|The state of bass: A roundtable discussion
After a year of exciting new takes on bass-heavy styles, RA's Richard Carnes heads to fabric to speak to a number of people behind this month's Elevator Music compilation about the recent developments in the scene and the future of bass.
Looking back on the past twelve months, it's difficult to deny that 2009 was the year that dubstep went overground in a big way. Skream's remix of La Roux's "In for the Kill" was ubiquitous in the UK (where it peaked at #2 in the singles chart), while over in the US, Snoop Dogg was rejigging Chase & Status' Bollywood-sampling "Eastern Jam" on his own "Snoop Dogg Millionaire."
But the real innovation was once again happening in the underground, where bedroom producers like Peverelist, Zomby, Untold, Shackleton, Mordant Music, 2562, Martyn, RSD, Joy Orbison, Joker, Geiom, Kowton and Kode9 all took the genre and put their own unique stamp on it. Instra:mental and D-Bridge, meanwhile, offered a fresh take on drum & bass with their halfstep sound, and producers such as Dorian Concept, Lukid, Architeq, Mike Slott and Hudson Mohawke all issued refreshingly original albums on the beatsmith side of things. And that's not even touching on the resurgence of house and garage via the rise of UK funky, with DJs such as Ben UFO, Martyn and Jackmaster mixing a multitude of styles within a huge tempo range.
fabric's Elevator Music compilation is an attempt to document this fertile middle ground, featuring 15 exclusive tracks from artists such as Untold, Shortstuff, xxxy and Vista, which is why when they played recently at the famed London venue, we thought it best to sit them down with fabric's A&R synchronisation manager Graham Best—who had a big hand in curating the collection—to talk about the current state of the bass music scene.
From left to right: Untold, Graham Best, Shortstuff, xxxy, Vista
Our participants: Jack Dunning, AKA Untold, made his debut with a mind-bending 12-inch on Hessle Audio before co-founding Hemlock Recordings, which had a consistently fantastic 2009 with enjoyably unorthodox releases from Dunning as well as James Blake and Fantastic Mr Fox & Rich Reason. Graham Best is fabric's A&R synchronisation manager. Richard Attley, AKA Shortstuff, has blazed a trail in a relatively short space of time, becoming the first non-Bristol producer to feature on Peverelist's Punch Drunk label after a succession of singles on Berkane Sol, Ramp Recordings and Planet Mu, and also starting his own Blunted Robots label alongside Brackles. Manchester's Rupert Taylor, AKA xxxy, brings a more techno-infused sound to the table, forging sublow sounds with rolling skippy beats on imprints such as Formant and Mindset, while Jamie Perry, AKA Vista, produces both aggressive halfstep and other tracks that oscillate between house, techno and UK garage.
Dubstep's main signifier used to be its 140 BPM tempo, but nowadays we're seeing things become a little less rigid in the scene as far as speed is concerned. Do you think that this marks more freedom in the genre, or is it just a convergence to a slower tempo of around 135?
Shortstuff: I think, for my own part, I just don't care. I just don't worry about it. Sometimes I might make stuff at 140, sometimes it might be slower, sometimes even slower than that. It felt like a switch has been flicked and I don't have to worry about it as much.
Untold: It was quite an eye-opener seeing Martyn play at Benji B's night. That was the first time that I'd seen him go from 140-ish, down a little bit and then playing that amongst house bits at 130, and I think you need to be a pretty good DJ to pull that off. After hearing that, I tried to do it in my own sets, but it wasn't quite flowing. I think that with all this house influence coming into certain types of dubstep, it's almost a frustratingly short amount of BPM difference between what dubstep is... or to mix, you're mixing at the opposite ends of the scale, so I think much of it is just practical for people who are playing out, to pitch it down a bit.
xxxy: Most of the stuff that excites me is dub techno or house stuff, and I just ended up making dubstep, and it's so difficult to include all that in a set. I literally started slowing things down so that I could fit in more of my influences rather than play to the crowds—just play what I want to play.
"I think the great thing about UK funky
is that it's de-stigmatised house
for a lot of people." -- Graham Best
If you went to a house or a techno night, it's common that a DJ will be given a two hour set. In the bass music scene, it's generally hour-long sets. Do you think that poses a problem when DJs are looking to span a wider tempo bracket in a shorter amount of time?
