As many people who regularly read this blog will have gathered by now, is that although I love all types of music, one of my favorite styles of music is dub reggae. When most people think about dub, they think of Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, Sly and Robbie, Joe Gibbs, Bunny Lee and King Coxsone. Yes, they’re some of the most important people in the history not just of dub, but reggae music. Apart from these great producers and musicians, many other people played a huge part in the history of dun music. Many of these people are almost unsung heroes, known to lovers of dub music, but unknown to most music fans. In this article, I’m going to redress the balance somewhat, and feature a singer and producer that many people may not have previously heard about. He’s Niney the Observer and in this article, I’ll review Sledgehammer Dub one of his finest albums.

Niney the Observer was born George Boswell in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1951. Although born George Boswell, he was better known as Winston Holness. Later he became known as Niney, when he lost a thumb in an industrial accident. During the second part of the sixties, Niney worked as an engineer at KG Records. This was where he first worked as a producer. The firs track he released, was one he’d written himself, Come On Baby. It was released on the Destroyer record label.

During his career, he was fortunate to work with some of the best known, most experienced producers and work in some of the best studios. It seems that Niney never seemed to stay in the same place long. In 1967 he left KG Records, to work for the legendary producer Bunny Lee. After working with Bunny Lee, Niney then moved to Lynford Anderson’s recording studios. This was his latest port of call. Next, he went to work with Joe Gibbs. He became Gibbs’ chief sound engineer, replacing another legend of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry. It was during his tenure at Gibbs’ studio, that he produced Dennis Alcapone. Niney also played a vital part in launching Dennis Brown’s career. 

Again, Niney decided it was time to move on. Unlike before, he decided to set up as a producer. Niney’s first successful release was Blood and Fire, which when it as rereleased in 1971, eventually, sold over thirty-thousand copies in Jamaica. Having seen his friend Lee “Scratch” Perry adopt the nickname “The Upsetter,” Niney decided that he too, would adopt a nickname. Hence, The Observer was born. After the success of Blood and Fire, Niney thought that he’d set up his own label. His new label he decided would be called Observer Records. Completing what’s almost an early corporate identity, Niney decided to call his houseband The Observers. The true identity of The Observers was the Soul Syndicate.

During the early part of the seventies, Niney’s services as producer, were very much in demand. Amongst the artists he produced were Dennis Brown, The Heptones, Junior Delgado and Delroy Wilson. Niney was more than a producer, he was also a singer. Whilst working as a producer, he collaborated with Lee “Scratch” Perry, Max Romeo and Dennis Alcapone. He continued to work with other artists until the mid-seventies, working with Gregory Isaacs, Horace Andy and Ken Boothe. Towards the end of the seventies, Niney was still a producer very much in demand.

That was to change in the early 1980s’ when Niney decided to move to France. Once there, he wasn’t as busy, his services weren’t called upon very often. In 1982, he reappeared, along with a new album the Ital Dub Observer Style. By 1983, he decided to head home to Jamaica.

Once back home in Jamaica, he became house producer for the Hitbound record label at Channel One Studios. Working at Channel One, Niney was one of the first producers to work with a new star, the Beenie Man. During his time at Channel One, he produced Sugar Minot and Third World. By the mid-eighties, Niney was on the move again. This time, he headed to New York. 

After a few years, in New York, he returned home to Kingston in 1988. On his return, he worked with many artists, including Junior Byles, Frankie Paul and Andrew Tosh. Later he started working with Heartbeat Records, and start producing new music and rereleasing some of their back catalogue. Throughout the 1990s’ Niney’s services were still in demand, and he still produced numerous recordings for many different artists. 

This year Niney will be sixty, and during his many years involved in the Jamaican music scene, he has worked with some of the biggest producers and artists in not just dub, but reggae. He may not have as high a profile as some producers or artists, but he has made a massive contribution to Jamaican music. Having told you about his career, I’ll now tell you about Sledgehammer Dub, one of his best albums.

Sledgehammer Dub begins with Dub Long Rastafari, a track that starts with drums and guitar combining brightly, a piano plays behind them. A throbbing bass enters, then suddenly, Niney decides to let loose his box of effects. Echo is his weapon of choice, plenty of it. This transforms the drums brilliantly, as they reverberate into each other. Meanwhile, that throbbing bass plods along, the heartbeat of the track. The piano provides a contrast. Overall, the sound is quite uncomplicated, just a combination of drums and bass, piano and plenty echo. Niney doesn’t spare the drums, the result is dub with a capital D. What he’s ended up is a mixture of a light light, bright sound and a dark, throbbing, pulsating sound. It’s a gloriously summery slice of dub, from one of dub’s unsung heroes.

A brass section play at the start of Traveling Version, with Niney deciding a little delay will improve the sound. He’s right, it does. Behind the brass section, you can hear sound effects galore, drums sharply crack. Mainly, it’s a variation on a theme for the first minute, the same rhythm constantly played by the brass section. Eventually, it nearly seeps into your subconscious. Then things change, a guitar plays in the distance, a bass plays, throbbing and spacey. It’s strength shake your speakers. After a couple of minutes, the sound is still much the same, then drums and guitar enter. You welcome their variety. They play brightly until the track ends, contrasting with the darkness and repetition of earlier. Having said all that, Traveling Version is still a good dub track, one that will punish your speakers nicely.

