Though it used to feel like it was in a completely different universe, dubstep has never really been "on its own" for its decade-long history. Growing out of garage and initially intertwined with grime, even as the genre matured into an identifiable sound circa 2005-2006, producers like Martyn and Scuba were injecting tunes with techno influences. Nowadays, however, it seems like there's been a steady but seismic shift towards house. A new breed of "bass music" producers like Midland, George FitzGerald and Kowton make tracks distinctly indebted to the hardcore continuum but unmistakably house, while DJs like Ben UFO, Jackmaster and Oneman gleefully mix in house old and new as part of their zeitgeist-defining sets.
A quick survey of Bristol's ever-fertile music scene tells you all you need to know. Young artists and seasoned veterans alike seem far more enamored at the moment with house than the dubstep (and dub) the city fed on for the last ten years. Even the aforementioned Pinch, the DJ and producer who helped establish one of dubstep's foundational imprints, Tectonic. Pinch's recent Fabriclive mix CD had him devoting half of the run-time to house and techno, with the rest devoted to his usual staggered 140 BPM beats.
Though it might have seemed brand new to his audiences when he started playing slower material in 2010, house and techno was something Pinch had been following for over a decade. He started out buying 4/4 stuff before he found dubstep—and never really stopped listening. He just never played it in clubs. Then he started making it and, in 2010 "was using [house and techno] more as an intro than making a set piece out of it.... Often the wait and anticipation for dubstep meant that when I did start playing 140, people went a bit more nuts, so it actually helped the atmosphere by starting out differently." But audience tastes' eventually shifted with the tide, and according to Ellis, "more recently it's been the other way around—the 130 stuff is going down better."
That 130 beats per minute tempo has been a hallmark for London-via-Leeds transplant Hessle Audio, a label and crew that have been instrumental in bridging gaps between what was once dubstep and house in the UK. Its DJing arm is well-represented by Ben Thomson, whose recent Rinse mix CD as Ben UFO ably illustrated the fertile breeding ground.
Thomson's DJing has been renowned for its diversity, a jock as comfortable playing with Plastician as with Gerd Janson. He was a rarity, though. After all: You try mixing the staggered lurch of dubstep with house's smooth and steady disco strut. "A few DJs started incorporating it fairly awkwardly at first. I remember seeing DJs play out and you'd hear 30 minutes of dark UK house and an abrupt pause, followed by 30 minutes of dubstep/grime. I wanted to find ways to bridge the two tempos naturally," Thomson says. Even with the usual "play some dubstep!" resistance, he insists that time was all that was needed to have audiences warm up to the sound.
It doesn't hurt that DJs have simply had more records like this to play: The past two years have also seen the rise of a new generation of UK producers making house and techno but whose music is almost universally classified under the "bass music" umbrella. Take Midland. Despite his association with former housemate and bass music producer Pearson Sound, Harry Agius has released his music on house labels like Aus, More Music and Phonica.
Starting out with drum & bass, Midland toyed around with the genre but it never really stuck before his interest fizzled out. That heritage, however, is evident in tracks like his debut "Play the Game" or "Through Motion," songs that suspend breaks in a thick, dramatic atmosphere that's a glossy modern update on deep house. "The first tune I made that marked a sea change was 'Your Words Matter' with David Kennedy. That was just us having a laugh and throwing lots of things into the blender and seeing what happened." Despite its modest origins, "Matter" really was a sort of quiet landmark, one of the most explicitly house things to come from a renowned UK bass name.
Hotflush man George FitzGerald is another case in point: coasting by on slippery, euphoric house, he discovered the stuff in one of its natural habitats. "When I first started liking house and techno was really towards the end of the period I spent living in Berlin between 2005 and 2006. I was heavily into dubstep at the time, and was rather disappointed to have moved to a city which knew seemingly nothing about that scene. I hated house and techno initially. I remember getting dragged down to Berghain a few times and not enjoying it at all—I just couldn't understand how people could find a 4/4 kick-drum pattern interesting," remembers Fitzgerald. "I found the rather seedy, plastic 'sexiness' of minimal to be pretty vacuous. After a while though, through osmosis seemingly, 4/4 music and the different momentum it gives to a party—slower building, less explosive but more euphoric—began to make sense to me."
lacking [in house] they need to look
a bit further below the surface." - Midland
FitzGerald, like Thomson, ascribes house's rise to dissatisfaction with formulaic dubstep. The slow-burning, sure-footed progression of house was a welcome antithesis to the same-old same-old that had become tired by 2008-2009. There's no complete dubstep divorce, however: what Michaelangelo Matos once termed the "post-dubstep diaspora" still exists in the work of these producers, FitzGerald included. Tracks like "Shackled" operate on a tension-and-release drop structure borrowed from bass music, and a recent mix by FitzGerald showcasing the Hotflush label features dubstep classic "The Knowledge" memorably crashing through the elegant groove he constructs from more house-oriented efforts by himself, Kevin McPhee, and Joy O. The result is triumphant rather than intrusive, though, signaling these producers' lingering compatibility with the form they've since come to abandon.