Shortstuff: I don't think I ought to speak, because that's more about a style of mixing. When I mix, it's always a kind of fairly quick, grime-style of mixing. I think the BPM that you're making stuff at shouldn't really affect that. If I ever have to play for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, I always think that it's a little bit arduous anyway, so I don't think so.
Untold: I think that there's so many different sounds—opportunities and sounds—coming in, that if you are going to play almost a "purist's set"—almost a dubstep equivalent of a three hour minimal techno set that builds up—you would be limiting yourself, really. I think that there's a certain magpie mentality that's happening at the moment with people writing tunes and also DJing as well—there's just so much stuff bubbling up. Just represent as much as you can, really.
Vista: Personally, I generally play and make stuff at around 140. Maybe most of the stuff I play—90% of it—is at 140 BPM. For me, I think I really like stuff that's at around 115 - 120 BPM, and you can't get that same groove at the 127 BPM of techno. I like that, but I stick to 140 and maybe go down to 137, or I'll just go all the way back down to 115 and 120—more sort of disco tempo as opposed to modern house and stuff like that. For me, when I DJ, I like to play everything across the board. Sometimes you'll have sets where you've got to adapt. I like that, I like playing different sets where you're not in automatic mode, and it's fun to just experiment, and sometimes you get mixes that you just pull out and think, "Oh, that's really good. Something to remember."
House music is now a commonly accepted influence in the bass music sphere, whereas in 2005/6, it was something that most producers were actively trying to get away from. Do you think that it's just the advent of UK funky that has paved the way for more of a 4/4 style to enter the scene?
Untold: I think funky's helped. Personally, I've come from jungle/drum & bass. That's my entire record collection—just '93 to 2000—and house was going on, but I didn't hear it. It's only in the last three or four years that it's actually clicked for me, and I think that with funky, just hearing it in a new context has really helped. For me it was always the beats that I didn't really get. I didn't hear the grooves that were in it; I just heard it as a block of sound, but I think that's definitely something that you can identify with coming from grime or drum & bass—that grimy sound. It made me appreciate those grooves, and I think that the whole BPM thing of dubstep or what-do-you-call-it; it's more ambiguous. I don't necessarily think that people want to know that they're dancing to 140 BPM. That's why it's so exciting, because the beats are so varied, that there's not one drum pattern.
xxxy: I think it reminds a lot of people of the early dubstep stuff, because it's that kind of new vibe, and because the direction of dubstep seems to have gone off onto the mainstream stuff. There's minimalism, there's the hard bass hitting you and there's beats and the groove, rather than just being kick, third beat snare, lots of mid-range wobbling around. Feels nice! But I think when you get older, you want to slow things down a little bit. When I was 18/19, I was raving up to Andy C and Mampi Swift and all that. It's all 180 BPM and at +6—sounded great, but now it sounds awful. Maybe because I'm getting to my late twenties, it sounds a lot better at a house tempo.
Graham Best: I think the great thing about UK funky is that it's de-stigmatised house for a lot of people. I think that for whatever reason, there's been a perspective that house is this fluffy bra, Saturday night high street bullshit, and UK funky's put it into a context that more people recognise as coming up off grime—a lot of the London-centric pirate stuff. House has been put into that context and all of a sudden you've got people who'd never go to a house night raving about The Martinez Brothers. Even some of the Cooly G stuff. I think that Dirtybird as a label are a really interesting phenomenon, because they've come up there, and they've always been a straight ahead house label, but they're doing stuff with Julio Bashmore, and even the earlier stuff was catching on at a pirate level really early. I should probably offer a full disclosure that we publish all the Dirtybird stuff, but still it's a valid point! [laughs]
Vista: I like the fact that UK funky has happened, even though most of the music I've heard, I've not really liked. I prefer more deep house, traditional house, as opposed to... As someone who never liked grime... [jeers from the others] I don't like pizzicato strings off a MIDI keyboard, man... I don't know what's wrong with me! I'm glad it's happened because each time there's been different genres coming in, it makes dubstep more of a vague term for what I think is simply modern UK music as opposed to a definite genre.
Another interesting thing is the erosion of dubplate culture. You go back to maybe '06 or '07, and it was still very much a part of the scene that people would cut their own plates and support the cutting houses. Obviously digital DJing has come in, and people like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke are both playing live now, but do you have any other thoughts as to why such a primary ethic of the scene has been dumped?
