Dubstep 2010

When the levees broke

Dubstep 2010 Javier Blánquez Michael Schmelling 1. Birth

The first time the word dubstep appears written down was (if no new facts come to light) in July 2002 on the pages of XLR8R, a magazine edited in San Francisco at the time. In a cover story focussed on the new rhythmic manoeuvres of the London 2step underground, Dave Stelfox singled out a series of producers and activists like Horsepower Productions, Ms. Dynamite, Ghost Recordings, Heartless Crew and the promoter Ammunition –led by Neil Jolliffe and Sarah Lockhart, also responsible for the FWD> parties and the Tempa label– who were, once again, starting to change the face of the hardcore continuum. The tag chosen to refer to all this diversity was dubstep –a contraction of dub and 2step, or the meticulous and experimental version of passionate garage, radio-friendly and covered in sparkling R&B diva vocals which at the time were flourishing in the British underground, with the addition of a strong deceleration of jungle rhythms and some very powerful bass lines. But as usually happens when people try to fence in an unclear reality, the word “dubstep” was a shot in the dark (every tag is, at first, that’s why most of them don’t stick). At the time, the feeling something new was happening was intense; the hard thing to anticipate exactly was what it’s aesthetic reach could be, and up to what point it would evolve –or die – logically. In that article there was also a brief mention for the by then still relatively unknown Steve Goodman –who had released his first 12” on Tempa under his Kode9 moniker, “Fat Larry’s Skank”, in collaboration with Benny Ill and The Culprit. Two years later he would found Hyperdub, and his words were there to propose a different terminology. According to Kode9, “dubstep” wasn’t adequate a term, but “yardcore” was: “from jungle to garage and forward, is the mutant strain of the UK hardcore audio virus, where Jamaican dancehall flavour meets London’s freshest riddims.”

Kode9 has never been a convinced defender of the “dubstep” word. His academic baggage has served him to encode and enrich the tag “hyperdub” (name of the now defunct e-zine he started at the turn of the century to document the music bubbling up from the same underground that he, Horsepower, Hatcha, El-B emerged from) with intellectual content, hyperdub as in a trans-oceanic and trans-generic evolution, very 21st century, of the genuine dub virus. Neither hyperdub nor yardcore are tags that have survived; dubstep has been doing the job well for eight years, all thanks to that XLR8R cover story. After all this time, dubstep, at the time a minor genre, is an omnipresent style that has been gaining significance little by little, by going from it’s first stuttering steps to an explosion of creativity, impossible to summarise in a few lines, and evolving from the deep underground to the present, when we can finally say that dubstep –or it’s transition to something as of yet unknown– occupies the fringe of mainstream electronic club music (if we talk about quality and relevance, for sure, we know for a fact that David Guetta is still alive). These trips from zero to everything are always long, the maturity process is extensive, and it could only be expected that the journey was going to be completed successfully. Between the first Tempa mix CD on which the word dubstep appeared in big red letters ( “Dubstep Allstars: Vol. 1. Mixed By DJ Hatcha”, 2004) up to the very recent Magnetic Man album –and note: we haven’t even moved out of Croydon yet–, gapes a huge abyss. Both records, however, belong to the same tradition, the same constantly changing movement; they are two similar attempts to conquer new crowds and areas of influence.

2. Expansion

In 2004, dubstep was a grain of sonic dust floating through a space where money and the attention of the public was taken by scenes like the minimal techno, electroclash or progressive house. Today, those genres are in recession, cornered, without energy, and dubstep has occupied the space they left empty. The process has been the same as described by Darwin’s theory about the evolution of the species: he who best adapts to his environment survives. The same theory of the parallel universes –also called “of the multiverse”–, put forward by Hugh Everett III, could also be related to music: in an infinite ocean of sound, different bubbles are born, they grow until the reach a critical mass and contract. Dubstep was a small universe in comparison to techno or hip-hop, but it’s been growing as other universes were shrinking, and today it’s a proud and giant bubble on the present point of space-time.

We speak of a bubble because it’s a good metaphor to anticipate the mid-term future. Like the real estate bubble –and like the minimal or trance bubble–, the dubstep bubble will one day pop and something new, still difficult to visualise at this point, will occupy it’s space. Dance music has always worked in cycles, and 2010 is the point in this process –after a 2009 of movements and uncertainties– when dubstep rules. But can we really speak of “dubstep”? It’s clear that there’s a strong conflict in the terminology: what is being made now is on the other extreme of what years ago was created by Digital Mystikz, MRK-1 and early Skream. Just a few days ago Kode9 tweeted a phrase with the intention of being cynical, lapidary or critical with regards to Hyperdub: “not a dubstep label”. The undertone was clear: it indicates the spirit of setting itself apart from a scene that has grown, is polyhedral and doesn’t share a common unrest, and it denounces the uselessness –or maybe that should be: vagueness– of that dubstep tag, which is like techno, or house: an ample term, unable to indicate with one word the variety of nuances and registers that exist out there.

