And this is what I ultimately find funny and ridiculous about dubstep – there’s a massive gulf between the image of the scene and the people who actually listen to it. Lets be honest – there’s very little that’s urban or dangerous about dubstep now that it’s gone global. It’s basically IDM for the Facebook generation.
But pretensions aside, we all need to be grateful that dubstep exists because it’s pretty much the only scene around that isn’t some sort of revival or tribute to something else (yes, you could argue that dubstep is a tribute to digi-dub etc, but please, really.) So dubstep is a new idea, and that’s great, but you also need to be able to dance to music. A couple years back when dirgelike Loefah halfstep tunes and “meditations on bass weight” ruled the roost, actually getting down and doing a jig to this stuff was well-nigh impossible. Of course the word on the internets was “you have to hear it at FWD to really understand” but that didn’t help the rest of us much.
Things have moved on since then, partly due to DJs like N-Type championing a more up-front style, and now in 2008 Benga (co-author of last year’s anthem ‘Night’) has dropped what’s probably the full-on danciest dubstep record yet with Diary of an Afro Warrior. But in a move that probably appalls a lot of hardcore dubstep fans, this is not dancey in a “skanking” reggae manner. It’s dancey in a fist-pumping techno manner. To make a lazy analogy, Benga is the Ed Rush of dubstep.
Key features of this album are:
1) Pounding kick drums – ‘E trips’ has a kick-kick-kick-snare pattern that’s only a whisker away from being a full-on 4/4 thump.
2) Harsh, speedy hoover noises – ‘The Cut’ uses synths that would make Joey Beltram and Marc Acardipane poo their pants.
3) Melodies – you all know the one from ‘Night’ (although whether two notes counts as a melody might be debatable) and ‘Lightbulb’ uses a similar device. There are even housey chords on ‘Emotions’.
4) Jacking basslines – I just invented this term, but that’s what they are. There’s none of the kind of meandering all-surrounding sub bass that you sit back in like a giant sonic beanbag. Instead tunes like ‘Crunked Up’ have stuttering aggressive basslines with lots of midrange that invite jerky hard dancing.
What does that add up to? Heads down, one arm in the air, bouncing on one leg and calling for a rewind in all probability. The album bursts with energy and is forceful from beginning to end. All the tracks have solid chunky grooves and the only real misstep is ‘Someone 20’ where a hip-hop beat and a ‘Your Love’-style synth combine to make something excruciatingly sludgy and dated sounding.
My favourite moments on the album are actually the two mellowest tracks - ‘Zero M2’ and ‘B4 the Dual’ where Benga uses more organic sounds, and a bit of live bass to create an almost broken-beat vibe before the real heavy bass drops.
On it’s own terms, Diary of an Afro Warrior is a tour-de-force – this will really move feet and fists and reach out to new audiences for dubstep.
Yet to my ears the word for this album is ‘effective’ rather than ‘delightful’. You can’t submerge yourself in Benga’s music the way you can with Burial or DMZ – it just lacks rhythmic complexity of the latter and the emotion of the former. The relentless testosterone addled ‘toughness’ grates terribly after a while too, and a few of the sci-fi sounding samples are definitely the wrong side of the cheese line.
You could never expect dubstep to stand still, and there’s no knowing where it’ll go next. But as an evolution of the sound, Diary of an Afro Warrior represents a trade-off. There’s a lot more energy and a groove that’s defined enough for large audiences to dance to. But in exchange the sense of space and depth and a lot of the genre’s potential warmth and sexiness have been sacrificed – there’s more ‘step’ but less ‘dub’ in other words. Ed Rush is a lazy comparison, but still a relevant one. Much as the techstep sound opened up Jungle to pilled-up ravers worldwide, but lost it the support of its original fanbase, Benga has probably alienated much of the FWD crew with this, but will have gained fans worldwide.
Overall you need to at least give this a listen because it’s definitely new and it’s definitely relevant, at least to anyone not deeply immersed in the dubstep scene. It’s great to see this music continually changing, and who knows, maybe the dubstep room will become the sweaty wild-eyed one this year.