Looking back on a dubstep classic.
After lunch on Christmas Day, 2003, once the rest of his family had passed out, a 17-year-old Oliver Jones, AKA Skream, went to his bedroom to smoke weed and make tunes. He fired up FruityLoops and began piecing together a grime track, a style he'd recently been experimenting with. He found a built-in arpeggiator and clicked a button that set it off. He added a bassline and some gunshot noises. "Stupid as that sounds, most grime tunes at the time had gunshots," Jones told me over the phone from London.
This "grime" tune, originally titled "Minus C," would end becoming dubstep's first—and greatest—anthem. Later renamed "Midnight Request Line" after Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three's "Request Line," which Jones sampled for the intro, it helped catapult dubstep from the dance floors and record shops of South London onto the global stage. To this day, the Midnight Request Line / I EP remains the highest-selling 12-inch on Tempa Records, the influential UK garage and dubstep label that released it in 2005.
But "Midnight Request Line" wasn't an immediate hit. For Jones, it was just one of hundreds of tunes taking up room on his hard drive. His peers, at least at first, were of a similar mind, mostly because it didn't fit with the dark and smoky sound popular at the storied dubstep party FWD>>.
"No one played it," he said. "No one played it all. I only used to give my tunes to Hatcha. I used to give him a CD of like 20 tunes and he wasn't into that one, so I didn't play it. Because when the person you look up to ain't into it, you vibe on what they're into."
Eventually, some DJs did get behind it, chief among them Youngsta. One night at FWD>>, it thundered out the speakers while three grime MCs called Skepta, Wiley and Jammer were in the crowd "getting out their heads." It blew their minds. They tracked down the record and passed it onto their DJ, Maximum, who began hammering it. In a funny twist of fate, the grime-tune-turned-dubstep-smash was finally being recognised by the grime kingpins. For a while, it was one of Skepta's favourite beats. In this famous radio clip, he even asks Jones for £500 in return for him and Maximum blowing it up.
"It'd already been blown up a year," said Jones, laughing.
One of the track's more unlikely fans was Ricardo Villalobos, who reportedly began weaving it into his sets of hypnotic house and techno as early as 2005. Jones recalled a story about Villalobos playing it at fabric. "The only person I know who was there was Matt Tolfrey, who says to this day it's still the weirdest moment he's ever had at fabric. It was about 6 AM and Villalobos dropped 'Midnight Request Line' and the dance floor emptied. But he stood there because he knew something had just happened."
Laurent Garnier, too, was a fan, as were Annie Mac and Mary Anne Hobbs. It had serious crossover appeal, which explains why it took a while to stick in the dubstep scene. Colourful and melodic, with an unusually high-pitched bassline, it's one of those tracks where the elements hang so well together it's hard to imagine them being assembled. Nothing is out of place.
"I can still listen to it anytime," said Jones. "The only mardy thing is the mixdown is fucking shit. But maybe if I had been able to afford a mixdown, the bass wouldn't have been how it was. I just wish the arpeggiator had been louder."
The EP's B-side, "I," is more of a conventional FWD>> track. In many ways, it's the opposite to the A-side: moody, eerie, understated. Clacking percussion cuts through a smog of arpeggiated synths and drawn-out foghorns. By the sounds of it, Jones liked "I" more than its counterpart at the time, though, as the years rolled by, he grew to love the track that put him, and dubstep, on the map.
"It was literally hitting two keys," he said about "Midnight Request Line"'s synth. "It was the simplest thing. When I showed my missus, she was like, 'That's the tune you're fucking famous for?'"