By Terrence McCoy
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By Deirdra Funcheon
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Both Ruddock brothers shared a passion for music and uncanny abilities as tinkerers with gadgetry. Anything that could be taken apart -- speakers, amplifiers, telephones, ham radios, televisions -- was studied and put back together. As kids, they would even come to enjoy the small electric shocks they'd get from the transistor radios they messed with.
In the late 1950s, Osbourne Ruddock's career as a repairman had blossomed into a master of audio mechanics, hours spent rewinding transformers and building his own tube amplifiers that were bigger, louder, and cleaner than anything ever heard on the island. With a simple home-brewed two-channel mixer, he built his own sound system, "King Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi," a mobile DJ booth that pumped reggae that could be heard for miles. He also began working in a Kingston studio owned by Duke Reid, a former policeman turned record producer. Ruddock's job was cutting discs -- mixing and transferring tapes onto the raw vinyl platters.
One day, Tubby accidentally left off most of the vocals from a tune he was mixing. But he loved the sound of his minimalist mistake. When he became a well-known engineer/producer on his own, he built a simple studio, thinking (mostly out of necessity) in reductive terms.
Never proficient on instruments himself, Tubby was a post-production composer. After the musicians and singers laid down the basic tracks, Tubby would turn sound sculptor. The original whole, like a block of marble, would then be chopped, drilled, pulled, and tugged like taffy to fit Tubby's new specifications.
A vocal line might pop in for two or three measures, never to appear again. The underpinning bass grid often, without warning, dropped out entirely. A guitar would chop out a few strums, then evaporate. The vacuum left behind gave the music its magical appeal. This fourth dimension was fortified by a mind-warping sense of echo and reverb, at which Tubby excelled.
Incredibly, the prehistoric technology meant that Tubby often performed these miracles on two-track machines -- instruments on one channel, vocals on the other. This economy of means led Tubby to push and pull both tracks in and out of the mix -- creating a titillating rhythmic striptease. By the time a four-track mixer came around, each element -- bass, keyboards, guitar, voice -- could make an appearance, briefly state its intent, and slip away behind a sonic curtain. The dropouts bred anticipation, and the blank spaces provided a perfect tableau for MCs (toasters, they were called) to rap over the top.
Other studios in Kingston were also experimenting with innovative techniques, but none had the technical prowess of Tubby's on Dromilly Avenue. A young engineer named Errol Thompson was also stripping tracks down to just drum and bass, but his more basic board meant he had to punch tracks in and out with buttons, making for a clunky sound.
Tubby had one big advantage -- his electronic expertise allowed him to update and modify his equipment. He used phase shifters and smooth-gliding faders, which made for seamless transitions between dub-being and dub-nothingness.
During reggae's golden age of the early 1970s, Tubby's studio became a launch pad for an assortment of greats. Among his most famous collaborators: producers like crazy dub surrealist Lee "Scratch" Perry and seminal studio whiz Bunny Lee; singers like sweet soul crooner Horace Andy, Watty Burnett of the harmony group the Congos, and the incomparable Johnny Clarke; original toasters like U-Roy; and melodica master Augustus Pablo. With Pablo, the work was especially fruitful, culminating in 1976's King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown, early dub's definitive statement.
Seventies dancehall superstar Jah Walton called Tubby's "the greatest four-track studio I have ever put foot in."
Last year, London's prestigious Guardian/Observercalled King Tubby's 1971 discovery of dub one of "50 moments that shaped musical history [and] changed our lives," crediting him for "creating the template for modern dance music." Two years ago, Source magazine named King Tubby "the don of hip-hop." A new British compilation CD called The Rough Guide to Dub devotes half of its 20 tracks to King Tubby's mixes.
By the time Osbourne Ruddock developed his first sound systems, his younger brother was searching for a way he could make his own impact.
However, like his kingly brother -- rarely quoted, described by friends, family, protégés, and associates as a nice but extremely private man -- Leslie Ruddock has spent his 58 years avoiding any sort of publicity. Mixette laughs when told New Timesplans to contact her dad to arrange a photo shoot. "Good luck!" she says. "We can't even get family portraits." His son doubts his father will ever speak to the press. "He doesn't do interviews," Keith Ruddock insists.
Regardless, after a series of unreturned calls and ignored messages, on one bright afternoon in early January, the man often called "Young Tubby" answers the phone at his home in suburban Boynton Beach. He doesn't sound at all pleased. In fact, he begins with an animated, don't-you-know-who-I am? rant.
"My brother was the King!" he shouts into the receiver. "The world famous -- internationally famous -- UNIVERSALLY FAMOUS!!!-- King Tubby!"