Dubstep is on the move. Yet another testament to the UK’s ability to produce breathtaking underground music, the only way to understand is to come ‘meditate on bass weight!’
Dubstep began evolving out of UK garage around 6 years ago, long before the genre was named. With influences from dub, reggae, jungle, r&b, 2step and more recently grime, gradual changes led to the creation of this brand new sound.
Before 1999, ukg producers El-B and Steve Gurley started on a darker path, their sound was far from the dubstep that’s heard today but seeded the change that led to it. Between 1999 and 2001, El-B, Zed Bias and Benny Ill (Horsepower Productions), Kode-9, Darqwan (Oris Jay), J Da Flex & the Slaughter Mob are all credited as contributing to the creation of dubstep. In their own way, they added to the vibe, inspiring each other and the next generation. The next step, after 2001 was the entrance of producers Benga and Skream, their dark, electronic and minimal beats paved the way for dubstep to emerge as its own genre. The initial labels releasing the sound were; Big Apple (Skream, Benga and Artwork), Ghost (El-B, J 'Da' Flex, Roxym, Nude and Blaze) and Tempa (Horsepower).
The first DJ to play a strictly dubstep set was Hatcha in around 2003. Alongside MC Crazy D, he gave a platform to dubstep that inspired the next wave of producers, DJ’s and fans. By 2004 he had been joined by DJ Youngsta (with MC Task.) The next DJ to turn fully darkside, playing exclusively dubstep sets. Youngsta described how he started getting ‘drawn in’ to the darker sounds, ‘I can’t really name a track, it gradually crept up on me. Some of the tunes were just moodier with a darker bassline.’ After the vocals and more soulful elements of ukg were stripped out, these innovative darker sounds inspired new artists such as Manchester’s Mark One to get involved. Coming from the grime end, Mark is now a well known DJ and producer as well as running the ever more popular ‘Virus Syndicate.’ The sound of dubstep in these early days was dark & discreet, stripped of the 2-step breaks and vocals of ukg and including experimental basslines that still bore some resemblance to garage but were more dubby and more subby. Kode-9, explained that, ‘Early Dubstep like Zed Bias, El-B and Horsepower got it’s rhythmic intricacy from ukg producers like Steve Gurley (previously Foul Play) among others.’
The next step, in 2003, was the arrival of Mala and Coki (aka the Digital Mystikz) and Loefah. This trio of producers are now responsible for some of the most heavily selected tracks in dubstep. Their tunes are soulful and elegant, always delivering technically spectacular basslines and infectious melodies which leave the listener begging for more. The demand for their sound and their desire to share it has prompted a label and subsequent bi-monthly event (both called DMZ and both run by Mala, Loefah and Coki). Their production skills, musical diversity and lively sets (aided by MC Sgt Pokes) gave a new energy to dubstep opening the ears of new supporters like the late great, John Peel who featured Digital Mystikz track, ‘B’ in his last ever ‘Festive 50’ selection (2004).
More recent talent includes D1 who spent two years passing Youngsta beats until they met his high personal standards, this led to Yunx cutting D1’s tracks to dubplate and eventually signing him to Tempa. These new producers took the initial vibe of dubstep and embellished it. Loefah is generally credited pushing the halfstep style (where only one snare is used in every bar of music rather than the two in 2step) and taking it to new levels in dubstep through tunes like ‘Horror Show’. The half step has become a key part of dubstep. It creates the sense of space in the tracks and gives the listener a choice of which tempo to dance or groove to (eg half or full BPM). As the sound grew stronger, the scene developed like a cult. It was still underground but people were beginning to take notice. The introduction of new producers forced the originals to up their game, bringing out more experimental and better engineered tunes.
Sound Today (March 2006)
To describe the real experience of dubstep, based on sound alone, is impossible. If projected through a proper soundsystem, the ultra low sub-bass channels are felt as well as heard. It’s like a complete sensory experience. If played through basic hi-fi systems, you’ll get the higher end frequencies but not really any sub. As Mala summarised when describing the DMZ night, ‘That bass will literally shake you all over.’
The tracks are always pitched at 140 BPM’s. The beats can still show a garage influence or could be described as having a slow jungle feel, but generally, it’s a completely unique structure often relying on the aforementioned half step structure. The approach of the producer is to start with the BPM and simply let the track develop; they’re not bound by anything else. These rhythms are constructed with a strong kick, which interplays with the ultra-low bassline, and a variety of extra percussion. Samples are sparse and generally only used to add to the vibe of the overall track. It’s very rare that a sampled beat is used. Skreams track ‘Lightning Dub’ does use an echoed out version of the ‘amen’ break but mostly the producers start from scratch, building up the rhythm one sound at a time. The placement of sounds is often unique and original. Notes from the synth can be used to make the beat whilst drums and percussion are pitched up and down like notes to make a melody, as in ‘Stuck’ by Coki (DMZ Records).
