Artwork by Ellen Gt
Last year, I had the pleasure to interview one of the pioneers of dub reggae music: Hopeton Overton Brown, the Jamaican recording engineer and producer who rose to fame in the 1980s mixing dub music as The Scientist.
Scientist was introduced to electronics by his father, a television and radio repair technician. At an early age, he begins to build his amplifiers and buy transformers from Tubby. While at his studio, he asked for a chance to mix a track, so he became Tubby’s assistant. His name is connected, once again, to the studio. While in a session, Tubby told Bunny Lee: Damn, this little boy must be a scientist – referring to Scientist’s technical proficiency. And this is how a legendary name was born.
The end of the 1970s saw Scientist as the main engineer for Channel One, working on a 16-track mixing desk, rather than the four tracks of Tubby’s fame. His name started to get attention in the early 1980s. He released a series of albums on Greensleeves Records with titles themed around Scientist’s fictional achievements: fighting Space Invaders, Pac-Men, and Vampires, but also winning the World Cup. His music was played by Roots Radics, his most frequent collaborators.
Not only did his releases put him on a map, but also his unique engineering skills, which became a trademark. He was the favorite engineer of Henry “Junjo” Lawes, for whom he mixed several albums featuring the Roots Radics, many based on tracks by Barrington Levy. He also did a lot of work for Linval Thompson .
In 1982 he left Channel One to work at Tuff Gong studio , and starting in 1985, he began working as an engineer in recording studios in the Washington, D.C. area.
Following the interview, you will get to know the musical genius and the prolific artist behind the name of The Scientist. From mixing techniques to LP visual covers and King Tubby’s legacy, our conversation took a tour of this impressive engineer and artist work.
| King Tubby legacy & Jamaican sour stories
My first break was at Coxsone‘s studio, and I worked in between both him and Tubby. My relationship with King Tubby was very good.
But what I want to talk about are the false claims and frauds in Jamaican music – Prince Jammy, who was also in the studio with Tubby, there is something that must be said when it comes to the sci-fi themed album Scientist and Jammy Strike Back! Jammy never mixed one track on that record! It was all about false marketing to sell albums, Jammy is not at that level of engineering. I can tell him that.
And what happened with Strike Back happens these days too. Producers are doing all kinds of marketing gimmickry to arrack buyers.
I became these guys teacher. There is a lot of piracy going on, after Tubby’s death, there were a lot of albums coming out under his name when it was my work, with my mixes. For example, King Tubby’s vs Channel One in Dub is a complete fraud, and we’ve debunked that. Tubby had a four-track machine, and when you listen to the reverb, you can hear it is the mixing desk from Channel One. The reverb sound is unique to each studio in this world. Channel One has a very distinct reverb, and so did Tubby.
When you have a four-track recording like King Tubby’s did, it is impossible to separate for example the kick drum from the drum track, or the organ from the rest of the rhythm section. So if you take out the rhythm track, you take out the piano and everything within the rhythm section such as the piano, organ, rhythm guitar, the same for the drums you can’t take out the drums without taking out the percussion wish was grouped with the drums at the time of the recording. It is impossible to do that from a four-track recorder. But on the pirate Tubby album, which was mixed by Peter Chemist, you can hear the organ track separately. What happens with these producers is that they run out of ideas, so they resorted to piracy. Also, the mixes are so embarrassing they sound like my next-door neighbor or some drunken guy mixed that album.
Every engineer and producer and mixer out there in music history has a unique signature. People love them for their signature. On that record, nothing sounds like Tubby, and again the same thing happened with the Dangerous Dub album, where supposedly King Tubby Meets the Roots Radics. That is a fantasy. Tubby never mixed any songs with the Radics. What these record companies do is invent and release their crazy ideas. The worst part about it is selling these records under Tubby’s name and keeping all the money for themselves. It is a disgrace and a shame when they should be held responsible for what they are doing.
Disasters happen in the music industry. I have seen musicians ending up being paupers and homeless, while the record companies, with their poor morals, keep all the finances for themselves. When they have the opportunity to take advantage, they do it. You may consider it a fairy tale when you hear those stories of how a lot of jazz and blues artists were compensated in drinks by the record labels. But it happened in Jamaica too. Artists have signed papers they don’t understand. The lawyers working for the record labels were doing these immoral contracts. And I doubt that someone would sign away their rights for a few drinks or a couple of hundred dollars.
This situation has been a disgrace and things are slowly getting better. It can happen again tomorrow unless the government changes the law, so when you go in to sign a contract with any of these record labels, you must have an outside independent counsel. If the money is substantial, very generous, a couple of 500 million dollars, then you could understand why someone would just give up their royalties. I don’t think anybody in their conscious minds would sign their rights for a donut! But the law is too vague now, and artists need more protection. When you go against these record companies they have these big type criminal lawyers. A lawyer always aims to be greedy and see how much they can get from the artist for their clients. That is what counts as a good lawyer in this business. You can hear them brag:
Hey, I got the Wailers to sign away their rights for a hundred dollars.
That’s a crappy crooked lawyer! Jamaicans in those early days had no idea what work for hire means. They just saw people coming at them with papers to sign. In the seventies, 500 dollars seemed like a bunch of money. They came to me with the same papers, and I refused it. From my perspective, in the music business there is a need to be more protective for the artists and the people who put all the effort and who are doing the hard work.
