Systemwide & BSI Records Lead the Charge of Portland's Abstract Reggae Boom
Portland, however, is not completely isolated as an artistic community, being intricately connected with cities like Seattle, Vancouver, BC, and San Francisco, and it isn't confined solely to the production of postmodern novels or rock music. In fact, Portland is one of the North American capitals (in terms of production and distribution) of dub music, an abstract form of reggae that originated on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. The reason for Portland's dub capital status is the presence of Systemwide, the house band for a thriving dub label called Bucolic Sound Investigations (BSI).
A SHORT HISTORY OF DUB
If you already know what dub is, then I recommend you skip this part and resume the feature in the next section, titled "Portland's System."
There is a famous story of a Rastaman and a hippie dancing at a reggae concert. The hippie dances wildly, flapping his arms and moving frantically. The hippie's expressive dancing irritates the chilled-out Rastaman, who, when accidentally struck by the hippie's hand, finally tells him to stand still and dance. This is precisely what one must do when listening to reggae: stand still and dance. Reggae is less dance music and more soul music. It's the soul, not the body, that dances when one listens to Bunny Wailer or the Roots Radics or the Itals. Reggae is so preoccupied with the soul (its condition, its qualities, its shivers and shades) that a whole subcategory of the music is devoted to reproducing soul worlds or geist dimensions. That subcategory is dub.
Born in the late '60s--the very moment that the reggae rhythm (or "riddim") dramatically decelerated from heated ska and rock-steady tempos--by the mid '70s, dub was a fully developed art produced in two different ways, but with identical results: the evocation of a lost African paradise. One mode was the remix of a reggae song; the other was the production of an original dub track. Remixing (or versioning, as it was called) came slightly earlier, and was invented by King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock). King Tubby, as Lloyd Bradley explains in his recent book This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music, "didn't produce anything, he simply worked on master tapes other producers would bring him.... This," he adds, "was the genesis of the remix that, years later, would come to dominate certain areas of music." The first masterpiece from this production style was King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown (1976).
Original dub, on the other hand, uses a band, with the dubmeister operating as song producer. The great Lee "Scratch" Perry, who got props on the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty (he sings on the last track, called "Dr. Lee, Ph.D."), was the instigator of this form of dub, and his masterpiece, indeed one of the greatest LPs ever made, is Super Ape (1976).
Dub is not only more soulful than reggae but more scientific. This is why Lee "Scratch" Perry's famous comment that dub is "the musical x-ray" rings true. In one sense, "x-ray" captures the medical or surgical side of dub science: Dub opens a popular reggae song, exposes its internal organs, and reorganizes them into a new mix. This remixing is done with the experimental zeal of a chemist, or better, a mad professor in a laboratory.
"X-ray" also calls to mind the mechanical or technical side of dub art. Dub is only made possible by, and is wholly dependent on, recording technology. Indeed, particularly in the early days, dub demanded a substantial knowledge of recording technology, because the equipment used was not designed for dubbing and had to be modified to meet the music's specific needs.
Both version and original dub's reliance on recording machines makes dub the "orchid in the land of technology" par excellence. This is not just because it produces an illusion, but because the "orchid" we glimpse in the dub haze is the image of Eden--an Eden generated by the heat of electronic processes. If reggae is preoccupied with the soul, then dub is the condition of the soul, and what the soul longs for are the African kingdoms of the ancient past. Numerous dub songs are sonic orbs of ancient cities ruled by benevolent black kings. In this respect, recording technology operates like a time machine, sending listeners back to a pre-European black paradise.
Jamaican dub peaked in the mid-'70s, and by the late '70s the form began a second life in Great Britain. Dub music was not only continued and elaborated on by a new generation of U.K. dubmeisters, like Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood, but its presence profoundly influenced English pop sensibilities. Its spacy effects were employed on pop hits like "Walking on the Moon" (1979) and "Voices Inside My Head" (1980) by the Police, "This City Never Sleeps" (1983) by the Eurythmics, and "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (1979) by Bauhaus. (In these songs, dub was employed to create a sense of alienation and vertigo.) Bauhaus' brilliant "She's in Parties" (1979) used the reggae/version model developed by King Tubby in the late '60s. The song starts with the original song ("She's in Parties") and then dissolves into a sinister dub version.
