The brutal bass of dubstep has been tickling ribcages since the genre’s humble beginnings in Croydon circa 2001. It hasn’t had much of an impact on the charts though – until now. David Smyth charts the rise of the UK’s trendiest new dance phenomenon, led by a troupe of enigmatic producers and songwriters.
A new strain of artist is melding dancefloor roots with traditional songwriting craft to produce an innovative new musical bent, which, surprisingly, still makes sense at home and on daytime radio. The charge is being led by 23-year-old north Londoner James Blake, who gives his late night ballads a fragile humanity by placing his extraordinary voice at their heart.
The result of his experimentation is a style of electronic music that can be neatly filed alongside far more conventional singer-songwriters. His self-titled album, released earlier this year to much fanfare, is almost akin to US folk singer Bon Iver, with its complex layering of vocals. Comparisons can also be drawn with last year’s Mercury winners The xx; Blake’s erudite treatment of space and silence within his songs echoes the expanse of the London trio’s eponymous 2009 debut album.
Some of Blake’s more conventional ballads also recall the torch songs of another Mercury Prize winner, Antony & the Johnsons. In fact, Blake sounds so much of the moment that he must be a frontrunner for this year’s Mercury Prize himself. The progression from his early instrumental EPs to an album that employs deft songwriting to twist and tweak the human voice mirrors dubstep’s journey towards mainstream accessibility. Yet its roots as a powerful, thrilling club force have not been completely abandoned.
Blake discovered dubstep, like many others, at its longest running club night, FWD>> in Shoreditch, East London. ‘The DJ played a Coki track called Haunted, and it took me so far into my own head that I couldn’t work out how it was happening,’ he told the Telegraph. Even Blake’s version of Limit To Your Love, a glacial piano ballad composed by Feist and Chilly Gonzales, was created with club nights in mind. ‘I made it to be devastating in a club, on a huge sound system. You get a completely different experience if you listen to it on any other medium,’ he says. The track turned into a radio smash and picked up plaudits from all corners of the press.
Another new leading light, Jamie Woon, has moved in the opposite direction, but still couldn’t be better placed for crossover success. Woon started out as a straight singer-songwriter. But when the elusive artist Burial, one of dubstep’s leading forefathers, remixed Woon’s recording of the folk standard Wayfaring Stranger back in 2007, he was immediately inspired to go back to the drawing board.
Today, Woon’s music would be an ideal starting point for anyone dubstep-curious. ‘I never wanted to be in one scene. I’ve always wanted to make pop music,’ he told The Guardian. His spectacularly soulful voice dominates the bass on his debut album Mirrorwriting, which is released next month.
Sorting through dance music’s myriad strains and sub-sub-subgenres can be a perilous task for the uninitiated, or indeed anyone too long out of their teens. But you can spot dubstep a mile off. Sometimes known by the broader, plainer definition ‘bass music’, its principal characteristic stands out like a robin’s radiant chest to a twitcher. Its violent bass rumble echoes through your entire body, turning the music into a physical force.
Mary Anne Hobbs, the former BBC Radio 1 DJ whose late night Breezeblock show played a vital part in exposing the sound, once said that dubstep had changed her life, stopping her in her tracks due to its elemental nature. Unlike other forms of music which earn a euphoric response from club crowds by building from slow to fast or quiet to loud, dubstep is all about space and weight. London artist Skream’s landmark 2009 remix of La Roux’s number two hit In For The Kill is a perfect example as it lumbers minimally for a full four minutes, then allows 10 seconds of total silence before the drums finally kick in with exhilarating effect.
Initially, back in 2001, there was only one club that played dubstep. The FWD>> night began at the Velvet Room on London’s Charing Cross Road and quickly moved on to Plastic People in Shoreditch, where it still takes place every Thursday.
It grew as a reaction against the chart-friendly, shiny materialism of the dominant dance style of the time, two-step garage. It played a dark, gritty sound for serious music heads. Its main DJ was Hatcha, a young white guy who also worked at the now closed record shop Big Apple in Croydon. Working in a studio above the shop was producer Artwork, now one-third of the dubstep super-group and Top 10 stars Magnetic Man. Together with Hatcha and the shop’s owner John Kennedy, he started the Big Apple record label and released early dubstep recordings by the teenage Skream and Benga (now his cohorts in Magnetic Man), as well as other key names such as Coki, Loefah and Digital Msytikz. The latter two now run the DMZ club night at Mass in Brixton, the other main place to go to hear organ-damaging bass music.
