As I pulled up to the Mad Professor show at Lola's Room on January 25th, the long line outside gave me a charge. Could this be the white whale of Portland reggae shows, a sold out performance?
As I read the marquee, my heart sank. Playing above Lola's that night was G. Love, who had sold out the Crystal Ballroom. What I took on first glance to be a white reggae crowd turned out to be a white-acoustic-funk-hip-hop(ish)-preppy-teen-stoner set, a slightly different flavor of concert-goer.
Nevertheless, as I entered the smallish Lola's I was pleasantly surprised; the room was roughly two-thirds full, and filling. Too many reggae shows of late have suffered from under-attendance.
Onstage was Dr. Israel. The New York City native was swinging his skinny dreads and sing-saying over teched-out beats of his own creation. I had heard of this dubcat, and I must admit my expectations were low. So it was with some trepidation that I moved through the crowd to get a better look at the Doc at work. I soon found myself involuntarily moving to the infectious, effects-heavy beats.
The best part about the Dr. Israel sound is that it is a clear bridge between a roots past and a digital future. He pays due homage to classically heavy dub sounds, but brings in modern, up-tempo beats of trip hop and drum & bass.
His lyrics were fairly mundane, mostly just self-sampled, reverbed, and looped Rasta-isms. But it is always nice to see a DJ spicing up his show with a hefty dose of live sounds, vocal or otherwise. While a few of the old-guard Rasta's in the room didn't seem too pleased with the set, I felt it was an exciting glimpse into of the future of reggae and techno sounds.
Then, as Mad Professor took the stage, the bass really started hitting our sweet spots. Dub is all about getting lost in the deep end of the music. Lola's actually has pretty darn good sound for a smaller room. For a reggae show, the quality of the bass sound is often a make or break factor, and tonight did not disappoint.
Mad Professor, who released the classic Dub Me Crazy
series, is part of the British second wave of reggae music. A technically gifted soundman by trade, the Prof is credited with pushing the boundaries on digital effects in dub music, as well as being at the heart of the British-Caribbean musical diaspora of the early 80s.
The show started out with a number of these hard hitting English sounds, such as a track from The Wild Bunch, who would go on to become Massive Attack, and a classic from the (famous in England) Macka B. As beats looped and thunderous rolls of dubbed out insanity spacily panned from speaker to speaker, I couldn't help but think of the influence of reggae and dub on popular music. For many of the tracks, speed up the tempo a bit and you've basically got yourself a techno song.
Anthropologist and author Norman Stolzoff, in his ethnography of Jamaican Dancehall culture Wake the Town and Tell the People, credits reggae with birthing many forms of modern music, including drum & bass and hip hop. Tonight's show proved no exception, as intricate beats and sounds were layered into the mix. Dub has long been a medium that pushes reggae music to the edge, and (sometimes) over into popular culture.
The energy in the room palpably increased when Mad Professor's sideman, Pan Africanist, switched from backup vocals to playing a steel drum. The tempo sped up and the sound shifted to a sort of world beat/electro dub/Caribbean hybrid. Pan Africanist played with fiery enthusiasm, and the live instrumentation gave the show a needed dose of non-computer input. Sweet smoke choked out the room as the crowd started to dance in earnest.
Unfortunately, as with any dub show I have attended, the energy began to trail off mid-show. There are only so many pans, loops, delays, and samples in a given dubber's arsenal, and the repetitive nature of the music makes it hard for me to keep my momentum up. People began to drift out and the dance floor slowly thinned.
But a favorite riddim of mine, Tippa Irie's "Rebel on the Roots Corner," immediately brought me back to the front of the house. We were also treated to new releases from some of the longtime heavyweights in the industry, such as The Congos and U Roy.
Overall, this was a hard-hitting show from a top name in the game. It had its flaws, as well as a few technical mishaps. I think that the Prof would have done well to interact with the crowd a bit more, but that is a complaint I have for most reggae performers. Also, the $15 ticket seemed a bit steep for what was essentially a DJ show. But for roots and dub fans, this was a crucial set of sweet reggae sounds. And keep an eye out for Dr. Israel, he may well be on the road to headliner status.