One year ago, dubstep was a word which meant little to those outside its close-knit, London-based scene of like-minded DJs and producers, and a community of obsessives and enthusiasts trading music and information over the internet at dubstepforum.com. The term “dubstep” was coined by Ammunition PR, the people behind London’s FWD>> night and Tempa Records to describe the “dark garage” sound of Horsepower Productions and their preoccupation with their music’s bass power. These days, Skream, dubstep’s poster-boy, is sceptical of applying the same term to a scene which become so dynamic and diverse. “To be completely honest, it’s become just another name used by people who can’t understand a new style of music,” Skream told RA.
Indeed, dubstep (like jungle, or techno, or even rock) seems like a reductive tag for a music which has so many untrackable strains and variations. Skream’s ravey, jungle-influenced ‘Lightning’ is called dubstep; Pinch’s reflective, almost devotional ‘Qwaali’ is called dubstep; Shackleton’s thunderous, Eastern percussion-fuelled exotica is dubstep; Burial’s distressed garage sound is dubstep.
Now it’s 2007, and dubstep is everywhere. Hobbs calls it “the fastest growing underground global phenomenal I’ve experienced in nine years at Radio 1”; and while it may not exactly be the preserve of the mainstream – like its spiritual cousin, minimal techno, dubstep is too dense, dark and concertedly underground to enjoy a true crossover – nonetheless a lot of people are talking about it, and thanks to the sonic democracy of the internet, it is an increasingly worldwide concern. Goth Trad in Tokyo, Tes La Rok in Helsinki and Matty G in Santa Cruz are just some of the international talents which Hobbs and the dubstep community at large are enthusing over at present.
It’s influencing other genres, too. Techno DJs are slipping dubstep tunes into their 4x4 sets; some are making dubstep-influenced records (see Roman Flugel’s seriously off-beat mix of Riton’s ‘Hammer of Thor’) or, in some cases, actually going ahead and making dubstep (Sleeparchive’s 12” as Stamp Release, for example). Meanwhile, Ricardo Villalobos has remixed dubstep iconoclast Shackleton’s ‘Blood on My Hands’ to devastating, hypnotic effect; this after Cassy chosen to open her already classic document of the current Berlin scene, ‘Panorama Bar 01’, with Shackleton’s original. However, the patronage of the techno community has hardly been essential to the growth in dubstep’s stature; rather, it is one of several important benchmarks in the genre’s ongoing development.
Various occasions and occurrences are cited as pivotal in the history of dubstep (including the night that unexpectedly humungous queues forced DMZ to vacate 3rd Base for a far larger venue), but few seem to have changed as many lives as Mary Ann Hobbs’s Dubstep Warz radio special, aired in January of 2006. Up until that point, dubstep had been the concern primarily of a Croydon record store (Big Apple) and its inhabitants, a fervent but relatively small internet fanbase and some of the more esoteric crackles of pirate radio. For Dubstep Warz, Hobbs invited seven of the scene’s foremost dubstep producers to DJ back to back – Mala (Digital Mystikz), Skream, Kode9 & The Spaceape, Vex’d, Hatcha & Crazy D, Loefah & St Pokes and DJ Distance. The show was a snapshot of the scene at its flashpoint; as Mary Anne tells us, “It changed people’s lives around the world. Within five days there were almost 20,000 hits about it at dubstepforum.com, and people from all over the world still tell me what a profound effect it’s had on their lives to this day.”
The impact of that show means it is somewhat fitting that Hobbs has been chosen to programme Sonar’s dubstep showcase. Already one of the most eagerly-anticipated events of the 2007 festival, it will feature DJ sets from herself, and from three of the scene’s most respected producers.
First up, Kode9: one of dubstep’s chief spokespeople, former resident at FWD>> (which, along with DMZ, remains dubstep’s most influential regular clubnight) and boss of Hyperdub Records - home to Burial, whose self-titled debut album from last year is thusfar the movement’s most idiosyncratic and dizzyingly accomplished artistic statement). He will be performing with bellowing MC Spaceape (you can check his Sonar mix here). Fellow scene progenitor and original FWD>> resident Oris Jay follows; as Mary Anne attests, “In 2007 his influence has never been more powerful. This is the legendary producer who pioneered beyond the dark garage sound and laid the blueprint for 21st century dubstep. Oris Jay is the godfather. he wrote the book.”
The showcase will conclude with a DJ turn from Skream – perhaps the most familiar name on the scene. The precocious 20-year-old was behind the seminal ‘Midnight Request Line’ track, and is reputed to have worked on over 1,5000 tracks since he began music-making. Indeed, when RA bumped into the likeably cocky youngster in a Gothenburg nightclub and mentioned his fantastic ‘Skunkstep’ track, he replied, “Skunkstep? I made ‘Skunkstep’ when I was FOURTEEN, bruv!” No wonder, then, that Hobbs calls him “the most exciting young producer and DJ in the UK. Bar none.”
So what’s in the London boy wonder’s box for Sonar? Has he attended the festival before? “Expect lots of new material and some remixes from myself, Mala, Coki, Benga, Rusko, D1, Dutty Dubz and Goth Trad, lots of energy and lots of BASS!” says Skream. “I’ve never attended Sonar before, but I’ve only heard good things about it.”
What does he make of the fact that dubstep remains a London-oriented sound in many people’s eyes and ears? Does it have the scope to truly move beyond the environment which birthed it? “I think it already has moved beyond. You have rammed nights from Tokyo to Paris, and also some very good producers outside of the UK. Dubstep is already international.”
One thing is certain: Friday night at Sonar is going to be another massive benchmark in dubstep’s development and history. See you at the front; after all, as DJ Pinch once memorably said: “If your chest ain’t rattlin’, it ain’t happenin’…”
10 Lessons in Dubstep
1. Skream - Midnight Request Line [Tempa]
Perhaps the best-known dubstep tune, this remains one of the genre's definitive statements.
2. Shackleton - Blood on My Hands [Skull Disco]
The producer, and production, which really made the minimal techno cognoscenti take notice. Also check Villalobos's superb, genre-meshing remix.
3. Pinch - Qwwali [Planet Mu]
This is dubstep at its most minimalist, subtle and sublime.
4. Horsepower Productions - In Fine Style [Tempa]
The birth of the sound.
5. Burial - Burial LP [Hyperdub]
A brittle, darkly futuristic reimagining of UK garage that channels the static-soaked ghosts of pirate radio. The Blue Lines of dubstep.
6. Mala - Left Leg Out [DMZ]
Truly original, reductionist and off-kilter - this sounds killer in techno and dubstep sets alike.
7. Digital Mystikz - Ancient Memories [DMZ]
Dubstep at its most dense, smoke-infused and paranoid.
8. Appleblim - Vansan [Skull Disco]
Forward-thinking abstraction influenced by the techno sounds of Cologne, Berlin and Detroit.
9. Junior Boys - Double Shadow (Kode9 Remix) [Domino]
Dubstep meets plaintive electro-pop: the results are astonishing.
10. Loefah - Disko Rekah [Deep Mehdi Musik]
Does exactly what it says on the tin...
Apart from the quality of the individual tracks, the compilation has a fantastic flow to it, creating an intelligent, poised and sensual listening experience.
Burial's eponymous debut is a product of the dubstep scene, but it also pays homage to an older musical continuum of dark underground sounds and pirate radio culture.