Born in the bedrooms of suburban south London, the most exciting dance music movement of the last decade is about to go global. Time Out enters the resolutely anti-hype, anti-bling and pro-massive bass world of dubstep.
It’s 4am. The air is heavy with the sweet smell of skunk, and the bass sound throbbing from the huge speaker stacks at the rear of this packed and darkened room in Brixton could shift tectonic plates. Rather, it sets trouser legs flapping and spines juddering, turning revellers’ rib cages into personal echo chambers. The DJs are dropping tunes that track back to jungle and dark drum ’n’ bass, but with a crucial difference – they hinge on bass riffs so thrillingly distorted, loud and hypnotically slow they suggest Rolf Harris manipulating the mutha of all wobble boards. This, essentially, is the sound of dubstep.
The DMZ club night, held every two months at Mass in Brixton, isn’t the only live listening post for the most genuinely exciting sound to have emerged from London for a decade, but it is central to the scene and, although UK garage and grime have their focus in east London, dubstep’s hub is definitely south of the river. It was born around six years ago, in the hotbed of sub-cultural creativity that is Croydon, with the (now defunct) Big Apple record store at its core.
Croydon boy wonder, Skream
High-profile dubstep producers such as 20-year-old wunderkind Skream (né Oliver Jones) and Loefah (26) are from Croydon and Norwood respectively; Skream worked in Big Apple at the weekends when he was still at school, his older brother (Hijack, also a producer) worked there too, as did young producer/DJ Hatcha, who was the first to add Skream’s early dubstep plates to his live sets. Loefah used to hang around Big Apple as a kid, picking up flyers and buying the odd jungle 12-inch with his dinner money. Proponents of dark and twisted garage/two-step such as El-B, Zed Bias and Horsepower (aka Benny Ill) – whose sounds were crucial to the evolution of dubstep – were regulars in the shop, but an accident of retail geography doesn’t really explain how Croydon and its neighbouring ’hoods came to be the centre of this new sound. Discovering that veteran dancehall MC Tippa Irie hails from Thornton Heath, fêted dub producer Mad Professor had his studio in West Norwood in the ’80s and the legendary Internatty rave crew (which featured Hijack and Grooverider, among others) were also based in south London helps. The area has a strong history of Jamaican music, jungle, drum ’n’ bass and garage.
Whatever its provenance, dubstep is a resolutely London sound. Kevin Martin – a respected name on the city’s industrial and illbient electronica scenes in the mid-’90s (when he recorded as God and Techno Animal) – now produces dubstep tunes heavily dosed with dancehall and ragga as The Bug. Together with Loefah, he promotes The Bash, a club night at Plastic People in Shoreditch dedicated to dubstep, bashment, dancehall and grime. ‘It’s obvious dubstep comes from London,’ he reckons, ‘because it has that mutant, urban explosion of ideas with a sense of complete alienation at its core. On one hand it makes you want to party hard, but on the other you feel the fear. Of course,’ he laughs, ‘that’s a lot to do with skunk, too.’
Really work those hand gestures
If jungle and dark garage are the central strands of dubstep, then, as its name suggests, the cavernous and echo-y, 3D effects of dub reggae production are what draws them together. In dubstep (as in dub), treble and mid-range sounds are almost entirely absent; the sub-bass – made as monstrously arse-quaking as possible – is everything. It’s a frequency The Bug has long found seductive. ‘The sheer physicality of this music is astounding,’ he says of dubstep, ‘and that’s a crucial part of any music I’ve ever loved. My first soundsystem experience almost changed my whole DNA; I never really thought about music the same way again after I came across Iration Steppas and Disciples at an East End soundclash about ten years ago. It’s the militant belief in sound that I love and you have to respect the dedication of the dubstep scene’s core players; they’re obsessed by frequencies and the impact of sonic force, obsessed by the potential for literally moving people through sound, not through hype.’
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