Dynasty of Dub

The descendants of King Tubby still prime the digital dub pump

Nervous laughter on this end. Is he kidding?

"So if you want an interview, come up with a big, fat check," he thunders. "And I'm not talking about $1,000 or so. I'm talking big money. 'Cause Tubby's is a big name!"

After remaining in the deep background during one of reggae's most important sagas, isn't Leslie Ruddock interested -- even slightly -- in having his story told? Setting the record straight?

"My brother was the king!"
"My brother was the king!"
King Tubby at 18 Dromilly Ave., Kingston 11
King Tubby at 18 Dromilly Ave., Kingston 11

"No," he says after a millisecond's pause. "I don't want to bother with that unless I see some money. The record's straight the way it is."

That's a shame, because the story of Jamaican music is minus one big, fat chapter with his omission. Maybe so, he agrees with a sigh. "The history is so big, so broad. But I don't care. I never say anything to anybody. So if you need an interview, come on with a big fat check and I'll give you a story. But not with too much detail."

In fact, repeats Ruddock, after being screwed over, learning about copyrights, royalties, and publishing rights the hard way, there's only one way he's going to tell his story.

"I'm waiting for somebody to come in with a big fat check," he reiterates. "Then I'll say, 'OK, roll. '"

But behind his sonorous voice -- which sounds as if it belongs to a smooth soul singer instead of a semiretired radio repairman -- a kindness starts spiraling out from behind the gruffness, and against his will, the tales squeak through.

Today, Ruddock explains, his passion is for his family -- his 92-year-old mother, his children, and three grandkids (all under the age of 10). He still works with audio equipment (area Sam Ashes and Guitar Centers regularly call upon his talents) but revisiting his past -- especially with cold-calling strangers -- ain't in the cards.

"It's time for me to enjoy the rest of my life with the people around me," he begins. "Why should I want to go back in time?"

In the 1960s, as King Tubby became one of the most famous musical Jamaicans, Leslie Ruddock tired of following in his footsteps. Convinced he could become an engineer and technician in his own right, he moved to Brooklyn, where he took his electronic knowledge to a new level. By the early '70s, with the technology of New York City at his disposal, his achievements outstripped his brother's back on the island, say many who witnessed his innovations.

"To me, a lot of people give Tubby too much credit," says Denver "Jamusa" Silvera, a popular DJ on Davie's Caribbean radio station WAVS-AM (1170). He met Leslie Ruddock in Brooklyn in 1970. "He told me Tubby taught him a lot of things, but then again, he created a lot of things here."

"That's just the way it goes," Ruddock says. "I advanced a lot of people's careers; they just never mention me. But I'm an electronic genius -- I can take a cigarette box and turn that shit into a radio. That's who I really am."

Silvera once watched the young Ruddock take a business card and use it as a speaker. "From then on, I said, 'Whoa, I gotta know how you do this stuff!'"

One of Young Tubby's innovations was a "dub machine," a device that could actually cut vinyl records. Big record companies pressed albums in factories for mass consumption, but Leslie Ruddock's machine was likely the first one used on such a small scale in America.

"It was so amazing for everybody to see a man build something that can make a record," Ruddock marvels. "A lot of guys never knew how a record was made until I showed them.

"That's what 'dub' really is," he continues. "It's acetate -- that's what that black thing really is. What you'd do is you'd dub the sound from whatever you're taking it from onto the acetate."

In Jamaica, Leslie and Osbourne also cut their own records, creating what became known as dub plates -- usually single 45s -- containing instrumental versions of whatever tunes they'd be working on. These dub plates would be transported like artillery shells to be blasted on their booming sound systems, laying waste to listeners.

Leslie explains, 'We would use the same rhythm track, put different lyrics on each one, and make four, five, six different versions so we could compete with other sound systems. Basically, that's what my brother and I brought into existence."

The second discovery Leslie Ruddock made in Brooklyn went to the core of dub's sonic spirit. "Nobody was putting echo in reggae music," he claims. "I started that when I was just a young guy."

By combining three tape recorders together, he invented an echo/feedback system that created a mind-boggling 168 echoes a minute. Another associate, Hyman "Jah Life" Wright -- now a New York label boss -- recalls how Ruddock's unorthodox methodology gave the music its disorienting giddiness.

"He had a Fisher reverb unit that used a spring, a metal spring," Wright remembers. "He'd lift the spring and it'd splash, and he'd combine that with the echo unit and get these different frequencies."

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