Looking back on Bristol's early dubstep sound.
Two years ago, the boxer Gervonta Davis shared a video of Drake jogging with an entourage. Shot from a moving vehicle, the track booming from the car's soundsystem was Peverelist's "Roll With The Punches," a 2007 Bristol dubstep classic. For the video, it was sampled, remixed and made into a thumping trap beat with a verse from Drake on top. Even in its edited form, played from a car speaker and recorded on a phone, the simple brilliance of "Roll With The Punches" came through.
Peverelist is Tom Ford, a key figure in UK dance music since the mid-'00s. Like Ford's other tracks from that era, "Roll With The Punches" feels alien. But that alien sound helped establish Bristol as dubstep's second city, the place where the genre went to get weird.
"The place felt thoroughly alive," Joe Cowton, AKA Kowton, told me over email. "The music varied from Joker's grime- and crunk-influenced tracks through to Appleblim's deep and meditative explorations on Skull Disco, but what held everything together was a real sense of community. The enthusiasm everyone shared was infectious."
Bristol and its growing ranks of producers took dubstep to its experimental peak, as artists introduced textures, influences and sounds into a genre that was born in smoke-filled London basements. Key in this development was Punch Drunk, which became a label for wonkier, more colourful and occasionally more techno-influenced music, paired with psychedelic vinyl center labels that contrasted with the dark and drab colours of other dubstep outlets.
Ford worked at Rooted Records, a Gloucester Road record store that was a hub for the early dubstep community in Bristol. (Rooted closed in 2010, and the mantle passed to Idle Hands, which opened up in Stokes Croft shortly after.) Though he wasn't as well known as Pinch, the pivotal DJ and producer who ran Tectonic Recordings, Ford slowly became a crucial figure in the scene.
"Pinch was steaming ahead," said Chris Farrell, who owns Idle Hands. "Tom came up behind him with a label that was specifically for Bristol artists. Even for people like me, who had nothing to contribute, it felt like a real achievement."
Punch Drunk mapped the blueprint for what would become the Bristol dubstep sound:
streaked with melody and more influenced by grime than London's sound at the time. Paired with the deeper track "Die Brücke," you can hear that lineage in "Roll With The Punches," the A-side of the sixth release on Punch Drunk.
Like most of Ford's tracks from that era, "Roll With The Punches" moves with zen-like focus and repetition. The drums stutter with a swing that became Ford's signature. Then there's the synth, a monstrous blast that nearly upends the track. You can hear the genesis of Bristol's next wave of dubstep producers like Joker, Gemmy and Guido in that fuzzy sound, which also drew inspiration from American hip-hop and synth music. No track captures that moment better than "Roll With The Punches."
The Bristol dubstep sound eventually mutated into house and techno, as it did elsewhere. Its appeal stretches beyond the West Country, and beyond dubstep itself—enough for rappers to fall in love with it again ten years later.
"Its strength is that it's not even a dubstep record," Farrell said. "It's a grime record. A really fucked up grime record."