‘We were all making records for Hatcha to spin and meeting in the record shop to discuss the sound we were making,’ Artwork said in The Guardian. ‘It was a bit like a bass university.’
Despite the common perception of dubstep as a bleak and unfriendly sound, there was a sense of community and positivity around it from the very beginning, which helped its progress. The club nights centred on the music, not drugs, and always attracted a crowd that was racially mixed and free from the violence that often blighted garage events.
‘Although the music was often described as moody the artists involved only ever promoted good vibes,’ says Nicole McKenzie, A&R for Soul Jazz Records and a buyer at the Sounds of the Universe record shop in Soho. Soul Jazz has released two Box of Dub compilations and two Steppas’ Delight collections which are the best primers in the sound, as well as a recent collection called Future Bass which shows where it might go next.
‘It was such a special and exciting sound among a relatively small group of people,’ McKenzie continues. ‘But it was hard to visualise how it would grow at the start. It was a strictly vinyl affair – no MP3s, no CDs. I never imagined it would get as big as it has now.’
That growth has happened incrementally over a decade, so it feels as if dubstep hasn’t had to compromise itself as much as other musical styles in order to sneak into the charts. It’s hard to pick a single tipping point. A real head like McKenzie would suggest Skream’s minimal yet melodic 2005 track Midnight Request Line as the moment she realised dubstep could cross over. But the first record to become popular with home listeners was Burial’s shadowy, beautiful second album Untrue, which just lost out to Elbow for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize.
Radio support has grown gradually too. Rinse FM was there at the beginning, while BBC Radio 1’s digital urban spinoff, 1Xtra, also showed early support – from its launch in 2002 it began broadcasting a dubstep-focused show presented by J Da Flex. And now the station’s current dubstep figurehead, MistaJam, has just been given a two-hour Saturday night dubstep show on Radio 1 itself.
BBC Radio 1 head of music George Ergatoudis remembers that his personal awakening to dubstep was brought about by Benga & Coki’s Night, the brutally simplistic track that was the first dubstep tune to make it on to the station’s daytime playlist in 2008. ‘I did think it was a landmark moment – the first time we dipped a toe in the water,’ he says. His newest passion is the duo Nero, which has already remixed The Streets and Beyonce.
Now the floodgates have opened, thanks to a crucial addition: singers and personalities. Magnetic Man’s self-titled debut album from last autumn features familiar vocalists Ms Dynamite and John Legend as well as singer Katy B, the former BRIT School student who is tipped for big things. She’s the smiley, glamorous female face of the scene and already has two top five hits to her name, but she’s careful not to pigeonhole herself as solely a dubstep act.
‘I like to describe myself as being part of the British underground scene and, to me, that includes everything going on right now. I sing on funky [dubstep’s more upbeat cousin], I sing on dubstep, I sing on hip hop, whatever I like I’ll sing on it,’ she said in The Guardian.
Magnetic Man also has a versatility that extends to the live arena; the outfit has just completed an NME-branded tour alongside electronica duo Crystal Castles and indie bands Everything Everything and The Vaccines. The trio are taking on a role similar to that of The Prodigy in the 90s, using a dazzling show to prove to indie crowds that music doesn’t need to feature guitars to blow your head off.
Dubstep’s remarkable flexibility, from the delicate 3am mood music of Blake and Burial to the thunderous party anthems of Rusko, Caspa and BBC Radio 1’s latest darlings, Modestep, is allowing the genre to infiltrate the mainstream pop of established stars too. With London duo Chase & Status working with Rihanna and Snoop Dogg, everyone from Kelis to Muse ordering a dubstep remix, and dubstep events taking place as far afield as New York and Croatia, the sound of south London is really going places.
Have a listen to the recent Britney Spears single, Hold It Against Me, especially the bridge just after the two minute mark. That stuttering beat, lashings of echo, and bass that could make your buildings insurance policy invalid – it’s unmistakable. Even the Princess of Pop has been dubstepped.
So, with the nation’s biggest youth station firmly behind it, and A-list pop stars from the US pricking up their ears, dubstep could be on the cusp of a long period of top 10 domination, bringing long and fruitful careers for its leading luminaries such as Blake and Woon. The shape-shifting, bass-shuddering lure of dubstep has started to infect most fields of modern music, and will surely influence producers, artists and songwriters for many moons to come.
James Blake at SXSW 2011 was supported by PRS for Music Foundation’s British Music Abroad funding opportunity. If you’re based in England, Northern Ireland or Wales and looking for support to make it overseas, to perform at industry-facing showcases, you may be eligble for support.
To find out more visit www.prsformusicfoundation.com/britishmusicabroad