Dub as an Act of Love: An Interview with Edward George
Edward George is a writer, researcher, and presenter of Black Audio Film Collective’s ground-breaking science fiction documentary Last Angel of History. Edward is a founder of Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998), the multimedia duo Flow Motion (1996-present), and the electronic music group Hallucinator (1998-present).
His latest ongoing work, Strangeness of Dub, is a multi-part radio broadcast at Morley College in London that entangles dub within various geographical musical histories, critical theory, queer studies, black thought, and African/Afro-diasporic knowledges dating back to the talking drum in West Africa. Inspired by these broadcasts, our conversation speaks to many of these notions, as well as the metaphysics of the record studio, decontructivism, and Clyde Woods' "blues epistemologies" having more to do with the confrontation of the plantation than the blues itself.
This Interview was conducted by co-editor of dweller electronics, Ryan Clarke, in September 2022.
There are so many names in Strangeness of Dub. I mean, it almost starts to feel like the program, becomes immaterial sort of altar to acknowledge all of these people, and these names, and what they're in relation to. I don't know how many times David Drummond pops up. He's indispensable, clearly. But it really starts to become a recording of gratitude that I in turn I find my own graciousness in. It feels like its own reenactment of ancestral form, which is really quite beautiful. How did you come to materialize the program?
I did some mixtape programs, and I was one of those people that as soon as you get a tape machine and two cassette things you're making mixtapes. In fact, if I had to give my being in radio a beginning it would be making mixtapes that were kind of like the background to the office ambience of Black Audio. So that's the kind of informal beginning, but it's the idea that you get all these different traces, shortwave radio was great in those days, you can make compilations and all the rest of it. More formally, I had a collaborative program, mixtape program on Sunrise Radio, School of Oriental and African Studies, called Morphologies.
And one of the ideas of that was, you listen to kind of like mixtape programs, and it's all like, once you figure out it's all 4/4 music and it's either one genre or another, you kind of know where you are. Which is great if you want to know where you are, and everybody does. But what I liked was the idea of making something as unlistenable as possible.
Which really is just embracing atonality, is a cheeky way of saying rather than going for musically strict tonal center. I didn't want to do anything conceptual or present.
And at the time I was doing a doctorate, and I was actually really enjoying doing a doctorate, you know? Reading 15 hours a day or something. And that seemed like the ideal time to start doing DJing, so he got me this gig at this place called Confetti Radio in Chingford. First time I'd ever used two decks because where I come from in sound system culture, if you ever go to say Jah Shaka there's one deck, so that's what I was used to working with. I was like, "Two decks, what the hell am I going to do with two decks?"
[There was] a guy called Lee Kirk Fagan, and he's one of the people who run this genuinely diverse local radio station called Threads. It's pretty much DIY, independent, trying to get as much of a diversity of voices: trans, Black, gay, this, that, we're all drawn together by a particular way of thinking and listening and playing music. So I thought, "Okay, well I could do a set there." And they said, "Yeah, come and do a set." So I did a set, and I just brought in records that I just felt like playing at the time.
And it was the first time that I'd actually spoken on a mic and felt comfortable, I made a point of saying as little as possible, playing the records, and that was that. When you're doing radio, [you look for] anything that gives you an inroad into just becoming comfortable in the moment, for finding your voice, just knowing how to work decks, do your selection, and also to get a sense of how you can use sequencing of records to think conceptually.
I told him about these radio things, and he put me in touch with a curator who, I think she'd just been installed at Morley College, which had a radio station. I think either he or me, one of us sent a couple of the shows to this curator woman, and she was really nice. She was like, "Well, good selection, you know what you're doing, but the main thing is the voice." I liked her because she suddenly made a tradition of off-key singing make sense and have a precedent. And then there was the question of the percussion in the track, the nyabinghi. And there were loads of things like that, and I just scribbled down something called Strangeness of Dub, with a couple of ideas for what the programs could be. No sense of how you put one of these things together. For the first couple I scribbled a few notes, pulled out a few records, and that was pretty much it. All of the concerns with critical theory and with philosophy, and how they interface with dub, that's like an ongoing thing. I remember when the King Tubby died in '89, I was in the Black Audio Film Collective, and I certainly wanted to get something made about him, my colleagues did as well.
