other. 'Rhythm is [this] musical motion...the sensing of a succession of sounds as movement, progression or growth.' 31 Bass rhythms -- flat, broad, diffuse, insistent like a long train rumbling through a dense fog.
These deep fat subterranean tremors finally pressed consciousness right out of my mate's body. 'Call it kidnapping: the crushing bass generates pulsating vibrations for the body so that the spirit evaporates in the meanderings of the mix.' 32 There she lay, puddle of pretty unconsciousness at my feet. Not much later, mate in full upright revival, we witnessed a young man dancing, suddenly withering, and collapsing right before our eyes. And still later, a woman wilted, taffy-legged, into her man's surprised arms, eyes up in her forehead. 'Dub creates [this]...shock for mind, body, and spirit.' 33
I began asking friends about their most memorable musical experiences. Besides virginity surrenders involving Carol King's music, many interesting names arose: Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Sonic Youth, PiL, Clash, Television, James Brown, On-U Sound shows twice and 'Glenn Branca three times! This was amazing. Branca is renowned (but certainly not famous) for his mammoth sonic many-guitared symphonies. The three respondents each refered to physical manifestations: nausea, pain, vertigo, awe, breathlessness -- somewhere between hangover and rite of passage; mugged by the music.
Although 'music does not serve to communicate the furniture and circumstances of life...it does seem to communicate subjective states...' 34 to profoundly memorable depths -- much of life is tagged and dogeared by the music that filled the air during significant moments. The playing of that music can trigger an entire mnemonic diorama.
Dub in particular speaks in psychotropic tongues, addressing the presences, apparitions, life's internal yearnings that seem otherwise, to have no dimension, smell, or voiceprint.
Humans are genetically predisposed to seeking out transcendence -- or mere escape from boredom, killing a friday night. Either way, people have tried to chew, snort, smoke, inject, beat or blow on almost everything available to man in nature to get into some beyond.
Dub does NOT go as gently or easily into that psychic norm of 'consumer consciousness living in the eternal now of imploding mass images and commodified information' 35 where 'informative distraction flows in an unceasing stream of fictions.' 36
Dub, because of its construction, (contentiously enough) addresses the anxious dread of post-consumer nihilistic urban existence in contemporary submersive language to actually counteract the fracturization of daily experience. A 1996 New York Times article, quotes a Swedish study, 'there is an environmental cause common to cities that puts people at risk of becoming schizophrenic.'
This implies a complex impoverishment: ever greater 'rewards,' ever slighter opportunities for reaping those rewards; widening gulfs between desire and fulfillment which rap music, with all its bombastic and fatuous macho-posturing seems so easily en(t)raptured by.
Rap (with exceptions), at this point, is too beholden to defiant ham-fisted imaging (and 6th grade sociology) in the name of product. Like the knick of the knack predisposed to instant product endorsement. As a dj, I still find it odd how I gravitated to the dub (wordless) versions, beautiful subterranean beats that the vocals seemed to almostdeface.
Or a Psychonavigation by the Hungry Ghost and Creation Rebel probing the Hovering Glows; the Dead Voices On Air in the Grand Surface Noise Opera; the Mad Professor reprocesses Edith Piaf to create Voice From The Wilderness; Shiraishi Tamio commingles his saxophone with the Tokyo streets; Subdub meets the Opiated Hash Assassins; the Tallis Scholars sing Celestial Harmonies; John Lee Hooker's foot tapping renders precisely the pulse in our blood; Laswell's Subharmonic bass conjures thunderclouds brooding across flat plains; David Dunn jams with crickets around The Emergent Pond; and Prince Far I's voice -- the perfect reverberent essence of soul and the Tibetan monks' OM.
The ability of the aural realm to mimick or recall hallucination, to resonate transient non-articulated narco-ecstatic feelings is perhaps its magic. In fact, 'scientists have discovered that your stapes bone in your inner ear emits a drone...' 37 Maybe music's role is to harmonize this internal drone with our external ambience; a symphony of interior and exterior signals, to make all collective, connective and harmonious.
This is perhaps, what helps dub maintain its subterranean aspect -- the ability to remain abstract; mammoth yet implosively intimate; beyond polemic; a speculative yet gracious reappraisal of urban existence -- art, in other words. Enjoyable yet provocative, inscrutable, (mystery, texture, density, stratas of meaning -- a harmonious discord melted right into its grooves) and ever mutating.
Echo, for instance, dislodges wax from the innermost portion of our tympanic nerve, to alter relationships of body, environment, and desire. Untangling us from linear time: past, present, and future all glommed into the consecrated instant. Like the ashes of a loved one, taken up by the wind, then falling to the sea, dispersed, absorbed, immersed, conjoined.
'we...accept no responsibility for damage to speakers and/or eardrums.' 38
'Some people are searching for something different, something unnknown, something darker than grey, louder than an espresso machine, and a challenge to decipher.' 39