LargeUp Interview: Talking Dub and Vampires with Scientist

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September 21, 2012

Words by Kieran K. Meadows—

As part of the Dub Champions Festival taking place in New York City, dub pioneer and mixing engineer Scientist will reunite tonight with the legendary Roots Radics Band to perform tunes from 1981’s crucial dub album Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires. If you love reggae but don’t recognize this album by its name, you’ve probably heard some of the songs from it at some point and not even realized it. Friday’s concert will be the first time the classic LO will be performed on the East Coast (having been performed only twice before in the last 30 years). If that’s not enough, they’re going to be joined onstage by special guest Johnny Osbourne. Musical support comes from our very own DJ Gravy, as well as Deadly Dragon and Subatomic Sound System.

As one of the most innovative engineers of his time and a protégé of dub’s founding father, King Tubby, Scientist released highly acclaimed dub albums throughout the 1980s and continues to do so up to the present. He spoke to LargeUp recently from his home in Los Angeles. In this very forthright interview, he discusses a wide range of topics, including how early he wants to sound check for Friday’s concert, how reggae deserves a lot more recognition within the music community for its role in the development of recorded music and the professional audio industry, and about the Vampires album being used in the video game Grand Theft Auto III. And he has quite a lot to say about what he says is the untold modern history of Jamaican reggae—learned from his time as an engineer at King Tubby’s Studio, then Channel One Studios, and later at Tuff Gong. And it might not match up with what you think you know. At times, he comes across as someone with an inflated ego and at others refreshingly humble for someone who was so integral to Jamaica’s sound during that period. Some of his claims may be viewed as controversial, but he asserts that you don’t need to take his word for it—he’s confident that the truth will eventually come out.

LargeUp: Can you talk about how the 1981 Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires project with the Roots Radics band came about?

Scientist: Back in those times, The Scientist versus Roots Radics [dub albums]–those albums were done mostly on my time when the producer was not at the studio. We used to give [Henry] “Junjo” [Lawes] free studio time because back in those times, Junjo and other producers couldn’t really afford studio time. They had this thing of “I’m learning and I’m an apprentice.” Ninety percent of the songs that you see come out on Greensleeves [Records], the producer wasn’t there. It was I and [Hyman] “Jah Life” [Wright] that was there most of the time mixing the songs. Junjo for sure wasn’t there.

Junjo or the producer would drop off the tapes at Channel One [Studios]. The Roots Radics would create the riddims. After the Roots Radics create the riddims, they were gone. They had nothing to do with it after that point. It would be I now who would have access to the tape [and] mix the music for further use. We’d have the recording session at Channel One where they made all the tracks and then the [producer would bring the] tapes to [King] Tubby’s where the artist would put their vocals, and then I would mix and then they would release those. King Tubby’s was primarily a mixing and voicing studio because we couldn’t track a session there. It wasn’t set up back then at that time to record tracks.

LU: You had the riddims and then decided to take all of the tracks together and create the project?

Scientist: Yes, that’s how it was done. And a couple of them were done with me and Jah Life. But that one specifically–Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires–that was done on my time. I practiced that. All of those producers back in those times, they were complaining: “What kind of weird sound is this? This is strange.” Everything now that is practically going on in remixing, I was getting chewed up like crazy by all these producers. They were saying I was crazy, they didn’t want to work with me because I was way ahead of them. You don’t have to take my word for it. That’s what history states. If you listen to King Tubby’s Roots of Dub and you listen to Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, it uses the same [mixing] console. You can hear all kinds of things that were happening that was not happening in King Tubby’s time. But to those producers, all of these things were “strange,” it was “experimental,” “we don’t want to use it” because it was “madness.” Now at the same time, the label started pirating and found that people liked it, and that was when all them wanted to ride the bandwagon.

LU: Has Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires ever been performed live in its entirety?

Scientist: It’s been performed live before, yes, at a dub club in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

LU: What can people expect for this Friday’s show that’s being called Scientist Rids New York of the Evil Curse of the Vampires?

Scientist: Well, if I get my way, and they get me the equipment, and I have the sound check that I want, or what’s required to bring out that show, I want to be onstage with the musicians for communication purposes. I want us to do that because we work better, we can feed off each other that way. And whatever I am hearing, they are hearing the exact same thing.

[Regarding sound check] most of them expect, “oh it’s reggae,” just throw them a little nonsense – with reggae, we require the top here. The nonsense that I hear they’re doing in rock ‘n’ roll–you can’t just use any crappy amplifier or speaker to do that. I want to get there early. I personally want the sound check at 10.

LU: At 10… a.m.?

Scientist: Yeah. 10 a.m., not 10 p.m. Because I don’t know what I’m going to run into. I don’t know what’s happening the night before. And it doesn’t give us enough time to maneuver to solve the problems. It’s not an orthodox set-up that somebody would set up for rock ’n’ roll or anything like that. The type of set-up I’m talking about is not in the books.

LU: It sounds like your own sort of “secret” set-up.

Scientist: Anything anybody else doesn’t know, you can call it a secret if you want. There’s a lot of knowledge, and that’s why you find that after I left Jamaica, it has not been able to produce that type of sound like with the Roots Radics. None of them down there have been able to duplicate that sound.