Step Forward

Dubwise Productions have been busy


Records everywhere. Thousands upon thousands of sevens, tens and twelves in crisp new covers neatly stacked on shelves and in boxes. This is Dubwise Distribution, a record collectors heaven.

I'm here because David Dubwise said it would be a "good time" to talk about Dubwise Productions, the most consistent and inventive label on the UK Dub scene. It's just before noon on a Sunday and I doubt that he would describe this as a good time now that it's arrived. He looks tired. I'm gazing around in wonder, but David looks as if he's carrying the weight of all these tunes on his shoulders.

A few minutes later Chris Jay comes bouncing up the stairs and the Dubwise duo is complete. The two of them are responsible for a label that has set the standard for small UK Reggae companies. Their output may not be prolific but when you come across their iconic red, gold and green union jack logo you can be confident of a tune's quality and originality. I've come in search of any formula or philosophy that has helped their label to survive without compromising in such a precarious market. So Chris explains how most of their releases evolve.

"The way it works, broadly speaking is that I make the music and Dave is the business side of things. I prefer to make up a tune at home. Just a general vibe really, enough for a singer to listen to. They'll give it some structure. I then put some drum rolls in there, tidy the tune up, but keep it raw in terms of the sequence of the track; I'm not really controlling that too much. When the engineers mix it down, they are the ones who determine how it really sounds. For that we've worked with Gussie P, Robert Tribulation, Digidub and now we're working with Russ Disciples and Dougie Wardrop."

Chris is tall, black, and speaks with an emphatic London accent. He's full of intense energy and rapidly hits on part of the rationale that separates the Dubwise label from the others.

"I won't copy any tunes. The singers don't either. There's no do-over tune that I will deliberately touch. They're all original."

 

Just as I'm beginning to think that this will be straightforward and that a record company blueprint or label strategy is about to unfold, they remind me that Dubwise is a Reggae label which actually started out making Jungle music. They began releasing records twelve years ago and had no idea at the time how things might turn out. David explains why the first two productions stand apart from the others.

"It was at a time when Jungle was big. We went to a couple of raves and we were quite impressed with the heavy basslines."

Chris concurs,

" I could affiliate with Jungle. When you get good Jungle it's almost like a Reggae track really. A heavy b-line, but the drums do their own thing. To me it's about weight and I can appreciate any heavy tune that makes me want to move. It's all got a link back to Dub."

When Ragga Jungle crashed due to conflict within the scene, they decided it was time to concentrate on Reggae. Chris takes up the story.

"We still didn't know, properly, which way to go. we put together a CD of eight or nine tracks with a view to asking people what they thought the best track would be to release. We didn't have the confidence ourselves to pick the tune."

David explains what happened next,

"Aba-Shanti was the guy who enthused about one particular track. He just said "that's the one...dubs, dubs, dubs!" We gave him loads of cuts of it and he would sometimes play eight in a single session. I have actually listened to half an hour of it pounding out. Cut after cut after cut."

The tune turned out to be 'Babylon Pressure', a big turning point for Dubwise Productions. The enthusiasm is obvious when Chris talks about it,

"'Babylon Pressure' was made and mixed in an hour. Dougie and me just vibed. He made up the drum pattern and gave it to me to work with and I put a bassline down. That's the one, it just came like that! It made me realise, boy, you don't really have to be working on a track for weeks and weeks. You've just really got to get that energy down. Which is like a sound system when guys head-top a lyric. It's all about vibes isn't it."

The tune was important for other reasons as well. It was released in 1996 when the profile of UK Dub was at something of a low point. David recalls it as being a "Roots depression" when the music and style press had moved on after a brief dalliance with the scene in the early nineties. 'Babylon Pressure' broke the trend, getting played on Radio One by John Peel and Andy Kershaw and selling relatively well.

 

Dubwise Productions took a surprisingly circuitous route to becoming a Reggae label and even with one successful release under their belts, they still didn't have anything that could be described as a plan. They wanted to work with vocalists, but there was never any hitlist or directory that they were using. Winston Fergus was the first singer they recorded and that was only because Chris met him through a friend at work. The link with Jamaican legend Junior Murvin was even more haphazard, as Chris explains

"We met him when we were on holiday in Port Antonio. I've got family out there and one of my cousins knocked on his door and introduced us. We went to the studio within two days, we didn't have anything prepared so I built rhythms there and then and he sang on them."

One of the most appealing aspects of the Dubwise catalogue is the variety of different artists they've recorded with. So I was surprised to hear how many have been down to chance meetings. David makes it clear

"That's how we operate. It's organic. It's almost been a natural thing. We've met singers and we've worked with them, not because we've gone looking for them. I just heard Chronicle singing in Supertone Record shop. I spoke to him outside and found out who he was. I'd heard the name before, but I wasn't a hundred per cent familiar with his stuff. Chris came down the next day and Chronicle sang in the back of the car. We recorded him the day after. Literally three days, it was that quick. Then he flew back to the U.S."

Danny Vibes simply happened to walk in on a session that they were doing at Conscious Sounds. The tunes that they recorded with Leroy Gibbons are particularly popular and yet again they met through a friend rather than by planning. David starts the story

"Bags, who used to run a record shop in Camden with Dougie, said "I've got this guy staying round my house. You might want to record him!" We went round to meet him and worked something out. We booked Dougie's studio for the tenth of September 2001, the day after nine eleven."

