Low End Theory: Dubstep Merchants
- Words: Matt Earp
It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday in March at DMZ, London's bi-monthly dubstep party at the 400-person 3rd Bass, the basement room of Mass, a converted Brixton church once the site of 10-plus years of legendary jungle events. The queue outside is 600 deep. Digital Mystikz and Loefah, the team behind tonight's event, make the decision to move the party upstairs to the main room. The sound goes from womblike bass-throb downstairs to a towering assault on the main floor. Three hundred guests were expected; more than 1000 go home that night with a new sound ringing in their ears.
A little over a month later, on a Friday afternoon in April, an email goes out from Dave Quintiliani, organizer of NYC's bi-monthly dubstep party Dub War. "Urgent: Dub War venue change. Rothko shut down. Information to follow." Six hours later, Loefah, having just arrived in the US for the first time, with MC Sgt. Pokes, goes on as planned in the chapel at Avalon (formerly The Limelight), New York's most sacred party venue for 15 years running. "I still haven't quite got over it," says Loefah, who also runs the DMZ label (pronounced anglo-style: "dee-em-zed"), of the night. "It was just incredible. It was really mad to see music that we created in our bedrooms in South London making waves in New York."
In the four years since XLR8R ran a cover story featuring pioneering dubstep trio Horsepower Productions, taking "an inside look at London's dub 2-step underground," the genre has experienced an exciting life, a near-death experience, and a radical resuscitation that has brought it new producers, new sounds, and a groundswell of new listeners from around the globe. In many ways, dubstep is still a tiny scene: Producers probably number fewer than 100, and nights (aside from London's DMZ and New York's Dub War) rarely pull more than a couple hundred people. But the raw energy of the young scene attracts more and more listeners every day. "I feel like we've scratched the surface," says Loefah. "Every day I get messages from people saying, 'I've just discovered this music,' wanting to know more about it. And if anything, that's increasing."
Sound-wise, the scene maintains some key elements that initially helped it gain international attention. Around 2000, production crews like Horsepower and the Ghost Tracks stable flipped the script on the 2-step scene that was ruling London at the time–one that was champagne- and bling-drenched, feel-good, R&B-influenced. They took the sound darker, keeping its skippy, uptempo backbone but adding a heavy dose of Jamaican musical influence. New producers often embrace an even heavier variation on the sound, discarding the stepping feel in favor of half-time drum patterns, cavernous echo, and massive bass that now feels closer to King Tubby and Jah Shaka than MJ Cole or Wookie. Energetic dancefloor tunes like Skream's "Acid People" obviously make a splash, but audiences are just as likely to be holding hands aloft and thrashing heads to the slow pound of Loefah's tracks.
Although the sound is a fusion of diverse elements from around the world–heavy dub from Jamaica, Eastern music samples, and energetic chatter from some of the best MCs in London–dubstep's heart and soul has remained in its birthplace. "You can't really talk about this music without talking about Croydon," laughs Georgia Cook (a.k.a. Infinite), an enthusiastic photographer who chronicles the scene at drumzofthesouth.blogspot.com. She speaks freely of the South London neighborhood where she and many of the producers live and continue to feel fierce pride for. She reminisces about Spectrum, the Croydon drum & bass night once hosted by Sgt. Pokes, where she first met Mala of the Digital Mystikz in 2003. "[When he described his music to me]' thought 'Oh, okay'...I couldn't get my head around it. Then he played me 'B' and I thought 'Oh my God, what is this?!'...From then on, it grabbed me. I heard Dubstep Allstars Volume One, and that was on loop in my car all the time. I couldn't stop playing it. Everyone who got in the car had to listen to it as well, especially 'Highland Spring' and 'Fat Larry's Skank.'"
The Dubstep Allstars mix series, now four releases old, comes from the scene's most enduring record label, Tempa. The most recent Allstars mix is a double pack–one CD is mixed by Youngsta, one by Hatcha–and is crammed with new and unreleased tunes. Tempa is part of Ammunition, a network that also encompasses the labels Road, Soulja, and Dump Valve, a record promotion and distribution company, and live events like Forward, the five-year-strong Thursday weekly at London's Plastic People. The majority of the collective's work is done by the scene's hardest working mover and shaker, Sarah "Soulja" Lockhart. "There are always people that have massive influence but don't get a great deal of credit," says blogger, writer, and unofficial dubstep historian/record keeper Martin Clark (a.k.a. Blackdown). "It's unbelievable the amount of work she does for the scene on a daily basis."
