Dub, for the beginners, is that spooky kid on the reggae block blowing up stuff in the basement with a chemistry set. In the '70s, Jamaican producers began using primitive tricks to turn singles into spaced-out, bass-heavy B-sides doused in reverb and delay. The Frankenstein sound of those "dubs" (probably the first remixes) took on a life of its own, spawning hip-hop, trip-hop, jungle and drum 'n' bass, and now live acts are moving dub riddims
out of the studio and onto the stage.
So we had to ask: Why hasn't Chicago heard it yet?
Enter The Drastics with our answer. The group dominates Chicago's live dub scene, namely because they are the live dub scene. While you can catch your standard Peter Tosh/Bob Marley set any night at Exedus II or the Wild Hare, no one else drops the Drastics' brand of expansive grooves. In fact, they find themselves outside looking in on an insular reggae crowd, booking gigs with like-minded DJs or experimental bands instead.
"The reggae scene's weird," explains Tom Riley, Drastics tenor sax player, flautist and dub engineer. "It's guys that kind of play in their own group, and it's hard for us to get in there."
"Yeah, because we don't play generic reggae for lack of a better term," adds drummer Anthony Abbinanti. "They want something very safe. That scene is its own little entity, its own little bubble."
The two formed the Drastics in early 2004 from the remnants of defunct ska stars the Zvooks (reportedly David Hasselhof-big in Germany). Drawn to the genre's mystery and "weird spirituality," they teamed with organist Bijan Warner, guitarist Brian Citro, bassist Chris Merrill and percussionist Jah Son to lay down some heavy-roots dub, a description that comes with an Abbinanti caveat.
"Whenever I say that to people, it so doesn't even encompass 10 percent of what we do," he says, "because I think the strongest point of this band is the versatility and the diversity of music that we play. It's just all over. It's hard to pin it down."
The band undoubtedly takes cues from legendary pioneers like King Tubby and melodica maestro Augustus Pablo, while blending in elements of hip-hop, jazz, afro-beat, dancehall and rocksteady. And in keeping with dub's test-tube aesthetic, live improvisation plays a key role. Muscular, rolling bass lines anchor fades and swells while guitar, keys, horns, percussion and ricocheting snare shots get retooled real-time through a mixer onstage.
"Everything that we do is actually orchestrated and improvised," says Riley of the live dub. Many members are also multi-instrumentalists, adding a crucial cohesion to the unpredictable turns. "Anything can happen any night," agrees Abbianati. "Maybe something happened one night that was cool and we'll remember to do that from then on, like a stop for a beat and then dropping it again…I think it's really making music when everything's not so structured and you can just play."
The band's second album, Chicago Massive, reflects the same all-out, mad scientist approach. The ambitious double disc lists no less than 24 individual musician credits, including unsung local vocalists like Fada Dougou, Mario Valentine and the Shabba Ranks-meets-Sean Paul growls of Zulu. If that weren't enough, an accompanying 12-inch with alternate dubs of those dubs should keep Chi-town from sleeping on the sound.
"We want to promote these people who are trying to do good music as much as we want to promote us," says Abbinanti. "That's why we called the album Chicago Massive. There's just all this talent here, and I think Chicago gets overlooked between New York and LA. There's a lot of raw shit happening in Chicago that needs to get recognized."
In the beginning:
Tom: It was March 2004 at the Fireside Bowl.
Anthony: Our old band was supposed to play and our bass player at the time was down in Champagne and was like, 'Dude, this band is dead. I'm not coming up for the show.' We didn't even have the name yet. I think we went under the name The Dub Delinquents, which is a very unfortunate name. But we needed something to put on the flier.
After a gig we:
A: If people are up, we go party at the crib.
T: It depends on the gig. Sometimes they get out at midnight and sometimes they get out at 4 a.m. Some guys work day jobs, but we're...
I get live at:
T: We go up to Betty's Blue Star Lounge on Tuesday nights to hear DJs.
A: Superstatus is the name of the DJ crew. They'll spin some hip-hop and afro funk, some straight American funk and afro pop. But primarily it's reggae up in there.
What's cool in our neck of the woods:
T: We hit Tuman's pretty regularly. They have good stuff on tap.
A: Yeah, we're like two doors down. It's a neighborhood bar that's becoming a little more yuppie, but it's easy to walk down and get cheap drinks.
Most surreal CTA moment:
A: I've got so many stories about that...
T: One time on the Red Line heading north, some guy got on and just felt the need to practice his MC skills using the reflection of the windows. So the guy's like spinning this rhyme...
A: Was he any good?
T: No, he was terrible. It was more like he was trying to get the moves down.
A: The American Idol moves?
A: I was on the bus recently and these two girls didn't have fare, so they couldn't get on. They were straight like [snapping], 'We gonna see you again! We gonna get you!' Just threatening this bus driver. And the driver was just like, 'You remember, you pay me! You pay me!' I've never seen that during rush hour.
Fresh from the woodshed: Chicago Massive, out May 26 on Jump Up Records.
Up next: The Drastics will play two CD-release shows for their forthcoming album. See them May 20 at Morseland and May 28 at The Note.