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Interview: The Dub Club’s Tom Chasteen

Interview: The Dub Club’s Tom Chasteen

Interview: The Dub Club’s Tom Chasteen

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"The sound of the lyrics, and the names, it’s like ‘wow, this was another world in the 70s, I wish I could have been around back then"


Shaking The Foundation

It’s Wednesday night at the Echo-Plex music hall, situated in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The venue is dark save a few red stage lights and twinkling bulbs around the bar. Decked in a blazer and denim, with his straight, shoulder-length hair falling over his eyes, DJ Tom Chasteen is getting things set up for another edition of the Dub Club, a weekly reggae party running since 2000. Flight cases and crates filled with vinyl LPs and boxes crammed with 45s are hefted up on stage as the club’s resident MCs Jah Faith and Ras Benji mill about backstage.

Tom Chasteen

But it’s not just another night for the 13-year running weekly event, instead, they’re celebrating the release of Foundation Come Again, Dub Club’s new 20 track compilation on Stones Throw Records. Soon, veteran Jamaican toasters Trinity, Ranking Joe and Tippa Lee will be on stage, offering classic roots and rub-a-dub lyrics to a capacity crowd. Dub Club has showcased many similarly historic performances, including Tappa Zukie, Little John, Mad Professor Anthony B and Scientist, as well as Johnny Osbourne, Ranking Trevor, Tristan Palma, Ras Michael, Shinehead, and hundreds more.

It’s unusual for a mid-sized club to host as many high profile acts as this night has – the honor is usually reserved for festivals, and large venues like House of Blues. But Chasteen and partners Boss Harmony, Dungeon Master and Roy Corduroy are all serious vinyl collectors and students of Jamaican music. They do research and legwork to track down significant and often unheralded artists. The new compilation represents Dub Club’s intense interest in preserving reggae music’s cornerstone artists and sounds.

It’s fair to say that on any given Wednesday you may see appearances by artists who have never performed in LA before and might not ever again. The Ethiopians, Sugar Minott and Mikey Dread have played there, as have Dignitary Stylish, Lady Ann, Welton Irie, Sangie Davis and Sister Nancy. Dub Club’s weekly resident emcees include Jah Faith, Ras Benji, Chicho Don and Rootsman. Dubplate favorite Lloyd Hemmings and Studio One legend Judah Eskender Tafari are there often as well.

Tippa called me up and told me the list of artists he had brought down to the studio. It included Dillinger, Lone Ranger, Kojak, Prince Jazzbo, and others. I couldn’t believe it

In the early days, Chasteen and crew proffered a purist and often-experimental sound, dragging down a Roland Space Echo, analog synthesizers and a fog machine to give the night atmosphere and ambience. “We were playing almost strictly dub,” says Chasteen. “You can imagine with those effects it was a lot more spacey. [Early on] we weren’t even playing a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s music. [The night] has grown. Now we’re in a bigger space with bigger crowds. It’s a different energy you have to work with. You have to really move this large mass of people.”

Dub Club began booking guest DJs, and eventually bands and sound system shows where Chasteen or Boss Harmony would run versions for emcees and toasters. The venerable U-Roy and Big Youth have both graced the Dub Club stage, as have sound system pioneers Downbeat the Ruler and David Rodigan. Via various music contacts, including legendary dub producer Hopeton “Scientist” Brown, Chasteen began setting up more live shows. Then one evening Jamaican DJ Tippa Lee, who had been living in nearby San Diego, performed and Chasteen hit it off with the artist.

“I think Jah Faith brought him to the club one night,” Chasteen recalls. “I was just like, ‘Whoa! This guy is the real deal.’ We got along really good. He’s just full of life and nice to work with; he’s ready to go for it and make [his show] great every time. [Tippa] is the embodiment of this whole sound system culture to me; he grew up around it, has been around it his whole life and is just imbued with it. He knows every rhythm and has lyrics constantly on the tip of his tongue.”

Lee also apparently has a knack for tracking down his fellow artists in Kingston. He began putting them in touch with Chasteen, which led to a number of important shows. Eventually independent artists and booking agents started approaching Dub Club, which increased the number of live performances for the event.