But I remember getting a copy of the fanzine, Boom-Shacka-Lacka , and at the time, I think it's probably one of the few journals, professional or not, that put Tubby on the cover. He just didn't exist in the broader cultural world, and this is in the margins of Black British music at the time, when dub was... not dead, but sleeping quite soundly. You couldn't get a program about King Tubby made in 1989 for love nor money, simply because what he was doing ran counter to everything to do with presence that you usually associate with being Black and all the rest of it, it literally runs counter to it. You're getting rid of presence, rather than pushing it to the front and affirming it you had a song that now wasn't there anymore, simple stuff like that.
Where is that precedent coming from?
There isn't one, there isn't one.
He's a bit like Little Richard, when Little Richard says, "Before me there was nothing." That way of thinking about music just didn't exist, simple as that. You might get it in little bits, little flickers of it, but arriving as almost fully-formed grammar more or less, and how you can rethink composition, that's Tubby.
He came up with the framework?
Yeah. And because he'd only been doing it since at least since like '71 until '89 when he died, there wasn't a critical framework for what he was doing. So you think about things, and you chat with your mates, and you try and make tunes, and you do bits and bobs, and you stick with it, and you follow the music. Thinking it through isn't a problem. Queering the thing was the main thing, this idea that in any kind of seemingly whole structure there's something in it that's not of it but of it at the same time, that undermines its claim to completion. That strangeness.
I was interested in the word choice of 'strangeness'.
There's the etymology of strangeness, in which you find the term queer. There's the etymology in which you also find the simultaneous presence of the alien and the amazing, if you want, the attractive. So it's a word that embodies both ambivalence, and depending on which side of the historical line you're standing, an affirmation or a negation of the presence of the other, and maybe both.
I guess the word would be a metaphysical sort of architecture where when people try to speak of dub, you sort of inadvertently get hung up on the physics of the thing. The studios, the places, the sheds, the arks, the sound systems, the spring reverbs. But once you start listening to it...it all of that starts to dematerialize. It happens as a phenomenon to you. It's such a strange thing, to try to use physical elements to embody the immaterial, or to get a... I think you said this in one of the middle episodes, you talked about how Tubby was trying to make the unconscious audible. I think you were bringing up Deleuze, Spinoza, all of that.
As a writer, I find myself wondering how capable I am at articulating certain expression I almost feel like shouldn’t give coherent expression within a colonial rhetoric. But arriving at what you’re saying, there is this sort of collective kind of subconscious in that to hear it isn't necessarily to reduce it, to make it audible isn't to reduce it. There's a great Marion Brown quote where he basically says, "I don't play words."
And so that gave me the kind of battery in my back to go, "So I can write about this, and I'm not kind of giving things away." To that point, a lot of Mardi Gras Indians down here call themselves “the Guardians of the Flame.”
Mm-hmm, I've heard that, yeah.
I've come to think about that flame as the way that Blackness might be like on the other side of the wall from all of us, and although we might have proximity to it, we have no ownership of it. But we can kind of listen to what it might be telling us, but it's never in a language that we can fully translate. So, whatever gets lost in translation is our own like expressivity? For Strangeness of Dub, it sounds like you've really taken this with you for such a long time. How did you find yourself kind of having these revelations that you then express in those episodes? Was this revealed to you during the research of this show, which could just be listening. Is it more like dialogue-based with different friends, and knowledges started to pop up?
How did you come to understand this sort of epiphany with this Strangeness found in music? The older I get I'm really starting to kind of see veils kind of drop the more I listen to music, and I'm interested in your own pathway to these ideas.
It's really, really simple, I'll give you an example of the simplicity of it. In 1974, when I was 10, I bought this record [lifts record up to the screen].
That exact record?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's Irie Feelings, by the Rupie Edwards All Stars, 1974, Cactus Records. And it was the only dub tune record to get to number one in the British charts. And I thought to myself, you get some records, that's one of them.
The idea that music had a thinking of its own to do with sound and space was something that was already part of my relationship to music and black culture and sound and all the rest of it. And music in general as early as 1978, there's this idea of black study that the listening that black folk tend to be so obsessive about comprises a kind of informal scholarship if you want, where you have to find things, you have to find ways of knowing. You have to find ways of learning to know to research. Crate digging if you want to be informal about it.
You'd have a lot of your singles, but not all of them. It's a kind of impressionistic relation to things. And if you listen hard enough and if you have the sort of casual relationship to listening that most people have to looking, if you spend more time listening to records than you do watching television, for example, things start to happen. Sound starts. You notice sound. If you want to be active about it, if you want to be passive about it, you can learn that sound starts to speak to you.