Graham Best: It's the costs.
xxxy: It's also the expansion of the scene. There were a handful of producers in Croydon making tunes and giving them to each other, and then it moved outside of that, and now everyone's making dubstep.
Graham Best: I think that geography is a big part of it. You had the whole Croydon scene with Transition on their doorstep, and Transition are a wicked mastering studio, but I'm sure if you've got that local a scene, you're going to do favours for people, and when the scene expands outwards, you're not going to want to do it for everyone. It's fucking expensive cutting vinyl. When we did the Howie B remix 12-inch last year with Ramadanman, I was bigging it up and saying "we've got to do it," and when the actual numbers started adding up... I'm still regretting hand-stamping them, doing a thousand 12-inches...
"The only time I remember a period
in music like this is hardcore
going into drum & bass." -- Untold
The proliferation of broadband internet means that musical ideas are able to travel a lot faster than they ever have. Do you guys see this as a positive or a negative? Obviously, ideas can fly around quicker and things can grow on an international level, but on the other end of the spectrum, localised scenes aren't given enough time to grow. Obviously you had Croydon earlier in the decade, but one of the only one scenes that springs to mind from more recent times that has a specific local sound is the bassy instrumental hip-hop from Los Angeles.
Untold: It's taken some of the mystique out of it. Little scenes would build up, and there was almost a myth about it. Maybe someone would have heard one artist's name, or one tune, and it had this magical property because the only way that you could find out more about that was to go and see someone that was playing it. I heard someone namedrop Kwaito—an African style of house music—which I'd never heard and didn't have a clue about, and within ten minutes I had two mixes and was able to check out someone's discography. You could say that it's cheapened it...
Graham Best: You could say that, and my gut feeling is that I agree with it completely, but it's just different now. Personally, I'm old enough to come from that background where there was no internet at first, and you'd have to go out there and dig around in shitty record stores and get sold loads of rubbish white labels that you didn't want, and every so often a gem turns up. And now there's so much information on the net, and things have developed so quickly in the public eye that it's not better or worse—it's just different. I think what dubstep's done in the last five or six years is what it took jungle/drum & bass to do in ten or twelve years, and that's not necessarily a good thing. It's just different—it's as simple as that.
Because there is that microscope on what's going on that's amplified by the internet, it seems like the bass music scene is going through a stage of slight deviations from what's gone before rather than a full blown musical revolution as with the Croydon scene. Do you think that we can ever have that again, or is it firmly a thing of the past?
xxxy: I still reckon there are nights around where people are doing their own thing, and they're still trying to get their name out there, and there's about ten people there and they all think it's brilliant. It might blow up, it might not, but it's just a luck thing, with people catching on to it. It's still there though.
Graham Best: I think that Joy Orbison is a really good case study, because no-one had a fucking clue who he was about ten months ago. It was just some random MySpace that a couple of us at work had found. It was just, "These tunes are fucking great," and then "Hyph Mngo" popped up on a mix that Ben UFO did for their Hessle Audio night in room three, and it's one of those things that's just blown up really organically. It's not a question of whether stuff isn't allowed to come up and surprise people; it's whether it's allowed to develop and give time for people to get their ideas down. I don't know... I think there's something to be said for wanting to grow up in private, I think. It's a real balancing act, putting something out that you're proud of and it getting hyped up, and just contributing to that glut of Beatport fodder.
It'd be interesting to hear how you guys are doing as far as digital vs. vinyl sales, especially with the shift towards more digital DJing in the scene.
Shortstuff: Jack's probably in a better position to answer that because he's put out more releases, but one thing I've noticed, certainly on the Serato aspect, is that we got loads of test presses done and sent them out for our first release at quite a reasonable expense, and barely heard anything. We've stopped doing it now. We thought, "Oh, if we send out test presses and write people's name on them, they'll think that's lovely." I think one guy wrote back to us. The rest of them, I don't know... They just didn't care.
Untold: We did the same on our first three or four releases, we did 50 promotional test presses to give out, and they're kind of good—it's a nice thing to give someone a TP—but on a few occasions, people have said, "Cheers, but can you give us WAVs as well?" Especially if you're giving out full artwork versions as well, they like the vinyl so they'll take the vinyl thing, but they're playing on Serato or CD-Js so they'll play digital. One thing that we started doing before, was that we used to delay the digital release to the vinyl for up to a month or three weeks, but now, we're being told that it's shifting where it's a bit frowned upon if you don't do your vinyl and digital release on the same day, because you don't want to be seen locking off one format. Vinyl has definitely been knocked a little bit by that, I think.