In addition to the seminal Dubstep Allstars, Tempa has snagged many of the scene's biggest releases to date–in '06, many of them have been by wunderkind Skream (with 25-plus tracks released by his 21st birthday and hundreds more rumored to be floating around). These have included the massive "Midnight Request Line," Skreamizm Vols. 1 and 2, the stellar remixes of his tracks "I" and "Monsoon" by Loefah, and an LP, already on tap for the fall. When asked to describe the enthusiastic youngster's vibe, Jamie Teasdale from Vex'd, a duo that makes visceral, fractured bass odysseys, says: "[Skream] has the most colorful sound. His tracks have this vibrancy about them. And he's just so quick in writing. He's truly at ease with the dubstep form; he can do anything with it, and most everything he does seems to define the genre."
Under the Influence
Skream's tracks are distinctive, but one of the most exciting things about the scene is the relative lack of consensus about what exactly dubstep is (other than that most of the tracks are produced at the same tempo). Do the epic, break-driven tracks of popular Hot Flush artists like Boxcutter and Toasty fit in? What about the work of M.R.K. 1 and The Plastician (formerly Mark One and Plasticman), whose tracks bridge the divide between grime, dubstep, and dark, 4/4 house?
As in any healthy, young scene there's plenty of discussion about where dubstep's boundaries begin and end, but the one thing that is clear is that the scene supports an amazing diversity of background influences: from Vex'd's heavy metal leanings to the crypto-mysticism of Kode 9 and his gravel-throated MC, The Space Ape, to the cinematic leanings of DJ Distance, who was brought up on rock and trip-hop.
"Everyone's pushing the boundaries, everyone's adding their own flavor," says Skream (a.k.a. Olli Jones). "All the tracks that are getting played, the quality's good and it's all different sounds. You hear a new tune by Distance and then one by Benga and they're totally different."
The Sub Humans
Bristol's DJ Pinch, owner of the flourishing Tectonic label, paints a picture of the genre in broad strokes but still manages to draw out some aspects of the vibe. "You get the depth you find in good minimal techno and you get that kind of meditative space from it. You get that warmth from dub, the warm bass, and you even get those kind of paranoid drum & bass sounds, and that palette of atmosphere. It's similar ingredients to what hardcore had but it's all the opposite bits from those bits, in a way."
Loefah–who, alongside The Bug, throws a monthly London party called Bash, focusing on Jamaican music from the last 40 years–delves further into his past to explain his take on the dubstep sound. "I grew up into hardcore jungle and drum & bass–that's fast, break-oriented music, and I wanted to flip it in a way...I was bored with it. It's what I'd done for 10 years. I wanted to make slow, minimal music, where the pace comes from the bass groove as opposed to the beat. The beat's just more of a pacemaker and the bass is where you get your energy from."
A perfectionist by nature and a photographer by trade ("A perfect image is like getting a good mixdown," he says), Loefah's style has been tremendously influential on younger producers in the scene over the last 18 months. "People seem to think that it's really easy to do half-step and to copy the half-step that Loefah does exceptionally well," says Blackdown. "But it's like minimal techno. It appears to be really easy to do because there's not much there; the trick is finding the few elements that really, really work. I do like Mala's uptempo stuff [as well]–something about it is really refreshing. He's pioneering it himself with just loads of mad ideas. There's a density of quality there, and not many people are doing that."
Already, 2006 has proved to be a banner year for the scene. "It's really only in the last year that I've started enjoying DJing anywhere in the way that you're supposed to enjoy DJing, when there's actually more than 10 people and a dog on the dancefloor," laughs DJ, producer, former XLR8R writer, and Hyperdub label owner Kode 9 (born Steve Goodman).
