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The Music of Subtraction: Dr. Ware and Butthouse create classic dub effects on their new album.

Ben Wa's debut CD, 'Devil Dub,' offers classic old-school dub

By Michelle Goldberg

WHEN BEN WA was working on its debut CD, Devil Dub, the artists in the band would jokingly ask one another, "What do you think Scientist is doing right now?" Scientist is the legendary Jamaican dub producer who is often classed with greats like King Tubby and Mad Professor.

"If King Tubby is the Duke Ellington of dub, then Scientist is the Miles Davis," Dr. Ware, Ben Wa's keyboardist, says. Ware's partner, who goes by the poetic moniker Butthouse, concurs, calling the man "a true Ninja master of affected mayhem."

A few months later, Devil Dub, an album the electronic music bible URB called "one of the most crucial records of any genre released this year," was completed, and Ben Wa was opening for Bill Laswell's band, Praxis, at Slim's in San Francisco. Fifteen minutes before they were to go on, Scientist showed up and introduced himself. He'd been listening to the sound check, and he liked what he'd heard. Now they have a gig together--"Scientist Meets the Devil Dub Band," on Jan. 29 at the Justice League in San Francisco. "It's a dream-come-true kind of thing," Butthouse says.

Butthouse dreamed up Devil Dub as a kid in Cupertino in the mid-'80s, when he and his friends Brain and M.I.R.V. (both of whom play on the album) would jam to Black Uhuru records at Brain's parents' houses. Lacking a venue, they'd cruise around town looking for electrical outlets--outside 7-Eleven stores or schools--where they could plug in their gear and put on impromptu shows.

"We always wanted to make a dub record, and we even knew what we were going to call it--we called it Devil Dub back then," Butthouse says. But then he got sidetracked, went into the multimedia industry and didn't return to the idea until 10 years later, when he met Dr. Ware after stints in various other bands.

Like the brilliant Invisibl Skratch Piklz with their horrifically named record label, Galactic Butt Hair, Ben Wa's anal fixation belies its sonic sophistication. The result of its collaboration is an incredibly deep, trippy record with a slightly rough, old-school feel.

Just as hip-hop musicians use the turntable as the primary instrument, dub artists use the mixing board as their main compositional tool. Dub is originally a music of subtraction. The first Jamaican dub producers would start with a reggae song, strip it down to its rhythm section, then use the mixing board to fade other elements of the song in and out.

"Now it has changed a little bit because of the use of the computer," Butthouse explains. "We're using a lot more samplers. The compositional technique has changed--it's not starting off with a whole band that's playing a reggae arrangement and then taking everything away." Still, adds Dr. Ware, "We create what would be virtually an ensemble on multitracks. And then do some dub-style mixing on that."

And regardless of the different processes, Devil Dub is full of classic dub effects. Guitar and synth melodies dip slowly in and out over the loping, heavy bass as if they're swimming in molasses. Growling voices echo as if in a cave, creating a sense of a song as almost a three-dimensional object. The lazy pace is lulling, but like Tricky's music, it's more edgy and creepy than ethereal.

Part of Devil Dub's organic feel comes from Ben Wa's (fortunate) lack of new equipment. Butthouse and Dr. Ware co-own Tyrell Studios in Emeryville, which they describe as "pretty bare-bones."

"I've gotten some compliments about the Devil Dub record--what I consider compliments, anyway--that it kind of sounds old school," Dr. Ware says. "The reason for that is because of the way our studio is. We're forced to do things in certain ways, the way they did it when they didn't have any computers at all."

THUS BEN WA avoided the mistake that lots of gadget-happy neophytes make--loading the music with so many effects that it sounds more like an arcade game than a composition. "We actually know some people that are so obsessed with gizmos that they can't actually make any music anymore," Butthouse says. "It's like standing in the supermarket aisle looking at all the different kinds of toilet paper--how are you supposed to decide on just one? I usually buy one of each."

Talking to Ben Wa, it's obvious how frustrated and bored the members get trying to explain what they do. "I don't really speak well about music. It's not something that I look forward to doing. I'm not sure if speaking about music and experiencing music can come close to doing each other justice," Butthouse says.

Ben Wa's Web site even sports a version of the famous Frank Zappa quote "Like the saying goes, talking about music is like dancing about architecture." Its reticence and its penchant for smart-ass names hardly matters, though, because behind the mixing board, Ben Wa is absolutely eloquent.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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