You’re No Dub Baby has bright starts the rhythm section playing, the brass section join in and a guitar brightly chimes. From the start, Niney subtly uses the effects. Prominent in the mix is the bass, pulsating, almost vibrating, deep down low in the mix. Echo is used on the drums and brass, taking the edge of their sound. Niney’s use of effects is perfect, he neither destroys the sound, nor its clarity. Unlike many dub producers, here, Niney believes less in more when it comes to effects. It’s worked perfectly, and it’s three minutes of subtle dub music.

When Burning Dub begins, it does so brightly, and bubbles along nicely. The sound is firmly Jamaica, with a lovely summer feel. That soon changes, when the guitar, drops out of the mix, leaving just the bass to play. An organ joins in, the drums appear again. Mostly, the bass throbs away, occasionally, percussion can be heard. Sometimes, drums roll, the organ plays a beautiful melody. However, the bass is very much star of the show. Other instruments just fill out the sound, and the organ provides light, to the bass’ darkness. It’s a dichotomy of a track, one minute light and bright, the next dark and broody. Unlike other tracks, hardly any effects are used, allowing listeners to hear some of Jamaica’s finest musicians playing brilliantly.

As Kingsgate Version begins, a funk influence can be heard. It’s present in the guitar and organ. This produces quite a compelling mixture, funk and dub. Throw in some effects and the picture is clear. Unlike guitar and organ, bass and drums don’t join in the funkiness. Like all the tracks so far, the bass is loud, it throbs spaciously. Drums are delayed, distorting their sound nicely. Although just a short track, it memorably meanders along, mixing dub and funk masterfully.

Drums roll, an organ and guitar melodically play, the sound of Dub Now is upbeat and bright until the bass joins the fray. Thankfully, even its dark contrast doesn’t take away from the lovely track that’s building. It doesn’t rain on the parade of the rest of the track. Instead, its low booming sound and the spacey drums, compliment the track. Here, it’s a case of the sum of the parts ensuring a near joyous sound emerges from your speakers.

God Bless My Dub is the next track on Sledgehammer of Dub. Straight away, a vibrant track begins to appear. It’s a mixture of drums, organ, and guitar. In some ways, there is a similarity to the start of Dub Now. There will be no complaints from me about that, as it was a lovely track. Quickly, Niney decides that some echo is required before the bass enters. When it does, bass and cymbals combine. While the bass is quite “in your face,” the cymbals are played subtly, as if played by brushes. Thereafter, the track ambles along, with bass and cymbals playing a maor part, then the rest of the arrangement entering in. Sometimes, echo and delay are used. Unlike other tracks, its use isn’t quite is subtle, but still, it’s effective, and ensures you’re paying attention. For the remainder of the track, the two parts of the arrangement take part in what becomes like a musical relay, each passing the baton to the other. Whether any higher power blessed this track is open to debate, but what I know is that Niney has produced yet another great track.

At the start of Everyone’s Dubbing, a drum rolls, an organ plays. Then the heavy artillery join in. Drums and bass totally change the sound. The sound becomes a polar opposite. One minute light and airy, the next darkness descends, the atmosphere is moodier. When the light returns, the sound chugs nicely along, a feelgood factor and summery sound present. Maybe the lack of the “darker” sound is required as a counterbalance for this summery sound. After all too much of a good thing. Like many of tracks on Sledgehammer Dub, there are two contrasting sides to Niney’s arrangements. With this track, each side contrasts the other perfectly.

A pulsating bass plays as Rich and Poor Dub opens. It’s joined a by a piano melodically playing. Then suddenly, the sound seems to growl, causing your speakers to nearly blow up. The sound lacks clarity, is far too loud, making you wince. Occasionally, the sound decreases, becomes subdued. This track is a missed opportunity, as a really good track is struggling desperately to emerge. Regardless of how hard it tries, it never quite escapes. Rich and Poor Dub becomes the first disappointing track on the album. Personally, all the tngredients are there to produce a great track, all that’s needed is a more restrained approach to production, and far less effects used.

Sledgehammer Dub closes with Tribulation Version. Thankfully, the track sees a return to form from Niney. Echoey drums start the track, an organ hesitantly plays and a plodding bass throbs low in the mix. Effects are used much more sparingly. A bas sounds almost brittle, and around it instruments hesitantly play. Plenty space is left in the mix. As the organ plays, notes are stabbed out. Mainly, it’s just organ drums and bass that combine, effects subtly transforming their sound. Tribulation Version is a much better song than Rich and Poor Dub. It’s subtle and spacious, an amalgam of the musician’s skill and producers mastery of effects.

As I said in the introduction to this article, Niney is one of dub music’s unsung heroes. Although his profile isn’t as high as Lee “Scratch” Perry or King Tubby, he has produced and collaborated with some of the biggest names in reggae music. During his early career, he learnt his trade from some of the most famous reggae producers. Once he set his own label up, he was fortunate to produce a whole new generation of artists, launching many of them on the road to fame, and maybe, fortune. Whilst many people that do know about Niney, will think of him as a producer, not as a singer. However, he’s also a talented singer. Sledgehammer Dub was one of his finest albums. Ten tracks, most of them of the highest standard. They feature some brilliant music, music that is among the finest dub reggae you’ll ever hear. If you’ve never heard Niney’s music, Sledgehammer Dub is a good starting point. It can be found as part of the Evolution of Dub Volume 2, The Great Leap Forward boxset. Within that boxset, you’ll find Niney’s Sledgehammer Dub album, as well as three great albums featuring The Aggravators. Standout Tracks: Dub Long Rastafari, You’re No Dub Baby, Kingsgate Version and Tribulation Version.


Sledgehammer Dub

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