Some tunes are simple in their construction like ‘Smiley Face’ by Skream (Tempa) which plods on a 2-bar loop, whereas others are much more complex like ‘Stuck’. Where the composition is intricate, the overall sound is never cluttered. There is always the strong sense of space in the track. This comes from the care that goes into the production but also the rhythmic structure. It’s a long way from the cacophony of looped beats found in early jungle tunes, every track is complete, with it’s own vibe and style. The freedom in the genre means that you can have fast and uplifting tunes, deep down and dark tunes, soulful tracks, eastern vibes or whatever the producer is feeling. The only truly defining characteristic is the BPM and the strength of bass. Unlike jungle or ukg, the overall tune relies on the general vibe and not the rhythm as the main feature. The mood of the track is supported by the beat, but the reverb, the layers of bass and the fragmented melodies also contribute. A heavily reverbed snare is often used to define the pace however this snare is still punchy and crisp. The effect is often very dubby but the beats are much sonically stronger than in roots dub tunes. Chords reminiscent to reggae and dub are often present in the composition which adds to the skunked-out feel of the tunes. Simon Scott, the Leeds veteran of dub, reggae and jungle describes and appreciates dubstep as, ‘The newest form of dub.’ Kode-9 explained that the skill in creating a powerful dubstep tune lies in making a ‘big’ memorable tune out of such a minimalistic composition. The overall sound is carried by the ambience and subtleties. The sparseness of the beats and lack of consistent vocals lulls you in while the basslines are often menacing. However, the structure of the tunes never forces this bass aggressively on the listener. ‘The sound is carried by people’s minds, there’s nothing imposing about it.’ – Mala, DMZ.
The general production approach is of freedom (in style) but also of quality (in engineering and mastering). Producers know that only the crème de la crème gets played so they have to live up to this. This is epitomised by DJ Youngsta, whose legendarily sharp ear will not tolerate any ‘bad’ sounds. Objectivity, particularly in music, is debatable but when it comes to mastering a track in order to play it through a big system, there are certain, undeniable measures of craftsmanship. Youngsta also believes that it is this rise in quality that has have attracted new ears to the scene.
Scene Today (March 2006)
The Dubstep scene has grown rapidly recently but has had a steady following for more than a couple of years now. The key nights Fwd and DMZ (detailed feature online) are still the main events for Dubstep, not just for London but for the whole scene. Youngsta reminded me that Fwd (@ Plastic People, Shoreditch) has always played grime and ‘breaky stuff’ as well as dubstep but is the longest running event for the music. Mala, Coki & Loefah were moved to create DMZ (the night) simply because apart from Fwd there was nothing else going on. Now 1 year old, the night is going from strength to strength with the last event having to be moved to bigger room within its Brixton home, ‘Mass.’
As far as tunes go, the anthem that broke down barriers and created new dubsteppers was Skream’s, ‘Midnight Request Line’ (Tempa). The build up and drop are breathtaking, if you’ve not already heard it then get out there and buy the vinyl, it’ll change the way you think about music! The ‘Dubstep Allstars’ compilations, also from Tempa are available, both on DJ-friendly vinyl, or, on an extended mix CD, stuffed with unrealesed dubplates. The first mix came from Hatcha, then Youngsta on the second and now the third session comes from Kode-9. DMZ, the label notorious for the tribal and dubbed-out sound has produced some real blinders in the last year as well. Most notablym, ‘Officer Dub’, ‘Goat Stare’ and the aforementioned, ‘Anti-War Dub.’ The b-side of the latest release, ‘Haunted’ is a proper skanking tune too. The beats are super-sharp and crisp whilst the malevolent bassline marches on with no sign of letting off.
The web has been massive in the dubstep scene; in allowing listeners to access ‘Rinse FM’ (A pirate station which gives airtime to Dubstep DJ’s), in the legendary ‘Dubstep Blogspot’ - allowing the legitimate download of countless dubstep sets), in the sister site, Dubway’s Dubstep Forum, and by permitting anyone with the word ‘dubstep’ and a search engine to get started. Martin Clark’s articles on Pitchfork Media have consistently provided a vivid overview of whats going on. His own site is another hub for the online dubstep community.
