July 15, 2013

Tom Chasteen

Dub Club is no longer just another weekly in L.A., if it ever was to begin with.  It’s an institution, respected by Reggae heads from Silver Lake to Kingston. There are other places in the states where you can listen to DJs spin Reggae, Dub, Ska, Dancehall, and anything else worth listening to that’s come out of Jamaica, but none like Dub Club.

It’s only at Dub Club that can you see artists from the old, often forgotten records live. The man behind Dub Club and the man responsible for bringing these artists out to L.A. is DJ/producer Tom Chasteen, who’s been DJing/selecting and handling the day to day at Dub Club for over a decade now. 

Chasteen recently linked up with Jamaican artist Tippa Lee (“No Trouble We”) to produce/record Foundation Come Again, a collection of twenty new recordings with sound system legends like Ranking Trevor and Brigadier Jerry. The album is a great listen all the way through, a record that feels less like a throwback and more like a traditionalist record by the best in the business. Above all, Foundation Come Again is the music each of these MCs probably would’ve been making had someone like Chasteen been around earlier in their careers.

Foundation Come Again drops tomorrow (July 16) via one of L.A.’s best indie labels, Stones Throw. Fittingly, the fantastic Dub versions of the record are already out (see here). The release party will take place at this week’s Dub Club, where Chasteen and DJ Boss Harmony will select for Trinity, Tippa Lee, Ranking Joe, and some surprise guests.

In our near hour conversation we discussed Chasteen’s music career, his time at Dub Club, the new record, and all things Reggae/Dub.  – Max Bell

How long have you been a DJ?

I started DJing college parties when I was going to school, which would be like ’86 or ’87.

When did you start producing?

I was actually producing back in the early ‘90s. I started this label called Exist Dance. We put our first record out in ’91 and we were basically the first label to come out of the whole rave scene that was going on here in L.A. We probably released a lot of the first kind of Techno and break beat records and also some of the first experimental Hip-Hop music, in the vein of Trip-Hop. One of the records we released was “They Came in Peace” by Tranquility Bass. That came out in ’91. And that was before Tricky and Portishead. That track actually ended up being on this compilation Headz, which came on Mo’ Wax and is considered to be one of the seminal Trip-Hop compilations from back then.

Anyway, so in the early ‘90s I was producing Techno, House, Trip-Hop, and all that kind of stuff. I did that all the way up until I got kind of burned out on it. Then people were really getting into Dub Club a lot, so I switched to that.

But my stuff always had this real Reggae influence. And I was a super Reggae collector through all the years. For a while I was living in Arizona, from the mid to late ‘90s, and I would do Reggae and Dub stuff at these big rave parties out there.

When did your interest in Reggae and Dub music first develop?

I was lucky because my parents had a really great record collection. And they actually have a lot of good Reggae records, so I was listening to it ever since I was a little kid. They had stuff like Toots & the Maytals and The Harder They Come soundtrack.

One of the records that always sticks out for me is Scientist Wins the World Cup, which is one of those Scientist albums with the crazy cartoon covers. I think got that record in the ‘80s, when I was in high school. And I just listened to that thing over and over and over. I was totally hypnotized by that. That was probably the first Dub record that really got me into it.

Is there are distinction between Reggae and Dub music?

Dub is Reggae. They’re not really two different types of music. Basically, Dub is engineers taking Reggae music and tweaking it with echoes and reverbs and creating this new piece of music.

What about Dub music attracts you?

I like rhythm, and Dub always has that solid, pounding rhythm. I guess the other thing you could say about Dub, which is similar with Reggae, is that it always has that bass. There’s no Dub that doesn’t have this heavy, heavy pulsing bass. But it’s more than that too. It’s not just the bass line. I like music that swings and I like the psychedelic in music. I like sort of swirling echoes and all the crazy experimental things that Dub can do.

Because a lot of Dub is like, ‘Well what can we do in the recording studio that’s kind of breaking the rules?’ or ‘How can we take this song and sort of fracture into a million pieces?’ At the same time you can still rock a dance floor with a Dub record, as weird as it might get, because you’re still maintaining that rhythmic pulse through the whole thing.

With all of your years of digging, are you still finding Dub and Reggae music that’s new to you?

Yeah, totally! I mean Reggae is amazing. Jamaica has really so much music it’s just amazing. There’s always new stuff to be digging for. I mean it’s just endless. You’re always going to find something.

I went to the Beat swap meet a couple months ago and I bought like three or four boxes of ‘45s, like big long boxes. And I went through those and out of those I found one record that I really liked. But the thing about it is that I’ll go back and go through it again because sometimes records I don’t like one year I’ll like a year or two later. You never know.

And the thing that I would say about Dub Club is that we don’t only play Dub. We play all styles of Jamaican music, going back to early ‘60s Ska and Rocksteady, and then the more ‘70s Roots, and the ‘80s Rub-a-Dub style, and ‘90s Dancehall and digital, up into modern stuff. We kind of try to span the whole spectrum of Jamaican music.

