Dub Vendor: The lion sleeps as reggae shack closes doors

Ian Burrell salutes Dub Vendor, London home of Jamaican music for 35 years, which has left the high street to go online
  • @iburrell

For many international visitors to Notting Hill Carnival – dreadlocked Italians, Japanese in Rasta bonnets and German ragamuffins in red, gold and green – the Dub Vendor record shack on Ladbroke Grove was a place of annual pilgrimage. Adorned with a stunning mural that encapsulated the unique allure of the reggae dancehall, the shop was about as close as they could get to the Jamaican music scene without flying to the Caribbean.

The mural is no more. It was unsentimentally whitewashed by the pound shop that replaced the record shack three years ago. Dub Vendor's roaring lion logo, the most recognisable symbol in British reggae, might have shed a tear. But that was only the start. This month, the main Dub Vendor store in Clapham Junction, south London, featured on television news channels. Rioters wrecked the street where it has stood for three decades and the business next door, The Party Superstore, was burned down.

With that, John McGillivray, who began Dub Vendor as a market stall in 1976, decided that this week, after exactly 35 years, he will sellhis premises to his friends from The Party Superstore and exist solely as an online trader.Another of the great British record shops has succumbed to the internet.

In times past, Dub Vendor hosted such stars as Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Shabba Ranks, who would pass through the store and perhaps voice some dubplate specials for British sound systems in the recording studio which McGillivray and his partner from Fashion Records, Chris Lane, established in the basement of the Clapham Junction shop. "It was a golden age but also a pain because you'd be fighting off all the people who wanted to get downstairs. The entourage factor in reggae has always been there."

In its heyday, Dub Vendor was always crowded. As the shop assistant dropped a fresh "pre-release" seven inch single on the turntable, customers would rap their fists on the counter to request that a copy be dropped on to their pile of purchases.

But McGillivray, 55, admits that reggae is no longer seen as cutting edge by British youth. "The kids over here, it's nothing new to them. Their perception is that it's their mum and dad's music and it doesn't define them in the way it defined previous generations."

He points out that the children of British reggae artists are achieving success in modern scenes such as grime and funky house. "The music has moved in a different direction. And in Jamaica the music has moved away from where most people in the UK would find it relevant to them."

Beset by a shrinking global market, many Jamaican record producers (such as King Jammy's and Bobby Digital) produce so little new product that McGillivray cannot stay open, even with the support of a Caribbean café. "Our passion is in selling music, not selling patties. We've got to get real."

Fortunately, Dub Vendor has a successful mail order business and global reach. In countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Jamaican culture retains a mystique that it no longer has in the UK. "It's a much fresher thing to them," says McGillivray. "Some of the music that is their point of entry is not my idea ofclassic reggae but they dig back into it and it's interesting to be able to introduce the music to a new generation."

He remains "pretty philosophical" about the future. "It's just another step in the evolution of the music," he says. And the famous name will survive both online and in the shape of the Dub Vendor All Stars, a team of DJs picked from McGillivray's famously knowledgeable staff, which will play the tunes at its joint anniversary party and final send off..

Dub Vendor's 35th anniversary party is at the Music Bar, London SW2 (020 8671 0286) on Friday