Things kicked off with the January 4th episode of the Breezeblock, the BBC Radio 1 show hosted by Mary Anne Hobbs, which gathered Mala, Skream, Kode 9 and Space Ape, Vex'd, Hatcha and Crazy D, Loefah and Sgt. Pokes, and Distance together in one place for a two-hour showcase of new tunes. "She has an unprecedented influence," says Blackdown of Hobbs' impact. "She has an audience greater than anyone else [estimated at 6 million], a global reach. It's without rivalry."
Recordings of the show started to appear across the net and membership on dubstepforum.com tripled over the next few months. Then March brought epic numbers of people to the DMZ night, causing the mid-party move from the basement to the main hall of Mass. "DMZ is like inviting people into our living room–anybody's welcome," says Mala. "We get a whole different group of people down there: different ages, different cultures, different races. Mainly older people; not too many youngsters [or] age 18s...When I play music out I like to be amongst people; I'm not really into V.I.P. or red carpet or none of that bullshit." Mala was conflicted about leaving the intimate setting of the basement club but ultimately feels it was the right thing to do. "We had to make the decision and when we checked out the other room it just felt right straight away–a 3rd Bass upgrade. So now we've moved, got a bit of a bigger house, bigger living room!"
The number of fans in attendance is a tremendous leap forward compared to a year and a half ago; Kode 9 chuckles as he remembers it. "When DMZ was still in a bar on a Sunday night in Croydon, it was completely desolate. It was me, Digital Mystikz, Loefah, [and] maybe four or five other people. And it almost summed up the low point of where things had got to before they started growing again. I looked up over the decks and the place was practically deserted, apart from one of these little two-foot-high robots dancing on the dancefloor...[It was] basically the only thing moving in the place."
Unity In Dub
London's not the only place falling for dubstep's newly reconstituted flavors. Dub War's near meltdown and tremendously successful relocation to Avalon was merely one proof of the hunger for the sound overseas. "We had a good core crowd of Dub War regulars," says Dave Q of the April event, "and because we were at Avalon we had the goth kids there, the Jersey Friday night clubbing crowd, and the Asian scene that DJ Seoul draws. Actually, it's a perfect room for bass, since it's got an arched ceiling it just holds the weight of the bass really well."
"We went from maybe five to 15 events a month in December of '05 to over 50 events per month worldwide in less than six months," enthuses Seckle of dubstepforum.com. "Conspira's Unidade Sonora weekly radio show in Lisbon, Portugal is now a global event. DJ Quietstorm just completed a tour of Australia–a huge success. Toronto's Subtrac Party is gaining huge momentum. Reelcash's party in Lublin, Poland has been going on for months, and Tallinn, Estonia just had Vex'd alongside Jamie Lidell." Dubstep has also found a foothold on the American West Coast, with the monthly Grime City event and DJ Ripple's larger one-offs popping off in San Francisco.
With so much hype, a whole new crop of producers is starting to make noise around the world. Burial's LP on Hyperdub received a lot of attention over the summer'ron Soul's dubs are quickly becoming some of the most sought out, Hijack (Skream's older brother) is making waves, and fall will see the first release on DQ's Dub War, Secret Agent Gel's "Cold/Publishing V.I.P." In addition, the scene now has enough history behind it for Tempa to release the Ammunition and Blackdown present ... The Roots of Dubstep compilation, with classic and unreleased material by El-B, Horsepower, and Menta. The fall also brings several full-lengths: Skream's album for Tempa; Kode 9 and The Space Ape's forthcoming LP on Hyperdub, DJ Distance's disc on Planet Mu, and Pinch's Tectonic retrospective coming in October.
Dubstep's story has been about movement outwards and onwards: beats and bass moving out from massive speakers to the dancefloor; the sound travelling from its South London home across the globe; and the scene's graduation from relative obscurity towards recognition from the world at large. "[Dubstep]'s started to become more established in Britain," says Loefah. "It rolls off the tongue now. A year ago, if you said 'dubstep,' people would be like, 'What's that?' Now they know exactly what it is."
"It's still a young scene and it's got a lot of room to grow," concedes DJ Pinch. "I think it will grow, and the one thing I can say about it is that it's been a slow but steady progression and it hasn't wavered. It's like a slow snowball gathering speed as it rolls down a hill and it's still got a long way to go."
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