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Carnival Sound System
Soundsystem, Notting Hill Carnival 1989. © Adrian Boot/Urbanimage

BOOM! There’s a new show about dub at the Museum of London

How reggae’s deepest, darkest place influenced half a century of music

Written by
Chris Waywell
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If cracks start appearing in the concrete shell of the Museum of London, it’s probably safe to blame its new show, ‘Dub London: Bassline of a City’. The display, postponed from March because of the THING, is now set to open in October, and bringing some truly earth-shattering bass with it. Here’s a preview in pictures.

Inside Supertone Record Shop in Brixton
Supertone record shop, Brixton. © Cedar Lewisohn

Dub emerged from reggae and ska in 1960s Jamaica. Soundsystems at parties would try and outdo each other in terms of volume and bass, and play one-off ‘dub plate’ instrumental singles. The music increasingly used studio technology, from producers like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, creating dub’s bottomless echo and organ-dislodging subsonic frequencies. At the same time, the records created an aural link with the West Indian diaspora, especially in the UK. 

Papa Face of Dub Vendor Reggae Specialist, a collaborator on the show, says: ‘Reggae record shops are very significant because the primary way of finding out what was happening back home was through music. People relied on these records that were coming out to find out what was happening. They were a meeting point, a place for social gatherings and a main part of the community.’

Notting Hill Carnival, All Saints Road, 21 August 1994. Notting
Soundsystem, All Saints Road, Notting Hill Carnival, 21 August 1994. © Peter Marshall/Museum of London.

Theresa Dhaliwal Davies, the show’s curator says: ‘Soundsystems were set up at blues parties or “shabeens”, held in people’s homes in dense working-class areas of London, creating a protected space for people to express themselves. These parties paved the way for bigger soundsystems, spilling into community centres, churches and outdoor spaces.’ 

Dub and bass culture became an integral part of Notting Hill Carnival as it developed in the 1970s and 1980s from a traditional celebration to something that also reflected Black British culture and music. Along with the parade, Carnival saw its iconic soundsystems set up their piles of bass bins on street corners around Notting Hill. 

Revellers at Notting Hill Carnival, Elkstone Road, 1991. Photogr
Revellers on Elkstone Road, Notting Hill Carnival, 1991. © Peter Marshall/Museum of London

At the same time, dub became increasingly politicised and aligned with anti-racist factions within punk and post-punk. Sistah Stella of Rastafari Movement UK, another collaborator on the show, says: Dub for me, highlights and defines key moments of my youthful self during a complex era of changing “socio-political” times in the 1980s. Racism was literally in your face and at the time it was intense. The A-side of a record would awaken me to social commentary which spoke of politics, race, class, humanity, justice and injustice, of love and of sorrow! But it was the B-side of dub that gave me a profoundly deeper inner, almost electric surge of strength. It the bassline, you know, as it hits you, it pushes out all negativity… and allows space for magnificent ideas, of hope for my people.’

Channel One Sound System at Notting Hill Carnival 2019. Photogra
Channel One Sound System at Notting Hill Carnival, 2019. © Eddie Otchere/Museum of London

Dub has gone on to have a huge influence on house, drum ’n’ bass, hip hop and grime, while retaining its unique identity and culture. Not forgetting its giant BASS, of course.

Channel One Sound System at Notting Hill Carnival 2019. Photogra
Channel One Sound System at Notting Hill Carnival, 2019. © Eddie Otchere/Museum of London.

‘Dub London: Bassline of a City’ is at the Museum of London, Oct 2-Jan 31 2021. Free with entry ticket. 

All the info on this year’s unique virtual Notting Hill Carnival.

More great stuff to do this Carnival weekend.  

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