And because when I heard dub for the first time, it didn't sound like music. I've learned to treasure those moments when you encounter something new and you can't tell what the fuck it is. You know what I mean? When you hear first Hear Charlie Parker or something and it's got something to do with music.
You listen to Koko for the first time in 1945 and you might find yourself saying, “I don't know”. Which is a great jumping off point towards getting to know.
“The shock of it is”, Thomas would say.
So all of this kind of prepares you for other kinds of music and other kinds of relations to music. And because around say 1979, there was a burst of interest in continental philosophy, I suppose you'd call it. The likes of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jacques le Carre. And those folks were all being taken up by my generation in academia and correspondingly in music journalism. There was a small number of young writers who were using a drawing from that pool of critical theory to think about music. I'm not saying that their taste in music influenced me in one way or the other, but the fact that they were drawing from things that I knew about, I knew who Roland Barthes was. I got to know who Jacques Derrida was. Oh, that's what they're doing. So reading about music, but reading the writing about music rather than being concerned with the object of the writing as a way in.
And having grown up reading people like Carl Gayle. Carl Gayle was a Jamaican journalist, one of the first in this country to write about Jamaican music contextually. So he'd give you a sense of the places in which Jamaican music was consumed, how it was consumed in Britain that is. How it was consumed in social significance. And he wasn't a sociologist.
Yeah. So he wrote for black music, I think he might have written for blues. There was another guy, Peter Simons, a white guy, Jewish guy from the East End who wrote under the name Penny Reel after an old Eric Morris song.
And the reason he was striking for me as a kid was that he brought a kind of a very visible stylistic thing to how he wrote about sound systems and life in the reggae world in East London and North London and surrounding areas. He always wrote in the present tense, I am sitting in the bar when in walks Tapper Zukie. "'Hail the man,' Tapper Zukie says to I" and so on and so forth. And it brought this real sense of the present and beauty to the life of the music itself.
Using different kinds of writing to think music, to think through music and the idea that music had its own thinking was an incremental, gradual process. That thing about staying with the music, literally the same recording over and over again or knowing that, okay, you listened to it five years ago, you can recall this, you can mute, and so on and so on. And the other thing is that you learn to hear the same thing differently in other things, if that makes sense.
And in practical terms, there's this thing that Derrida says about deconstruction. I mean, it's probably not always the case, but it's got something going for it. Deconstruction is an act of love. If you follow sound systems as opposed to live music and your sound system of choice foregrounds sonic extremity, rather than the representation— the presentation of melody and lyricism. And that's an education in and of itself. It's impossible to overestimate the effect of that sound system on black British underground music culture, urban culture based culture, whatever the hell you want to call it.
And these sort of thinking preceded inner thoughts around “Strangeness of Dub”?
I think the Strangeness of Dub may well have started as a queering thing, and it is a queering thing, but it's really to do with listening. It's as simple as that. You go into Jah Shaka Sound System. Most of the people who go to that Sound System; the thing they go for is to listen, not necessarily to dance. They dance because they dance, but they listen. And the evidence of that is that you go online, you go to YouTube, and there's always somebody who goes, what was that tuneup? And all that is is a formalizing, of a tradition that's much older. You go into a record shop. Yeah. Jah Shaka played a tune that went, [hums] Because the sound is so specific that it just takes this listening as a pre-condition. If you went to say a sound system that had a lot of MCs, you might listen to the MC's and the flows. You got to hip hop, you're listening to the rhymes, but you aren't be thinking, yeah, that tune, the rhythm itself. “I want that version of it.” “Who is that singer?” That's the tradition that informs the emphasis on listening in the series. It draws from that tradition before it draws from that floating listening that you get in psychoanalysis, where you're listening to the surface of something for little ruptures and bifurcations and all sorts of things. And again, it goes back to listening about Black studies. Fred Moten really got big on that, listening as a component part of Black studies, communal listening.
As an epistemology, a way to know.
Ways of knowing that... And here's the limit of Clyde Woods’ thinking. Ways of knowing that can be traced back to the plantation, but it's not the plantation of one place or another. It's the plantation as a field of repetition. Through which repetition takes place. And it's the iterative capacity of the field itself that is the bearer of knowledge, not the blues. The blues is a figure of the iteration.
It's a residue.
Yeah. And it's incredibly disseminative. The field of the trace, or the space of the trace in this field, is Waterhouse, where dub begins. And in a funny kind of way, because the blues and jazz precedes dub, dub's beginning precedes it. That's the crazy shit about dub.
Listen to 'Strangeness of Dub' on Morley Radio