Would you say Dub Club had been pretty successful thus far?

Well I mean the goal is that the shows pay for themselves and turn a profit, but that doesn’t always happen. Still, we have great audience for Reggae in California and we usually get a pretty good turn out for the shows. I mean Reggae is a funny thing. In some ways it’s underground, but in other ways it’s widely popular. So we’re lucky. But then there’s a lot of hassle trying to get some artists into the country. There’s a lot of Visa problems.

When did you guys start bringing in artists to perform at Dub Club?

Well first we brought in Adrian Sherwood, who is like an English Dub guy. That was probably 2001 or 2002. Then I just started to get offers from more and more people.

The story I always tell, which is true, is that it kind of blew my mind when I realized, after looking at records and seeing a name like Ranking Trevor on a dusty old ’45 and thinking that this was just music from a whole other world and time, that this guy Ranking Trevor is just there in Kingston and still wants to perform and that it can be arranged.

And I would say, not to blow our own horn too much at Dub Club, is that it’s something that sets us apart from most clubs of this type that I can think of. Because there are clubs where you can go hear rare Funk and rare Soul and lots of different types of music, but there’s not too many clubs that do that and actually bring those artists on those old records to perform. I think that’s a pretty rare thing, and it takes a lot of work. Believe me.

Do you personally finance the artists’ trip out here?

Not always. Sometimes people are on tour already. But when I’m doing really special artists—I mean there have been artists where Dub Club is their only show in California. So for somebody like that I’m financing the whole thing. I fly them out here, put them in a hotel, and organize the show—the whole thing top to bottom.

Was the goal with Dub Club always to make a record at some point?

No, not really. The goal was always just to do the party. But I’ve done a lot of different Dub related stuff over the years. I did a lot of what I would call Dub remixes back before I even did Dub Club. I actually did a Dub mix of some Sly & Robbie in the late ‘90s.

But what happened is that when we started bringing in more artists to perform at the club then I started doing more recording with them. So there started be this big body of recordings and it made sense to do a record. And then Stones Throw was interested in releasing it so that was great.

How has it been collaborating with Stones Throw on the release?

They’re great. Chris (Peanut Butter Wolf) has been a big supporter of the Dub Club and we’ve had him spin there a bunch of times. It’s just great. I couldn’t say enough good things about working with them.

When did you first come up with the idea for Foundation Come Again?

Well we’ve  been doing it all these years—because it’s not only these Jamaican sessions. A lot of times when artists come to town, like Big Youth, who’s on the record, I recorded him when he was hear for a show. Same thing with Brigadier Jerry. And there’s a lot more material than is on that record too. We have a huge library that we’ve just been kind of stockpiling over the years. And we also have singers. The album is all DJs, DJs in the Jamaican sense—basically when Jamaican artists say DJ they mean someone who is toasting on the mic. So this album is all DJs, but we also have records with singers and stuff.

We have this huge body of stuff that we’ve been doing for years and Tippa and I had the idea to do a record that just concentrated on all of the foundation DJs. Then what I would like to do is have a follow up that’s all singers. So we’ve been working on that.

Are there plans to release any of that archival material?

Yeah, hopefully! (Laughs) It depends on how this stuff goes over.

Where did you record Foundation Come Again? What was the recording process like?

I mostly used a studio called King Size. It’s in Eagle Rock. And then some of the stuff was recorded in Jamaica too.

I didn’t actually go to Jamaica but the other producer, Tippa Lee, who’s also an artist on the record, he went over there and had a couple wild studio sessions where he got the studio for a couple days and just rounded up all these old school guys. There’s some cool video of it where they’re just all hanging out in the studio together and smoking weed. (Laughs) I wish I would’ve been there for those sessions, but I wasn’t.

A lot of those guys actually can’t come to the U.S. I don’t want to talk about anyone personally, but usually it’s because they have some kind of police record or something. There was a time in the ‘70s and the ‘80s where a lot of them came to New York and Miami and a lot of them kind of got into trouble with the law and they had to go back to Jamaica. They can go to Europe, but if you have certain things on your record they won’t let you into the U.S.

Tippa had a hard drive with him and basically he went over to Jamaica with maybe fifteen instrumentals or so. I would talk to him on the phone and go over which artists were there. Then he would go over the instrumentals with the artists and match up who wanted to work on which tracks.

What’s behind the name of the record?

The name comes from all of the artists that are on there. They’re like foundation artists. It’s kind of the return of the roots.

Do you have a favorite track on Foundation Come Again?

I really like that Josey Wales track “Hard Time.” I think that’s such a tough track. The lyrics are so tough. I’m really happy with that one. But the whole record—I’m pretty proud of it. It sounds good. When I play it in the club it sounds rough and tough. And the Dub records do too.

You released the Dub version of the record first, right?

Yeah. Stones Throw kind of let me know at the last minute that they wanted the Dub records, so a majority of those were done in like two days. It’s kind of unusual. Usually you do the vocals and then you put the Dub version out afterwards. It was kind of rad to do it this way. And the two records don’t actually match up all the way. There are tracks on the Dub record that have no counterpart on the record with the vocals.