With things like techno, it's become the case that digital sales will most probably be higher than the vinyl sales, maybe by two or three fold or even more, but dubstep seems to be the opposite of that, with vinyl sales still holding strong. I'd be interested to hear how your vinyl and digital sales figures compare of late, what with a lot of DJs switching to digital formats, and the scene becoming more international.
Shortstuff: We're definitely doing more vinyl. I can say that much just for that one. I was expecting a lot more digitally.
xxxy: Once it's out digitally, someone's going to put it on Rapidshare and that's it. The first thing that you Google is going to be a Rapidshare link. Anyone can get that. I work with Mindset, and with Mindset we tend to delay it about five or six weeks until the digital comes out. Once the digital comes out, within one day, Google the release and there it is—the first three links are to a download site.
Would you not say that that's an argument for not doing digital at all?
xxxy: It still would've got up there. When I was downloading stuff on Napster when I was 16, there was vinyl releases that were all there, in all these scenes where they just rip vinyl.
Untold: It's still strong though. We're still selling out vinyl, so I just don't think it's the DJs buying it—it's collectors too.
Graham Best: Exactly. Vinyl's sort of like a totemic thing. Like "I'm into this sound and I'm going to support it," and that's why people buy vinyl. There are shitloads of things you can say about buying physical product over digital, but I think vinyl especially is like this artifact thing. People aren't necessarily buying the music—they're buying a badge to say "I'm into this and I want to support it." I think that's why packaging is so important. With both of you guys and your labels, it's a really big deal. With Hemlock and Blunted Robots, the packaging is beautiful.
As the scene comes away from what dubstep used to be known as, the music has splintered into all sorts of micro-genres and styles that are yet to be fully named—or at least no names have really stuck. Do you think that as the music moves away from dubstep in this way, if there isn't a tag to brand it, does that pose any problems as far as marketing the music is concerned?
Graham Best: No. I think that's a really outdated way of thinking. I think that's '90s NME bullshit where you put a name on any sort of scene.
xxxy: It's a very British thing, isn't it?
Graham Best: It's a really, really British thing. I've kind of seen a couple of people discuss the name of the Elevator Music compilation, and they were saying, "Oh, this scene is going to get labelled as Elevator Music." That's bullshit. You can't insult people's intelligence like that. It's such a disparate set of sounds that there's not one tag you can put on it. I don't like bass music as a name either. I'm probably showing my age, but there's a Beastie Boys quote from years ago, which says that "funk is one of the most abused words in the English language," and I think "bass" is on the same level now. I think the whole concept of having tags just doesn't work with the way things are now. There's such an overload of information, or access to information, more importantly.
"The more I've played, the more
I have this kind of weird voice
going, 'How will that work on
the dance floor?'" -- Shortstuff
But if you're not going to call it "bass music"—even with a wide term like that—how exactly do you market it for your average clubber? Someone might say "I'm going to go to a dubstep night," and having that genre signifier gives clubgoers something to identify with, and judge whether or not it will suit their taste.
Graham Best: For sure. It's good for record labels to have a name to market it under. I don't really have an answer to that. Maybe it's idealism.
xxxy: That's the argument for just saying that it's dubstep. We've all come from there, haven't we?
Untold: That's it. That's the context.
Graham Best: But that's the great thing about dubstep. It's a launch pad for a bunch of people who've been sitting on ideas, or trying to find a way that they can shape their output, and it's worked. That's something that I'm really proud of about the CD; that it's a little snapshot of a bunch of people who've had a really similar launch pad to take their ideas from and they've all gone in different directions, and that's great, but as to what you bracket that as, I've no fucking idea!
Vista: I think a point is that even though people make a lot of different music, you can play everyone's tunes all in one set and it's all in one branch. Going through the CD, I could play... actually I couldn't play in a 140 BPM set, but I would play your tune [nods to xxxy], I could play that "Melvin Blues" tune—that's probably 135 or something...
Shortstuff: It is!
Vista: That's the geek... I'd play everyone's music but because they're all so different in many ways, there's a coherent... even if it is just BPM or... I'm sort of going back on my point now, but there's something that ties everyone together. Even if people go off on different branches, everyone's part of the same tree.