"The innovations in music--in studio production at least--in the last 30 years, are totally indebted to Jamaican production," explains Ezra Ereckson, the lead singer and founder of Systemwide (which came into existence in Portland in the mid-'90s) and president of BSI records. We are sitting in the backyard of his old Portland-style house, which is two stories and box-shaped, with a pyramidal roof. This is BSI headquarters. Ereckson runs the label from a small room on the second floor. On the ground floor are a kitchen, living room, and a library/office where his wife, Tracy Harrison, does design work for BSI. The basement is packed with boxes of CDs, LPs, singles, and kittens. "People who don't necessarily feel reggae, or feel dancehall, or feel any of the other [reggae] permutations, have to recognize that dub was the foundation of a lot of stuff they're into--hiphop, electronica, dance music, whatever."
Northern sunlight ripples across Ereckson's relaxed body. He is smartly dressed, and his Albanian lineage (he is part Albanian, part Italian) gives the defined features of his face an international air. One would expect him to be out of place in this remote and singular city; his existence in Portland's bars and backyards seems not real but a hologram projected via satellite from a cosmopolitan European city. But there is no hint of displacement in his manner. Ereckson and the music he produces and promotes are very much at home in Southeast Portland. So too are the other Systemwide band members--Tim Andrews, Steve Wegner, Mondell Wells, and Josh Mantle--who are sitting across from me at the patio table, under a thriving tree, with the early summer sunlight streaming through the leaves.
Back in the early '90s there used to be a Seattle reggae band called the Herbivores. Though they performed in bars around the University District and Pioneer Square, there was nothing Seattle-like about their sound; it was simply an imitation of roots reggae (roots being the more traditional, or Rasta-based, form of reggae made by bands like Burning Spear). Systemwide's dub, on the other hand, does not duplicate Jamaican or U.K. forms of dub. Working from the foundation of dub, they extend its language and meanings.
"I can't remember his exact words," Ereckson says, "but Steve Barker of the BBC basically said that Systemwide is part of this new breed of musicians and producers that gets lumped into this dub category, but we use dub as a springboard, a kind of a template to work from.... I thought that was stated really well. It's what we come from but it's not what we're limited by."
Pure and Applied, Systemwide's new CD, has a dub foundation. For instance, the title of the CD and several songs ("Champion Sound," "Dub Plate," "Abyssal Plain Dub") are typical dub titles. Content-wise, two tracks feature a dub toaster (a rapper with a Jamaican accent), Brooklyn's Dr. Israel; the lead singer often plays the melodica (which is to dub what the saxophone is to jazz); the standard "one drop" beat is used on several tracks (such as the beautiful "Réclame"); and every track is dazzled by a thousand echoes. Onto these secure and recognizable dub points, Pure and Applied fixes new elements, such as the sharp and tangible sound of the drum and bass. The bass is growly and alive; the drum is clear and grounded. The effect of this is that the dub is not as dreamy, or even transcendental, as, say, Lee "Scratch" Perry's, whose drums and bass lines are always distorted. As a consequence, Systemwide's dub does not evoke a lost African paradise, glimpsed through echoes that melt into the air, but a dub that is immanent, in the world, in Portland, in real time.
Even the way Systemwide make their dub is in real time. Traditionally, the mixing board stood between the producer and the band--the band playing a lesser role to the producer. The band simply recorded a raw song that the dub producer would then submerge into the electronic depths of the mixing board. By raising and fading the vocals, echoing the rhythm guitar, or reverbing the snare drum, the producer would strip the song of its proper substance and return it to the world as a spirit with a numinous aura. With Systemwide, the divide between the mixing boards and band is dissolved. The dub is made at the moment of performance.
"We're already thinking like a producer when we're making the tune," explains drummer Josh Skins, "and when we're on the stage, actually playing it, we're trying to think as a produced collective." In a word, Systemwide turns dub on its head; the cosmic magic that gives Jamaican dub its distant airiness, its African palaces in the sky, is turned down into the world, where it illuminates hard reality.