It’s partially on purpose because with Reggae it’s often very confusing. Things are mislabeled and the vocal album doesn’t quite match the Dub album and there’s a certain level of mystery and confusion. So I thought I would stick with that tradition. But maybe I’m just mysterious and confusing (Laughs).

Are there records in your collection where you can’t identify who recorded them?

You know what’s really maddening that I think is somewhat unique to Reggae is that there a quite a lot of instrumentals that were never released. When I worked with Brigadier Jerry, he had a CD of all these instrumental Dubs that he would use to toast over, but a lot of them were never released. They just cut them in the studio one day when they were mixing the album. They are custom Dubs. I have some of that stuff, but those are the ones that you really, really want. There’s no way to get it. That’s all behind the scenes stuff. And people don’t give those things out because those are your secret weapons. I have some that I got from various places.

Have you ever thought about reissuing some of the old material from artists you’ve worked with?

I was thinking about it. It’s a real labor of love, I think. Because a lot of people do those reissues now and they’re great, but you have to have a lot of stamina. To go back and work with some of these older labels and do all of the financial negotiation that’s involved—(laughs) I’m not that stoked on trying doing all that. Somebody should do it, maybe just not me. I’m more focused on doing new music at this point.

But I was talking to DJ Boss Harmony the other night at Dub Club about this. All of those guys have released so much music—we were actually talking about this singer Roman Stewart, which I’m sure not that many people have heard of. But if I had access to all of his music legally and I could put together a greatest hits—same thing with Tippa Lee—I could make the most killer, killer album. But it’s so hard to do that because they put out stuff on dozens of tiny labels and you have to go negotiate with each label. Still, that’s part of what’s fun about Reggae. Even today there’s I don’t know how many little tiny labels pumping out music from Jamaica. It’s just a treasure hunt for rare and obscure stuff that never ends.

Do you have a favorite current label in Jamaica?

Not off the top of my head. I’m a little sad because they’ve sort of stopped doing vinyl, which is hard for me because we only spin vinyl. Most of the vinyl is coming out Europe now.

Are there any Reggae or Dub records that have “Holy Grail” status for you, record you own or desperately hope to own?

(Laughs) There a lot of those. The Holy Grail status records for me are those that I want to use for performing with the MCs. Basically it’s like really clean instrumental versions of songs that I can spin when I’m performing with the DJs. Those are really rare and hard to find. It takes a lot of digging.

That’s a whole other part of Reggae DJing that people don’t really understand. It’s really hard to get the proper versions to spin behind these guys. You don’t want the Dub version because it’s going to have little bits of vocals coming in and out. So you have to find an instrumental without the vocal. I actually wrote a whole essay about it for the record.

Do you have a favorite Dub Club performance?

I mean one that I would mention is the first time we had Brigadier Jerry. That was one of the first times where I personally selected for the artist on the turntable. I was really nervous because he’s such a master of his craft. It just felt like such an honor to be performing alongside an artist who was working on a level like he was. It just kind of boggled my mind.

The other ones that really stand out to me are when we bring out artists who’ve never performed out here before. Like we brought out this singer Madoo, who’d never performed out here—he’s a legendary Dancehall singer from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Collector’s have maybe listened to those records for thirty years and thought they were never going to hear this guy. Same thing with Prince Jazzbo. He had never performed in the U.S. before and we did a show with him last year. Like after thirty years of listening to the records, ‘Okay, here’s the man himself.’ That stuff is really gratifying to me.

Some of the performers are pretty old, right?

Yeah. Sadly, three of the guys on the Foundation Come Again record have passed away.

With you extensive Reggae/Dub knowledge, have you ever thought about writing a book on the subject?

I don’t know. Other people have done pretty good books. But maybe when I have arthritis and I can’t DJ anymore I’ll dictate it to my computer or something (laughs). There are lots of good, behind the scenes Reggae business that I couldn’t tell for many years. Selector memoirs would be good.

I think a lot people really got into the whole live band thing because Bob Marley was so popular. But I think what’s going to be more important as people start looking back on Reggae is the whole DJ/turntable culture. That’s what led directly to the birth of Hip-Hop. And I think even still, when you look at Low End Theory and all of this bass culture music that’s coming out of L.A., there’s such a link to heavy bass sound system. A lot of stuff can be traced back to Reggae. And it’s an amazing thing if you think about this little, tiny poor island and like the poorest neighborhoods on that island have made this music that’s popular all around the world.

Is it still a dream come true to work with some of these guys?

It is a dream come true. They’re such interesting people to work with. To get to know them is such a privilege. I think for a lot of DJs you hear some record that you totally fall in love with and you want to share this record with people because you love it and you want everyone to hear it. And for me, the next step is doing a show with the artist that sang that record. If you can go, ‘Here’s the song I love, and here’s the original singer singing’—there’s nothing better than that.

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