Osbourne Ruddock aka “King Tubby” was born on 28 January 1941 in Kingston. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tubby was responsible for turning dub into an art form. The creative re-mixing he pioneered at a tiny front-room studio in the Waterhouse ghetto, not only had a long-reaching and lasting impact, but elevated the role of the mixing engineer to a creative fame previously only reserved for composers and musicians.
His first interaction with the music industry came in the late 1950s with the rising popularity of Jamaican sound systems, which were to be found all over Kingston and which were developing into enterprising businesses. As a talented radio repairman, Tubby soon found himself in great demand by most of the major sound systems of Kingston, as the tropical weather of the Caribbean island (often combined with sabotage by rival sound system owners) led to malfunctions and equipment failure.
Tubby owned an electrical repair shop on Drumalie Avenue, Kingston, that fixed televisions and radios. It was here that he built large amplifiers for the local sound systems. In 1961–62, he built his own radio transmitter and briefly ran a pirate radio station playing ska and rhythm and blues which he soon shut down when he heard that the police were looking for the perpetrators. Tubby would eventually form his own sound system, Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi, in 1968. It became a crowd favorite due to the high quality sound of his equipment, exclusive releases and Tubby’s own echo and reverb sound effects, at that point something of a novelty. The sound also launched the career of U-Roy, its featured toaster.
Tubby began working as a disc cutter for producer Duke Reid in 1968. Reid, one of the major figures in early Jamaican music alongside rival Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, ran Treasure Isle studios, one of Jamaica’s first independent production houses, and was a key producer of ska, rocksteady and eventually reggae recordings. Before the advent of dub, most Jamaican 45s featured an instrumental version of the main song on the flipside, which was called the “version”. When Tubby was asked to produce versions of songs for sound system MCs or toasters, Tubby initially worked to remove the vocal tracks with the faders on Reid’s mixing desk, but soon discovered that the various instrumental tracks could be accentuated, reworked and emphasized through the settings on the mixer and primitive early effects units.
In time, Tubby began to create wholly new pieces of music by shifting the emphasis in the instrumentals, adding sounds and removing others and adding various special effects, like extreme delays, echoes, reverb and phase effects. Partly due to the popularity of these early remixes, in 1971, Tubby’s soundsystem consolidated its position as one of the most popular in Kingston and Tubby decided to open a studio of his own in Waterhouse in 1971, initially using a 4-track mixer purchased from Byron Lee’s Dynamic studio.
King Tubby’s production work in the 1970s made him one of the best-known celebrities in Jamaica, and would generate interest in his production techniques from producers, sound engineers and musicians across the world. Tubby built on his considerable knowledge of electronics to repair, adapt and design his own studio equipment, which made use of a combination of old devices and new technologies to produce a studio capable of the precise, atmospheric sounds which would become Tubby’s trademark. With a variety of effects units connected to his mixer, Tubby “played” the mixing desk like an instrument, bringing instruments and vocals in and out of the mix (literally “dubbing” them) to create an entirely new genre known as dub music. By the end of 1971 he was already providing dub mixes for producers such as Glen Brown and Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Using existing multitrack master tapes—his small studio in fact had no capacity to record session musicians—Tubby would re-tape or “dub” the original after passing it through his 12-channel, custom-built MCI mixing desk, twisting the songs into unexpected configurations which highlighted the heavy rhythms of their bass and drum parts with minute snatches of vocals, horns, piano and organ. These techniques mirrored the actions of the sound system selectors (reggae disc jockeys), who had long used EQ equipment to emphasize certain aspects of particular records, but Tubby used his custom-built studio to take this technique into new areas, often transforming a hit song to the point where it was almost unrecognizable from the original version. One unique aspect of his remixes or dubs was the result of creative manipulating of the built-in high-pass filter on the MCI mixer he had bought from Dynamic Studios. The filter was a parametric EQ which was controllable by a large knob—aka the “big knob” – which allowed Tubby to introduce a dramatic narrowing sweep of any signal, such as the horns, until the sound disappeared into a thin squeal.
Tubby engineered/remixed songs for Jamaica’s top producers such as Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, Augustus Pablo and Vivian Jackson, that featured artists such as Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell, Linval Thompson, Horace Andy, Big Joe, Delroy Wilson, Jah Stitch and many others. In 1973, he added a second 4-track mixer, and built a vocal booth at his studio so he could record vocal tracks onto the instrumental tapes brought to him by various producers. This process is known as “voicing” in Jamaican recording parlance. It is unlikely that a complete discography of Tubby’s production work could be created based on the number of labels, artists and producers with whom he worked, and also subsequent repressings of these releases sometimes contained contradictory information. His name is credited on hundreds of B-side labels, with the possibility that many others were by his hand yet uncredited, due to similarities with his known work. Several albums of Tubby’s dub mixes were released, among the earliest the Perry-produced Blackboard Jungle and Bunny Lee’s Dub from the Roots (both 1974).
His most famous dub and one of the most popular dubs of all time was “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown” from 1974. The original session was for a Jacob Miller song called “Baby I Love You So”, which featured Bob Marley’s drummer Carlton Barrett playing a traditional one drop rhythm. When Tubby completed the dub, which also featured Augustus Pablo on melodica, Barrett’s drums regenerated several times and created a totally new rhythm which was later tagged “rockers”. This seminal track later also appeared on Pablo’s 1976 album King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown.
By the later part of the 1970s, King Tubby had mostly retired from music, still occasionally mixing dubs and tutoring a new generation of artists, including King Jammy and perhaps his greatest protégé, Hopeton Brown a.k.a. Scientist. In the 1980s. he built a new, larger studio in the Waterhouse neighborhood of Kingston with increased capabilities, and focused on the management of his labels Firehouse, Waterhouse, Kingston 11, and Taurus, which released his productions of Anthony Red Rose, Sugar Minott, Conroy Smith, King Everald and other popular musicians.
He was shot and killed on 6 February 1989, outside his home in Duhaney Park, Kingston, upon returning from a session at his Waterhouse studio.