Systemwide's worldliness (or materialism), however, is not a decadent surrender to the pleasures of the flesh in the way that Vienna dub is. Viennese dubmeisters--Kruder & Dorfmeister, Sofa Surfers, and Tosca--also turn dub on its head, but by doing so they end up not only in the world but in bed with lots of naked women (Tosca's "Fuck Dub" being the best example of this). Systemwide expresses a sensuality that is political rather than sexual. It's apparent in Mondell Wells' bass lines, which are aggressive in a militant way, as well as in the lyrics, which are written by the band: Systemwide is committed to a political vision. Most if not all of the songs on Pure and Applied are political. They advocate popular resistance ("No choice now but to fight/Only road that's left in sight/Snipers in broad daylight/Reburial with proper rights," from "Snipers"); address the horrors of modern warfare ("War is the greatest terror of all/Is murder by any other name/Invoking the most high for killing is a crime/That can never be repaid," from "Interference"); and denounce corporate capitalism ("Through- out this nation/I see violence can take an intention/Provided by corporations," from "Crisis Time").
"I think that's one thing we all love about reggae, traditionally, is that it's message music," Ereckson says. "Even in so-called punk rock, it seems everyone has given up on the message and are talking about nothing. All they can say is, 'I'm so miserable,' and, 'I'm so bummed out.' But there are important things to talk about, and both reggae and punk are traditionally militant. I mean, the Clash had an album called Sandinista!. The music should have a message, and be faithful to that message."
WE BUILT THIS CITY
Last year, I bought a dub CD called Time Will Tell by Henry & Louis Meet Blue & Red (Blue & Red is the one and only Rob Smith of Smith & Mighty, the sound system that initiated the Bristol sound--Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, Alpha) and considered it the best dub I'd heard in years. I had no idea at the time that the CD, with its talented Jamaican toasters and crooners and narcotic Bristol beats, came from the BSI house in Southeast Portland. And it doesn't end there: One of the men sitting with Systemwide the day I spoke with them--a local dubmeister and part-owner of BSI, Josh Derry a.k.a Alter Echo a.k.a Sound Secretion--produced a song called "Sebsi Dub" that I had heard a year before on DJ Spooky's compilation Under the Influence. "Sebsi Dub," which closes the mix after dissolving Sonic Youth's languorous "Tremens," was my favorite track on the compilation. BSI also distributes what I consider to be one of the best dub bands in the world, Alpha & Omega, a London duo whose CDs Mystical Things and Dub Philosophy are as dense and delirious as Deleuzes' Difference and Repetition or Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, yet as soulful and beautiful as Mad Professor's version of Massive Attack's Protection, No Protection. Ultimately, what makes both BSI and Systemwide so impressive is more than the band's music and politics or the label's first-rate roster--it's that they can survive making world-class dub in Portland, a city that does not have a reputation for being cosmopolitan.
"Back in '97, '98, Systemwide was starting to get a little bit of recognition internationally, I mean just from the random DJ here and there, in Paris or Berlin or whatever," says Ereckson, explaining how BSI became so well connected in the dub business. "But [the label was] totally struggling at home, in terms of getting shows here in town, because there really wasn't much electronic music culture here to speak of. So I decided consciously, as a strategy, that we needed to make contacts with some people that had names that were outside of Portland or outside of the U.S. You know, start working with people that music fans recognized, and then [Portland] would finally see what we were doing in its own backyard."
The relationship that, say, Motown had with Detroit, or even Sub Pop had with Seattle, is not the same as what BSI has with Portland. The economic base of Detroit and Seattle was directly connected to the musical culture and ideals of the record labels. For Motown, Detroit presented a large working-class, black population; for Sub Pop, Seattle offered a large youth pool sourced from depressed towns around the state. What Portland offers BSI and the band is not an audience but an infrastructure for the production and global distribution of dub music.
Portland has clubs where BSI can play its music (like Berbati's Pan near Chinatown, and B Complex, which is just off Martin Luther King Boulevard), record stores that specialize in dub music (like Zion's Gate on Hawthorne Boulevard), band practice spaces (former warehouses in the Albina/Mississippi neighborhood), world-class recording studios (Kung Fu Bakery, which is in Southeast Portland, and Momentum Studios, in the Eastside industrial district), and, most important of all, high-speed Internet connections.