Even if you sell apples, the corporation comes to you with a deal. And it seems like you always get the type of people who take the helicopter to travel two blocks to their house, while some people work and slave. We are talking about someone who wouldn’t even miss 10 000 dollars from his pocket, but who wouldn’t pay an artist or worker properly.
| Reggae and the world
Let me put it this way: reggae is the hardest genre to engineer. You have to understand that I pioneered this sound in Jamaica. After doing so much studio work in reggae, in Jamaica, from my perspective, any other genre is like a piece of cake. Don’t let people twist it. Reggae is the benchmark for all the genres. It is why I did the Scientist Launches Dubstep into Outer Space. They all come from our bass frequencies innovations and using the mixing desk as an instrument. Reggae is much harder to mix than rock, classical music, or jazz. The whole genre of reggae has set up the standards for high fidelity music worldwide.
Who taught the world about the bass, the lower frequencies, the mids, and the proper highs? Wasn’t reggae and dub? If you go back in time and search for legendary recordings in other genres, you get to listen to some great artists with amazing compositions, but the recording technique and the quality are not at the best. For me, working for so long in Jamaica with so many top-notch artists, taking now songs to remix and mix from other genres is easy to work. Like I said: a piece of cake.
But I like to listen to all different types of music. To me, listening to a recording is like learning a language. I like to have a collection and check out a wide variety of sounds and genres, but the composition has to be perfect. If anyone wants to reach me for commissions, they can do it through my manager. I like to keep it as simple and professional as that.
But think about this for a bit, reggae becomes all underdog music. If you go to Latin America, they have Latin music, but there is also reggae. You go to Africa where they have their music, but also reggae artists, like Alpha Blondy and Jah Tiken Fakoly. Everywhere you go around the world, from Asia to the Middle East, there is reggae. Make no mistake about it, people mainly listen to two types of music: sounds that are coming from Jamaica and music that is coming from America. How many Chinese music artists, Balinese, Vietnamese do you see in the spotlight? Correct me if I’m wrong, any of these countries got music in the charts?
A lot of cultures have incorporated reggae into their modern music, and the songs they have in the charts are reggae sounds. I welcome this! It is a privilege to have a voice, to speak out against the injustice you are going through with the sound of reggae. It is everywhere, and people need to stop considering it an underdog genre. We are living in a world where some people try to make themselves look better than others like they are more intelligent. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years from now, you will find it written in history books that reggae was invented in some other country than Jamaica. I have seen it through the decades, right in front of my eyes, how people have tried to rewrite reggae.
| Afrobeats and riddims
When it comes to respecting, I have it for any culture and nationality and therefore for any musical genre. I did a remix of the song Body & Soul by Nigerian musician William Onyeabor, and I respect it when I hear a sound that copies Jamaican music. So, as I don’t discriminate against people, I don’t discriminate against musicians. Of course, everybody’s free to make their sound influenced by whatever foreign sounds and genres they like.
But there is no difference between mixing and dubbing Sly & Robbie and the Roots Radics. You must remember, I mixed a lot of songs with Sly & Robbie and just about everybody, so there is no special approach. I mixed, for example, righteous brother Marvin Gaye, his song What’s Going On. That type of music has a great composition. Marvin Gaye is irreplaceable. He was a wonderful songwriter and performer. But truthfully, what was lacking was the technological development that was pioneered and started in Jamaica. I don’t want to sound too braggadocious, but I am the one who pioneered that type of sound. There is a lot to learn from reggae and dub. Some people don’t want to swallow it. Our Jamaican sound had so much influence all over the world in all different types of genres.
| The musical covers and inspirations
I look at the artwork for the recording this way: you have to attract the person to pick up your music. A lot of people are attracted by the quality of the music, but a good artwork increases the chance of strangers buying your music when they never heard of you.
I can compare going to a music store to shopping for a shirt. When you go to a clothes shop, you might put it on to see if it fits you, but the first thing is appealing to the eye. So just like the perfect color and pattern of a shirt, visual art is important to a musical product. That is the first attraction. You first have to be enticed by what you see, and then try to proceed with your interest further, or else it would be a waste of time. That is where these amazing album jackets by Tony McDermott, Jamaal Pete, and Willy Dread come in.
People ask me about that, what inspired Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires. When I was growing up, there were a few horror shows on tv, Dark Shadows with the vampire Barnabas Collins and The Munsters with the Frankenstein-looking Herman Munster. Those were the stars in the sixties classic horror shows, and they were a direct influence on Jamaican music and popular culture.
Barnabas Collins influenced dancehall music in the 1980s, Lone Ranger did a song and album with that name. And in 1985, I mixed the horror influenced Early B – Ghostbusters, at Tuff Gong Recording studio.
| A message to the world
Genre, color, race, and nationality are not ignored by the Coronavirus, for example. Mr. Corona came and shut down the whole world. No matter if you think you are a superstar, the virus doesn’t give a heck! It doesn’t matter who your president is or how many nuclear weapons your government has, how many more bombs you can drop on, and what your military power is. Corona will shut your ass down like nothing was happening.
So now is the best time ever for everybody to respect everybody. It is time for the world to come together as one community, and politicians need to stop this madness or trespassing into another country with an army of soldiers bombing each other. In the middle, there are innocent people caught in the crossfire. My point is – let’s respect each other and respect music. It doesn’t matter if a genre wants to copy reggae. If you are creative in music, it is all for the better! That is the way I look at the world.