One thing you'll almost always find about these producers is that they're still grouped into the nebulous "bass music" category, as if they could never be true "house" producers. FitzGerald doesn't seem to mind though: "I don't think I've made a track to date that any critic would describe as purely house or techno, but it occurs to me that some 'bass music' with BPMs near 130 and near-but-not-perfectly 4/4 beats would fit into the conception of techno that existed in the early '90s," he points out. As much as the scene might be making inroads towards house and techno, there's still a persistent stratification. "With bass music there's a constant pressure to be cutting-edge and innovative in a formal and sonic sense, and that all too often detracts from the focus on simply making good music. As long as people can draw a line between dubstep and house and find me somewhere in the middle, I'm okay with that," he says.
"In the middle" defines these producers to a tee: even as the sonic signifiers between "bass" and house begin to resemble each other more and more, it seems as if no one can agree where they truly belong, or which communities they deserve. "I remember seeing my last release on Aus in the Dubstep/Grime category on Juno. That's how they perceived me and what they associated the release with, when really it was a straight-up house record," says Agius of the issue. It's not often that you'll see a record with a Tevo Howard remix labeled "dubstep/grime," but such is the nature of these uncertain bass music genre politics. The confusion works both ways: one look at the RA comment thread for Artifact's recent "Archaic Line" single where my argument that it was house was roundly criticized. The drums are somehow too swung, the percussive/bassline interplay somehow too fluid, the natural result of two different forms flirting with each other.
If we're going to discuss these particular artists as part of the "bass music" spectrum, then the whole question of the hardcore continuum—that thread of hardcore running from early UK techno right through jungle to dubstep—and how the turn towards house is to be reconciled with the restless spirit of the 'nuum can't help but rear its head. In keeping with Pinch's descriptions of male-dominated audiences hungry for the visceral impact of dubstep, isn't house lacking the drop-oriented, feisty spirit of 'ardkore inherent to UK underground music? "That kind of attitude doesn't allow for the enormous variety found within all of that music, UK or otherwise, and it's a dichotomy I rejected a long time ago," says Thomson, adding "if you're after aggression and propulsive rhythmic energy listen to a few Steve Poindexter records or something. On the flipside, there's plenty of jungle releases that display all the melodic delicacy and nuance of the most beautiful Chicago records." Coming at house from an angle completely removed from the closed orthodoxy of deep house heads, these "bass music" producers look for (and find) a viscerality and primitivity in house music compatible with their own 'nuum heritage.
There's no better example of the newfound fascination with Chicago than David Kennedy, who quietly unveiled the Maurice Donovan alias last year, a make-believe Chicago producer replete with fake backstory and twitter account. The music lacked Kennedy's usual pan-genre twists and turns, instead focusing on a facsimile of any number of familiar Trax sounds underlaid with Kennedy's usual array of neurotic 808s. "This whole Chicago revival is exactly that—a revival of sounds and influences that a lot of younger people missed out on 'cause they weren't even born for it the first time around," says Pinch of the matter, adding, "so to [these young kids] it sounds fresh and exciting. It's all about harnessing that energy and relating it to something genuinely new."
Of course, some just don't care about genre, about structure, and about classification: "I don't know if it's necessary or beneficial to view house through the lens of the hardcore continuum or from the perspective a staunch dubstep fan. The things in music I like occur in the subtleties: I like filtered synths and drum edits and tracks that build." Like Thomson, Agius doesn't buy into the idea that house is missing something "bass music" can provide: "If people think there is a 'rudeness' lacking they need to look a bit further below the surface. Don't just listen to one deep house track and then subsequently write off the whole of house music. It doesn't work like that."
"A few years ago, Nick Craddock linked me to these cassette rips of a Spencer Kincy set at a night in Chicago called Deep In The Flowers," remembers Thomson. "Hearing those for the first time completely changed my perspective on how house music was 'supposed' to be mixed. His mixing style couldn't have any more in common with UK pirate radio DJing—hyperactive cutting, quick blends, and spinbacks... I can't overstate the impact that set had on my DJing."
It's easy to forget—especially given the last decade's revival and warm embrace of druggy, laid-back deep house—that house music encompasses so much more than we might often think, an almost kaleidoscopic variety well in tune with bass music's own tendency to splinter and spread. So maybe the differences between the two genres aren't as concrete as they appear at first. Maybe the sea change in bass music towards house isn't so much a regression as a new realm of exploration in the hardcore continuum, and a new chapter for house music, an orthodoxy injected with fresh new blood from an unfamiliar outside source.
Like any sort of change, there's the usual glut of resistance, name-calling, confusion and freak-of-nature awkward hybrids, but the sheer amount of creativity operating in the bass/house sphere is difficult to deny. Some, like Pinch and Ben UFO, opened their sets up to music they've always liked, gradually letting the house in, while new producers like Midland and FitzGerald emerged from the point of intersection with a new sound tantalizingly and comfortingly familiar to both sides of the genre gap. With a new generation of bass music producers roped in by the sudden openness to varied sounds and the old guard even coming around to embrace electronic dance music's oldest genre, it's really no wonder why house is suddenly the face of the UK's most experimental, restlessly creative dance music.