The Internet liberated both Systemwide and BSI from the limitations and economics of the Portland scene, and made large and small dub scenes around the world accessible. "I don't mean to sing the praises of the Internet, but this business, BSI, could not function as a label or a business if there wasn't Internet technology," says Ryan Michie, the publicity director for the label, who lives in an area called "the bucket" (a zone between the Pearl District and Northwest neighborhoods) in a large house that has no furniture, two turntables, shelves and crates of CDs and LPs, four powerful computers, and a window that frames a view of descending I-405. "Just the phone bills alone would kill us," Michie continues. "That's the basic truth to it. BSI exists because the Internet exists. We get 20,000 hits a month and climbing on the website.... If you want to just tally up sales, you'll find that our biggest sales are on the West Coast. But I think that on a bigger, more global scale, you have a lot more of an awareness going on in London, in Germany, in France, in places like that, than we really do here at home. From my perspective, there [still] are a lot of people [in Portland] who have never heard of BSI; they have no idea what Systemwide is. But hopefully that will change. We are getting more notice locally."
When DJ Spooky was in Seattle recently, I asked him what he thought of BSI, which released a 12-inch collaboration he did with Alter Echo called Anodyne/Cloud Chamber (2000). "It's really impressive what they are doing," he enthused. "I mean, one of my favorite dub works was Systemwide Meets Muslimgauze [at the City of the Dead] (1999).... BSI has a Northwest dub sound to it, you know what I mean? Dub is also big in New Zealand, so maybe it's an outpost sort of thing."
Though Portland's economic base is not directly connected with BSI's success or Systemwide's music, there are geographic, and also architectural, influences. Geographic because there is a sorrow in Systemwide's dub that corresponds with the region's weather and isolation. Architectural because BSI as a label is as unique as the architectural ideals that distinguish Portland from other cities, like Seattle.
BSI's catalog contains both very old and very new artists. For example: On one end, it has a CD remixed by King Jammy (King Jammy Meets Dry & Heavy), who was a student of the great King Tubby back in the mid-'70s; on the other end, it has a post-apocalyptic dub compilation called Docking Sequence, which features futuristic dubmeisters like J-Boogie, Raz Mesinai, DJ Spooky, and Alter Echo--who does a dazzling hiphop piece with Portland's DJ Wicked called "Perpetual Next." (Incidentally, BSI has a hiphop subsidiary called One Drop, which recently released Alone by Onry Ozzborn of Oldominion.)
So, the label has its base in King Jammy and the whole Kingston sound that was (and still is) oriented toward the past, to mystical Africa and the lost ancient cities; and at the top is Alter Echo, whose dub mixes are oriented to a post-future where the line between humans and machines no longer exists. Indeed, Alter Echo's dub is for world-weary androids of the next century. It is a frightening dub in the galactic sense, and yet possesses in the depths of its electronic furies a calm and beauty that can only be described as the gleam you might see along the rusting shell of a space station rotating through the blue aura of earth's thinning stratosphere.
This conflation of BSI's very old and very new finds its correlation in Portland's architectural tendency to renovate rather than raze. Seattle razes without hesitation, whereas Portland retains a memory of its past. Some architects, like Christine Chaney, contend that the reason for this is that Portland has its origins in agriculture, whereas Seattle arose from trade; one is about cultivation, the other, getting rich quick.
In districts like the Pearl District, one finds, block after block, old industrial warehouses--with metal awnings, loading docks, overhead doors, large windows, and heavy reinforced masonry--that have been converted into flashy new condos and office spaces. The past is preserved, the future is realized. Something similar exists in downtown Vienna--a high-tech mall whose base was encased in what seems to be a medieval church. It is as if the beauty of the future has crashed into the decaying beauty of the past.
Somewhere between Alter Echo's hyper-future and King Tubby's distant past is Systemwide, the only dub band in the Pacific Northwest.
Systemwide perform on Sat June 22 at the Fremont Unconventional Center as part of the Fremont Fair.