Ridiculous, appalling, offensive, comically crap, hollow, awful, dubstep by numbers. It’s not difficult to find a dance music fan frustrated by the rise of Skrillex, Nero, Bassnectar and their nu-metalstep brostep metalcore dubwubbywubster gang. If you like Skrillex, they will say, you are a traitor to dance music.
In an interview, post-dubstep darling James Blake likened U.S. ‘brostep’ to a “pissing competition” all about “who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound”. Dubstep forums and YouTube comment threads writhe with vicious battles over The True Meaning Of Dubstep. The simple consensus amongst proper dance heads seems to be that a) Skrillex and chums are a million miles away from dubstep proper and b) the meaning has changed to indicate anything produced at 140 BPM with a half-time beat.
Still, the haters aren’t doing them any harm. Sonny Moore’s dub direction after leaving screamo band From First To Last has made him a multimillionaire. Crowds spasm to his palpitating burps in their thousands almost every night across the world (such as in London a few days ago). It’s a modern pop culture phenomenon and good on him. There’s nothing like that bass-drop in ‘First Of The Year’ to shake you up a bit, especially when it’s on a huge speaker system playing to friends hurling themselves around like flying squirrels.
But let’s not get carried away. It would be a shame to forget our dubstep heritage, which is richer than the U.S version and a trove for fans of the wub. Moore himself bigged up Croydon (Skream’s home) in his Grammy speech and knows his stuff, but for those who want more than a geographical tip, here’s a dummy’s guide.
In the late 90s a group of producers started putting out instrumental B-sides on specifically garage and drum ‘n’ bass tracks. The idea of a remix came out of Jamaican reggae culture and, according to Mala from Digital Mystiks and DMZ who I interviewed for this piece, was invented by Lee Scratch Perry with King Tubby. Perry once told Mala an amusing story about the birth of the remix. Apparently he started making instrumental tracks because he was so sick of vocalists asking him for money.
“It was a playground” says Mala. “We were all within 15 miles of each other: Benga, MRK1, Coki, Youngsta, Loefah, Chef in Norwood, Croydon and Brixton. The scene was created by journalists (John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs were early champions), photographers, Rinse FM, club nights DMZ and FWD. We never had a VIP area and it was all about harmony rather than segregation. People felt free to grow and the movement gave a lot of people a kick up the arse to focus on sound again. It inspired a lot of people not to conform. Dubstep means No Boundaries. You’ve got a rough tempo BPM and a bed of sub bass and then anything goes. We knew the music had potential”. Later Scuba played a big part in the rise, particularly with Sub:Stance, the legendary Sunday night at Berlin club Berghain he was involved with.
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In the beginning, dubstep in South London was all about dark rooms, whopping sound systems and ketamine. A friend looks back to his first dubstep rave when the music came on and remembers that “no one knew what to do”. It was a sound no one had heard before: the snare on the third beat instead of a four-to-the-floor and an incredible amount of space followed by the volume of the drop which would later encourage frequencies turned up to the max and a lot of NOISE. “We’d never heard anything quite like that sound, but we knew it was going to change how people felt about music in the UK,” says another in the FWD congregation. “It felt safe, a big shift from breakbeat garage and grime raves which I went to around 2001-2003, that atmosphere at those things got really intense. I saw a gun go off in the queue at Liberty, Club Colsseum in 2002, not fun.” Another friend describes her addiction to FWD: “I remember needing a fix of thorax-vibrating bass at least every 2 weeks. We used to call it ‘going to church’ or ‘our purification ritual’ .
There’s something about early dubstep such as Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ – the watershed moment that introduced a wider audience to the sound in 2005 – and the newer stuff by Burial or Zomby that sounds so urban. It is the perfect soundtrack to walking around London in the rain, under grey skies, surrounded by cold, mangy pigeons. Along with grime, garage and drum ‘n’ bass, it’s embedded in our concrete, our estates, our culture. U.S dubstep loses this sense of the location and replaces it with something much more immediately monstrous and high-octane, high-pitched bleeps and rattling synths. But Mala tells me he has no problem with the “youngsters coming up” such as Skrillex and co. and talks of the difference between dubstep producers over ten years ago, such as between him and Vex’d, Plastician, Kode9, Distance, for example.
Also, it’s not like all the dubstep producers are so bummed out by Skrillex that they’ve distanced themselves from the genre. Many are taking the bare bones and evolving their music into something else. “Skrillex’s dubstep tunes are a million miles away from where dubstep originated from, but it has been part of a evolution of the genre. Just as the more tear-out, mid range bass style has mutated and evolved, so has the more meditative side. Many artists have taken the original dark garage / dubby roots of the genre and developed it in their own unique ways,” says Chris from the McMash Clan.
There are people currently pushing boundaries on both ends of the spectrum. It’s great – there is such a broad spectrum of stuff to choose from.
So chill out, Skrillephobes. Dubstep was awesome back in the day, the mainstream stuff is fun and there’s still some brilliant artists to explore who don’t trade in the loud and the ludicrous (check out Kryptic Minds, J:Kenzo, Mala, Rudi Zygaldo, Mount Kimbie and Cooly G). As Chris says “different styles within dubstep fulfil different purposes”. Any anyway, people have always argued that the second wave of a movement loses its magic; just look at Pearl Jam and co. after Nirvana etc etc.
Here’s are some classic dubstep tracks for those who want to go back to its roots. Remember that these really shouldn’t be heard on hifi speakers so it’s just a taste.
Digital Mystikz are Mala and Coki, the founding fathers of dubstep who run the DMZ record label and the pioneering club night of the same name. ‘B’ was included in John Peel’s Festive 50 in 2005.
Loefah’s ‘Midnight’ was released in 2005. He runs the DMZ record label too. It’s probably the earlist example of Womp.
Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ (released on Tempa in 2005) was the introduction for many into dubstep and crossed over to the mainstream. It’s an example of early melodic focus.
‘Killing Floor’ by Vex’d (2008) is one of the heavier, grittier examples. Compared to Digital Mystikz, you can see how different the sounds were early on.
Kode9 & The SpaceApe – ‘Kingstown’ (2006). You can really hear the reggae, dub influences in ‘Kingstown’ from the founder of Hyperdub Records.
Pinch’s ‘Get Up’ (2008) brings a vocal provided by Yolanda, paving the way, one might say, for the vocal element in nu-dubstep.
Scuba’s Hot Flush record label has done a lot to promote dubstep over the last few years, particular with his night Sub:Stance at Berghain. Klinik was put out in 2009.