B2 High-Intermediate 25 Folder Collection
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Sicko Mode is the big single off Travis Scott's album Astroworld.
It was one of the most sonically adventurous hits of 2018.
This song has been described as “whacked-out and skittery” —
Billboard said “there's no disguising how weird "Sicko Mode" is as a pop song.”
So what made this song so bizarre to so many critics and listeners?
For one -- its structure: Sicko Mode is essentially three songs in one, each section riding on
a completely different beat.
But even more so it's the moments before these beat switches that sounded like nothing
else on the radio.
Take this moment, halfway through:
“Who put this shit together I'm the glue”
"Shorty facetimed me out the blue"
Before the beat switches, two things happen: First, all the music drops off except for
the vocal and what sounds like a distorted kick drum.
“Someone said”
And then, this happens:
“Someone said, motherfuck what someone said (Don't play us for weak)”
A vocal sample echoes over and over into silence.
These spacious interludes in the song can be traced back to a genre of music that has
influenced everything from punk rock and hip-hop to pop for nearly half a century.
Jamaican dub.
Jamaicans are a people obsessed with audio.
In the 1950s, DJs in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, would load up their trucks with a
turntable, a stack of American rhythm and blues records, and massive speakers, to play
at parties.
These sound systems - the DJ and their setup - gained cult followings - each one taking
on their own whimsical names.
Like Duke Reid's The Trojan
Coxsone's Downbeat
And Mutt and Jeff's Sound
Named after the comic strip.
Through the 50s and 60s, the speakers got more complex, but the basic set up remained
the same.
Deejaying was basically like one turntable, a mixer, and an echo chamber. And it was really
about who had the cleanest, clearest, loudest sound.
That's Chris Leacock: He's a DJ and producer who goes by the name Jillionaire. He's part
of the group Major Lazer.
For the most part you know you have a subwoofer, You have a midrange speaker, and then you
have a horn or tweeter which is your high end.
Certain frequencies you will hear out of certain boxes. Whether
it's a drum, the bass, the piano, the hammond organ - it all goes in somewhere along the
line on the sound system.
This is Mikey Dread, he's one-third of Channel One, a UK based sound system that's been around since 1979.
When the sound system drops the bass you feel it from your feet right up to your belly.
Competition between the sound systems was fierce - deejays would scratch the labels
off of their most popular r&b tunes so other sound systems didn't know what they were
playing.
And when American r&b was taken over by rock & roll, Jamaicans looked to their own musicians
for a new sounds - that led to Ska which became Jamaica's first form of pop music.
Through the 1960s, Ska evolved into the slower tempo Rocksteady, and then Reggae.
By the 1970s there were a handful of highly prolific recording studios across Kingston
churning out reggae hits that blasted across those sound systems.
It's at Treasure Isle Records, though, where things started to shift into new sonic territory.
This is King Tubby -
A radio repairman turned music engineer who would radically change the sound of reggae.
He worked at Treasure Isle and was tasked with stripping the vocals out of songs to
produce instrumental versions that would show up on the b-sides of singles.
Through this process, he realized he could produce unique versions of songs if he added
and subtracted different aspects of the track.
In doing so, he created a new genre called dub.
Dub - in its most basic form - is taking a song, stripping out the lead vocals, pumping
up the bass and drums, and adding effects like echo and reverb.
That sounds simple enough, but King Tubby and other legendary dub producers like Lee
Scratch Perry, Augustus Pablo, and Scientist made this an art form.
Their studios were laboratories filled with gear that they pushed far beyond their supposed
limits.
The best way to understand how dub works is by listening to a song's original version.
Since you likely won't have time to build a wall of custom speakers to feel the bass,
you should probably put on your headphones.
Here's a few seconds of ”I Admire You”
“Hey, girl, I admire you”
On the flip side is “Watergate Rock,” King Tubby's dub version
The first thing you'll notice is that the vocals are stripped out and the bass line
has been pushed to the foreground. You also might have noticed this sound right
here:
That weird snare hit didn't show up in the original, but it was a King Tubby staple,
likely achieved with this piece of gear right here:
The Fisher Space Expander.
Released in the early 60s, the Space Expander was a spring reverb unit originally meant
for home hi-fi systems and even cars.
The idea was that you'd connect it to your home turntable, and with the slight twist
of a knob, soundwaves bouncing through the spring would simulate “the natural reverberation
of a well designed auditorium.”
In King Tubby's hands, this machine did more than its makers intended. He used it
in subtle ways to make an old fashioned snare drum sound otherworldly.
But he also found a whole other way to create effects that were anything but subtle.
The only way this effect right here:
could have been achieved is if King Tubby physically shook the spring, and that's
exactly what he did.
He turned the gear into an instrument.
The effect became a King Tubby trademark and would go down as one of the most discordant
sounds in dub music.
Among the thumping bassline, wobbly snare hits, and the clanging of metal springs is
another quintessential effect in dub, and my personal favorite: Echo.
Tape delay, which creates that echo sound, was developed in the 1950s.
It's the process of recording sound to magnetic tape and using the distance between the recording
head and playback head to create audio feedback.
By the 1970s tape delay had been used on dozens of iconic recordings, albeit in very
subtle ways.
From Elvis Presley
“Oh baby, baby, baby”
To The Beatles
"Well they took some honey from a tree Dressed it up and they called it me"
"Everybody's trying to be my baby"
Dub artists used tape delay like their lives depended on it.
Mikey Dread: The word echo, alone, is represented in reggae music. So if you really don't
have echo something is missing.
While there were dozens of different types of units that could create echo - two that
found their way into many dub tracks of the 1970s were the Roland Space Echo and Maestro
Echoplex. If you open the tops of both - you'll see
that there's not much to it: A single magnetic tape spinning in an infinite loop.
But when the knobs of these machines were turned to extreme combinations - the results
were trippy.
Take a listen to Jacob Miller's song "Baby I Love You So"
That melodica you hear is being played by Augustus Pablo, the producer of the track. He was a
protege of King Tubby and mixed the dub version of this song at his studio.
The result is one of Dub's most celebrated tracks: "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown"
A heavy dose of echo applied to the slivers of vocals and melodica make the song feel
like it's floating in outer space.
When King Tubby left Treasure Isle to build his own studio, he did that not just
to have his own space to experiment, but to produce unique dub versions for his own sound
system: Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi.
The story goes that the first time he played a dub version, the
crowd went wild.
Today, we've come to expect a heavy bass line, reverb, and echo, because dub's influences
have made their way into nearly every genre of music.
But sometimes those sounds still surprise us:
Whether deliberate or not, Sicko Mode's production mirrors the sonic themes
that Jamaican dub music pioneered decades ago.
It is a very typical kind of like King Tubby, Lee Scratch kind of production
in terms of one song going in you know two or three completely different directions.
Dub music has evolved with every generation
but its spirit of sonic experimentation has always stayed the same.
In our sessions it's like a spiritual movement,
makes your mind go into your own - no matter who's
around you.
We don't stop playing reggae music. Rastafari.
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Where Sicko Mode's weirdest moments came from

25 Folder Collection
林宜悉 published on August 19, 2020
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