World-class dub in beautiful, hand-printed packaging.
  • World-class dub in beautiful, hand-printed packaging.

Back in the late '90s, Portland became an unlikely node in the global circuit of dub music. For those not in the know, dub is a derivation of reggae that came into prominence in Jamaica in the mid-'70s, whose key innovative feature at the time was the transformation of a recording studio into an instrument. Over the past four decades, dub (which strips a tune down to the bones of bass and drums, submerging these elements into a twilit sea of echoes) has gone through many mutations (the most recent of which is UK dubstep) and spread to the four corners of the world. The reason why Portland was one such corner is BSI Records, a label that was owned by Ezra Ereckson, Tracy Harrison, and Josh Derry. BSI not only housed and distributed some of the best dub in the business (Henry & Louis, Jah Warrior, Alpha & Omega), but also represented the Northwest's only dub band, Systemwide, and its leading dubmeister, Alter Echo. Things fell apart in 2004 when the collapse of a European distributor left the label with thousands in unpaid debts. The death of the label was terrible news for dub in general and also for Portland, a city that at the time desperately needed more diversity in its music scene.

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Late last year, the ghost of BSI rematerialized as ZamZam Sounds—a label run by pretty much the same people (Ereckson and Harrison) that distributes many of the same bands (Alter Echo, Alpha & Omega, Henry & Louis). But this time around, the label is much more of an art project than a straight dub distributor. BSI had the feel of a commercial project, whereas ZamZam has the feel of a gallery whose world-class dubs are packaged in some of the most beautiful covers out there. "At its simplest level," Ereckson wrote to me recently, "ZamZam Sounds really grew out of my wife Tracy's and my desire to make records again. Running BSI Records and doing all the art and design together in the late '90s into the '00s was a colossal amount of work, as in those days we were able to sometimes sell several thousand copies of a release on CD and vinyl. With Josh Derry, aka Alter Echo (and partner Jason Lohr and publicist Ryan Michie), we were building something we actually thought we could make a living at. [When that didn't happen]... it took many years to get over that, both financially and personally. We said many times that we would never get into the label game again."

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