3. Excitement and confusion Reading on forums and other places, one can find reactions from followers of this music: excitement and perplexity, and in some cases, anger. The excitement comes from the sweet moment dubstep –generalising– is having right now. Production has increased, the distribution and the quality –although that’s a matter of opinion– has improved compared to what was released in 2008, and the flow of new producers, new labels and new solid bangers is better than ever. A lot of music is being released and the amount of quality is sufficient to isolate oneself in this bubble of sound without coming out, taking advantage of the unapproachable ramification of the genre in the last couple of months: UK funky, funkstep, future garage, emostep, popstep, etc. The latter is the one that makes some fans angry: the turn of some producers towards chart pop, personified in the figure of Benga –producer of “Katy On A Mission” by Katy B– and the trio he forms with Skream and Artwork, Magnetic Man, authors of another chart-topping hymn like “I Need Air”. Nothing new there. There have always been followers who are purists and can’t stand it when someone from the underground achieves mass success on their own terms –without saying anything, for now, anything about the validity of their music. We’ll have to get back to you on this.

At this point it’s more interesting to analyse the why of one of the other reactions of now, perplexity. There are some who say they’re “lost”, without a reference point to follow. Another metaphor: a storm at sea, not a coast in sight, nor a lighthouse indicating the shortest route, the feeling of being adrift. Up until not so long ago, those key reference points were there. One of them was Burial, the first sign of the possibility of dubstep taking control and extending to an audience close to other scenes –hip-hop, indie-pop, ambient. “Untrue” (Hyperdub, 2007) is still the Gospel of dubstep as an art form –not as a club sound, but then you can’t have it all–, but we have to recognise as well that these past three years Burial’s silence has been agonising, and although at times he has created moments of deepness capable of letting the listener falling in love with his music – “Fostercare” on the “5 Years of Hyperdub” compilation, the split 12” with Four Tet–, he has also been repeating a formula, judging from his remix for Commix or the previously unreleased “Prophecy” for the “Nu Levels” compilation (2010) on the Ghost label. All that production of Burial is insufficient or not varied enough to cause a stir. Ergo, Burial is no longer the touchstone of this scene, so complex and diversified, like he was in 2008. Now it could be Skream –with this years double whammy “Outside The Box” and the Magnetic Man album–, but the influence of Skream extends to the mainstream. His role is another one.

4. The shift of the axis

What’s happening with dubstep is that it has definitively entered a stage we usually call “post-genre”, i.e., when the old rules are recognised but the context and the aesthetics have changed so much that they point to unclear grounds still to be defined and mark out. In a way, we have to accept the fact the original dubstep block has disintegrated. That dark, slow sound with zooming bass lines, there’s not a lot of people left who still make that sound, and those who remain true to the wobble –The Others, Caspa, the Dub Police label, etc.– may be able to conserve their piece of ground but they know that, like Bad Company and Andy C when they ruled the muscular side of drum’n’bass, they’re bound to extinguish, to become a cliché for youngsters with too much testosterone. It won’t be the first time the comparison with drum’n’bass appears here. The dissolution of warrior dubstep, with it’s colossal echoes, has led to a phase of liquidity –the stylised garage of Joy Orbison, Pangaea, Untold, Ramadanman and other Hotflush or Hessle Audio releases; the puzzling rhythms that touch on the virtuous IDM of Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Hemlock imprint; the deviations towards the ethereal hip-hop of Throwing Snow and the Ho Tep label– in which the variety of textures determines the richness of the whole. That’s a sign of maturity, of potential, as is as well the rhythmic diversification that funky house allows for, the constant connections with grime (SRC, Terror Danjah), drum’n’bass (ASC), 2step (Deadboy), with the better part of the rave continuum.