Starting in 2006 and ’07, Chasteen rented time at Kingsize studios in the Eagle Rock neighborhood tracking his own original rhythms with a handpicked band. Chasteen’s own production credits go back to his days making electronic dance tracks for the Exist Dance label in the early ‘90s, including the classic “They Came In Peace,” by Tranquility Bass. Finally he turned his focus to live music, and his main passion, dub.

Foundation Come again“Basically, I booked a couple days in the studio and picked a group of musicians I wanted to work with,” he says of the sessions that made up the backing rhythms for Foundation Come Again. “The drummer is Ras Benji, who is also an emcee at the club. Eddie Ruscha was the bass player; I worked with him in the band Future Pigeon. The keyboard player was mostly Roger Rivas from the Aggrolites Freddy Flint played guitar on some tracks; he’s Ras Michael’s guitar player. I also brought in my friend Mark Lightcap from the band Acetone to play guitar.”

Since artists were now regularly rolling through the Dub Club for shows, Chasteen would make time to record them on his rhythms, building up a stockpile of tracks. “As artists would visit like Big Youth, Brigadier Jerry or Tristan Palma, I would record their vocals on these instrumentals. I was tracking them all the time.” The idea for a compilation project was floated to Chasteen’s friend and Stones Throw Records founder Chris Manak (a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf), and the album was given the green light.

“At a certain point Tippa Lee made a trip to Jamaica,” says Chasteen. “He brought the instrumentals down and organized recording sessions at Mixing Lab studio in Kingston. It was a lot of rarely heard artists, and people that can’t travel to the US,” he says of the collection’s deep line up of vintage toasters. “That’s how we ended up with people like Errol Scorcher, Tullo T and Little Joe.”

For a devoted Jamaican record collector, the Kingston sessions were like gold. “I remember when Tippa called me up and told me the list of artists he had brought down to the studio,” remembers Chasteen. “It included Dillinger, Lone Ranger, Kojak, Prince Jazzbo, and others. I couldn’t believe it.”

Trinity, Ranking Joe and Tippa Lee

Stones Throw also asked Chasteen to mix a dub album component to the compilation project. Chasteen went ahead and mixed two: Bubble Dub and Wonders In Dub. Two was magic number as it seems, as Chasteen was under a tight deadline to get the tracks mixed down. “I had like two days to get it done,” he says. “Some of the dub mixes I had in the can, but most of them I had to work really quickly.” Chasteen rented a 24-channel mixing desk to augment the studio’s Pro Tools computer set up. He explains, “For me, I had to mix it on a real mixing board in real time so I could manipulate the faders and knobs; mix it in a traditional dub style. So it’s all improvised mixing. You can tell when you hear programmed echoes and effects. It’s different when it’s hands on the fader reacting to things.”

With the three albums’ releases, the rich history of Jamaican music has been extended for another generation. For Chasteen, it goes back to the records, the vinyl he cherished. From those discs came an idea, and the idea became a new recording. “These names existed for us on these dusty records, they seem like they came from another universe – the sound of the lyrics, and the names, it’s like ‘wow, this was another world in the ‘70s, I wish I could have been around back then,’” he muses.

“Then there was a moment with the Dub Club where I realized that we could still book some of these artists. Ranking Trevor is good example. [He’s] there in Kingston and he’ll come do a show, and you can work with him directly. That just blew my mind. That’s when we really dove into it, and started bringing out as many guys as we could. Pretty much all the artists who can travel to the US I’ve done shows with; Jim Brown, Welton Irie and others.”

For music fans in Los Angeles as well as tourists and visitors, Dub Club has become kind of a legacy venue for people who love reggae. Chasteen and crew have presented all decades and styles of Jamaican music in their repertoire, showcasing acts as varied as the Skatalites and Mungo's Hi-Fi and everything in between.

“We do shows with the Mighty Diamonds, Ras Michael, the Abyssinians, crucial bands that people need to see. And we do sound system shows too. The other venues that would do a show with a band don’t often do shows with just a DJ chatting over records, like Brigadier Jerry on the mic. But in a lot cases that’s how they were doing their music back in the day. That’s how Jamaican music developed.”

Dub Club is around to make sure people never forget.

‘Dub Club: Foundation Come Again’, ‘Signs and Wonders in Dub’ and ‘Bubble Dub’ are all out now on Stones Throw.

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