On Sunday nights the Empty Bottle undergoes a subtle transformation. Some patrons play a lazy game of pool in front of the stage, which is dark and empty. Others hold quiet conversations at the tables in front of the bar. In a corner a DJ mixes records behind two turntables. The hypnotic, beat-driven bass-heavy music pumping through the speakers is a mixture of reggae, rocksteady, dub, jungle, and dancehall.
"Everyone here is so used to seeing a three-piece band onstage playing three-minute songs," says musician Rik Shaw, who put together Dub Night. "This is a refreshing alternative to that."
Since last summer Shaw's Deadly Dragon Sound System has drawn much of Chicago's music scene to the club each Sunday--both as patrons and as DJs. He created his system in the spirit of 1960s Jamaica, where people too poor to own stereos would gather to hear records played on public sound systems. During that time the producers began creating dub versions of records--remixed without the vocals--so DJs could experiment with adding effects and rapping over them. The form evolved as each producer (King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry among them) tried to make the most unique record.
"Last fall I was in London and I got to see my first sound system," says Shaw. "It was moving and spiritual, so positive to me. Every walk of life was there, dancing. I thought if I could get the smallest crumb of it here in Chicago, it would be great."
Shaw returned to Chicago, saved up for a pair of turntables, and began Dub Night at the Empty Bottle. "What we're doing is really rudimentary," he says. "But the more it develops, the more we're starting to play our original stuff."
The 25-year-old D.C. native has been collecting dub records for a long time; when his friends were buying punk music in the 1980s, he was buying dub.
"There's a real resurgence and interest in this music," he says. "Because of the redundancy of rock music, a lot of musicians are starting to be influenced by dub musicians again. It sort of goes back to 1977, when punk and reggae fused."
During the night DJs Daniel Givens, Johnny Herndon of the band Tortoise, and guitarist Casey "Designer" Rice of Idful Studios take turns spinning records, playing sets, and sitting back listening to the others.
Despite the big names, there's no cover charge and the atmosphere remains unpretentious. "It's not about DJ culture at all," says Shaw. "It's about creating a positive environment, having a good time, and listening to spiritual music."
The Deadly Dragon Sound System appears Sundays from 10:30 PM to 1:30 AM at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Call 276-3600 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.