But all this is scenius – as in: the scene as genius instead of geniuses on the scene. Are there geniuses, are there people who are different like Burial used to be? There doesn’t seem to be anyone capable of channelling the complete force of dubstep in one direction –a much more difficult task when the scene is bigger and more complex than three years ago–, but there are movements in the periphery that passionately seek to differentiate themselves, to escape from the written norm. Snipers on the roof. James Blake, for example, plays the outsider role more perfectly than Bass Clef, for various reasons, never really could: Blake doesn’t only work outside of everything –he has even spoken out against club music and in favour of private and home listening, obsessed with generating sentiments before movements–, his music also shies away from any exterior frontier to manifest itself with an even greater purity, like something unique and inimitable. His three gems of this year – “The Bells Sketch” (Hessle Audio), “CMYK” (R&S) and “Klavierwerke” (R&S)– crumble garage, polish angelic voices full of passion, and the rhythmic complexity inherent to the style crumbles with an admirable concentration. In the case of “Klavierwerke”, when keying in piano phrasings, he approaches the context of academic music rather than hardcore. On “Limit To Your Love”, an advance of what will be his album for 2011, Blake dares to sing with baritone voice over bass lines that are like electric discharges. His destiny is therefore pop: a futurist pop, unusual, that starts from primitive dubstep and ends up with songwriting. It’s something like that what indicates the post-genre disintegration: if the most advanced sound of the scene doesn’t correspond with the features we attributed to it at it’s peak, that’s a sign of the dislocation of the centre. Another example is the mysterious Raime: a 12”, “Raime Ep” (Blackest Ever Black, 2010), that starts out from goth and turns the darkness of dubstep into a labyrinth of post-punk and early industrial samples. When there are no maps of the new territory available, it’s a sign that the rules are being rewritten.

James Blake - Klavierwerke

Like James Blake, the Darkstar duo can hardly be considered dubstep anymore. We explained it last Monday in the album review, but it could be useful to single out some ideas once more. Their most obvious connection with dubstep is in the past and in their present state as Hyperdub recording artists (although we shouldn’t forget about that “not a dubstep label” ). But the real place for Darkstar now is in art-pop. Some features still connect them to South and East London, some sub-basses, the liquid programming of the machines, the narrow identification with the sonic ecosystem of their city, but Darkstar are closer to the Radiohead of “Kid A” than to Burial. You’d have to make a titanic effort to enter “North”, because it’s a record that is preceded by some expectations and a frame they do not respect. They take dubstep as a place to start and they take it somewhere else –for example, “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer”: it’s a galactic lullaby like the goodbye of Hal-9000 in “2001”, a perverse love song with verses that could have come from J.G. Ballard. Darkstar are idiosyncratically English –in their identification with that social and humanist sci-fi, sceptic about the future even, and with the long tradition of synthetic pop, with a cover version of “Gold” (The Human League) included–, and it’s that character of cultural identification that ties them to dubstep on “North”, not the other way around, although making the connection from the other end is revealing as well: starting from dubstep to take on the unknown. Darkstar aren’t a certainty but a possibility, just like “Kid A” wanted to change the face of rock in the digital era.

Darkstar - Aidy's Girl's A Computer

5. Conquest

In this expansion process, dubstep will suffer some crucial transformation. It’s still early to speculate what it will be; there are many options and none stand out. It will take months –the huge influence of Burial went unnoticed until almost a year after the release of “Untrue”; patience is key–, and maybe then we’ll be able to see something on the other side. This will be an interior transformation, of spirit and high artistic objectives, and it will be the one that will have to take the turn in the rave continuum when the other big explosion –much more sparkling and spectacular– will end. Everybody will have noticed that the other dubstep has entered a stage of infiltration in the mainstream, something that had to happen at some point. This pendulum movement has always existed and is necessary for the well-functioning of the musical cycles. It brings side-effects with it and collateral damage, but in essence it’s not a bad thing. Drum’n’bass, another hyper-experimental genre, a lesson in rhythmic science in a pure form, had ambitious records released by major labels and with incredible audacities like Goldie’s “Saturnz Return” (1998), which started with an hour of symphonic orchestra. On this record, Goldie even collaborated with Noel Gallagher (Oasis). What Magnetic Man are doing now has all the characteristics of what Roni Size / Reprazent did back in 1997, when they released “New Forms” (Talkin’ Loud): that was a band formed by jungle pioneers who were ready to take their music to another stage of popularity and creation. The existence of Reprazent is what allows for legitimacy of the union of Skream, Benga and Artwork as Magnetic Man: the ambition to break the limits of the genre and take it to a mass audience –illustrated with the connection with trance and old school rave on “I Need Air” or with the X-Factor pop of “Perfect Stranger”– is not necessarily synonymous with selling out. The ambition to conquer, to score, to satisfy the ego, can be more of an incentive than a fat bank account. Electronic fundamentalism unilaterally identifies success like that, but it ain’t necessarily so.

