Dub Pioneer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd Dead at 72

posted 2004-05-07 15:51:55 by stevemay

One of the most influential yet underappreciated figures in the history of popular music, legendary sound system pioneer, producer and Studio One founder Sir Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, has died from heart complications at the age of 72.

In Dodd's more than 50 years in the music business, he helped create, shape, and finance Jamaica's unique sound, pioneered the sound system, and introduced the dub plate, riddim, and the "talking" DJ.

Dodd was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932, as the son of a building contractor. Coxsone (he earned his nickname because his cricket skills were similar to a Yorkshire star of the same name) started DJing for customers in his parent's liquor store, playing R&B, bebop, and swing records that his father-- who also served as a dock foreman-- would obtain from visiting sailors. By the mid-1950s, Dodd moved his operation into the streets and, along with other sound system pioneers Duke Reid and King Edwards (the aristocratic nicknames were a nod to the Big Band leaders who, in Jamaica, these sound system operators replaced) became known as the "Big Three."

Sound systems had developed the previous decade as a reaction to changing social conditions in Jamaica, and as a cheaper alternative to hiring a band. As Jamaica became increasingly urbanized, the rural-based mento and Jamaican folk music that had been popular was largely supplanted by American R&B and jazz (particularly swing)-- little of which was played on staid Jamaican radio. Another problem was that, although Jamaicans loved music, few could afford to obtain their own records. To remedy this, sound systems began playing public outdoor dances-- a blueprint for both the hip-hop block party and clubbing.

The rivalry between the Big Three was fierce, growing to the point that Dodd's Downbeat system had four sets spread throughout the city. The intensity of the competition resulted in the men going to extraordinary lengths to ensure each had the best sound and party, a practice that inspired their systems to grow to the point that they introduced the notions of "physicality" to the dancefloor-- where patrons could literally feel the music-- cratedigging and, thanks to Dodd, the "talking" DJ, a forerunner of the hip-hop MC. In some instances, the men would take part in sound clashes in which they'd set their systems up within earshot of one another and battle for the crowd's hearts and hips.

Dodd's hunt for new sounds took him on regular visits to U.S. cities such as Miami, New Orleans, Chicago and New York-- specifically Brooklyn, where his record shop-cum-recording studio, Coxsone's Music City, sits at 3135 Fulton Street in the shadow of the J-M-Z subway line. The hunt for exclusivity resulted in Dodd starting the process of scratching the labels off of records in order to protect the identity of some of his rare finds. In some instances, he'd then rename the records altogether in order to confuse his competition, a practice later employed in the fiercely competitive worlds of Northern Soul and hip-hop DJing.

Despite helping forge the public dance environment that would eventually lead competitive DJs to develop the cut and isolate the breakbeat, Dodd's most prescient gift to hip-hop is the rhyming DJ, the forerunner of today's MC. The introduction of live vocals to the sound systems-- which began innocently as just another way to top Dodd?s competition--started in 1956 when Downbeat's Winston "Count" Machuki stepped out from behind his turntable and cracked jokes, recited slang and American jive, and peppered the records with vocal tics (called "peps") that shared elements with beatboxing. Eventually Machuki and fellow Downbeat DJ King Stitt began to compose their own rhymes. Machuki claims his first was: "If you dig my jive/ You're cool and very much alive/ Everybody all around town/ Machuki's the reason why I shake it down/ When it comes to jive/ You can't whip him with no stick."

When rare sounds from the States became increasingly difficult to find or acquire, Dodd and his contemporaries began pressing dub-plates-- soft wax acetates-- of local sounds in order to satisfy their customers. Not intended for commercial release, these exclusive, temporary, and mostly instrumental records provided ample opportunity for DJs to toast over the sounds and helped forge the unique bass-and-hi-hat sound often associated with Jamaican music.

By 1959, Dodd, Reid, and other began pressing seven-inch records for public consumption, with Owen Gray's "On the Beach" and Theo Beckford's "Easy Snappin'" among Dodd's earliest hits. Dodd presided as president of upwards of a half dozen record labels, but he is most famous for Studio One, Jamaica's first and only completely self-sufficient record label. The legendary label-- now located on the former Brentford Road (only last Friday it was renamed Studio One Boulevard)-- was founded in 1963, although the studio itself was not constructed until two years later. Over its first few years, Studio One helped cement the popularity of ska,?Jamaica's first pop music sound-- and started the careers of Lee Perry, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe, as well as recording numerous others. At this time, Dodd's house band also employed many of the musicians who were to become known as the Skatalites.

Dodd also became the first Jamaican producer to record on two-track machines, which allowed him to isolate the instrumental and vocals from one another and, as a cost-cutting measure, recycle the instrumental version for use with multiple frontmen. The process of recording a "version"-- a new cut of a riddim track is still integral to Jamaican music and is arguably the genesis of both the dub and the remix.

Studio One lost some of its momentum by being slow to embrace the rocksteady sound of the mid- to late-1960s. But although Duke Reid's Treasure Isle epitomized that sound, Studio One still flourished thanks in large part to the contribution of organist Jackie Mittoo. Among Studio One's biggest rocksteady hits were both Ken Boothe?s "The Train Is Coming", Dawn Penn's "No No No", Delroy Wilson's "Dancing Mood", and Marcia Griffiths' "Feel Like Jumping", as well as a string of classics from the Heptones and the Gaylads. In the late 1960s, Dodd also released Bob Andy's extraordinary Song Book on the Coxsone label.

After the development of reggae, the influence of the Big Three waned but Dodd remained a centerpiece of Jamaican music. Thanks to the contributions of session players such as Mittoo, bassist Leroy Sibbles, guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and saxophonist Roland Alphonso, among others-- and to Dodd's unparalleled collection of rhythms-- Studio One was quick to adopt to and assimilate emerging sounds, including dub. And in the late '60s and early 1970s, Dodd produced hits for the likes of Ellis, Horace Andy, John Holt, Dennis Brown, Lennie Hibbert, and Ernest Ranglin.

Studio One has recently enjoyed a boost in popularity thanks to the Studio One and Dynamite series that have been released on the Soul Jazz label-- including the DVD documentary Studio One Story, a four-hour film that details the life of Dodd and his work at Studio One. The entire Studio One discography-- over which Dodd retained control for his entire life-- is lovingly detailed by Rob Chapman in his books Downbeat Special: Studio One Album Discography and Never Grow Old: Studio One Singles Listing & Rhythm Directory.

Dodd is survived by his wife and six children.