Untold: Clarity may only come a year down the line. The only time I remember a period in music a bit like this where there's so many sounds coming in and going in different directions is hardcore going into jungle and drum & bass, and there were a load of tags and labels flying around at that time, and there were sort of people saying "I make hardcore," then you now know and establish that they were actually doing jungle—dark or 1993 jungle—but that sort of clarity is only really got in retrospect. Maybe they'll call it "the messy ages" or whatever. [laughs]
Graham Best: Jungle seems like a really good reference. In '94/'95, when Bukem was remixing Jodeci and shit like that—that was fucking amazing, and it's not jungle as you'd think of it—some dark, messy rave-up thing. It's not drum & bass when you think of some overly tasteful B&Q advert. It's music at a certain BPM, and certain stylistics and that's it.
xxxy: I hope to god we don't get labelled as "intelligent"! [laughs]
Do you think that the size of the club has a lot to do with the sound? As things have progressively moved into bigger rooms, have records have been orchestrated to those particular environments? Even personally, do you guys play different sets in large rooms, either on a conscious or subconscious level?
Untold: I think dance music is going through quite a noisy phase at the moment. There are these big things and people seem to be up for this really aggy stuff. There are other ways of making a dance floor move. I try and play the same set to whatever room, roughly, and you just get different energy levels because some venues are more intimate.
Shortstuff: From a production point of view, although I try and fight it, I do find that the more I've played out, the more I have at the back of my mind this kind of weird voice going, "How will that work on the dance floor?" I remember reading about it, and people talking about Dillinja in particular, and what Dillinja did before he got big, and what became of Dillinja, because the more he played out, the more he saw what went off and then that perpetuated his sound. I do find that happening and it's hard to avoid, because when you see a dance floor react to one tune, it's hard not to go, "What was it about that?" And next time you're making a tune, have that in the back of your mind.
Vista: As maybe the minority here, I do genuinely like the stuff that most of you probably don't. [laughs] I'm like the minority who's been dragged in like Nick Griffin! [laughs all round] I genuinely do like playing obvious music, like maybe what you'd find in the Beatport charts—and there is a lot of horrible music that just poorly produced and not done with...
Graham Best: Horrible and obvious aren't the same thing.
Vista: Well, yeah. I think most of my music is obvious, even the stuff that isn't distorted bass lines and stuff; obvious as in not being restrained. When I'm making a tune it's much different to if I like a tune. When I'm making a tune, I just want to throw everything into it and you just go into it and go mental, but I do genuinely like it when something... For instance, with 16 Bit, I like most of their tunes because they go for one idea really well, but it's done with skill and there are a lot of nuances and subtleties in their tracks that you may not pick out to begin with. There is a time and a place for raw energy, and sometimes that's in a club, but I like it even when I'm at home... eating cereal.
What do you hope to see from bass music in the near future?
Untold: I hope we've got another year of anarchy, and just chaos and mess before it either burns itself out, or it splinters out too far. I think if we could have another year of positivity and—dare I say it—excitement about dance music, I think that'd be... Whatever it ends up with, it'll be richer for it.
Shortstuff: I don't know. I guess I'd like to be surprised, perhaps. I'd like things to continue the way they're going. I think I'd be gutted if this time next year I'm sitting here looking back on another fad that died out and burned itself out rather quickly, but I do genuinely feel that at the moment it's very fertile creatively, with the stuff people are sending me. I just hope it continues down the route it's going.
xxxy: I want to see a lot more people doing their own thing and using their own influences, rather than... There's a lot of copying—whether it's conscious or subconscious. Just going off in their own way. Maybe lock themselves away for a while and banging something out that's completely different. Recently—more in the last six months than anything else—I've heard a lot more different music than the two years before that, so it'd be nice to hear a lot more people doing their own thing rather than latching onto what's fashionable or what's new or whatever.
Vista: I'd like to see more of the same. I'm pretty happy. I'm not jaded. I think it's just going to get bigger and there's certain bad things that happen, but I don't want to comment on it as a whole. People can just carry on doing what they want to do with everything in life. All power to them, and that's what I'm going to do, so I won't critique anyone. Just carry on going.
Graham Best: I guess dubstep—or whatever that is—has kind of coalesced into a really solid, definite thing, and I think the great thing that's happened in the last twelve months is that it's just like a sheet of glass that someone's put their foot through, and all these fragments are flying out. Hopefully those fragments will continue to fly out further.
Published / Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Photo credits / Header, portraits, roundtable - Jimmy Mould