The Archaeology of the Dubplate

This post is part of “Iconoclasm Weekend”, an occasional series of more or less off-topic posts to appear on Saturdays.

As commodified archives, online auction houses are full of discarded stuff from the past. If you scavenge through this stuff, you may be able to get closer to things that were once completely out of reach to you, such as dubplates, typically one-off 10″ acetates with unreleased music and now mostly considered to be relics of a time before streaming, CDRs and USBs took over. Yet the dubplate remains a uniquely important cultural signifier within reggae sound systems as well as “golden age” drum and bass, the genre of electronic music that in the early- to mid-1990s began to combine sped-up, sampled breakbeats, the basslines of Jamaican dub, and elements of Detroit and Chicago techno, and that we will focus on here.

Resident Advisor has produced this nice little introduction to dubplate culture and its development from King Tubby to today. To quote from the introduction, “vinyl was the thing“; the thing in all sorts of ways, I would add, and there is some value in looking also at dubplates from the perspective of material culture. (Here is another interesting write-up on dubplates, the title of which again speaks to their materiality: “Dreams rendered in metal“).

As an archetypical form of symbolic capital, dubplates were much more than a medium for new pieces of music. The reputations of genre figureheads, such as Grooverider and Doc Scott, were indeed built around the mystique of having new tracks (“tunes”) that others did not. Similar to inalienable possessions, these dubplates were shared at particular moments but ultimately remained with the DJ. At the same time (and in a very Maussian sense), dubplates established and defined the relationships between specific DJs and the producers that gave them a DAT to cut to acetate (especially at the time before producer-DJs had conquered the world of electronic music).

Generic Music House label sticker for a dubplate, referencing the studio’s Jamaican heritage.

Looking at the dubplates themselves, they typically carry only generic white labels, in some cases with the name and address of the cutting studio (and very often also the title of a track penned by the owner, adding to the highly personal nature of the object). Fundamental to the culture of dubplates was indeed the preservation of secrecy by seeking to hide the identity of new, unreleased tracks. Adding to their elusive nature is the fact that acetates eventually wear out and become unplayable.

Some dubplates took years to come out officially. And some, of course, never did, later giving rise to a culture of “dubplate remakes“, all sorts of lo-fi SoundCloud pirate archives, as well as nostalgia-led labels, such as “Deep Jungle“, “Speed” and “Dubs from the Dungeons“, the latter even releasing gold-coloured vinyl to emphasise the theme of hidden treasure.

If the dubplate is the thing that defines this culture, the defining place was Music House, the mastering studio in London that in the 1990s was home to a close-knit, multi-cultural community of DJs and musicians that were hanging out, smoking and cutting new tracks. The “Talkin’ Headz” documentary (1998) provides a funny little window into this community and the people and places of their “urban style music” – specifically the Metalheadz label, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note club in Hoxton Square where so many classic dubplates were first played out – as well as a moment in time when everything felt brand new and London really was the cosmopolitan centre of the world.

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