“Magnetic Man” (Columbia UK, 2010) will be to dubstep what “New Forms” was to drum’n’bass and “Homework” (Daft Punk) to house, an album in the epicentre of an uncontrollable popular and creative expansion. They are records that cannot be blamed for what comes after them –after Daft Punk, Cassius arrived and a year after Reprazent, Kosheen; a degeneration of bad taste–, but leave the door open to an unknown path. The evolution of Skream and Benga as producers and DJs –headlining, for example, big festivals or remixing pop artists like La Roux– is what has led them to find the explosive register of Magnetic Man. Another thing that led up to the forming of the group was the realisation that they are not special and unique artists, but artists coming from a twenty-year old tradition: it’s the search for their roots that has taken them to the drum’n’bass of the old Metalheadz / Moving Shadow school and the chart-breaking hardcore-rave (“I Need Air” could be the 2010 version of Altern-8). At it’s key points, “Magnetic Man” is a sincere album by artists who have not forgotten where they came from. In fact, Skream and Benga are still releasing wobble tracks. “Katy On A Mission” could be the new “Wegue Wegue” ( Buraka Som Sistema), as is commented in the choruses, but that doesn’t mean these people have sold their soul to the devil.

What could be more worrying is the obsession Skream and Benga have with promotion. You only need to check their Twitter accounts: they’re on fire. Every time someone says anything good about them there’s an immediate retweet. Every time one of their tunes goes up in the charts –iTunes UK, for example, where Magnetic Man have already been number 1–, there are 140 characters of self-promotion. On the other hand, what’s wrong with that? They are young, they believe in their work and, if anything, it’s a good thing that they can spread the message and promote themselves. Furthermore, what’s the use of making music for the masses if you’re not going to be in touch with them, if only via Twitter? We can’t even know what the future provides for this popstep. History –condemned to repeating itself– teaches us that there will be clones immediately, and a rapid corruption and degeneration of dubstep for the masses is inevitable, a situation that will provoke loads of cases of embarrassment and that will over time, and after a long and unbearable agony, give way to another phenomenon that best reflects the spirit of the time and the urgencies of the masses. For now, Joker appears to be “the next big thing”: he signed with Universal last summer, turning down other proposals; via Twitter he organised a casting in order to find vocalists for his record. Joker wants his “Katy On A Mission”, he’s hungry for the charts as well and we’ll have to hear what will come from his hands on his particular crossroads of grime, polychromatic dubstep and futurist pop-soul.

La Roux - In for the kill (Skream remix)

6. Flood

Dubstep is the mainstream of electronic music, because it floods us. The gates have been opened and it’s gushing in, so much so that it’s impossible to keep up with everything. Clubbing temples like Ministry Of Sound are releasing their compilations –selected by a trustworthy journalist like Joe Muggs, who can hardly be suspected of mediocrities; the record is called “Adventures In Dubstep And Beyond!” and collects some future garage tunes with an edge of rave in the vein of labels such as Night Slugs and Numbers, between accelerated post-garage and jungle-infected dubstep. This double pack is, together with “Future Bass” (Soul Jazz, 2010), focussing on post-garage, the richest and most varied collection of talents on the market right now. The fact that labels as established and careful to have a positive balance at the close of the year as Soul Jazz –who are also preparing a funky house compilation, the same way they, some years ago, defined the dubstep cut according to Jamaican standards with “Steppas Delight”–, Ministry or Rinse FM are investing in compilations, means that there is a market. It’s the confirmation of the change of paradigm, of the ever wider acceptance by an audience that is tired of other genres, looking for new and fresh material.

So these are exciting times for dubstep. Critical times, too. The excitement is palpable, the same way as reasonable doubts can be perceived –that fear before the jump, that suspicion towards the unknown– and the confusion grows before interrogative works displaced from their natural spot, like those of James Blake, Darkstar and, in a way, Mount Kimbie –a personal opinion, however: that pastoral downtempo touch, like coffee table music, takes away aplomb and charm from “Crooks & Lovers” (Hotflush, 2010). But Mount Kimbie are playing that game, too. They are the ones reaching the hipster audience and indie lovers in a more direct way –having supported The xx on various European and UK dates helps a lot. Speaking of The xx, even Jamie xx has gone further in his appetite for urban music and, aside from the band, has his first solo 12” lined up on Numbers. There is an exciting uncertainty about the future in the air: all the possibilities are open and the probability that something good is going to happen, something that will turn the wheel of this little story, is high. The day will come we will drown, no doubt, but for now we have no other option than to open the gates and let this whirlpool of dubstep activity flow freely. We could not open up, but that would be futile: the force is so uncontrollable that the flood barriers would break anyway sooner or later. Get ready for the blow.

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