Once mocked as boring music for boys and bloggers, dubstep has slowly been leaving its mark on everything around us. In today’s issue of the Red Bull Academey Daily Note, Joe Muggs goes looking for the new Detroit and finds it in Croydon.
Dubstep has changed everything. Absolutely everything. It’s crept up from nowhere (i.e. Croydon), turning club music upside down and inside out. It’s confounded theorists at every step and short-circuited old oppositions between street and geek, populist and avant-garde, innovation and tradition, even between what boys and girls are expected to like. It’s provided the missing link between disparate subcultures, reminding us that however rhythms change, raving is still raving. And it continues to change things.
Ever since early 2006, when dubstep burst out of the dark corners where it had been incubating, I’ve been endlessly amused by the constant pronouncements that it was dying, splitting, stuck in a rut. People who should know better have spewed great socio-political screeds across the blogosphere trying to write it off, often with little more explanation than “it’s not grime” or “jungle” – to which there’s no better answer than the immortal words of Christina Ricci Buffalo 66: “Does the word ‘DUHH’ mean anything to you?”
Dubstep has consistently proved itself to be too fluid for its critics. Its slow gestation means it won’t be pinned down to glory years (see rave ‘91/’92 or jungle ‘93-’95), and however much people attempt to nail down ‘halfstep wobble’, ‘future garage’ or ‘funkstep’, it refuses to solidify into sub-genres. Instead, it re-absorbs new versions of itself, spreading and influencing others – the closest comparison isn’t with British post-rave styles, but the way techno grew worldwide through the 1980s and into the ’90s... which would make Croydon our Detroit, right?
Dubstep’s internal shifts and will be documented more and more as time passes. But what is particularly fascinating right now is what it has done to the music around it: how it has changed everything.
Take grime as an example... As Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark reports in his blog, back around 2002, Rinse FM’s Geeneus and Slimzee used to refer to nascent dubstep as ‘safe grime’, a gloriously ambivalent term. Although edgier-than-thou commentators may see it as purely pejorative, equating safe with weak, safe can be a compliment (“safe bruv!”) and a literal description of a genre that had no truck with the MC clashes, postcode rivalries and general aggro of grime. Dubstep was safe, a contemplative, meditative space based around patient pursuit of the vibe – the “demilitarised zone” aka DMZ – compared to grime’s explosive energy that briefly threatened to storm the mainstream in the wake of Dizzee’s early success.
It didn’t work out like that, and a few years later, dubstep began its steady ascendency as grime appeared, figuratively and literally, to have shot itself in the foot. But the two musical cousins were tied together, as producers like Plastician, MRK1, Tubby, Joker, Starkey and huge records like The Bug’s Skeng, Plastician’s Intensive Snare and Dusk + Blackdown’s Concrete Streets kept reminding us. While grime raves were shut down, Rinse FM and FWD>> kept cross-fertilising. Dubstep allowed the MCs access to shows and demonstrated how a small but tight scene could take uncompromising UK bass to the world.
Of course, the crossover of funky and electro house into grime has contributed to its re-invigoration and increased ambition, as has the artists’ natural maturing. But the ubiquity of records like the Doorly remix of Wiley’s Take That, Breakage & The Newham Generals’ Hard, and the increased support for instrumental grime by dubstep DJs and labels like Hyperdub, Planet Mu and Plastician’s Terrorrhythm, show that dubstep’s influence on grime is a powerful and positive one.
Electronica owes dubstep big time. At the end of the century, the scene’s ’90s creativity was disappearing up its own fundament, dominated (as Kamal “Geiom” Joory memorably put it) by “200mph boy racer beats that you couldn’t dance to”. Dubstep provided a way out: a realisation that experimental music could aim for the dancefloor without always harking back to the mania of jungle, that tunes could have sophisticated production and musicality and huge, authentic soundsystem oomph.
Producers like Geiom, Shackleton and Bass Clef took dubstep to new and wonderful places, interpolating live instruments, polyethnic modes and exploratory atmospheres, while events like BLOC, Sónar and – yes – Red Bull Music Academy welcomed dubsteppers into the international electronica community. Mike Paradinas’ Planet Mu label – at one point almost a byword for noodle-tronica and crusty breakcore – put its faith in dubstep, proving acts like Vex’d and Distance could cut it as album artists. It’s a win/win relationship, and as a result, the 2010 experimental electronic music world is a fun place to be.
Techno early on hit on a good working relationship with dubstep, Shackleton and Scuba finding a welcoming home in Berlin where the post-Basic Channel climate was ready for the sub-bass. With Scuba and Paul Spymania’s DistanceSub:stance nights at DistanceBerghain bringing Mala, Joker and Skream into the current global hub of techno, and artists such as Monolake and Andy Stott revitalised by dubstep’s influence, deep techno has been taken a whole lot deeper by UK bass culture.
Dubstep’s relationship with drum’n’bass has been almost as symbiotic as that with grime. Young producers like Skream and Benga are true second-generation junglists, growing up with older siblings closely involved in the original movement. It was looking painfully formulaic at the beginning of the last decade, but when dubstep began to break out, the connection was obvious. Every drum’n’bass club got a dubstep room and producers from Shy FX to Tech Itch got on the new flex. The freedom afforded by the tempo shift and dubstep’s spaciousness breathed creative air into the scene for the first time in a decade, the pinnacle being the genre-busting brilliance of dBridge and Instra:Mental’s NonPlus label as well as the Autonomic podcasts.
And so it goes on: house and electro are charged with dubstep wobble, everyone from Zinc to Toddla T churning out huge basslines – Annie Mac’s ascendancy to Radio 1’s flagship dance show proving precisely how much generation bass has taken over from the four-to-the-floor acid house granddads in clubbing’s mainstream. UK garage has been brought back from the wilderness by its upstart offspring and funky, revitalising the careers of MJ Cole, Zed Bias and Noodles. Hip hop has been infiltrated by the low-end dancefloor power of dubstep, from the most mainstream (Plastician producing Snoop Dogg) to the far leftfield (Flying Lotus, Rustie and the new mutant generation of Illum Sphere, kidkanevil and Om Unit). The open spaces and depth-charge bass of The XX have shown that indie can use dubstep’s sonics, while Pendulum and others are taking it into metal. Even jazz dance and broken beat are feeling the force of dubstep’s reverberations with Gilles Peterson championing Jazzsteppa and Floating Points mixing live instruments with dubstep heft.
By connecting to every one of these scenes and more, dubstep has bound the underground together, reminding us that a shared love of bass-stimulated endorphins and sleep deprivation delirium link the most diverse of punters and musicians. One doesn’t want to be Pollyannaish: scenesterism, purism and dog-in-a-manger protectionism are always dangers. But with artists now moving in celestial circles (Benga-Skream-Artwork supergroup Magnetic Man have signed to Columbia; Chase and Status cavort with Jay-Z and Snoop; Skream’s remixed La Roux, Untold has done Ke$ha) while still being seen on the dancefloors of DMZ and FWD>>, the possibilities created for quality music across the spectrum, feel endless.
Joe Muggs is a music writer and reviewer for Word Magazine, The Wire, and many more. You can download the full PDF version of Daily #19/24 here, and browse through a large selection of dubstep shows on RBMA Radio. Photo of DMZ's Sgt Pokes @ RBMA Culture Clash by Mr Mass.