Chris continues,

" Leroy Gibbons has got people out in New York, so what happened affected him and he was distracted from our session. He'd not written any lyrics as he should have done. So those tunes were written on the way to the studio in the car and in the studio. It just goes to show how Reggae can work. It's all about the vibe. He's a phenomenal artist."

David adds,

"It was amazing to see. We'd all throw in ideas and he'd say "what about this line?" Somebody would throw a line in afterwards and he would just turn it into song. You think, wow, you just turned regular words into a song - just like that. It was an experience."

They have a similar admiration for the musicians that they have worked with. People like Dub Judah, Jonah Dan, Winston Sax Rose and particularly Hughie Isachaar who's worked on most of their tracks. Chris is full of praise

" When you work with a good Reggae musician, they're incredible. They have a brilliant ear for music. They just hear a tune and they've got a vibe that they embellish it with. Which is what you're after really, their skill."

 

I came in search of a blueprint for running a consistently innovative, independent UK Reggae label and I'm not giving up yet. The Dubwise duo may not have known where things were headed from the beginning and have taken a decidedly organic approach, but after twelve years they have developed an effective modus operandi. It's a working system that is about to be put to the ultimate test. It was a "good time" to meet David and Chris because it was the only time I will ever be meeting David and Chris. Chris Jay is about to emigrate to Australia, but I was told with absolute certainty that this will not change the way that Dubwise Productions operate. David explains

"The way technology is Chris can still build rhythms and send them to me. I can find people to voice. We'll continue as we are."

Chris is also positive,

"I've had to buy a studio. Now that I've done that, I hope to start building loads of tracks. Still working with Russ and Dougie; sending them tracks to mix. The world's a smaller place."

Several of the working methods that make Dubwise Productions stand out have been learned along the way, but there are a couple that have been around since the beginning. The first is the no do-overs rule. It's always been original rhythms only. Another is a commitment to professionalism. Hence the quality of the artwork, with the famous union jack shield logo printed in full colour on sleeves and labels. David also mentions pressing quality.

"We do listen to the test presses and we don't expect to hear noise on our records. We don't have a release schedule so we'd rather wait for a good pressing than put out something that's a bit noisy."

Chris agrees,

"At the end of the day all that's representing you is the product. So you've got to get the best promotion and production that you can. You have to keep on improving the presentation because you're competing with quality."

The most obvious change to their approach is that they now have the confidence to proceed without seeking the opinion of others. This is something that Chris is happy about.

"You've got to please yourself. We no longer play what we make to people. We don't dubplate it, we don't do anything. We just put it on vinyl and put it out. I think that's an important place to be at."

They have also developed a 'two tracks' rule for working with vocalists. The strategy is to record only two songs with each singer and then move on. David sees this as a way of both sounding different from other labels and making subsequent releases different from each other.

"We always try to find artists that other people haven't recorded. Somebody a bit different."

Chris adds that it's also a sensible approach for a label with limited resources,

"We never try to get too involved with one artist. It's not in our interest to invest too much in one vocalist, it's about trying to be a bit varied."

 

The great thing about making up your own rules of course, is that you can break them whenever you like. Which is what they've just done with a singer called Judy Green. I asked David how he met her

"I was going to Manchester, someone gave me the Dubdadda CD and said check that out he's from Manchester. I listened to it in the car on the way up and when I got there I rang him. He was one of those people you meet and just get on with. I was round there for hours talking about music and he was playing stuff for me. One of the things he played was a CD of a woman singing acapella and it brought tears to my eyes. I just said, me and Chris want to work with this woman! She's from Manchester, basically a Jazz singer, and she's got a band called Little Green. She doesn't sound like other women singing Roots. We met her and we got on. We normally do two tunes with a singer, but we did the two with her and still wanted to do more. We've never done a single artist album, so we thought, let's try it. It's taken a long time to come about, we started it in April 2005."

 

They were choosing mixes for the album when I met them and seemed completely unphased at the prospect of releasing an album by an artist who is virtually unknown amongst Reggae fans. They have confidence because they know their business. Very, very few people know the UK Roots market like David Dubwise. The final and perhaps most important part of the Dubwise Productions blueprint is an understanding of how important it is to actively get the music out. It would be easy to underestimate the role that this unassuming man, peering out from under his baseball cap, plays in getting people to hear UK Roots. David's Dubwise Distribution supplies shops across the UK, Europe and beyond. He must confound everybody's expectations when they meet him. A quietly spoken white guy with an accent that still contains a hint of his childhood in South Africa is not what you expect from the main UK Dub distributor. He almost sounds surprised the way things have turned out himself.

"I've been involved in the distribution since we started making records. I was going round selling Dubwise records and then I started taking Dub Judah's, Russ's and Dougie's stuff as well because they'd already got to the stage where they couldn't be bothered. It just grew from there really... it went a bit out of hand as you can see."

He gestures towards the thousands and thousands of records that surround us and it's a surprise to hear that until the recent release of 'Bush Craft' there hadn't been any new Dubwise releases for two years. Things are about to change though and he'll soon have to find room on the shelves for albums by Judy Green and a Dubwise Dub clash between Russ Disciples and Dougie Wardrop. David will be busy making sure that you can find copies in all the best record shops. I Can't wait to find out which singers he bumps into along the way.

 

November 2006

Contact Dubwise Productions: slayen@dubwise.fsnet.co.uk