With Beat Happening on hiatus in the mid-’90s, melodica master Calvin Johnson apparently developed a consuming interest in dub. His Dub Narcotic Sound System made its first appearances on a series of “disco plates,” singles that took dub’s idea of on-the-cheap, one-take production-toasting over a prefabricated but funky backing track and a disassembled dub version slapped on the B-side-and applied them to rock, or at least something distinctly not reggae. (Dubmeister Johnson has also given the treatment to tracks by the Make-Up, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and his own Halo Benders, among others.) The six-track Hands on the Dial cassette is almost entirely dub-plus-toast versions of the first few singles, including a couple of variations on the “Fuck Shit Up” groove called “Sock the Monkey,” “Boot the Monkey,” etc. Enjoyable, if not necessary.
The Industrial Breakdown EP couples two versions of the title track (“We’ve got the tools to reclaim the sound,” Johnson intones) with a couple of instrumental dubs and “Typecast Sanction,” a variation on the new segment Dub Narcotic added to its remix of the Blues Explosion’s “Soul Typecast.” Echoes From the Scene Control Room, Dub Narc’s first full-length release, is — of course — available only on vinyl, in a great fake old-time-dub sleeve. It’s mostly instrumental (including cool melodica showcases) and again confines itself mostly to backing tracks the group has already used elsewhere — why mess with a durable groove? “Bite Attack” drops the vocal out of the single “Bite,” leaving virtually nothing but a stark drum pattern, and the brilliant “Respirator Version” slows “Industrial Breakdown” down to half-speed and overlays it with somebody breathing through a respirator. Ridin’ Shotgun is Dub Narcotic’s only weak record so far: three fairly dull grooves recorded in Memphis, each in vocal and instrumental versions.
Turning down the echo and laying off the controls for whole spells of the album, the relaxed and joyously sweet Boot Party is, overall, less dubby and more funky. When not delving deep into the usual sorts of ambient studio trickery, the songs hit a ’60s R&B stride, bathing in the stoned soul picnic ambience with uplifting spirit. “Monkey Hips and Rice” and the extended “Shake-a-Puddin'” are absolute charmers. Lois Maffeo contributes guest vocals. Her role in the enterprise was subsequently increased: the seductive and surprisingly slick Ship to Shore EP grants Lois featured billing and pictures her on its cover.
For Dub Narcotic tours, Johnson has used members of the Dead Presidents, a bi-racial hip-hop crew (with a live band) from Washington. Despite a few great throwaway lines (like one about “bell hooks and Gwendolyn Brooks,” and the hook that goes “the only good president is a dead one”), the Spread Butter 12-inch — two songs, nine mixes, including a couple of hep Johnson dubs — is by-the-numbers ’93-style hip-hop in the vein of Brand Nubian or lesser Black Sheep.