A huge turning point for the sound came earlier this year when Mary-Ann Hobbs orchestrated, ‘Dubstep Warz.’ A BBC Radio 1 feature including interviews, mixes and discussion and driven by Mary-Ann’s energetic passion for the music. This broadcast showcased dubstep to a global and domestic audience who had never heard the sound before. Mary-Ann spoke of how the whole thing came together. ‘Mala (DMZ) built the first dubstep mix for the Breezeblock last year. He selflessly pushed forward so many other producers that he thought I should hear.’ This led to the necessity to get everyone in the studio and do it properly. ‘The global response was so overwhelming and it’s still going on now. It’s more profound than anything I’ve ever experienced in 7 years on the show. Everyday I hear from so many people who tell me that show has changed their life forever.’ As you can see it’s been an emotional experience for Mary-Ann who continues to give airtime to dubstep and is desperate to promote the artists to a wider audience whilst, ‘keeping, the integrity of the scene pure.’
The cultural implications of dubstep are complex yet significant. DMZ’s almost Calibre-esque, deeply emotional piece, entitled ‘Anti-War Dub’ (written in late 2004) captured a mood that only intensified after last years London bombings. Dubstep is an escape from a confused and pressurised London, showing hope through evolution like a kind of mystical solution.
Dubstep and Grime
The exact relationship now between dubstep & grime is still unclear. Kode-9 reminded me that, ‘Both dubstep & grime came from ukg.’ Both Mala & Youngsta insisted that any similarity now with grime is the BPM’s alone. Self confessed purist, Youngsta does not mix what he considers grime into his set whilst others like Kode-9 do. As Mala pointed out, the way people place dubstep depends on which musical background they came from. Techno heads can hear a techno element, dub fans see dubstep as a form of dub and similarly a grime listener might find something in dubstep that reminds them of grime. Many dubsteppers still can’t understand why Skream’s 2005 anthem, ‘Midnight Request Line’ (caned by Roll Deep) gets classed as griime. Dubstep is perceived as more accessible than grime, some promoters don’t want to advertise grime on their flyer because of the possible repercussions this has at their event. When so many tracks promote and glamorise violence, impressionable minds are often led into stupid acts. Dubstep has an appeal that grime does not which is an emphasis on the music itself, rather than the surrounding culture. People who are interested in grime but not fully ‘in it’ have found that dubstep nurtures what they like about grime and leaves out what they don’t. The flip-side of this is the danger of letting musical selection be determined by external factors, the thing about dubstep though, is that it’s naturally progressed into something which will never represent negativity.
Nationally, the understanding of Dubstep is growing. Leeds with help from Simon Scott, Mark Iration & DJ Distinction is shacking out with DMZ north, a northern stronghold for dubstep. Manchester’s Mark One and his mighty Virus Syndicate keep the Manc men stepping also from that fair city, DJ Se7en is very active in pushing the music to a northern audience. The now infamous ‘Dark Crystal’ was Sheffield’s first purely Dubstep night and represents another wing to the ever expanding Junglist Alliance. Bristol has a thriving and long extablished night with ‘Subnation’ also ‘Dub Pressure’ in Brighton, ‘Bass Camp’ in Manchester and many new nights are springing up every week.
Worldwide Dubstep has made a strong impact too. Promoters in the States, Europe and even South America are calling for The Mystikz, Youngsta, Kode-9, Mark One & Loefah amoung others. Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain all have strong Dubsteppers, ready to push the global expansion. In the US, Joe Nice has consistently pushed the music and the scene on a global scale. This expansion has to credit the internet. Anywhere in the world it’s possible to download sets (legitimately for once). This kind of consensual sharing is important for these worldwide scenes. It is also crucial that it develops into nights, DJ’s and radio stations in other countries. The vinyl distribution should follow the sound to these new places to avoid piracy of the tunes taking hold. With vinyl sales sloping globally if a new scene is to survive on vinyl sales alone it’s crucial that people don’t start uploading the complete tracks onto the freeshare sites.
As for the future, it seems the founders and forerunners of the scene are happy for things to progress organically, with no overly possessive attitude towards the direction of the music. People just keep doing what they’re doing and promoting a positive meditation. The strength of Dubstep lies in this natural progression.
Thanks & big up to everyone who helped me with this article, in particular Alan, Distinction, George, Kenny, Kode-9, Laura, Mala (DMZ), Mark One, Marksman, Martin Clark, Mary-Ann Hobbs, Nicole, Oris Jay (Darqwan), Se7en, Simon Scott, and Youngsta.
Ravers at Dark Crystal on Feb 18th 2006